Rare’s co-op pirate game, Sea of Thieves, has been released on Xbox and Windows. After nearly three years of hype, how does the final release play? Let’s just say you’d better have a really close crew ready to brave some very dull hours with you if you want to get anywhere.
First debuted back at E3 2015, the game has changed little in appearance since its reveal trailer.
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It’s nice to have Rare back after seeing them make little more than the Kinect Sports series for the last ten years. This is the company that made my childhood and countless others’. While I wouldn’t say Sea of Thieves currently stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Goldeneye, Donkey Kong, Conker, or Banjo-Kazooie, seeing that family ‘R’ logo in the opening cutscene of a new IP feels like a reward in and of itself.
I have a theory Rare is going to augment this game with DLC — a theory bolstered by the fact that one of the game’s producers said as much in an interview with Windows Central. A year from now, I think this is going to be a very different game.
But it’s out now, so why not give it a good keelhauling?
Shiver me timbers
The game’s most notable characteristic is its cartoonish art style, which makes it look like a Monkey Island game by way of Disney Infinity. It feels both nostalgic and timeless, with rogueish character models and environments alternately bathed in sunlight gold or dense with atmospheric fog. It’s definitely the game’s strongest feature.
As for the graphics, there was only one visual area of the game that had to be perfect, and that’s the water. I’m pleased to report it’s resplendent. It’s got realistic weight and choppiness, foam breaks along the crests of the waves, and it’s arrestingly beautiful to look at.
Also if you’re a bit of a thalassophobe (afraid of the sea) like me, then the simultaneous awe and horror you’ll feel should you fall beneath the waves will hit you like a punch to the gut.
Beyond that, the weather and sailing physics worked as intended, and the act of sailing is plenty rewarding when you first get the hang of it. This is not Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, where you “sail” by pointing your vessel in a direction and pushing the thumbstick up. You have to raise anchor, unfurl your sails, and actually navigate using compasses and maps.
There are also mechanics that really work for me, but which might send other gamers running for the hills, such as a lack of mini-maps or an intrusive HUD. I was probably more delighted than I should be to discover that there was no indicator to tell me when my character was drowning — I was going to have to be careful and use my instincts if I wanted to avoid that trip to Davy Jones’ locker.
A pirate’s life for me
I’ll say this for the game: it perfectly simulated the experience of being shanghaied. Since I didn’t play the beta, and the game has very, very little in the way of tutorial, I was thrown headlong into a small pirate outpost with no context as to who I was or what I was supposed to do.
Your primary purpose at first is fulfilling tasks for several questgivers you encounter in outposts across the sea. You can dig up chests for treasure fences, deliver cargo for merchants, and fight undead pirates for what appears to be a coven of witches. The variety at first keeps it feeling fresh.
After a while, though, the novelty of sailing to spits of land, collecting your varied loot, and sailing back to outposts to get your payment starts to lose its luster. The only thing you can spend your money on is cosmetics, which means there doesn’t feel like a tangible sense of progression at all.
It is, in a word, boring.
Just to give an example of the kind of ennui that sets in after playing Sea of Thieves past the initial discovery period: I decided to ditch my friends (sorry, friends) after a while and go it alone. After completing a few treasure hunts with passion and interest akin to ticking off a grocery list, and struggling the whole time to sail a sloop by my lonesome, I was promptly blown out of the water by a larger vessel before I could reap the spoils.
Fair play to the galleon, but it made me feel frustrated, because I found I had no interest in searching for further booty to make up for my loss.
There are whispers here and there of meaningful endgame content (a super-secret wretched hive of scum and villainy, according to Eurogamer), but I never made it that far and I’m not sure I’d want to put in the effort. The only thing that gave me even a glimmer of excitement was the fear I’d encounter the legendary Kraken while sailing by myself.
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest
It’s worth pointing out that to play alone is to miss the point. Sea of Thieves is a cooperative multiplayer game that encourages players to form crews with their friends in order to make the sailing easier and the adventuring more fun. That’s true, to an extent, but I’m not sure it’d be enough to help players ward off the torpor.
Granted, I did have more fun playing with my friends than I did playing myself. The problem with that is, my friends could make sitting around watching paint dry seem interesting, so I don’t know if my co-op fun is a credit to the game or not. And even a co-op multiplayer game should be able to stand up on its own without me questioning whether the actual root of the fun is just being able to spend time with people I like.
If there’s one area where the game cries out — screams, really — for immediate improvement is in the friendly invitation interface. In spite of the fact that there’s a button on the crew select screen that lets you invite friends, I never actually saw these mysterious invites. On Windows (I haven’t tried it on Xbox One), the only way for me to join my friends’ crew was to tab out of the game, go to their profile in the Xbox app, and join their party. It’s unintuitive, to say the least.
Go to sea once more
Sea of Thieves is lovely and makes a positive first impression, but there just doesn’t seem to be much to do with it at the moment. It’s one of those games that is best experienced during short sessions with friends. If you plug away at it for a while, maybe you’ll even go somewhere.
Still, if you’re like me and your patience extends only so far, then you might be disappointed by how it feels so much like a chore.
If that sounds like your tankard of grog, then you can get Sea of Thieves for Xbox One and Windows for $59.99. It’s free for those with a subscription to Xbox’s Netflix-like Game Pass.