Thief Of Seas (Sea Of Thieves Review)

As a self-described landlubber that is just now playing (and reviewing) a game that came out close to 10 months ago, I don’t know if I have anything truly original to add to the discussion. Sea Of Thieves, by now, has been reviewed and dissected and “Let’s Played” a rum-barrel’s worth already, so repeating what seems to be a common consensus of observations feels almost pointless. Still, I’m gonna do it. ‘Cause I want to. It’s MY blog, and I’m Captain here! So hoist that anchor and swab the sails or whatever!

For some background in case you haven’t seen the game, you and your friends (or other players online if you are the kind of pirate that sails alone) work as the crew of a pirate vessel, manning the sails and setting courses, out to uncover buried treasure and defeat other pirates along the way.  You design your pirate, pick your ship, gather your crew, and set out into the open ocean, seeking the island on your treasure map to fill your coffers. It’s a fun concept, and one that thematically comes with some well-recognized and built-in tropes.

The first thing you are likely to notice is that the game is absolutely beautiful. Rare has done a phenomenal job here with everything from water textures to fish scales. It’s also an incredible social experiment for teamwork and group role play. These points are pretty much universally agreed upon, but there are short-comings that pop up across the board, too: It does feel like an unfinished game. It plays more like an early-access title, where the bones are in place and the skin is holding everything where it should be, but there just aren’t that many organs in the body yet. It’s missing content, and a variety of content, to be specific.

One of many beautiful islands you’ll encounter out on the high seas.

One place the game falls short is in the item system. You essentially start the game with every item you will ever use, from shovel, to concertina, to flintlock. You can spend in-game gold to purchase new skins for these items, but you can never augment them, change them mechanically in any way, or ever encounter new items to use. An upgrade system patched in for tools, weapons, or your pirate in general would go along way to making this a return-play title. As it stands you only make money in order to buy more cosmetic skins, which is not a recipe for a long life cycle. If those skins meant something–if buying a different flintlock pistol had an actual in-game effect for damage or rate of fire or accuracy–then grinding it out would feel more beneficial. I’d spend 5,000 gold for a spyglass that zoomed in farther; I’m not so inclined to pay it for an identical spyglass that just has a different color trim.

A very strong positive in the item discussion is the music aspect. Having musical instruments to play during down-times–in harmony together no less!– is absolutely fantastic. It’s my favorite innovation for any game in years. The bottom line, however, is that like many other things in the game, there just isn’t enough of it. There are only three instruments and four songs, so you will burn through the variety quickly. If I had my druthers there would be a few more instruments and a ton more songs. This isn’t just a passing thought, I’ve thought a lot about how it could be implemented in a more engaging way! First, you would start with only one instrument, and have several more that you could buy, giving you a reason to spend your hard-pillaged gold when you get back to port. New songs could be unlocked from quests, or by leveling up with a certain faction, and having an option to purchase or uncover sheet music would be interesting. Perhaps new songs could be unlocked when you buy new instruments (or new skins for your existing instruments.) THEN it would mean something. Hell, I’d grind for weeks just to unlock new songs.

Mash play on that jambox!

Interaction with other crews can be a fun and rewarding experience. I was boarded by another crew once that just wanted to make an alliance with me, and after agreeing we shared our subsequent gold rewards for the remainder of the play session. When encountering others in-game there’s this moment of “Are we going to be friends or enemies?” where you size each other up, swords drawn, apprehensive and wary. And then when the voice chat kicks in, which is directional and area based (use game chat, not party chat!) you can diplomacize your way through.

Of course, this is a game about pirates! So often times you’ll be scrapping and broadsiding and looting and killing each other. It can occasionally be frustrating when, for the third mission in a row, another crew sinks your ship or runs off with your treasure chests before you can turn them in, but that’s part of what the game is all about. Sometimes the best way to defend against pirates is to become a pirate.

The act of sailing itself feels very rewarding and almost therapeutic. Working together to navigate, keep the wind, and decide when and where to drop anchor gives a rush of excitement to each and every mission, even if its just to collect chickens. You might find yourselves at each other’s throats one moment, and reveling in your impressive synergy the next. It’s a tiny social experiment each time you set sail for a new destination.

