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 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.
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.
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.