There was a time in the late ‘90s and early 2000s when a new release from Rare was met with the same level of excitement as a game from Rockstar or Bethesda. But after more than a decade of ownership by Microsoft and only sporadic and uneven releases in recent years, it can be hard to feign even a passing interest in a new Rare game.
Sea of Thieves is the once legendary developer’s latest attempt at recapturing its former glory, a game that’s supposed to mix the old innovative spirit of Rare with modern graphics and gameplay. And while there are flashes of brilliance (and what the company once was) in Sea of Thieves, the closed beta ultimately left me wanting much more than what I suspect will be in the final product.
The game makes one hell of a first impression. You’re immediately thrown into its beautifully stylized Caribbean world with a crew of three other players to explore as you see fit on your very own pirate ship. It feels like a Saturday Morning cartoon version of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Unfortunately, two of my fellow crew members quickly disappeared for parts unknown, leaving only me and another player to man the ship.
In a lot of co-op games, losing members of your party to other activities is no big deal, but in Sea of Thieves, it seriously handicaps the fun. The game really requires all four members of the party to communicate and operate the sails on the ship, steer it, and drop the anchor as needed. Being dropped into a session with random players really isn’t the best way to play Sea of Thieves. You’ll definitely want to gather three other buddies for this one.
Slightly hobbled, what was left of our crew headed north, soon encountering a sand bar. I jumped out of the ship and used my sword to take out a couple skeletons and then looted some bananas and cannonballs. As I headed back to the ship, I was met by a shark who took a big chunk of my health, but my sword made short work of it as well.
So you might be thinking, “Cannon balls? Skeletons? Sharks? This sounds like the best thing ever!”
Well, the problem is that there are a lot of cannon balls, skeletons, and sharks in Sea of Thieves. In fact, in the hours I spent with the game, that was all I encountered in the game’s beautiful yet empty islands. I certainly hope that there will be more enemies and things to discover in the main game, because right now, Sea of Thieves gets boring quick. Again, part of that does depend on who you play with, though.
After returning to the ship, my remaining teammate logged off, but was promptly replaced by three other players with mics who had some experience with the beta and the game’s systems. One even had a quest, a riddle that led us to an island to the southwest. Working together, we figured out where exactly the riddle was leading us and the location of buried treasure. Finally, something worth doing in Sea of Thieves!
We turned treasure island into an outpost and got a map to another island to find more treasure. Presumably, we could have kept doing that indefinitely. And not much else. So far, the beta experience seems to indicate that the core of the game is that loop of sailing to treasure, finding it, and going off again for more treasure. This gave me a decidedly mixed impression of Sea of Thieves.
That said, I love the game’s style and atmosphere. Rare has done a really great job of simplifying the controls to the point that anyone can jump in and understand them. Even communication through emotes is handled pretty well if you don’t want to use a mic.
But completely ignoring players who want to explore on their own feels like a huge step backwards in 2018. It’s virtually impossible to have a successful adventure in Sea of Thieves‘ world without a full crew. I had fun with other players who knew what they were doing, but as pretty much every multiplayer game ever has shown, that’s usually a minority of users. If you don’t have friends willing to join your crew, you will probably have a hard time finding the game’s sweet spot.
Even when you encounter crew members who know what they’re doing, it’s unclear what exactly the point of the game is. Just collecting treasure chests and getting some cosmetic loot isn’t going to keep many players entertained for long. Where’s the progression? New items and enemies? Where’s any sort of story? Sea of Thieves is a big playground without much to do.
To be fair, we don’t yet know how these things will work in the full game. Rare could be holding a lot of content back, but in beta, Sea of Thieves struck me more as a really interesting tech demo than the system selling exclusive the Xbox One so badly needs.
Sea of Thieves arrives on March 20, 2018 for Xbox One and PC.