You’ll find each crew member must fill a role. The helmsman can’t see where they’re going, so the navigator will have to bark cardinal directions and headings from the map room, while the lookout in the crows nest or up on the bow tells them how to avoid rocks and unmarked land masses and other ships, while the deck hand raises, lowers, and angles the sails for optimal speed and handling. It forces you to work together and communicate clearly, and when it doesn’t work you could be in for hilarious results. As good as it feels to get your crew working together like a well-oiled machine, it is sometimes even more entertaining to fight over directions and crash your ship into a jetty of rocks.

Rare has put a lot of their strengths into this game, which is to say creating bright, fun, cartoony visuals and lighthearted comedic fun. But don’t let that superficial take fool you: Sea Of Thieves is chock-full of some of the most amazing and shockingly beautiful visuals you’re likely to see in a video game. The rolling waves and water spray are hands down the best I’ve ever seen, and there have been a multitude of sunrises, sunsets, and storms that took my breath away. I often found myself staring into the distance, mystified, instead of steering my galleon away from the rocks that were about to kill us all.

Overall the game is just a little too friendly.  Dying, and even sinking your ship, has absolutely no penalty associated with it other than the loss of time. You don’t lose gold, you don’t lose stats, you don’t lose reputation. Just the time it takes to regenerate your ship. You don’t even have to buy a new one! Ships are free! Of course any treasure chests you had on board will sink too, but you’ll get a resupply of bananas and cannonballs and wood for free, and there are always new chests to uncover. But this no-consequences approach coupled with the fact that there are absolutely no upgrades or perks for items or sailors, makes for a “beginner friendly” feeling at all points of the game. You don’t feel rewarded for grinding, and PVP will always be the same equal experience. It’s a bit of a let down.

And then, of course, there are the huge difficulty swings. While this almost makes the last paragraph seem dubious, the game sets you up to feel comfortable and fair, with your experience being hamstringed by PVP balance, only to suddenly dump you into a fight with a Kraken on the edge of an erupting volcano where you have absolutely no chance of victory. And since you’ll never upgrade your ship or equipment, there’s no clear path for overcoming these high-difficulty obstacles. It seems greatly imbalanced for a game that has presented itself as “all about balance.”

There are a few other personal gripes I have about the way you interact with the world. For example, when you’re on an island you can’t see what the island’s name is, even if you have the map in your hand. It tells you on-screen when you approach but there isn’t any other way to check it once you do. The mission picking mechanic doesn’t work well, either. There’s some missions that use the captain’s table for a vote and others that don’t. You can’t highlight what mission you’re on. You can’t put multiple missions down to vote on. It needs to be addressed.

Pushing rowboats around needs fixed. We managed to get several of them stuck over a couple days of playing, with no way to back them up or push them off the spit. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to pivot around in place or row backwards (at least we couldn’t discover a way.)

The interface does a lot of heavy lifting, but there are some minor inconveniences.  It’s hard to switch to bananas, your only healing agent, when you’re in the middle of a fight, something you’ll most certainly have to do. Patching holes in your ship is also unintuitive, as it forces you to highlight wood planks in the item wheel specifically instead of just checking if you have any in your inventory. The game doesn’t ask you to take this extra step for loading cannonballs, so it’s a surprising and frustrating discovery when you first go to patch a hole and the UI tells you that you need wood planks, even though you clearly have five.

Item wheel overlayed on screen, which takes up to 3 button presses to switch to an item in real-time.

It would be very nice to have a little feedback for the player when you’re doing damage. You are never shown how much each weapon dishes out, and often you can’t even tell if you hit your opponent or not. It makes some fights drag and feel futile. Players like to weigh the pros and cons of different weapons, and know that when they hit they are actually doing damage.

I also encountered two major bugs while playing. The first one displayed the buttons on screen incorrectly when giving me instructions. For example it might say “Press Y To Sell Chest” but I actually had to press “X” on my controller. This happened on multiple occasions and for different interactions. Secondly, a very major glitch took place that left me unable to interact with objects at all. I couldn’t steer the ship, I couldn’t look at the map, I couldn’t fire the cannons. I was reduced to a glorified look-out for a chunk of my time while other crew members did all the interacting. It seemed like Beta build stuff that shouldn’t be occurring this far into the development cycle.

