Sea of Thieves Review

By Mark Delaney, 6 months ago
Since its reveal, the concern we've been hearing about Sea of Thieves has been its apparent lack of structure or content. The game looks beautiful and charmingly lighthearted, but "what do you actually do?" The question was one Rare couldn't shake leading all the way up to release, and to the credit of those wondering, it seemed to be a fair question. The answer, as it turns out, is a whole lot, thanks to memorable player-driven storytelling where any voyage could be your shining achievement, but the tabula rasa approach won't be for everyone.

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is a first-person pirate simulator combining elements of RPGs, MMOs, and action-adventure. Designed with four player co-op at its heart, the game is certainly best when you have a solid crew of buccaneers who are competent and willing to stick around for a while. Spawning on one of the various outposts, players are thrown into multiplayer instances with friends and/or strangers and left mostly to their own devices. The gameplay loop is built around completing voyages for three factions. Gold Hoarders have you solve riddles or resolving classic X-marks-the-spot treasure maps on the world's dozens of islands. The Order of Souls offers straightforward PvE missions where you and your crew take down NPC skeleton monsters. The Merchants Alliance ask you to go out in search of goods or animals and return them by a set date and time.

Each mission type can lead to a lot of memorable moments, but only after you grind out the first few hours. As you level up across the factions, you'll unlock more difficult quests, which is really crucial for most players as the game's opening hours are much too casual, something that will turn many away before they see the game's true potential. Stick around, though, and it'll mean you've gotten to grips with the game's basics and are comfortable to explore the mostly open-ended design of the world. In an industry of map icons and HUD data, Sea of Thieves is charmingly comfortable in its own skin. It gives players a basic outline that can seem pretty barebones, but for those that are drawn into this emergent moment factory, it'll be a highlight of their gaming year.

Along with the faction missions, very challenging raids in the form of skeleton forts dare you and your crew to take them down by sailing to the islands beneath foreboding and glowing skull-shaped clouds. Of course, whatever you're doing can be thwarted at any point by other players role-playing rather villainous pirates looking to sink or steal from you. The rewards for successful raiders are the most bountiful of all, but the game's shared-world setup means you could be dealing with players and NPCs all at once, which makes for a fantastic and hectic experience. Cunning and devious pirates can also let one crew do all their work for them on islands, raids, and loot hunts before swooping in to claim the loot at the end — and then there's the Kraken, which can upend even the best-laid plans.

Love it or hate it, you can't deny that view.Love it or hate it, you can't deny that view.

If you're the type to enjoy the often slower approach to Sea of Thieves, you'll find a lot of fun and atmosphere to be had in sailing the seas, but doing so for long stretches without conflict or catastrophe will certainly have some players changing over to a different game where the action is more up-tempo. In Sea of Thieves, traversing the gorgeous waves and traveling island to island without PVP interactions is quite possible, and with the right crew or mindset, this can consistently be an enjoyable affair. A lot of the fun comes in just working with your team to control the ship as best you can, working the sails, patching holes, removing water from the lower deck when you've taken damage, and navigating to the right islands, as the game gives you only minimal clues for where you're meant to go.

As higher level quests give you more and more loot to chase, there's a fantastic tension that builds even when nothing is going wrong out at sea, because when you have a deck full of treasure chests and other items, spotting the wrong crew — or being spotted by them, really — can turn things from tame to intense in an instant. Dying will throw you to a ghost ship where a brief respawn timer keeps you out of the action, but if your ship is sunk, all your treasures float to the top of the water, where other crews can claim your would-be income.

Perhaps the game's most egregious misstep for modern audiences is its lack of items on which to spend all your hard earned loot. Collecting thousands of coins across the different voyages, forts, shipwrecks, and messages in bottles may feel like a letdown when it's time to trade them in for rewards. Sea of Thieves is built with item and weapon parity in mind. That means each gun, spyglass, sword, and all else are equivalent within their respective categories. A Sea Dogs Blunderbuss, for example, will have a certain cosmetic look to it, but its fire rate, ammo capacity, damage output, et al will be no different than any other — so much so that the game doesn't even display stats like that. High-priced cosmetics for your ship and character do offer some level of prestige and social stature, but because the game is built on emergent adventure, long-haul players will learn you're really sticking around for the next great tale to tell.

It's best in co-op with friends, but Sea of Thieves is surprisingly fun no matter the crew size.It's best in co-op with friends, but Sea of Thieves is surprisingly fun no matter the crew size.

With 50 levels to obtain for each faction, there's a lot here for those that do get invested in the loop of it all, but the offerings may not be diverse enough in their structure for the greater gaming population. Sea of Thieves feels like it's asking you politely to fill in the gaps with your own shenanigans. It's a formula that tends to work as shenanigans come often with a good foursome, and even in smaller crews or played solo for certain people. Over time, Rare will need to diversify things with more secrets to discover and more variety in their missions if they hope to capture a broader audience. Still, it's enjoyable and addictive for the right kind of player even in its current form.

The achievements were not available for some players during this first week of play due to technical issues that are being addressed with an incoming patch. For those curious, there are a few on the list that will pop only after many hours of dedication, so even though its position in Xbox Game Pass is attractive, completionists will want to steer clear unless they're sure they are happy with the game's niche loop. Outside of those, it's an expectedly diverse list given that Microsoft-published games often seem to have close attention paid to their achievements. Lots of things will spring up with natural progression, like faction milestones, while others want you to be playful, like playing a song while your ship sinks. It's a grind, but these games as a service always are, aren't they?

This game was featured in our Best Xbox MMOs Available in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

Sea of Thieves can be a low floor, high ceiling experience. The wrong crew is the quickest way to find boredom before treasures. Sharing seas with griefers can be rage-inducing too, but in both instances, you're always able to quit out and try your luck again with new players. Of course, it's played best with a solid team of you and three friends, but provided you bring a willingness to fill in the gaps with your own role-playing or shenanigans, Sea of Thieves is a charming and gorgeous title no matter the team size brimming with emergent stories that the relatively basic outline provides. Play it long enough and it's impossible to not come away with your own tales to tell. Sea of Thieves is all journey with no real destination, but if that doesn't immediately turn you away, it'll be a pirates life for you.
4 / 5
Positives
  • Memorable player-driven stories
  • Fun puzzles that make rewards feel earned
  • Awesome four-player co-op
  • Surprisingly holds up in solo or smaller crews
  • Transporting loot is tense with strong a risk/reward element
  • Gorgeous art design
  • Comfortable in its own skin
Negatives
  • Coins can be spent only on cosmetics, which won't be enough for some players
  • Too casual for the first several hours
  • Needs more secrets
  • Easily derailed with an incompetent crew
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 30 hours on the high seas, digging for treasure, raiding skeleton forts, and role-playing a live-and-let-live white hat buccaneer. The achievements remain disabled at time of writing but it's projected 10-15 achievements were unlocked. A review code was provided by the publisher and the game was played on a standard Xbox One.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.