Rare's swashbuckling adventure Sea of Thieves has finally hit the shores of PC and Xbox One allowing many of us to live out our childhood dreams of being a pirate. The long-anticipated nautical adventure has spent four years in development and sees players band together with a crew of equally scurvy-ridden sea dogs in search of adventure and precious booty. The title is the first Xbox One exclusive of 2018 and has launched as part of Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft's games on demand service that has been touted as the Netflix of gaming. So, is Sea of Thieves the system seller that the Xbox One desperately needs, or is it just another shipwreck in a vast ocean of missed opportunities?
After selecting your pirate hero from a rather limited character creator, you are then set free to begin your adventure. By speaking to merchants across the island, you can purchase quests from the three main factions: the Gold Hoarders, Merchant Alliance, and the Order of Souls. These see you hunting for treasure chests, capturing pigs and chickens, and laying to rest skeleton crews that haunt the shores of nearby islands. After voting on which voyage to undertake, your crew must identify which way to head, working cooperatively to reach your destination and keep things afloat.
Sailing alone is an option, but it's not much fun and we would strongly recommend that you recruit a crew. There's flexibility here, however, as pairs can select speedy sloops that are easier for small crews to handle, while larger groups (up to four-strong) can opt to sail out in a galleon. Playing together in a team you can split duties between each other, so one of you can check the map while someone else can steer the ship, with another player adjusting the sails. When playing alone there are simply too many responsibilities to handle and you'll find yourself constantly having to abandon the ship's helm to complete other urgent tasks. Fending off attacking groups of skeleton soldiers can also be difficult alone as they easily outnumber you and will respawn during Order of Souls quests. Fortunately, if you don't have any others to play with, there's a seamless matchmaking system and there are text commands for those without a mic. It's not ideal, and we'd recommend playing with friends in a party, but at least there are options for lone sailors.
Gold coins earnt from voyages can be spent on a boatload of cosmetic items for your weapons, ship, and character. Among our favourite purchases were an eye patch, a shiny new accordion, and a spooky lantern illuminated by the souls of skeleton warriors. As you do more quests for each faction your rank with them will strengthen and you'll be able to undertake more advanced quests. Cosmetic items serve as the main form of reward for quests as there's no levels and XP or stat upgrades for your character or gear. This lack of progression outside of upgrading your relations with the three factions will certainly disappoint some, but we understand that Rare was seeking to create an experience where every player is equal.
Perhaps our largest complaint with Sea of Thieves is that its gameplay loop feels repetitive due to a lack of variation in voyages. You'll find yourself repeating the same three fetch quests with the more difficult ones just adding riddles and additional objectives to spice things up. Due to this, it's easy to feel like you've seen everything the title has to offer after just a few trips across the ocean. Exploration is, of course, a great timesink here but if you're playing with a group of strangers you'll likely want to do something that's more focused. These quests offer a solid foundation, but we just wish there was more here to keep players engaged in the long-run, and for those who take comfort from playing within a defined narrative structure, there's just not enough here at launch.
While there's no defined story to explore, encounters with other players are frequent and force you to move through the waters cautiously, scoping out any threats with your trusty spyglass. After spotting a ship, you have the choice of whether to try and cannonball them into a watery grave or get some wind in the sails and escape (or you can shut off your lanterns to sneak past in the dark). Eliminating a rival crew can allow you to steal their riches but if you're not careful you could be granted a first-class ticket to the Ferry of the Damned. These PvP battles kept the adrenaline pumping especially when rushing to reload the cannons and hastily patching up any holes below deck, but perhaps there could have been more variety in terms of how ships interact with each other, and more mechanics around boarding enemy vessels.
Exploration is a cornerstone of the Sea of Thieves experience. If you spy a circling flock of seagulls, for example, this will indicate that a sunken vessel is nearby that's ready to be scavenged. Similarly, you might notice the telltale signs of an incoming Kraken attack, which was a delightful surprise when we first encountered it. By exploring islands you can also uncover hidden treasure chests, rare spices, and even additional maps that are found on shorelines inside bottles. Rare has rewarded its players in this regard and most of our enjoyment stemmed from setting our own course and seeing what we could discover. Everyone who has played Sea of Thieves will have their own story to tell and we feel that much of the magic comes from going on your own adventure and creating your own fun with friends.
As you sail around the map you'll notice world events which are indicated by ominous-looking skull clouds. Upon making your way to the Cursed Island you'll face waves of skeleton warriors who you will have to take down before slaying the captain. You'll likely encounter other players here as the cloud appears in multiple games and draws crews together for competitively-edged cooperative play. It's up to you and yours whether you want to form an alliance or take down your temporary allies so you have a much larger share of the gold. This challenge will likely take you a few attempts, but it's the kind of thing we'd like to see Rare introduce more of in future updates.
What Rare has crafted in Sea of Thieves is utterly breathtaking and at times we even fell off our ship while admiring the glowing sunset and crashing waves around us. The water effects here are truly a marvel to behold and its cartoonish style injects plenty charm and is reminiscent of other Rare classics. It's an immersive world unlike anything we've ever experienced before, and for that reason alone it's worth checking out, even if all you do is marvel at the water effects. Our only real complaint is that many of the islands look similar and would have benefitted from other different types of terrain. The sound design is just as excellent and everything from the crashing of the waves to the creaking of the deck sounded authentic and believable.
As Rare has vowed to support Sea of Thieves with future updates, what we're playing now should be the experience at its most bare bones (most of it is just rumours at this stage, and Rare is being rather secretive about it all). There's some endgame content waiting to be discovered, with exclusive areas for the most legendary pirates, although we're some way off being able to tackle that content just yet. Whilst we're pleased by Rare's promised support for Sea of Thieves we can't help feeling that at least some of this content should have been included from the get-go. A crafting system or something similar might have helped keep players busy in the long run because as it stands the title is sorely lacking any form of story and there's not enough variation in terms of gameplay - delaying these improvements will likely leave a bad first impression with early adopters and more variety needs to be added soon.
It may not be all smooth sailing, but Rare's Sea of Thieves manages to deliver a cooperative experience like nothing we've ever experienced before. We loved forging our own adventure by completing voyages, battling with rival ships, and exploring the beautiful world that Rare has created. We do, however, wish that more variety was added to the quests and we can see why some players may tire of their journeys after just a few hours. That being said, we do feel like Microsoft has something special on its hands and with a bit of time and nourishment, Sea of Thieves could transform into something truly unmissable.