Developed by Rare and published by Microsoft Studios, Sea of Thieves is a level-less action-adventure pirate-MMO video game full of potential that feels more like a promising proof of concept than a finished game.
Sea of Thieves
Initial release date: March 20, 2018
Composer: Robin Beanland
Designer: Gregg Mayles
Engine: Unreal Engine
Platforms: Xbox One, Microsoft Windows (tested)
One of the most unforgiving things about Sea of Thieves is that it makes a terrible first impression. It features a tutorial section that may be up to 5 minutes long: it teaches you how to open a menu and how to pick up items. That’s it. You will need to find everything else by yourself: how to get quests, where your ship and pretty much everything in the initial island is, how to sail, fight and any other single mechanic you can think of. This is the complete opposite to hand-holding games where an endless tutorial can be irritating, but this time the game goes an extra mile and throws a bunch of un-intuitive mechanics that you simply won’t understand, making it really annoying. One little example of this is sailing to complete quests: when you receive one, you’re given the name or picture of an island. To figure out where this place is, you have to scour the map table, zooming in and out until you find the right island to proceed. To make things worse, there is no waypoint system in this game. If you want to check if you are going on the right path, you have to release the ship’s wheel and run downstairs to the map table and see if your little ship icon is going the right way. When we are alone, this attempt at “realism” feels frustrating and unnecessary. When in a group, I would have a hard time trying to justify why something so simple as traveling from one place to another would need 2 or 3 people adjusting sails, steering, dropping anchor and checking the map. I get it, it is realistic but really, really unnecessary. It almost feels like the game is filling the long gaps in voyages with messy mechanics only to cover the lack of content.
This also leads to the second biggest offender: while you can play this game alone, there simply isn’t enough meat to keep a single player entertained for more than a few hours if that long. Solo play is an underdeveloped afterthought. Sea of Thieves relies way too much on you being lucky enough to get into a game with a fun and knowledgeable crew, or even better, with a group of friends you already know. This is where the game lights up and starts being an experience, at least for a while, until you realized everything boils down to repetitive quests capturing wild animals exploring the high seas. Don’t get me wrong: the game can be fun. A seasoned player can sail the ship leaving behind much of the boring part of the game, while others might sit atop the crow’s nest, keeping an eye out for enemy ships with their telescope, or even load and fire cannons in battle. Another player can bail water out of the ship while another desperately patches the hull, and the trolls will most probably play some music while sinking. You see, each instrument plays a number of old classic tunes and you can play a song like a professional musician by just holding the left mouse button. If one of your other crew members breaks out their instrument and starts playing, they play another part of the same song, perfectly synchronized. Very useful if you take into account that you have little to do on long voyages or in the game in general, after raiding some islands.
It’s also worth mentioning that there’s very little consequence for dying in Sea of Thieves. After you spend some time chilling on the Ferry of the Damned, you can portal back to the game world on your ship, or, if your ship was sunk, the game respawns you and your crew back on the nearest outpost. This removes any sense of danger from the game and makes exploration totally risk-free. Sure, someone may steal your loot, but if you think about it, raiding islands is not a hard task either.
On the bright side, everyone will agree on the water looking unbelievable. Characters aside, which were made goofy by design, everything looks fantastic. This would be enough for a tech demo. Sea of Thieves also features a level-less core design, and this implies no messy looking skill trees. People who hate grinding to keep up with level locked content will be happy about this: There is a very little meaningful advancement in this game. You can play with anyone at any moment, even months from now, and the only difference will be a nice pirate outfit and more factional rep. You can adventure together, sail together, and the only barrier to your cooperation is your teamwork and goals, not your minimal access to an extensive skill tree. The core of this idea is solid and cuts from root most of the issues many MMORPGs have. Unfortunately, this system also prevents you from feeling a sense of accomplishment when completing quests. This makes you wonder if this should be an F2P game with cosmetic microtransactions instead of a full $60 game. In its current state, the game is a cool tech demo or a promising beta, not a full game.
Should you play it? I would wait. Sea of Thieves is innovative, but also incomplete. A level-less MMO is a nice idea as long as you have excellent gameplay, storytelling or something to make up for it. As of now, the game features none. Rare promises content is coming, but until then, Sea of Thieves will be a promising proof of concept with simplistic quests, amazing visuals and perhaps, a sailing simulator.