So how do you suppress those feelings of frustration and anxiety in-game? Well, there’s grog! Grog drinking is fun and immersive, and it’s one of the best “drunk-mode” sequences I’ve seen, with random stumbling and swaying visuals, accompanied by sailor hiccups and burps. But after the first two or so times you’ll probably not do it again, unless it’s to purposefully frustrate your shipmates or your streaming audience. Unlike in real life, there are no mechanical benefits to drinking grog. It’s just funny.

To counteract some of that recent negativity, let me throw down some other positive things. Clouds in the shape of things is awesome. The bullhorn affect on group chat was a fun and surprising detail. I learned Port and Starboard, Bow and Stern! I kinda learned how to sail! Honestly, this game had me looking up terminology and techniques for a real-life skill that I had previously never had an ounce of interest in. That’s pretty cool.

I don’t say this often (in fact, I don’t think I’ve EVER said it before) but Sea Of Thieves would actually benefit from following the Free-2-Play model. It’s an online multiplayer game, after all, with only cosmetic upgrades to spend your in-game currency on. Paying for it like a normal full-release game, even at a reduced price tag…just isn’t reasonable. People will spend money for in-game cosmetics, Fortnite has proven that. You can keep PVP even and fair–you don’t have to venture into that despicable Pay-2-Win category–and still make money off the product. This seems like a game that would become exponentially better the more people were playing it. A Microsoft exclusive release at $60 for an online multiplayer game…Yeah, this was a marketing problem that hopefully hasn’t sunk an otherwise entertaining and well-made game.

The final word is: It’s a terrific game, loaded with fantastic details and interesting concepts and breath-taking vistas and thoughtful interactions. Is it worth playing? Absolutely! I had a BLAST playing it. But will I keep coming back to it? Will it be a return-title that I just can’t help but play over and over again? Probably not. Not in its current state, at any rate. With more content, more depth, and more motivation to upgrade and grind it could be a tremendously addictive game, full of replay value and months of enjoyment, but for now I’ll hang up my captain’s hat and retire from sea life with the riches I’ve already acquired.

 

 

Here’s a gameplay montage of one of my play sessions with friends from my YouTube channel (yeah, go subscribe!) PG-13 for language.

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10 Seconds One Life (One Hour One Life Review)

I found myself wandering all alone on the outskirts of the marshlands, a young Eve of perhaps 16 searching for a new home. I had nothing of my own, not even clothing on my back. My first thought was food, of course, the dull whispering ache in my stomach getting louder with each passing moment in this cold empty frontier. A bush glistening with ripe berries caught my eye, and as I filled my belly I noticed something else glisten in the distance. It was bright gold and forged by man, and as I drew closer I saw that it rested in what was the remnants of a lost civilization. I clothed myself in rabbit furs, and fed upon a forgotten store of carrots hidden in a small shack. Rows of overgrown fields were scattered out back, and seeds and water skins, untouched for an unknown duration, sat in wait for a new farmer to take up the plow. The glistening item revealed itself to be a crown of gold lying in the dirt, a gilded carrot fastened to its center. I placed the crown upon my head and surveyed my new kingdom. It would be a lifetime of work to get it functional again, but perhaps this would be the legacy I would pass down to my children, and to their children. For I was now the Carrot Queen.

No, this was not a drug-induced fever dream, or the opening chapter to a prehistoric fantasy novel written by a weathered survivalist. This was One Hour One Life, the new MMO indie survival game-meets-social-experiment from developer Jason Rohrer.

The game is deceivingly simplistic in its presentation, and this uncluttered UI and singular unspoken instruction (go survive) is part of what gives the game its charm. The cartoony visuals are simultaneously humorous and endearing, from a newborn baby’s lolling tongue to a devil-may-care closed-eye smirk of an elderly person in a wolfskin cap.

That transformation from helpless infant to blasé geriatric is mostly what One Hour One Life is about, and it’s where countless stories will unfold and take form. Its unique take on the stages of life and an individual’s role within a family unit and community is what really sets this game apart from other flashier and more well-known titles in the survival genre.

You enter the game as a newborn baby, and your mother is another real-life player in the game world. This occurs at random anywhere on the server where a suitable “Eve” of the proper age is playing. It’s worth noting that these births are neither planned nor anticipated, as there is no “pregnancy” period that an Eve can prepare for. She is just going about her business trying to survive in this harsh unforgiving environment, and suddenly there is now a new mouth to feed at her feet.

