Sailing the empty seas.
After 40 hours in Sea of Thieves, the pirate battles on the screen were as tense as my own internal battle over whether I was enjoying Sea of Thieves as a game or as the prettiest online chat room ever. What’s here is an amazing foundation for a social experience that’s beautifully realized , and that makes it frustrating that its gameplay loop is so repetitive and its progression is so stagnant.
When each surprising discovery leads to another, Sea of Thieves nails that feeling of pulling on a thread to unravel a mystery.
Sea of Thieves’ opening hours are a magical recipe of wonder and mystery. It never explains much, but figuring out the subtle, multi-layered functionality of everything from a compass to your sails is fun and surprising. Jaw-dropping lighting works in harmony with the deep, rich waves of the open sea as clouds puff in and out of existence. Kudos to Rare for capturing that adventurous and uncertain feeling of being out to sea with all the beauty of radiant sunrises and sunsets. sloop or four-person galleon initially feels like a grand adventure. Something as simple as a flock of gulls could lead you to a shipwreck, which holds a message in a bottle with a riddle, which leads you to buried treasure. When each surprising discovery leads to another, Sea of Thieves nails that feeling of pulling on a thread to unravel a mystery. Everything seems placed with a purpose, so everything seems like it could hide treasure waiting to be uncovered.
Getting to your destination is, arguably, the greatest part of Sea of Thieves. Even a simple thing like sailing a galleon requires your team to raise, lower, and angle three different sails just to get it moving. It just feels good be out at sea, and the more you sail, the better you’ll get at it. When combat erupts you’ve got to steer, repair holes, bail water, fire cannons, and be sure to get back to those sails because this ship has to turn hard to stay in cannon range! It can be demanding to orchestrate, but when our crew successfully conquered an imposing Skull Fort, we felt like the pirate kings of the world. And when another ship cruises in and blows you to smithereens and sails off with your bounty, it’s heartbreaking.
Ship-to-ship combat. It’s full of inventive opportunities beyond just peppering one another with cannon fire.
You can play alone if you really want to – I don’t recommend it – but any good pirate needs a crew. Random matchmaking works fine, but real friends are best because if you get people without mics or a cooperative spirit you might as well set sail with a hole in your boat. Sea of Thieves works well when treated like a chat room or a party game, where it serves as catalyst for having a good time with the people you’re with.
The skill of your crew is put to the test in ship-to-ship combat. It’s full of inventive opportunities beyond just peppering one another with cannon fire below the water line – tactics like ramming, handbrake turns, using the wind to outmaneuver and outpace enemies, boarding vessels to slay and sabotage, or going on suicide runs with gunpowder kegs add meaningful choices employed by superior pirates. But the forgiving respawn system places ships and crews you’ve downed on nearby islands, which diminishes your victories when the same enemy shows up again and again to wear you down.
Aside from an adventurous spirit, your chief reason to leave port is to undertake voyages for one of three companies with their own mission types, and that just isn’t enough. The Gold Hoarders want you to find buried treasures. The Order of Souls asks you to find and kill undead captains. And the Merchant Company just needs you to capture and deliver animals. This is your primary progress through Sea of Thieves – besides finding random loot out in the world to turn in, or stealing other players’ loot – and that’s its biggest weakness. The irony of earning Legendary Pirate status only after dozens and dozens of hours working for these companies is ripe, and the grind to the endgame is just too long.
Voyages do increase in complexity and reward as you earn reputation with each faction, but little changes as a result, and the simple combat system isn’t deep enough to accommodate variety in your approach. There’s just more of the same. Level-25 Order of Souls quests might require you to visit four different islands, and slay up to four bosses on each. Sure, they’ll throw hardier gold-plated skeletons at you that need to be splashed with water, or fast-moving shadow skeletons that can be stunned with a lantern, but it never fundamentally changes the dull fetch-and-kill quest routine.
My motivation to continue has been drained by the fact that the gold you’re rewarded with is only good for purchasing new voyages and cosmetics for your pirate and ship. To be fair, there are plenty of options for each item, clothing piece, weapon, or ship part with escalating quality and price, but they don’t change how you play at all. This reward system is as hollow as a ghost ship’s hull.
Whether or not I was having fun with Sea of Thieves boiled down to the people I was playing with. Though Sea of Thieves has an excellent foundation for something truly great down the road, it has some glaring issues with variety, progression, and rewards that need tweaking. As it stands at launch, it’s genuinely good fun with friends, but progressing to Pirate Legend is a long grind. Sea of Thieves needs a lot more briny depth before it’s the amazing voyage we’d hoped for, but so far the great cooperative moments are a good start.