Xbox One X marks the spot for Rare’s long-awaited online pirate adventure.
I’m not going to rake over the coals of Rare’s infamously squandered profile since Microsoft bought them; we surely all know that story. Yet, as context for Sea of Thieves’ arrival, it does feel important to mention it. Personally speaking, I’ve harboured hopes that this online multiplayer Xbox exclusive is a truly fresh start for the studio, and one which will let it speak with its own voice for the first time in a while.
Sea of Thieves is a simple yet ambitious concept. You be a pirate. Arr! Alongside your 100% human-controlled crew, you’ll sail the high seas looking for treasure and tales of adventure to tell. By working together with your colleagues on board, you’ll be able to co-ordinate a series of tasks to keep the ship running. Charting a course, setting the sails and steering the ship are difficult to do alone, but it quickly becomes second nature to do what needs doing and to talk to your crew about what’s left.
Your crew is the most important aspect of Sea of Thieves. You can play alone, but the real game is found not on small, solitary sloops, but on huge galleons with their rows of cannons and…well, they’re just so damn piratical. You’ll need to work together not only to run the ship, but to defend it from other crews looking to rob you of your cargo. Crated goods like sugar and tea are valuable, not to mention the treasure chests and artefacts you might find.
If you can keep a hold of your haul, shipping it back to the nearest outpost will allow you to trade it all in with the appropriate vendor in exchange for gold. Those same vendors will sell you cosmetic items in exchange for the gold you accrue so that, next time out on the sea, you and your boat will look a little more imposing and impressive to fellow buccaneers. And that, in a coconut shell, is the entire game. Find stuff, don’t get robbed, sell stuff, look cool.
No unlockable tools, features, abilities, you ask? Nope, not really. Beyond a couple of additional weapons that can be bought (like the blunderbuss), Sea of Thieves is deliberately set up as a level playing field for maximum accessibility. Delivering meaningful rewards in that kind of environment was a tough bar for Rare to set themselves, and sadly I’m not sure they’ve met it yet. You see, for this to work, the core gameplay has to be rewarding in and of itself. At the moment, I have just too many gripes.
I’m writing this a week or so after release (post patch), so some of the problems are on their way to being addressed. That said, there is still an unhealthily long list of complaints: changing between your many pirate tools takes too long, with radial dials actually loading in before your eyes. The status of your missions and purchases synchronises unreliably, so gold might vanish or your purchases go unacknowledged. Combat with other pirates and VERY BORING skeleton NPCs harks back to the bad old days of first-person combat, like Rare just lifted “slappers only” mode from Goldeneye.
The worst of the lot though, has got to be all the game’s griefers. There are so many people trying to trip you up in the game for no reason at all, and the game’s design is so unprepared for it, that you actually get loading screen messages like this: “Surrounded by griefers? Consider this tip…explore your crew options to scuttle the ship.” I don’t know how you read that, but to me, it’s pretty much a resignation that Sea of Thieves does a terrible job of managing player behaviour.
The patch I mentioned does alleviate player antics a little. In the first week, after being sunk you’d respawn right next to your attackers, so naturally they’d do it over and over again. Respawning now happens much farther away, but the underlying issue remains; there’s no disincentive to act like a dick. It’s not even about stealing treasure. There is literally no benefit to behaving in this way once your treasure has gone, yet people do it anyway. I mean, rather than sell powder kegs for profit, people on your own crew will blow them up to see their (your) ship sink.
It’s sad, because at its core Sea of Thieves does feel like the Rare we know. Essentially this is a British videogame, with all the harmless whimsy and endearing grumpiness you would expect of that. Shop vendors and bartenders mumble and squawk in regional dialects, insulting you with what sounds like a veiled compliment. It’s charming, and reminder of how Britain used to feel. Its whimsy is in contrast with today’s culturally fractious (dis)United Kingdom; a place where we destroy our own prosperity just to see what happens, for real.
When Sea of Thieves works, it truly is awesome. The interplay of roles in a working crew feels instinctive and compelling. The sea beneath you is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The criticism that it lacks substantial rewards will always be a fair one, but it could probably work well on its own terms if only the player base respected what it was doing. Rare ought to find some control in a game where they’ve deliberately imposed none. But then, pirates (and Brits) are often going to act like arseholes, so what did anyone expect?
Sea of Thieves was provided to us by Xbox/Rare for Xbox One. It was reviewed on an Xbox One S and X.