Games Review: Sea of Thieves (Xbox One, 2018): Pirates could happen to anyone

As I write this, three days after a rather bumpy launch, its clear that Sea of Thieves is a bit of a mixed bag. There are things that I love about it, there are things that I don’t love about it and there are things that I feel are not particularly well understood by those who are currently complaining about it online. Is it a good game though? The simple answer is yes, provided you are playing with four friends you can trust.

Sea of Thieves is the latest game from Rare, the legendary studio behind Donkey Kong CountryGoldenEye 007 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. After finding themselves creatively adrift after their acquisition by Microsoft in 2002, the company has found their new heading: a first person pirate MMO that sees players take to an sprawling, gorgeously rendered ocean and work as a team to run a ship in search of treasure and adventure.

As it stands at launch, players can jump into the game solo or in groups of two, three or four. Solo- and duo-queue players are able to move about on a sloop, which is a smaller, more nimble vessel, good for quick trips and ducking out of trouble in a hurry. Three- and four-stackers are given a galleon to manage, a huge, complicated, multi-decked vessel built for speed, long trips and large cargo capacity.

You begin by selecting a pirate avatar from a wheel of randomly generated pirates — there’s no customising your own, just finding one you like the look of. This may irk some players but almost every pirate the game threw at me was an interesting, characterful monster. I ended up with a full shortlist of delightful weirdos, and it was very difficult to pick just one. From there, you are thrown onto the high seas with a fairly short tutorial section that explains the different traders from whom you can pick up quests. Completing quests for these traders increases your reputation with them, rewards you with gold and unlocks unique purchasable goodies, and more complex quests.

And that’s really the only game loop Sea of Thieves has right now. You pick up a quest, check the map on your boat to work out which island its on, set sail, mess around on the island until you decipher the map, riddle or defeat the skeleton captain there, load your booty onto the ship and return it for sale. Over and over and over. The thing that makes the game feel really special, though, isn’t the loop, it’s what happens in-between. In Sea of Thieves, its not about the destination, it really is about the journey.

Being that it’s a multiplayer title and there are hundreds of other players out sailing around the world at the same time, a common complication is running into other boats and crews. There is nothing stopping you from killing these crews, taking their all shit, sinking their boat and selling your plunder. There is also nothing stopping them from doing the same to you.

You start learning to read the psychology of other crews just by watching the movements of their boats, the way they’re behaving. You spot them on the horizon. You know they can see you too. You watch and wait to see if they’ll make the first move. Sometimes, if you’re both carrying cargo, there is a tacit agreement to avoid conflict and sail on by for the good of all. If, on the other hand, one or both of you have nothing aboard and you notice them trying to slide quietly by, then prepare for battle. You will be boarded, your shit will be taken and you ship will be scuttled.

Ship-to-ship combat is exhilarating almost every time it occurs. To ensure victory, everyone needs to know their role — be they on cannons, steering the ship, hoisting and angling the sails or bailing water out of the bilge deck and patching cannonball holes in the ship’s hull. You must function like a well-oiled machine if you want to escape with your lives, and you should always be ready for surprise boarders.

There are Skeleton Fortress raids to complete, random kraken battles to engage in and a world map that sees the ocean itself turn to blood if you sail off the edge of it. When Sea of Thieves is at its best, it is an absolute hoot, untouchable in the amount of joy and excitement it can give to the player.

Unfortunately, there are a number of dents in the game’s armour. If you aren’t a part of a four person team comprised entirely of friends you know and trust, you’re probably going to have a bad time. Random players joining to fill vacancies in your crew are, without exception, a liability. They don’t owe you anything and they will make your life miserable. They will lower the anchor when you’re at full sail, loaded with treasure and being pursued by a galleon. They’ll quit the game in the middle of a life or death fight over a chest you found on an island. They’ll put explosive barrels in your ship, the ship you are sharing with them, and scuttle it, leaving you stranded in the middle of the ocean until you can respawn at an outpost. Anyone who decides to sail with randoms, or solo for that matter, puts themselves at an immediate disadvantage. You can chalk this up to players staying in character and behaving as pirates might but if that sort of unhelpful co-op play grinds your gears, you may wish to avoid it. This is further exacerbated by a serious lack of social controls — its hard to get into games with friends without starting a new lobby and even more difficult to communicate your plans with players that aren’t in your party or using the proximity-based global chat (which is switched on by default).

Exploring the overworld isn’t very useful or profitable as the only way to know for sure where treasure chests are is to pick up a quest. Without them, there’s not much point to stopping off at random islands unless you need to stock up on supplies like cannonballs, bananas and planks of wood.

Close combat isn’t particularly enjoyable. The sniper rifle waves about a touch too much to be totally accurate and it’s almost useless when firing from the crow’s nest on your wave-tossed ship, the blunderbuss is only useful at point blank range, the pistol feels like a pea shooter and the sword combat is unweildly and slow. In the moment and in a group, it all feels as loose and frenzied as I’m sure Rare intended but when you’re singled out, you feel powerless. Perhaps this is by design, a way to keep everyone on a more even playing field rather than letting more skilled players run rough-shod over less skilled ones. It’s hard to say. When dealing with the AI, our solution to combat was to send two players ashore to kite all the skeletons into one open area and then have two other players nuke the site with cannonballs from the ship. So problem solved there, I guess.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do love the game in spite of all these flaws. Right now, only a few days after launch, Sea of Thieves feels to me a lot like No Man’s Sky did at launch. It feels like a foundation for something bigger. All the necessary systems are have been implemented, and there’s so much space for new stuff, the bells and whistles that will come later. I can think of ten things off the top of my head that would improve the game right now, like flares for finding your friends on an island, or 6-player Man o Wars. It’s all super obvious stuff, and I’m sure its coming down the pipe.

This is why I think Sea of Thieves reminds me so much of No Man’s Sky — my feeling is that if its not your jam right now, come back to it in a year. I doubt you’ll recognise it as the same game. I have my gripes, some of which I think are valid and outlined above. I have others that are more petty like “Why can I kill a skeleton with a single blunderbuss shot but the snakes take three fucking bullets to the face and live?” (Before you send me angry tweets, I know, I know, play music at them). But through all of that, and through the writing of this review, I’ve tried to keep one basic fact in the forefront of my mind — Rare have never made an MMO before. This is entirely new territory for them, and they’ll need the time and the room to figure it out. The internet isn’t known for its patience, but I hope they cut Rare some slack.

Sea of Thieves has everything it needs to be a terrific MMO experience. At its best, it is spectacular and thrilling and full of promise. At its worst, it is frustrating, clunky and a mite empty beyond its complicated ship-wrangling mechanics. That it manages to be all of these things is quite a feat. Sea of Thieves has the potential to be something truly unique. I’m excited to see where Rare take it from here.

Finally, a personal note: It is just so bloody nice to play a new Rare game again. Welcome back, old friend. I’ve missed you.

Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Astoundingly beautiful visuals; Incredible fun with friends; Unique setting and ideas
Lowlights: Needs more; Frustrating without friends; Close combat sucks
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One X using a retail code provided by the publisher.