Competitive multiplayer gaming is at its peak right now, with titles like Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Overwatch and Call of Duty dominating the market, it’s not easy to make a new game and come before the rest. Not all multiplayer games have to be competitive though. Back from the murky depths is iconic game developer Rare (Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct and pretty much 90% of the N64 library) who have been hard at work since we last heard anything from them. Their product? A massive multiplayer online game about pirates.
Sea of Thieves is without plot or purpose, instead it plonks you in a tavern populated only by a barmaid and a mysterious stranger. No tutorials tell you the controls, and no map tells you where to go. In fact, there is no hand-holding at all, you basically must figure it all out yourself. It’s a good job then that the controls are simple and easy to understand. At first, you’ll be looking around at every little object to see what you can do before realising that you can’t do much apart from talk to people and take bananas (which replenish your health), wooden planks (which repair your ship) and cannonballs (which are used for your ship’s armament) from nearby barrels. On your way to your ship, you’ll come across merchants who have all kinds of different items for sale, but how do you earn money?
That answer lies in the three Trading Companies available, and each company merchant sells you voyages, which are Sea of Thieves’ quests. Each company offers different types of quests, such as finding buried treasure chests, capturing a certain type of chicken or pig or hunting and killing a dead pirate. This is where Sea of Thieves falters, the quests never deviate from these types, with each quest just being the same objective on a different island. Completing these quests is the easy part: Hunting dead pirates basically requires you to head to an island and kill a few of the only available computer-controlled enemies in the game in the form of skeletons, followed by a boss type who has slightly more health, is significantly tougher and looks different. After taking them down, you return the bounty skull left behind to the merchant for your pay and an increase in reputation from that company. Treasure hunts and animal catching are pretty much self-explanatory.
The hard part is sailing your ship, navigating to your destination, and returning. In Sea of Thieves, sailing requires work, whether you’re sailing alone or with friends. The destination needs to be decided and planned before embarking by studying the ship’s map table, then the anchor needs to be raised and sails need to be open before steering across the sea to your goal. There are no on-screen markers to guide you, so if you’re sailing alone (which is completely doable), you must continuously check your map and use the ship’s compass. If you’re with a crew, careful coordination amongst you and your friends can make things easier as one can control the sails, one can guide your ship via the map and one can be lookout whilst you steer. Sailing is superb in Sea of Thieves. Whether you’re alone, with friends, or with a random crew via matchmaking, sailing is extremely fun and exciting. The sea is the best-looking sea I’ve ever seen in a game and by far the most realistic. Rare have nailed the roughness and the dangers it poses, and yes, it’s very easy to become seasick.
You may come across other players and their crews on your voyage. In fact, it’s a dead cert. Whilst Sea of Thieves’ servers aren’t rammed with players, they are plentiful. Sea-based combat may ensue if you come across people who just want to fight, then it turns to all manning the cannons to take them down or trying your luck to board their ship, drop their anchor and kill all on-board before plundering whatever treasures they have or stealing their resources. It’s fun, sure, but at times, it’s also pointless. Killing players and sinking their ships carries no reward other than any treasures they have on them; you don’t level up, and kill counts aren’t recorded. Sea of Thieves isn’t about that, it’s about making your fortune by continuously and eventually (tediously) completing voyages.
On-foot combat is as simple as it gets. You choose two of the possible four weapons: your cutlass sword, a pistol, a shotgun or a sniper rifle. The guns all carry up to five rounds of ammunition, and fighting with the sword allows you to perform a three-hit combo or a charged up forward thrust. It’s bland and boring, but dancing with other players can be seriously tense, especially when you’re making your way to an outpost to sell your new-found merchandise and a gang of scurvy dogs comes to ruin your day.
Worry not as dying carries no consequence. Upon death, you are carried to the Ferry of the Damned where you wait to be resurrected. It’s when your ship is sunk that you suffer, especially when you’ve accumulated found treasure or bounty skulls, as all is lost. Your ship returns to the nearest outpost though and is replaced by a floating mermaid holding a flare who transports you to it. The same happens if your treacherous crew abandon you, you simply swim to the mermaid and are teleported back to it; you can then vote for your crew members to be sent to the brig!
Sea of Thieves is a fantastic game, but the only rewards are cosmetic upgrades for pretty much everything you own. Accruing 70,000 gold for a prettier set of sails feels like being robbed of your time and effort. Then, when you realise that it’s all you’ll get out of this game, you wonder why you’re playing at all. Sure, it’s extremely fun managing a ship on your own, and it’s bloody outstanding working with your crew on a huge Galleon like a well-oiled machine, nailing voyage after voyage and taking apart anyone whom you come across, but when all it boils down to is a different style of bucket, a different coloured gun or a pretty shovel, you wonder what the point of it is. Rare need to add more reason to play Sea of Thieves and to make it last for the long term. Give players better rewards and more mission variety. I understand they keep it fair by keeping players on a level playing field, but maybe add some sort of competitive element, players mainly spend their time fighting each other, anyway. Sea of Thieves also suffers from repetition. When sailing alone, I completed many voyages without ever coming across anyone else, although this went to my advantage as I could go at my own pace. Still, I felt a little more human presence would have broken up the monotony.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 20th March 2018