Release Date: March 20th, 2018
Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed,) PC
In the current landscape of video games, we’ve seen a recent wave of massive popularity surrounding online games of all kinds, where game streamers have become the new celebrities and the games they stream often shoot to the top of the game sales and player engagement charts almost overnight.
These kinds of events and statistics have become the new benchmarks used to gauge how successful an online game is in the current market and presented new ways for developers to build communities and keep their games alive and successful, and as such, many developers, both new and old, are starting to make online-focused games a priority in their development schedules, whether the game focuses on co-op or competitive play.
In 2015, prolific veteran UK developer, Rare (of Goldeneye 007, Banjo Kazooie, and Donkey Kong Country fame) announced that they were taking a new step and devoting themselves to making their first ever online-focused game, and their first new IP in over a decade in the form of Sea of Thieves, an open-world “pirate simulator” that focuses on cooperation with other players and exploring the world as you choose.
Sea of Thieves takes the formula that’s gotten extremely popular in recent years with games like Destiny, The Division, and Monster Hunter, where co-op and team-based online play takes precedent, but they’ve done some unique things with the play mechanics and some other major features, shifting away from how these other games handled those aspects to make an experience entirely its own.
The game has been extremely divisive to audiences for daring to change up such a popular formula and create something new, but is Sea of Thieves for you? Hopefully this review can help you decide for yourself in some way.
As mentioned before, Sea of Thieves takes the formula of games like Destiny, The Division, and many others that offer co-op as well as competitive or PvP elements and wraps them up in an RPG-like shell of leveling and collecting new items to aid your quest, and SoT changes up many of the basic elements to do something different.
For starters, Sea of Thieves, completely strips away the tired, repetitive RPG elements like stats and leveling, and brings the formula down to its basics, with no sense of traditional “progression” that most modern gamers have gotten used to. There are still rewards for your exploits and progression in a sense that you get quests from a town hub, gain money, and choose how to spend your money, and this leads into another way that the idea of progression in modern games is turned upon its head; everything that you can spend your currency on are merely ways to customize your pirate experience, but nothing that will give you an advantage over other players.
This method of progression keeps all players on an even playing field no matter how long they’ve been playing the game or how many quests they’ve completed, they might just have a few more customization options than you. This also allows any co-op player to join in and play with their friends in a group regardless if they’re a beginner or they’ve been playing the game for 100 hours without some people being left behind, so the only way you can get a leg up on any other player is having actual experience of playing and learning tactics, strategies, and quick wits to react to any situation.
Unfortunately, it seems this is absolute heresy to many modern gamers, who have become accustomed to systems in these types of games that make them feel like their time invested to gain rewards is “worth more” if it makes them more powerful in the game, and as this trope in games has gotten so over-used and played out over time, it has become the norm. For many people, this kind of system can cheapen and completely dull out the experience of the actual gameplay or the journey to reach those rewards, making the road to reach those rewards merely a means to an end, not an enjoyable act in its own.
Sea of Thieves‘ focus on straying from this norm has led to the perception from many people that its gameplay system is empty and boring, since it doesn’t give you these kinds of power rewards that give you advantage over others or make you feel more capable or skilled without actually learning more about the game functions and gaining skill at how to play it, and this has become the narrative that’s spread like wildfire in the media since its release, but if you look closer, this is quite a misguided notion.
This is a point where Sea of Thieves strives to break that trend and create a system where the journey itself is the reward, and not just a means to an end. The experience of starting out in an open world where anything can happen and there are no boringly scripted events makes even the simplest quests or goals feel so much more engaging and enjoyable by their nature, and this is a paradigm shift that I really hope we’ll see with many other games going forward, because it’s made for some of the absolute most enjoyable online gaming experiences I’ve had in the 20+ years that I’ve been playing them.
It is also of note that in the world of Sea of Thieves, there are constantly other crews of players sailing around the world at all times, and if you happen to run into them, you can either choose to be friendly and cooperate to accomplish tougher goals and have fun experiences together, or choose to fight it out and have a battle of cunning and wits in order to reap the rewards it may yield. Sea of Thieves stands as the first game to truly and seamlessly blend the co-op and PvP or competitive elements without having them split into separate modes or zones like most of its contemporaries, which is quite a feat to stand on.
The ever-looming threat of other players swooping in to steal your treasure before you can trade it in at the port after you’ve just spent an hour questing to find it adds a wonderful level of tension and excitement to every encounter, on top of not even knowing if those people are willing to be friendly or not. Just as in the world of real pirates from history, treachery and betrayal in Sea of Thieves is just as common as comradery and cooperation.
