Making a great, multiplayer-focused game is no easy feat. For every Overwatch and PUBG, there are far more Battleborns and For Honors; games with solid production values and interesting concepts that initially captivate public interest but falter in execution. The best of the bunch not only offer an engaging game world and basic premise, but also an ample amount of content and in-game rewards to motivate continued player activity. As a base package, Sea of Thieves definitely lacks the latter qualities. But is what’s offered at launch strong enough to warrant a purchase? Let’s have a look.
The potential for Sea of Thieves to have an intriguing story or fleshed out NPCs was immense, but, as-is, the game is essentially a huge pirate sandbox for players to run around in. There’s a short intro cutscene and the option to select a randomly-generated pirate avatar before players are dropped into the world either solo or with a crew at their own discretion. The complete lack of a tutorial or any substantive opening cinematic is jarring, and yet there’s a certain feeling of accomplishment that comes with trying to figure everything out with a friend or random crewmates for the first time.
Once players have gotten the basics down and set out on their first voyage, the appeal of Sea of Thieves clicks immediately. Despite there only being three different kinds of voyages (treasure hunting, battling skeleton captains and their crews, and collecting goods like chickens and spices), setting out on the high seas with a group of friends or randoms is easily some of the most fun I’ve had with a co-op game. There’s nothing quite like working together to deftly maneuver the sails and relay coordinates between decks. PvP interactions when sailing can also be especially engaging and dynamic. I’ve had skirmishes where I stayed onboard and hurriedly tried to plug holes and bail out the lower decks and others where I hopped overboard and covertly swam to the enemy vessel to try and take them on directly. The combat itself is perhaps the only game mechanic lacking polish (duels typically consist of a combination of wild swinging, shooting and jumping), but in the moment it’s serviceable enough not to ruin the immersion.
While some trips on the seas can feel a bit long, Sea of Thieves does a decent job of keeping players occupied. The addition of character emotes was a smart one; almost every voyage I went on saw at least one crew member dancing while another played a catchy sea shanty. Storms on the high seas are also quite common, and with them come incredibly rocky waves, torrential downpours and natural ship damage that calls for the entire crew to patch holes and bail out water. The game absolutely nails atmospheric moments like this on the water, serving as a stark contrast to how experiences on land play out.
The game world of Sea of Thieves is somewhat reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker in that it consists of a ton of islands connected by vast expanses of water. There are outposts (islands that have shops, taverns, and guild representatives), forts manned by skeleton crews, and then loads of deserted islands ripe for discovery. Where one might hope to find ancient ruins, secret hideouts and special treasures, the large majority of these islands truly are deserted save for barrels of supplies and animals. Occasionally the odd treasure chest can be found lying about, but it’s disappointing that there are so few secrets to discover amongst so many uniquely-designed islands. Similarly, the outposts all feature near-identical NPCs that offer little in the way of lore or any kind of interesting interaction.
Each island has a different layout, size, and shape, factors that are all necessary due to the way Sea of Thieves handles navigation. Whether operating as a solo sailor or part of a crew, the only way for players to navigate the game world is by scrutinizing a world map on a table in each player’s ship. Because there’s no waypoint system or way to select a specific island on the map, players have to either know the name of an island or (in the case of most treasure hunting voyages) visually compare the picture of their treasure map to the various islands on the world map. It sounds like a small detail, but unless players have spent countless hours in-game familiarizing themselves with all of the locations, visually hunting for the next destination can take a frustratingly long time.
Minor quality-of-life gripes like these are sprinkled all throughout Sea of Thieves. There’s no way to see where your crewmates are unless they’re visible to your character, so losing people on an island is a common occurrence. Mermaids are meant to spawn you back to your ship if you die or get left behind, but sometimes they spawn you onto an entirely new ship on a neighboring island. All guns can only hold five rounds and can’t be upgraded.
In fact, one of the game’s more pressing issues is that nothing can be upgraded beyond a cosmetic level. There’s no player leveling, no ship upgrades outside of different patterns and mastheads, and no weapon upgrades. The dev team specifically designed the game this way to make it so that newer players would feel like they had a fighting chance and experienced players could still have fun with friends new to the game. While this is understandable to a certain extent, it also makes the experience feel a bit shallow for those who really invest time into it. Grinding for cosmetics is common in games, but it’s also rarely the sole incentive to keep playing.
In some ways, Sea of Thieves reminds me of when Splatoon first launched on the Wii U. The third-person shooter had five maps and two online multiplayer modes at launch and, despite the positive impressions many outlets had based on the game’s fresh mechanics, interesting art style, and fun multiplayer gameplay, the severe lack of content was apparent. Sea of Thieves succeeds in delivering a vast and polished pirate sandbox to enjoy with friends, but its appeal wears thin quicker than it should. After a while, each of the different voyage types starts to blend together into a monotonous, fetch quest-like cycle. Without an overarching narrative or any kind of player progression beyond earning better quests that offer more gold for skins, there’s little reason to come back to Sea of Thieves outside of having fun with a group of friends. It’s a worthwhile experience in the short term, but until it receives some much-needed content updates, it’s long-term viability isn’t looking too strong.