Sea of Thieves Review (2020)
The ultimate pirate fantasy can be different for everyone. Maybe it means you and your crew plundering the vessels of would-be explorers on the open sea as you wreak havoc across the ocean, searching for lost ships and buried treasure on a quest to become a legendary pirate to rival Jack Sparrow, or just singing shanties with a pet monkey. Whatever your particular flavor of piracy, Sea of Thieves
’ impressive open-world sandbox gives you the total freedom to do all of that and more while making even its mundane moments fun.
It’s important to understand that even though Sea of Thieves is a shared-world online adventure game, it’s not actually an MMO with a persistent world. This means that each and every time you log into Sea of Thieves you’re given a brand-new ship in one of three classes based on the size of your crew– Sloop (up to two players), Brigantine (up to three players), or Galleon (up to four players) – and everything except your long-term progression goals are reset. All of the supplies you accumulated last time, the row boat you found, the storage chests you saved – all of it’s gone.
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While the smallest ship can be controlled by a single person, it loses much of what makes the sailing so fun in the process because instead of working together to wrestle the waves you’re running around the deck like a headless pirate scrambling to not crash. Both of the larger vessels really demand bigger group sizes due to their sheer complexity. You and your crew will be running up and down stairs to adjust sails, steer, scope out what lies ahead, fire cannons, and repair damage at the same time – doing all of this by yourself is hard enough on the smallest ship, and nearly impossible on the bigger ones.
But in the downtime between the Adventure Mode’s moments of tense, often unscripted and organic sea combat, Sea of Thieves perhaps manages to soar its highest. What in most games are all-too-common bouts of tedium from traveling from one objective to the next, giving out orders to teammates, or methodically searching for obscure items on a scavenger hunt are transformed into the main appeal of gameplay and a source of camaraderie in Sea of Thieves. You’ve actually got to adjust the sails to account for the shifting winds, bust out your compass to make sure you’re going the right way, and use your telescope to inspect land masses in the distance – and when there is down time, you and your crew can pull out your musical instruments and listen as they all cleverly sync together and play the same song, perfectly in rhythm. There’s even an achievement for playing your instruments together as your ship sinks.
Then there are the countless examples of Rare’s attention to detail. For example, the actual map that shows your ship’s location relative to the various islands is below deck, meaning a single person can’t steer and see it at the same time, or how you need to manually raise, lower, and adjust the sails to the wind’s direction. These little touches can sound tedious on the surface, but they add up to make Sea of Thieves more immersive overall.
A Pirate’s Life For Me
Sea of Thieves is about as free-form of an experience as you can get, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you could probably spend close to a dozen hours having fun sailing around without ever realizing there is a proper campaign to follow (like I did). And that’s when I discovered that even though its free-roaming gameplay is enjoyable enough, once I realized what these missions, called Tall Tales, were and how to access them they led to some of my favorite moments.
Rather than playing out like the brief, objective-focused Voyages, which are standard-issue RPG quests usually about killing a certain named enemy or collecting a specific item, Tall Tales are structured more like one-off mystery adventures that connect into an overarching story. Many of them begin with vague instructions and crude drawings that require you to solve riddles and go on actual scavenger hunts across a variety of islands. They’re brain teasers that really challenge your detective skills, so it’s a bit surprising you’re not pushed toward them more directly as “main missions” in some way. Instead you just kind of stumble across them from NPCs and lore books in the world. Discovering them is intentionally obfuscated to stay thematically consistent with their mysterious topics and vague directions, but a little more guidance on getting started with each would have been great.
But the bright side of not being forced to complete them is that you really don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Progression in Sea of Thieves, like its overall structure, is pretty loose. Rather than gaining experience points to level up a character, you increase your reputation with five different Companies by completing voyages, finishing Commendations (which are challenges like delivering a certain number of resources to quest givers over time), or turning in specific items like a chest of treasure to the Gold Hoarder. Each company is associated with a certain activity you could pursue: Sea Dogs for the PvP-focused Arena, Order of Souls for collecting skeleton skulls through PvE combat, or Hunter’s Call for gathering fish and animal meat.
The variety of missions is good, but in a game about colorful pirates it seems like a huge missed opportunity that the flavor and personalities of each faction are about as deep as a puddle. I don’t remember any of the merchants’ names and they only exist to sell cosmetics and issue voyage missions. They may as well be bulletin boards rather than characters. The only exception are the Tall Tales, which usually get kicked off by an NPC with some enticing flavor text – but as soon as you set off, everything else is communicated via obscure treasure maps, lore objects, and bread crumb trails. It makes for exciting adventures full of player-driven intrigue, but not great storytelling.
Sea of Thieves’ unusual approach to progression also means that there are no skills or equipment you can earn that will change the way you play. From the moment you first log on all the way through your one-thousandth hour and beyond, you’ll have access to the exact same abilities and weapons as everyone around you. It literally never changes. If it sounds like that could get old, you’re right, and it’s the biggest factor that takes the wind out of Sea of Thieves’ sails after a while.
