Sea of Thieves, the much-anticipated pirate game from Microsoft Studios, was finally released on Xbox One and Windows 10 yesterday. The game is a $59.99 purchase, but it’s also the first Microsoft Studios title to launch with Xbox Games Pass, Microsoft’s new gaming subscription service. As a happy subscriber, I was pretty excited to try the game on day one yesterday.
Microsoft has been marketing Sea of Thieves like crazy this past couple of weeks, and I really wanted to know if the company could have a hit on its hands. After trying the game for the first time yesterday, I’m really not sure about that. There are some really great elements in Sea of Thieves, especially the graphics and the navigation. But other than that, I’m afraid it’s much less ambitious than what I thought.
First of all, I’m afraid the first hour of gameplay will be very frustrating for most gamers, and those who have very little patience may give up very quickly. There is zero tutorial when you begin the game, and it took quite some time to figure what to do at the outpost where I began my session.
For my first playthrough, I chose to play the game alone as I didn’t want any distractions while trying to understand the gameplay. You start the game at a random outpost, where you can speak to merchants and purchase quests from three different factions. At the beginning of the game, the only quests you can do are treasure and animal hunts, and I couldn't figure out how to complete the second ones.
Once you choose some quests to complete, you can head over to your boat and you and your crew will have to vote for the quest you want to complete. If you choose a treasure hunt, you'll get a map showing you the coordinates of a buried chest. You’ll then have to check where the coordinates are on the map table below the deck and add a mark on it if you want to. There is no HUD in Sea of Thieves, so you’ll have to do a lot of back and forth between the ship’s wheel and the map table (below the deck) to figure out where you’re going.
Navigation is pretty simple in Sea of Thieves: to leave an outpost, you raise the anchor and deploy sails. It’s worth noting that Rare’s water tech is absolutely incredible, and sailing the seas feels very good.
However, the world of Sea of Thieves feels quite empty so far. During my first playthrough, I didn’t see any other pirate ships or players, and I found nothing to do on the different islands I visited. At some point, I came across a place called Skull Keep, which looked like a big wooden fort defended by cannons. I expected to have to fight either pirates or hordes of skeletons, but the whole place was completely empty. I only discovered a door which needs a special key to be opened, but the game gave me no clues about where to find it.
In some ways, Sea of Thieves seems almost too realistic. You have to figure out everything yourself, and playing the game alone can be quite difficult and frustrating. Overall, I think the lack of a real tutorial is a bad design choice. As an example, I unfortunately sunk my own ship at some point after hitting a rock near an outpost. Actually, I only realized that my ship was sinking once I was on the ground.
After seeing my ship disappear into the sea, I had no idea how I could get another one. After going in circles for about 10 minutes without knowing what to do, I spotted some green smoke leaking from where I had lost my ship. As it turned out, this was actually a mermaid, and these can help you teleport to a brand new ship. Thanks for making that part so obvious for players, Rare.
After 2 hours of gameplay, I finally managed to find a buried chest on an island. Once you find a chest, which will always be protected by skeletons, you'll have to bring it back to an outpost and collect your reward. You gain reputation points every time you complete a quest, which unlocks more difficult missions. As for the gold you earn, you can only use it for cosmetic items, which for me isn’t exciting at all.
For now, I’m afraid the game can become repetitive very fast. The various fetch quests seem to be pretty much all the same to me, and there’s simply not much else to do in the game once the novelty wears off. Combat isn’t great either, as the game’s skeletons offer almost zero challenge. Worse, there is nothing to loot in the game except bananas, wood planks, and cannonballs, which aren't hard to find at all.
I feel like the game really lacks an interesting progression system, and there also needs to be more reasons to complete quests than just unlocking cosmetic items. The saving system is also a bit obscure: it looks like you can’t store chests somewhere, and you just start with a brand new ship at a random outpost every time you log in.
Overall, Sea of Thieves still looks like an early-access game, with very little content. $59.99 seems high for what seems to be a slim, though very pretty package. There is also very little dialogue in the game, no documents to read except mission orders, and almost no music. All in all, the world of Sea of Thieves looks very shallow compared to the one from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which remains the gold standard for pirate games to this day.
I have yet to try playing the game with a squad, but I’ve also read some bad things about the multiplayer experience. As Polygon pointed out, there are no "safe zones" in the game, and other pirates can wait at outposts to ambush you and steal all your chests. In a game called "Sea of Thieves," maybe some encounters with actual thieves were to be expected? Anyway, this sounds like a very frustrating experience for gamers, and I hope Rare is aware of it.
Despite its flaws, it’s probably too early to know if Sea of Thieves could be a hit. Again, I found the lack of real tutorial really annoying, but even with that omission, I think the game is probably easier to understand than Minecraft. The latter became massively popular over the years, even though I never had the patience to learn how to play it.
It’s great that Sea of Thieves is free with Xbox Games Pass, and for now, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to buy the game full price (it’s probably never a good idea to buy games on day one, anyway). If you know what to expect and have some friends to play with, you'll probably have some fun in Sea of Thieves. However, the steep learning curve and lack of content will probably push casual gamers away really quickly.
Microsoft and Rare deserve credit for trying something different with Sea of Thieves, but I'm not sure the pirate game is what the Xbox really needs right now. It's been years since Rare last released a hit game, and it doesn't seem like the talented studio behind the cult-classic shooters Goldeneye and Perfect Dark released the best game it could create. If you're looking for the ultimate pirate adventure, I'm afraid Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Black Flag remains much more fun and immersive, for now at least.
While this isn't a definitive review, you only have one chance to make a good first impression, as the adage says. And to be perfectly honest, I was pretty close to rage quitting after the first 30 minutes of gameplay. It got better when I finally started to understand the game's core mechanisms, and I do plan to keep playing the game this week. Sea of Thieves seems to be more fun with some friends on board, and this is also something that I'll have to explore over the coming days. If you already had the opportunity to try Sea of Thieves, I'd love to read what you think about the game so far.