The first few hours of Sea of Thieves account for some of the best time I've spent playing games in a long, long time. This is Rare's first fresh entry into games in a decade that isn't burdened down by a previous license or the dead-on-arrival Kinect hardware. Problem is, it feels like a mostly-unfinished game without a clear audience in mind.
Sea of Thieves puts you in the water-logged boots of a pirate sailing around an archipelago of small tropical islands with a simple goal: live the pirate's life. You have all the necessary tools, right down to your own boat, cutlass, and bailing bucket, to get started. Where you go from there is up to you.
Every Wave a Painting
I have a lot of problems with the gameplay in Sea of Thieves, but the art is a beautiful reminder of Rare's past. Games like Viva Piñata, Donkey Kong Country, and Banjo-Kazooie are all remembered as much for their characters and art as they are for their standout gameplay.
Simply put, Sea of Thieves is gorgeous. It's the best-looking game in a time where we're seeing games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassin's Creed Origins, and Persona 5. There are games with impressive, ultra-realistic graphics, and games with honed quasi-realistic art direction, and Sea of Thieves stands with all of them, straddling both of those realms at once.
From a purely technical perspective, the water alone is a remarkable accomplishment in Sea of Thieves. You spend a lot of time on the water, so it must be constantly interesting. When you're above the water's surface, you're looking at dynamic, choppy water that kicks up during storms and chills out on sunny days. It catches the bright blue sky and the hazy orange sunset and refracts the light up through the waves to make sure that the sea is always changing colors.
Under the sea (where everything is not only wetter, but also better, take it from me) is something else altogether. The world beneath the waves isn't one you get to spend a lot of time in, but it's stunning every single time. In the depths, rays of light filter down through the haze. When a shark fades in, it's almost ghostly. The way the light moves beneath the water feels real in a way few other games have gotten right (Assassin's Creed Origins comes to mind as one of the exceptions).
The art direction, too, is immaculate. Sea of Thieves art style sits stylistically somewhere between The Curse of Monkey Island and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.
The characters are all chunky and full of life. Whether it's other players or shopkeepers, every character design oozes fun. Rare made an interesting decision with character creation: Instead of designing your character, you can pick from a list of generated character designs and you can refresh as often as you like before settling on one to stick with. This seems to be leading to wider variety in characters in the game. In my experience, this decision pays off for the player.
Of particular note is how the game handles the heavier-set characters. Many games with character creation don't bother allowing heavy characters, or don't bother tweaking the creator to make them look like anything other than balloon-inflated versions of regular characters. It's clear, though, that Rare put serious time and consideration into the way heavier characters would look. They're built with as much character as other body types. They can wear everything other characters can wear. Even if you decide to go shirtless in your journey, though, the bodies are designed in a way that feels respectful and artful rather than as if someone designed it to be accompanied by a tuba track.
Every little thing in Sea of Thieves shows this kind of care. Ships have uneven boards, structures are built askew, and weapons are all well-used. The game's many islands feel curated by human designers rather than generated by a computer. The bottom of the sea is covered in coral and flora, and what little fauna you'll find is always beautiful.
While I can't say Sea of Thieves is perfect in other respects, the colorful art direction deserves to sit among the year's best come December and is something I'll keep coming back to as a point of comparison for other games. Rare successfully merges both technically impressive and artfully designed visuals into a cohesive unit that feels of apiece instead of looking like Frankenstein's monster of technology and art.
Xbox One X owners, make note: Sea of Thieves runs in full 4K and sports some truly stunning HDR. The game has a few performance issues on Xbox One X at the moment, but Rare is already working on improvements, and the game is still a marvel all the same.
The First Few Hours
The first few hours of Sea of Thieves are magical. If you have a crew to dive in with, no joke, get ready to make memories. The sense of discovery in this game's opening hours is really like nothing else I've ever played.
Once you select your character, you're dropped into the world like a baby bird pushed out of the nest. You find yourself in one of the many outpost islands' dimly-lit taverns. From there, you can hang out and drink grog if you want to, or you can actually dive into the game and head out to the ship the game provides.
Everything you do the first few hours is just complex enough and just intuitive enough to make it both fun to do and fun to learn. If you can roll with a full ship of four players, the mere act of sailing turns into a fun adventure of teamwork and attention. You have to adjust the length and angle of your sails and take care not to hit rocks that, while visible from the crows' nest, can easily disappear beneath the tall waves ahead of you from the ship's wheel. You have to maintain your heading by watching the compass and checking the map, as there are no on-screen indicators to tell you you're still heading toward your target destination. If you do hit a rock or, heaven forbid, find your ship at the wrong end of a cannonball, you'll be bailing water with your bucket and nailing the hole shut with a wooden plank.
You'll dig up treasure using maps marked with red Xs and by using riddles that have you walking paces and using landmarks. You'll find little environmental stories dotting the islands, created carefully by the team at Rare. You'll have your first terrifying encounter with a shark, and fight off a band of cutlass-wielding skeletons. You'll also have your first run-ins with other player-controlled pirates, the only human characters you'll find outside of shops and taverns.
Almost everything you can do in the game feels whimsical and novel. You can pull a hurdy-gurdy or concertina from your inventory and play pirate shanties with your fellow crewmates. You can use your bucket to bail water from your ship or hold the unfortunate result of drinking too much grog. You can fire yourself out of a cannon high into the air just to see what happens.
There's so much fun to be had there that it's hard not to recommend the game if you're playing through Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass.