Instead, almost everything you unlock is purely cosmetic. As you rank up with each company, you’ll gain new titles to display above your character, more lucrative and exciting Voyages to undertake, and new outfits to purchase. Even though the cosmetic rewards enticed me with attractive clothing skins, tons of varied ship designs, and good thematic weapon styles that fit with the factions and setting across your avatar, ship, weapons, clothes, and more, I still was left hoping for something more to shake things up. But even looking down the road at the “endgame” (which, again, is very similar to when you first start out), it’s a bit discouraging: Your ultimate goal, outside of completing all the Tall Tales, is to hit rank 50 in at least three of the five companies to become a “Pirate Legend,” which earns you bragging rights, even shinier cosmetic items, and access to a special secret company with end-game voyages and rewards that are generally just more cosmetics.
Sea of Thieves is designed around the idea of resetting mostly from square one each time you play, so it usually doesn’t take long to get back into the thick of things when you start a new session. One great thing about this is that you never fear death all that much since it’s really just an inconvenience (you’ll lose some loot and restart at a nearby outpost with a new, identical ship) rather than a significant setback, but the downside is a complete lack of permanence. There’s no sense of gradual growth in power denoted by a bigger, better, or more grand ship, your character never becomes stronger, and the islands and outposts never change or upgrade at all. It’s all stagnant.
The disposable nature of your ships is a big part of why upgrades for them are also limited entirely to cosmetics: things like sail colors, flag designs, and the visual theme of cannons and other objects. That’s it. You pick everything from a merchant, and once you buy it once there’s no risk of ever losing it. The physicality that otherwise makes you pay close attention to your vessel during the rest of Sea of Thieves makes it seem as though something is missing from how passive and empty ship customization feels at times.
Sea of Thieves’ progression structure could have been a lot more rewarding since it lacks direction and clarity. Had I not been regularly playing with a friend of mine who happens to be a two-year Sea of Thieves veteran, a lot of this multi-company system’s complexity would have sailed over my head. Thankfully, there is a cleverly produced and well-made introductory mission dubbed the Maiden Voyage to teach you the barebone basics of gameplay, like how to attack and dig up things with your shovel, but it stops just short of teaching you what to do in the actual world. It doesn’t ever teach you about how to level up each faction, which types of voyages to do first, or even that there are Tall Tales at all. The freedom is liberating once you’re let loose, but it’s as if Sea of Thieves expects you to start running full speed without teaching you how to walk properly yet.
All of the other side content – such as the dungeon-like Strongholds that have all players competing to clear out a Skeleton Fortress to nab the treasures within, the various encounters at sea like the skeleton ships that rise up out of the ocean to attack, or just organic run-ins with other hostile players – were complete mysteries to me until my friend explicitly explained things. Plus, without enticing gameplay-altering progression to work towards, the grind to get to Pirate Legend can start to feel quite daunting. Thankfully, it’s the journey, not the destination, that truly matters.
Rare gives you an entire ocean of fun but fairly simple activities to pick from, then tosses in other online players to shake them up in completely unpredictable ways . As a result, I don’t think there is another game I’ve played that is so dramatically and completely improved by the presence of other players as Sea of Thieves, be they friend or foe. The difference between playing alone and playing with friends is the difference between being bored to tears and crying with laughter.
Getting a crew together (preferably made up of friends, but queuing up to join strangers can suffice as well) turns monotonous chores into exciting opportunities for teamwork. Nothing beats the thrill and satisfaction of each person owning their role separately, allowing you to come together and act as one unit. I’d steer the ship to narrowly miss colliding with an enemy vessel while a friend led his cannon shots just enough to bombard them as they sailed off, eventually sinking in the distance. These satisfying moments are common and invigorating, kicked up even further when enemy ships are replaced by enormous beasts like the ship-swallowing Megalodon.
Unfortunately, while navigating the intricacies of captaining a ship with a full crew is an endlessly complex and complicated puzzle to solve thanks to the cooperation required, melee and gun-based combat is about as bland and simplistic as you can get. You get a sword and one gun. You can do a three-swing combo, charge attack, and then choose from a pistol, shotgun-style blunderbuss, or long-range rifle. That’s it, and the little appeal it does have doesn’t last long.
If all you care about is hunting other players to engage in PvP combat, there’s actually an entire separate section in the main menu, the Arena, designed just for that. It’s split into two competitive versions: two-player Sloop ships or four-player Galleons. Both modes have the objective of racing to dig up buried treasure using only rough maps as a guide and turning them in at a remote merchant vessel. However, the catch here is that everyone is after the same treasure using the same maps at the exact same time, turning it into a frantic, nautical rat race. The winner is decided based on a point system, where points are awarded for both turning in chests and sinking rival ships. The Arena is exhilarating, stripping away any concerns about deciding where to go next and freeing up my mind to focus solely on PvP.
The team coordination required to be successful in the Arena is nearly an Olympic-level feat and really puts the best and most impressive parts of Sea of Thieves on full display: it encourages cooperation with an all-hands-on-deck-style approach. The sense of realism when raising and lowering sails, firing cannons manually from the side of a ship, and literally digging up buried treasure often leads to memorable moments such as trading canon shots while strafing an island as your crewmate grabs a treasure chest before you narrowly avoid getting rammed by enemy ships by dropping your anchor to spin around with a tight turn, almost like an aquatic drift. Timing and coordination is everything.