Throughout the development of Sea of Thieves, Rare was oddly tight-lipped about the aim of its open world sail-‘em-up. This was apparently to preserve the game’s mystery – to let players figure things out for themselves. Thanks to a thrilling E3 2016 demo, we knew there would be some heart-stopping ship-on-ship combat, and later, we learned that we’d be battling skeletons and digging up chests. But how this all contributed to the game's amorphous goal of "becoming pirate legend" was anyone's guess.
With the game now having left the dock, the reason for Rare's reticence is clear as calm water; we weren’t explicitly told what we’d be doing in Sea of Thieves because the answer is "not much". It turns out that pirate legends are made by completing the same three quests a flabbergasting number of times.
After a disappointingly limited character creator in which you simply pick from a rotating stock of randomised figures, you materialise in a pub on one of the game’s five outposts. It’s on these islands you’ll buy quests from the game’s three factions, which are represented by identical quest-givers regardless of where you are. Those expecting a little character or pirate-y scenery-chewing from them will be sorely disappointed: most NPC dialogue isn’t voiced, and the stuff that is is delivered with the enthusiasm of a funeral director at five minutes past closing time. There’s almost zero lore colouring this world, and no story to pull you through it besides the one you create.
The quests each faction dispenses are all pretty flat: you’ll either be finding and returning buried treasure, killing a skeleton captain and cashing in his skull, or trapping and returning animals. Completing quests earns you a little gold to spend on cosmetic upgrades for your pirate, ship, and equipment, and crossing off five of any quest type allows you to buy your way to slightly more involved versions of the same damn activity. These things don’t feel like enough of a reward, because I rarely saw another player and thought “where did they get that outfit?”.
Grinding out these quests is what you’ll likely spend the majority of your time doing in Sea of Thieves, but no quest is particularly compelling the third time out, let alone the fifth, tenth, or – heaven forbid – fiftieth. At least finding and digging up buried treasure is thrilling the first few times, but the same cannot be said for the other two mission types.
The worst are The Merchant Alliance quests, which send you in search of animals. There are no hints as to where you might find them, so you end up aimlessly visiting random islands hoping to catch a glimpse of two red speckled chickens or whatever. If you could do this while completing other quests it would be no big deal, but it’s not possible to have more than one quest going at once. So, your full attention is forcibly fixed on what amounts to a very tedious fetch quest that would barely pass for a side activity in most games.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the islands in Sea of Thieves were at all interesting. While lushly rendered, most are similar looking and fairly empty save a few skeletons or snakes. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a random piece of treasure glinting in the sun, but there’s little else to interact with or enjoy.
You can spend a few minutes platforming your way up a cliff to a distant cave, but your curiosity is seldom rewarded, and any joy of exploration or discovery quickly dissipates once you realise
there’s just no reason to do anything but engage in a single-minded search for the current quest item.
In fact, the sandbox aspect of Sea of Thieves is just too limited across the board. Sure, rain eventually pools in your ship’s hold, you need to feed captured animals or they die of starvation, and seemingly pointless things like getting drunk and throwing up actually have an edge-case use outside of entertaining your shipmates. Playing music with friends is a good time, and it’s cool that you can switch off your ship’s lanterns at night to go full stealth mode.
But this is a game where bananas and wooden planks – used to replenish health and repair your ship respectively – are found not on the game’s many trees, but in supply barrels that for some reason sit on nearly every island.
At least there is little hand-holding. There is no tutorial to speak of, and beyond loading screen tips, you have to figure out all the game’s systems by yourself. Fortunately, Rare has done an exemplary job making everything extremely welcoming and intuitive.
With a few quests under your belt, you’re probably ready to take on a fort, the game’s version of a raid. There are nine forts dotted around Sea of Thieves’s world, but you must wait for one to activate before you can tackle it, or else you’ll be visiting an empty island with zero loot on it.
Activation is signalled to all crews on the current server via a giant skull cloud with glowing eyes floating ominously above the fort in question, and at this point, sailing anywhere near it will see skeletons attempt to pepper your ship’s hull with cannonballs. Once you’re on the island, you must battle through many waves of skeletons before the fort relinquishes its loot.
It’s not unusual for several crews to co-operate in felling a fort, only to turn on one another the moment the last skeleton collapses in a heap. The promise of gold does strange things to people, I guess. There are also those who are happy to lie in wait and let you haul the spoils of a successful raid to your ship before they appear from behind a nearby island, cannons at the ready. The one criticism I have here is that enemy ships you have sunk can return to the fight too quickly, and with a large stash of cannonballs, too.
Felling a fort can take an eternity not only because you’re fighting tougher than usual skeletons, but also because non-ship combat in Sea of Thieves lacks weight. Players and skeletons often appear to pass through one another, or skate in a frictionless manner around the environment. You’d think that a blunderbuss would feel devastating against sentient assemblies of bones, but it feels as effective as throwing sand through their eyeholes.
There are also sometimes small delays between swiping your cutlass and your target reacting, which makes doing so feel laggy and unsatisfying. Only the cutlass’s charge attack and the sniper rifle feel like they have any impact at all, so you’re much better off kiting enemies towards your ship and unleashing hell with its cannons, which feel properly powerful and are always a delight to use.
In fact, everything ship-related in Sea of Thieves feels amazing. The way your galleon rolls over the game’s picturesque waves, combined with the sounds of creaking boards, the wind billowing your sails, and your idiot crew playing a shanty all elevate world traversal to the realm of the magical. Getting around the ocean can be a quiet and meditative experience or a tense and desperate one, and the mood shifts as night falls or you head into storm clouds are expertly executed. This is a game that delivers some serious atmosphere out there on the waves.
Another thing that stands out in Sea of Thieves is its ship-based PvP. Rare’s shared world technology keeps encounters with other player ships rare enough that they always feel exciting, but common enough that carrying any amount of treasure back to an outpost is always nerve-wracking. Spotting a sail on the horizon is always an event that elicits excitement from your crew, and the game’s slow pursuits and evasions, and ferocious and chaotic skirmishes are absolutely gripping.
Cannonballs punch large holes in decks and hulls, splintering wood and sending players to the grave. Gunpowder barrels are secreted away and detonated. Players attempt to board and fall in shark-infested waters. Vessels collide and send sailors scampering to repair the damage before they sink and bequeath their ill-gotten gains to the ocean floor.
Success comes only through vigilance and teamwork. This is also why playing solo isn’t likely to ever offer much entertainment: the game’s best moments are found in the interactions and mishaps you have as a crew (which makes the lack of drop-in/out functionality here rather staggering).
At least Sea of Thieves produces some good stories. One crew I rolled with did little but spectacularly shipwreck in front of other players, but we had a great time. Another ruthlessly sought out ships to sink, and even tried sailing an enemy ship full of treasure back to an outpost while its crew continually respawned and were killed on its decks. Plenty of individual moments of carelessness and stupidity stick out.
In these moments, it is easy to see the game Sea of Thieves could be – the sandbox spectacle it likely will be a year from now after a few hefty updates. But right now, there simply is just not enough here, both content and reward-wise. What’s needed is more variety in quests, enemies, and ships; more mysteries; more items; more (and more interesting) NPCs.
There need to be better reasons to explore for the sake of it, and stronger incentives to not grief others. Sinking other players is electrifying, but there needs to be more to do than that. Playing with friends is great, but it always is. Playing alone is boring, and despite Rare's best efforts, playing with strangers is (predictably) a mess. The potential here is ocean-sized, Rare just needs to chart out a clear course from here and take the helm before the game's many current players abandon ship.