Ankle Deep in the Kiddie Pool
But Sea of Thieves has problems with depth and audience that make me wonder if the game isn't seeing release a bit earlier than it should, despite how long it's been in development.
There are three factions for whom you can run errands: you can recover buried treasure, take down skeleton warriors, or collect fauna and supplies for the merchants. But that's all they are – errands. And even as you get further into the game, the errands don't change except to involve more steps.
There's no story to these errands, no rhyme or reason to them. You're doing pirate-themed busywork. Later, the busy work moves from finding an island and recovering a treasure chest to finding five or six islands and recovering five or six or ten chests.
The best analog I've seen someone suggest for this is the character Marcus Garvey in Fallout 4. After you meet up with him, he starts giving you randomly generated quests to protect places. In the thousand-foot perspective, that's a limitless amount of content. Every time you take a chip out of the bag, another chip appears.
The problem is that we don't want to just eat chips, and from a content perspective, Sea of Thieves is all chip and no meal. There's no depth to the activity. Rare hasn't built any kind of story into the game. I'm down with ambient narrative – Dark Souls has honed this to near perfection – but Sea of Thieves needs more than ambient storytelling.
Even the raids, and monster encounters, while fun, are relatively limited in scope. The hand-crafted raids of Destiny they are not. They're just simple kill-the-monsters tasks that require a bigger group and net bigger rewards.
Combat offers four weapons, each with one or two moves. I don't need everything to offer Monster Hunter World levels of depth, but it would be nice to do something other than button mash when it comes to combat. Once again, a system with very little depth.
Novelty is inherently temporary. That might sound like an attempt at a deep, philosophical statement, but it's just a matter of fact. When you realize for the first time that playing your characters' musical instruments together results in your characters accompanying each other rather than playing different songs over each other – and that getting drunk twists those songs hilariously – it's a laugh-out-loud moment of discovery. It's cool, it's enchanting. But 10 hours in, you still have the same four or six songs and the same two instruments.
The built-in value of Sea of Thieves depends almost entirely on novelty right now, and that's not going to last in the long term, because that's how novelty works. Sea of Thieves has no leveling or character progression beyond cosmetic items for a good reason – dropping into a world of kitted-out players as a starter character would suck in Sea of Thieves' PVP-centric world. So it needs to give us plenty of stuff to do and reasons to do it, and it just isn't.
Pirates are Mean, People are Meaner
Right now, the primary attractor for Sea of Thieves is its social play. But that, too, has its share of issues. From a purely cooperative perspective, Rare needs to look long and hard about the flexibility of the game. You can start in a sloop-class ship with one or two players, or in a galleon-class ship with three or four. You can't invite a third player to your party of two, though, or create a party of four with an empty space to invite your fourth player later when they get home. If you have three players, you make a three-player game, and then you all log out when Joe gets home and log back in to make a four-player party. There's no "drop in" with Sea of Thieves.
And then there's PVP and the rose-tinted glasses with which Rare seems to be viewing it. Sea of Thieves is a fertile garden for griefing – harassing other players for the sake of it – with no relief.
To some degree, this is in the spirit of the game's theme. Pirates are supposed to be mean. Some of that risk is exhilarating. Getting your ship full of treasure pulled into an outpost and anchored and unloading all your treasure before the galleon on your tail can end you can be a blast.
But the game offers no incentive to punch upwards and every reason to punch downward. To a galleon crew of four, a little sloop with one or two players on it is easy pickings. It's a buffet of violence with, often times, a tangible reward at the end in the form of the dead crew's treasure. Even the community raid events that intend for players to work together aren't free from people looking to cause misery.
Even if your tiny crew of two is skilled, there's not much you can do. Galleons have many more cannons than sloops, and are just as fast as the smaller ships. Further, those bigger crews respawn just as quickly as your smaller crew, so even if you manage to take them all down, they're already respawning by the time you finish off the last one, making it an endless onslaught. Those bigger crews don't have longer respawn times, and they don't lose any of their hard-earned gold for attacking smaller ships and getting out-played. There's no bonus for going after another full galleon, either. The game is virtually encouraging players to engage in their worst tendencies. Those of us there to explore the world and hang out with our friends are out of luck.
The art style – again, my favorite part of the game – makes this a tonal problem, too. Everything about the art design screams that the team intends for this game to be approachable by people of all ages. Unfortunately, I can't imagine my brother sitting down with his kid to play this game knowing that the game is overrun with griefers who, more often than not, accent their griefing with colorful language. It feels like Rare is saying, "hey kids, come play on our whimsical playground crawling with racists!" In other words, it's a confusing, mixed message.
The Future of Piracy
It's important to note that Sea of Thieves is an entirely online game. It occasionally has hiccups, and it has downtime. More importantly, though, things will change. Just as with games like Destiny and Rainbow Six Siege, Sea of Thieves has a bright potential future. Rare could add story quests, make deep changes that improve the PVP experience (maybe longer respawn times for bigger teams? The ability to turn PVP off for your crew?), add new weapons, instruments, islands, and monsters. At that $10 Game Pass entry price, Sea of Thieves is worth checking out, and definitely has enough fun and novelty to last through that. At $60, though, you're making an investment for the future. Right now, Sea of Thieves doesn't feel like a finished game. It feels like it should be in Microsoft's Xbox Game Preview program.
With time, though, Rare could make Sea of Thieves into one of the system's standout titles that shows what systems like cross-play can do as well as reminding us of Rare's long history.
DISCLAIMER: We received four review codes from the publisher and spent 15 hours in multiplayer with in crews of different sizes before starting this review.
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