It’s pure magic staring out at the undulating, immaculately rendered ocean waves in Rare’s online pirate playground, Sea of Thieves. Sitting high atop the crow’s nest of your creaky ship and admiring the view as the colors of sunset dance and flicker just underneath the water’s surface isn’t just a thing of beauty, it’s an experience.
It’s another kind of experience entirely, though, to drop your gaze from the horizon to the deck below and see your crewmates, scoundrels, pillagers, and miscreants clinking tankards brimming with grog, as they puke their guts out to the rhythms of spirit-lifting shanties, your shared vessel of death and debauchery barrelling toward whatever new adventure awaits.
At its best, the game is a terrific place to hang out with your friends, having a chat while doing nothing particularly remarkable. Taking in the sights and sounds of the high seas with your crew as you learn how to navigate the violent waters as a well-coordinated team can be a lot of fun, and if the simple pleasure of social interaction is your thing, the game provides ample opportunity to simply get lost at sea with your buddies and have a laugh.
But if you’re expecting a robust sandbox experience with endless hours of adventures and stories to sink your teeth into, you’re out of luck. Content-wise, Sea of Thieves is anemic at best. With little to no guidance, you and your crew (or you alone, should you so choose) are dropped into a vast ocean dotted with islands, sunken ships, and other curiosities, and you’ll to go on quests big and small to amass special items and mounds of gold while crossing swords and cannons with other groups of players from time to time.
The quests are straightforward and unvaried. You’ll hunt for treasure chests, exterminate hoards of sword-wielding skeletons, and capture and escort animals. When you’re done with that, you’ll…dig up more chests, fight off more skeletons, and babysit more animals. It’s really befuddling that Rare didn’t have time to add any more variety to the quest structure.
There are some random encounters with Krakens that break things up every few hours or so (why not make these more frequent?), and there are raids that involve you and other crews battling with armies of skeletons and each other over treasure, but at the end of the day, you’re still hacking, slashing, and shooting at the same old enemies and carrying out the same old tasks.
The repetition is maddening, and what’s worse, the gold you earn from carrying out each quest can only be spent on cosmetic accessories and costumes. All player stats are fixed, which keeps a level playing field across the game but allows for no sense of character progression. You can raise your “reputation,” which gives you access to bigger quests, but again, the fruits of your labor are only skin deep and don’t change the actual gameplay experience.
This inherent shallowness is a huge disappointment, especially for a game that ostensibly appears to be so ambitious and grand in scale. Also, this is a game all about pirates, which naturally means that it’s really all about treasure. Why would you make all of the treasure essentially inert and meaningless? Sure, you can gussy up your character in myriad ways, but in a first-person game in which you almost never see yourself, what’s the point?
PvP gameplay feels similarly pointless. Because all players’ abilities are the same, the combat feels quite rudimentary and rigid, which is a shame considering PvP should be ripe with opportunity to spice up the larger gameplay loop. Firing cannons is exciting (at least the first couple of times), and you can even fire yourself onto enemy ships. But because everything is so even-steven gameplay-wise, truly interesting scenarios never actually arise. The game’s got a major issue with staying power as it is, and PvP feeling so flaccid doesn’t help matters one bit.
Still, the game isn’t without its virtues. Working together with friends to maneuver your ship feels terrific, perhaps better (or at least more unique) than in any other game in recent memory. At once, you’ll have one person steering, another unfurling the sails, one raising the anchor, and another friend using his/her compass and map to navigate. Getting the timing right and reaching your destination smoothly (or even better yet, taking down a rival ship), is an unmitigated thrill and offers a genuine sense of shared accomplishment.
While there’s no real leveling-up to do in the game, you’ll certainly develop applicable skills that can mean the difference between your crew sleeping with the fishes or sailing to victory in a naval battle. Sure, it only takes a few hours for you and your team to get the hang of the game’s basic strategies, but those first few hours are insanely fun.
The game’s other saving grace is the visual style, which is so wondrous and jaw-dropping that it’ll occasionally, mercifully, distract you from the monotony of the questing. From the sleek character models to the ungodly water effects, the presentation is top-notch, and the stylized visuals ensure that, whether you’re playing on the Xbox One or PC, you’re going to be thoroughly blown away.
The game’s color palette is a high point, with deep greens and blues contrasted with fiery sunset hues that are sometimes so pretty that you’ll stare and stare and forget what you’re doing, almost causing your ship to crash into a wall of jagged rocks, drawing the ire of your perturbed shipmates. No matter, though – the view was worth it.
The tireless work of Rare’s artists and engineers amounts to more than just eye candy, though. There’s something to be said for a game’s visuals making you feel a sense of place, and the development team does just that here, using enveloping weather effects and sound design to make Sea of Thieves a true escapist experience, as all games of this nature should be. Hearing the wood of your ship crackle and creak around you as the wind whips by your ears and the waves crash into each other sounds almost freakily realistic, and while the visuals are cartoonish, there’s a weight to them that makes the game world feel absolutely cohesive.
There are sure to be gamers out there who feel more than content to get a group of friends together in Sea of Thieves and simply sail across Rare’s beautiful game world, hunt for multi-colored pigs and chickens, and laugh hysterically as they watch their friends get their characters drunk and stumble overboard. This game is for them – it’s leisurely, approachable, and unchallenging, and is largely inoffensive in every facet. But for the rest of us gamers seeking substantive, rich, engaging online experiences – especially when shelling out $60 – our time and money would be better spent elsewhere.