Sea of Thieves by Rare is a game all about wish fulfillment of the highest order. It’s also one of those rare (heh) flashes of brilliant game design where someone has seen a niche in the market which isn’t being properly filled and so Rare have managed to jump into the gap and fill it. Right out of the gate it does something which a few other games have sort of had a dalliance with, but nobody managed to do quite right until now.
There have been a few games which have sort of dallied with playing at Pirates, being a Captain of your own fully functional sailing ship and basically pretending to be Jack Sparrow. And let’s be real here, we all play these games set in the Golden Age of Piracy so that we can start humming music by Hans Zimmer whilst occasionally bellowing and complaining about the rum ALWAYS being gone.
Assassins Creed has sort of been flirting with pirate games ever since the great success of Black Flag (which definitely did an awful lot of the sailing, rum-drinking, cannon-firing correctly) but never really with any focus on more of the actual mechanics of running around and sailing a ship. There are other games which focus on various other aspects of piracy, but few gained anything close to as much attention as Black Flag. Also, I have to say I was amused that when I absently Googled “pirate video games” none of the top links were actually about pirating video games… But I digress…
Whatever the case, these days we are seeing more and more games which focus on the minutiae of running and operating anything from space ships to sailing ships, and there was a distinct absence of anything involving the latter on the market. The result is Sea of Thieves in which you, and a crew of up to three others, command a single vessel and do all of the running of the ship.
This includes steering the ship, of course, but also raising and lowering sails (of which the larger ship has three) for different speeds, changing the angle of sails to better catch the wind. Canons must be individually loaded, aimed and fired. You can board enemy vessels for hand-to-hand combat with a cutlass and flintlock weapons. Holes in the ship have to be repaired with wooden boards. You climb into the crow’s nest and use your telescope to keep a watchful eye on the horizon for other sails and also have to work as a team to quickly raise the heavy anchor. In short, without getting too bogged down in details which might ruin the fun, the game plays exactly like I would want a sailing game to play.
This is my first and one of my main compliments for the game, that the mechanics of sailing the ships are just fantastic. The 4-man Galleon, with four cannons on each side and three masts and sails feels like a constant job to have it operating at peak performance, even with a full crew. At the same time, it’s entirely possible and even easy to run the smaller 2-man Sloop entirely on your own. It’s a perfect blend of being involved while still being intuitive.
Admittedly a few other mechanical aspects are a mite frustrating, in particular the hand-to-hand combat. Swinging your sword around seems to be based on some sort of fatigue system as your character will occasionally not swing his cutlass as fast as normal, but there’s no indication of when you have run out of fatigue or when you are not able to immediately attack. Also the game’s equivalent of a sniper rifle is frustratingly difficult to use with a mouse (and moves unbelievably slowly) which I am told is to prevent PC gamers having a massive advantage over the Xbox players on cross-platform play.
This latter might be an issue for proper competitive play, but in terms of fun actually makes a lot of sense and I personally actually feel like the inclusion of true cross-platform play from Day 1 was the correct decision here.
The game takes place on a relatively spacious open-world map with two-dozen islands, forts and peninsulas scattered around for exploring. There are then a few things you can do to fill your time, with the ultimate aim being to collect as much booty and loot as you can.
Shipwrecks can be randomly found across your travels and you may swim down into their depths to loot the remains, whilst being wary for sharks. You may also find skeleton forts on your travels or islands which can occasionally have randomly spawning bits of treasure for a little boost. The primary method for gaining money though is through conducting “voyages” for one of three different factions.
There are The Gold Hoarders, who give you treasure maps for various islands, allowing you to make your way there and interpret maps or clues to locate and dig up buried treasure. The Order of Souls which tasks you with hunting down various undead Captains and killing off them and their crews. And lastly, the Merchants Alliance who task you with finding and delivering different sorts of “consumable” goods between the various player outposts.
Throughout all of this you may also encounter other players and be forced into a deadly battle of the sea, fighting ship-to-ship and even hand-to-hand to try and sink each other and claim the other’s loot from the waves.
There are also a couple of somewhat “end game” encounters including the existence of the Kraken and skeleton raids, which are forts commanded by hundreds of undead which you have to fight off in waves before you will finally be rewarded with a large amount of treasure. And these forts are announced to the entire server, so you are often likely to find yourself fighting players as well as skeletons.
Now, throughout all of this, one has to say that the game looks fabulous. There is a somewhat cartoon-y aesthetic to everything, in a Warcraft sense of it. Characters, enemies and various other elements are heavily stylised, and I know that this can be something of a deal-breaker for some. I personally think it looks incredible though. The physics of the game are pretty top-notch as well, and there is nowhere this is more clear than with the ocean itself.
It’s practically an achievement in its own right just how gorgeous the brilliant blue sea can look as you sail through it, your ship rising and falling over the crests of waves, constantly rolling from side to side. Storms can harry you and start filling the bowels of your ship with water while your sails and hull are buffeted by rain, wind and giant waves.
Put simply: it’s fucking brilliant and the actual sailing and everything to do with that is an absolute dream.
At times it can be serene and calming as your ship slices through calm oceans. You can chill out in the crows nest, taking in the views and playing a sea shanty to yourself. Side note, if you get drunk your music becomes discordant and out of tune, or if you play with other players as well then the tunes sync up and harmonise. Things like that can just make a game. Or the game can be intense and challenging as hell as you and another ship battle it out in the middle of rolling seas and tower rocks on either side.