It’s an exceptionally unique entry-level period for a survival game. As a baby you cannot feed yourself, you can not work or pick up items, or contribute to the settlement in any significant way. In fact, you can’t even speak in sentences. You are limited to only a single letter for in-game communication, unable to adequately express your needs or thoughts until you grow. Each “year” of your life you get another letter to your speaking limit, representing your slow grip on language and verbal communication. Those first years you are essentially at the mercy of your mother to be fed and clothed and kept warm, and your very presence is a drain on the tribe you were born into, as you consume both labor hours and resources without returning anything.

Time within the game world is what gives One Hour One Life its title. Each minute of real time represents a year to your character, so by the time you become a teenager you will have been in the game for 13 minutes. The upper limit to an individual’s lifespan is 60 years old, and thus One Hour is One Life. When you die of old age–if you get there at all–it will have seen you through the entirety of that character’s presence in the game. There is no saving, no loading, and when you are reincarnated there is little chance that you will return to the settlement you spent your time building and expanding. You, like all of us, do what you can in the time you are given, and hopefully you have left enough behind for your children and grandchildren to build upon. You will not see the farm become a thriving bakery, or watch as technology evolves into better tools and techniques for survival. You will mine the ore or fill the storehouse so that the next generation has time to forge items or raise a barn. And you likely will have mined that ore with a pickaxe that one of your predecessors crafted and left for you to find.

Since this world is filled with real players and not NPCs, there is no guarantee that they will act in a predictable or even a moral manner, and this is where the social experiment comes in to play. Your mother may not have the skills or instincts to keep you alive long enough for you to take care of yourself. Or she may very plainly tell you “Sry, no bbs” and carry you into the woods to die of starvation alone. And when YOU are older and have a baby of your own you will have to make that same choice. Will I sacrifice the next five minutes feeding this child, even though it lowers my own hunger meter? Will I be able to balance watering the crops with checking on a crying baby every twenty seconds? You can’t carry a baby and an item at the same time, so suddenly you can’t get the water from the well to the fields. Will you abandon the child or care for it? Will you teach it how to farm or how to bake pies, or will you drop it off at the fire and hope some good-hearted surrogate will see them to adulthood?

The potential for griefing in a game like this is immediately apparent, but what you will likely find instead is a small but growing community of helpful players that are both willing to groom newcomers and fill the roles the system has laid out for them. Roleplay is abundant, and the world is surprisingly immersive. The main website for One Hour One Life (which launched off-steam!) speaks about each player taking part in their own story, and I’ve found this to be very true. I recall one run where I was cared for by an exceptional mother that taught me how to craft everything I’d need to contribute to our tribe. She was there by my side as I grew into adulthood, and when she became old and ready to pass on she gathered me and my siblings around to say goodbye and bestow a gift to each of us. Then when her old bones fell to the ground we marched her north to a burial shrine to honor her.

Of course, not all playthroughs will be so smooth and immersive. My very first time playing I spawned to a mother that was running away from a grizzly bear. It immediately caught and ate me, hence the title of this review being Ten Seconds One Life. You will have many misfires, where you forget to eat or your mother forgets to feed you. The learning curve is huge, and perhaps the best advice I can give to new players is to Keep Playing. You’ll learn more and more as you go, and if you aren’t afraid to ask questions you’ll get taught just about every skill you need to survive and thrive.

As for the Carrot Queen and her golden crown, I was surprised to find such a cool item in the game. There are THOUSANDS of craftables in the game and many more planned to be added as civilization grows out of the iron age. Even more to my surprise was how I was able to bring that farm back to a working plantation with just myself and my offspring to work it. My firstborn daughter was a seasoned player that helped forage and build the things that I could not, and soon she had children of her own and every job on the farm was accounted for. When our stores were full of carrots and my 60th year was nearly upon me I gathered my family around the fire to say goodbye. I placed my crown on my littlest newborn granddaughter, named her, and declared her the new Carrot Queen. The family cheered and told me that they loved me, and I knew this story was complete as I passed away from old age after a full life well lived.

I immediately hit the Get Reborn button.