On a technical level, the game also sets new standards for a number of reasons, like having some of the most impressive and dynamic water effects ever in a video game to date, with the sea ahead of your boat constantly peaking, crashing, and swaying in every direction, and even a dynamic weather system that constantly changes from day to night or clear skies to stormy and windy in real-time. The audio and sound direction is also as immersive as can be, with the sound of those waves crashing around you, the sounds of your ship creaking and flowing back and forth, or even the sounds of your sails billowing in the wind constantly reminding you of the world that you’re in.
The graphics are a highly stylized cartoon-ish style for most things in the world (water withstanding,) giving it a fun and accessible feel that allows it to feel jovial and silly, yet serious and even a bit scary at times. Much of the world is randomized, so experiences will be different each time you land on a certain island or go on a certain quest, and this is on top of the other wandering pirates that could randomly show up at any time during your journey.
It’s also notable to mention just how well-thought and fun the co-op mechanics are for the Sea of Thieves, since, even though it is possible to sail around by yourself, the game’s fun just gets amplified many times over if you’re sharing the experience with your friends. This is another area where the “simulation” part of the game’s description really comes into play, as you really need a crew of multiple people to operate all of the different functions on the massive ships in tandem to be able to reach your destinations in a safe and efficient way. Everything from raising/lowering the anchor, adjusting the height/angle of the sails, navigating with compasses and no GPS or HUD, restocking supplies, and even repairing the ship and bailing out water as the ship takes damage; these all have to be done manually by someone on your team as it happens, there is no auto-pilot or automatic functions on a pirate ship.
Getting back to another way that Sea of Thieves sets itself apart from most other modern games is the way exploration is presented to you and how all of the navigation in the game takes place. As just mentioned, there is no HUD, no GPS telling you where your next objectives are, no fast travel systems, and no tutorials telling you where to go or what to do. All navigation is done manually using the instruments and tools that were available in the times where pirates actually ruled the seas. You have paper maps that you hold in your hand, compasses, telescopes, and your ship, which all have to be manually used along with your own sense of placement and navigation to know where you’re going.
Sea of Thieves does not hold your hand and tell you how to play, why to play, or how to get to your objectives, but merely gives you the tools to figure it out for yourself, which is something most modern games would not dare to do. The controls and features are very simplified and fairly easy to figure out through experimentation and sharing information with other players you meet, so nothing is ever terribly hard to figure out or puts up any major roadblocks for you, but it requires you to always be paying attention to what is going on around you at all times instead of just clicking on a button and traveling across the world with a tutorial telling you how.
Once again, the point of Sea of Thieves is that you create your own adventure and your own story using your own imagination and the small set of tools the game gives you, almost like a giant toybox where you can play with all your friends and interact with other people from all over the world. Because of this, it also doesn’t feature some kind of main story or quest like most modern games of this type, causing grief with many people who judge a game simply on the story the developers have written for you.
This causes people who aren’t comfortable with the concept of creating your own fun experiences using the tools you’re given to react pretty badly, craving to just have their hand held and be taken through some kind of narrative story within their games. This is an especially stronger sentiment since most games now try to incorporate a strong cinematic element to their games to draw in a bigger mainstream audience who prefer their games to be more like movies, and this is becoming a norm.
SoT pulls together so many different elements from many different types of game experiences, all the way from something like Minecraft or even pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons (choose your own adventure/path) to the other games mentioned previously like Destiny or other modern RPG type games, and it presents it all as one unique package of it’s own, proudly being itself in a market where AAA games being themselves are few and far between, or often scoffed at.
The game has launched worldwide and provides a place where players from anywhere can hop in and create new experiences with other people, and the launch has been promised to be only the beginning, with many future content releases already in the pipeline to keep giving players many more tools and elements to have fun with and continue creating more experiences together.
After spending about 60 hours sailing in Sea of Thieves, I can proudly say that the game has dared to do many things that most modern developers wouldn’t dream of doing, and it’s created some of the most fun online experiences I’ve ever had and been a breath of fresh air among an ocean of tired, modern game formulas and experiences.
In closing, if you’re the kind of person who likes to use your imagination and wit to make your own experiences with others, Sea of Thieves is something you do not want to miss out on. If you enjoy the idea of having fun on a level playing field and sailing the online seas with friend and foe alike, this is also for you as well.
As a bit of a footnote, there’s actually very little investment required to try out Sea of Thieves for yourself, as the game is featured in Microsoft’s new “Game Pass” subscription, which is free to try out for 14 days (and only $10 per month after that) and gives you access to over 100 full games to download and play between the Xbox One console family and your PC. This is a great introductory way to test the waters (pun intended) and see if the game is for you, so I can’t realistically have any complaints about the price of the game, since you can try it out for as long as you want for a minimal price.
Hopefully this writing can steer a few people in the direction of the game and allow you to have as much fun as most people I know have been having with the game so far. I hope to meet you out on the seas in the future.