Overall it feels exactly like you are taking part in Pirates of the Caribbean and that is an experience I could not recommend more. It’s just an awful lot of damn good, shanty-singing fun.
It also feels like it’s a game designed by people who genuinely wanted to craft something great. With big games it can be difficult to tell and for me it’s all down to the little things. Things like the harmonising music, which adds nothing to gameplay but is just totally neat. Or the fact that you can switch off the individual lamps on your ship for activating stealth mode. It’s just little things like that which seem to say to me that the creators genuinely cared.
All of this said, I suspect the fun and flair of the game will not last. Unless Rare have serious and big plans for numerous updates, I entirely expect that if I check back in on the game at the end of the year it will be a complete ghost-town, with dead servers and dead forums.
I spent a week and a bit playing the game pretty much every opportunity I had and marvelling at the ships, the ship combat and just how exciting and pretty everything was. During this time I also think I’ve seen pretty much everything the game has to offer twice over.
Your one major task in the game is to do the quests for the various factions. You do this so you can get money and increase your reputation with said factions. Money is used solely for buying cosmetic items, and as such is little more than vague status symbols. Especially vague because, of course, the existence of money for buying cosmetic items means that inevitably you can pay REAL money to buy them. Yes, microtransactions rear their ugly head again, and it is just somewhat telling that this sort of thing is now deemed completely normal and practically acceptable.
Meanwhile reputation is earned for the purpose of getting more demanding quests from the factions so that you can earn more money!
And immediately you see the problem. Nothing changes. Nothing improves. There is no real sense of growth or of a journey. Instead you start the game with a non-descript ship and starting gear, then after 30 hours you have a cool ship design, an admiral’s hat and a gold sword, and all of that just means you look different.
It’s already something of a meme that you can see all of the content of the game in just a few hours and honestly, it’s completely true. Beyond that it is down to whether the setting and the mechanics of the game are enough to grip you. I personally find it quite peaceful sailing around a little on my own and also find the coop sailing and combat to be damned good fun. But is that enough to carry it? Considering that it costs £50, a full AAA title: hell no it’s not enough.
I’ve been playing the game on a free trial version of the Xbox Game Pass and have absolutely no intention of spending the £50 for a game this shallow. If the price drops significantly, or Rare adds in a serious influx of content, then I’ll reconsider. Even then though, as has been argued before, without some kind of GOAL, even new content might not fix the gaping hole in the game.
Frankly there are so many things they could do as well. They could add dedicated PvP servers, they could add a proper singleplayer mode or even an overarching story along the lines of Destiny. Any one of these could potentially elevate the game to something actually worth getting, but in its current state I personally think that it’s simply not worth the money. It’s good fun for a little while, but ultimately too damn shallow.
Hell, even the addition of NPC shipping would do a lot to liven the game up. That said I do admit that the current server populations are actually pretty great. It’s easy to sail around entirely on your own, but then suddenly you can see that sail on the horizon and you tense up because you have a bunch of treasure in your hold. That fight or flight instinct kicking in as you wonder if they’ve seen you and whether they are bearing down on you right now.
A perfect example of the lack of depth happened during my first foray into the game. Me and a crew of two friends were sailing around, doing a few “voyages” and having fun sinking others and enjoying the freedom of the game. We ended up on a large tropical island and spent some time deciphering a map to dig up some buried treasure, all very exciting. Meanwhile I went exploring and found a giant underground cave system. It felt like I was delving into the depths of Isla de Muerta from Pirates of the Caribbean. Around any corner could have been a hoard of treasure or a legion of blood-thirsty skeleton pirates. However, there was none of that… Aside from looking very spooky and being rather pretty to explore, the cave was empty aside from barrels containing standard supplies for your ship.
It left me feeling rather dejected and thoroughly disappointed. What was the point of that?
Honestly the exact same can be even be said for the bits and pieces of content the game actually has. What is the point of getting all of that treasure? Just for cosmetics? Again, it all comes down to the fact that if you enjoy the actual experience of the game then it might be enough. But without more to do I predict that the game will lose its appeal in a month and be dead in less than a year.
Also, allow me to now offer another final note. If you are here because you enjoy the actual ship-to-ship combat and sailing and you can take or leave the open world, then there might in fact be a better alternative. A game which has been on the market for longer, small and indie and early access: Blackwake. If it’s just the mechanics you enjoy, perhaps then there really is a way to enjoy it without the outrageous price tag…
|· Gorgeous setting and aesthetic, with quite simply THE best water physics
· Mechanically excellent, sailing a ship has never felt so intuitive or exciting whilst simultaneously still feeling authentic
· Ship-to-ship combat is intense and layered, guaranteed to leave you on the edge of your seat
· Small things here and there speak of a very lovingly crafted and designed world and game
|· Melee combat is acceptable but a little tricky and doesn’t flow as easily as it could
· Game world feels extremely lacking in content and currently the game’s future seems very shaky
· What content there is seems geared towards farming for cosmetics which may be little more than excuse to have microtransactions
· Some evidence of server issues and lag (but I guess what online multiplayer, doesn’t have issues like that?)