Despite moments of magic, Sea of Thieves offers no incentive to keep playing

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▲ "Man the cannons!"


Microsoft’s Xbox hasn’t exactly been the talk of the town for the last few years. Despite the recent launch of the extra-powerful Xbox One X and the system’s backward compatibility with Xbox 360 games, one thing remains scarce: exclusives. It has been two years since Quantum Break, nearly three years since Halo 5: Guardians, and nearly four years since Sunset Overdrive. Players needed a new reason to turn their Xbox One consoles back on, and British developer Rare has delivered it with the pirating multiplayer game Sea of Thieves – you just might not keep the console on for all that long. But when fun inevitably finds you while you’re exploring the open water, it’s unlike any other game.

With virtually no exposition, your adventure in Sea of Thieves begins at a tavern. Equipped with a sword, a pistol, and little else, you’re free to explore the surrounding town or set off into the unknown on your boat. If you’re in a group of three or four players, you’ll have access to the larger Galleon, while solo players and groups of two pilot the smaller Sloop ship.


A pirate’s life for me

From the opening moments of Sea of Thieves, it’s evident that Rare is more interested in you discovering the game’s nooks and crannies and making your own fun than in providing you with any sort of focused content or story. You aren’t told how the game’s systems work, you aren’t told where you can go to find quests – which the game calls “voyages” – and you certainly aren’t told
why you should be doing them. Instead, the game asks for your trust, sending you out to complete relatively mundane quests in the hopes of finding something unexpected.

“Which way? Does it matter?”


Those unexpected moments can come at virtually any time, particularly when you’re sailing in your ship. Regardless of whether you’re by yourself or with a crew, other players’ ships will appear as you’re out and about, and they’re often carrying valuable treasure that you can sell if you manage to defeat them. As you notice each other and begin circling in order to line up the perfect shot from your cannons, it’s truly one of the most exhilarating things you’ve ever done in a video game, and Galleon crews must work together in perfect harmony in order to keep their ship in the fight and above the water.

 

“The game asks for your trust, sending you out to complete relatively mundane quests in the hopes of finding something unexpected.”

 

Ripe for the taking

Because of Sea of Thieves’ loose structure, players often go after other ships not because they need their cash – it’s only used for cosmetic items, as all ship and player attributes are permanent. Instead, they do it because it’s fun, and because they know they’ll be a small annoyance to your crew. In most games, this would be something I’d actively dread, but Sea of Thieves’ community has, at least thus far, made these the best parts of the game. At one point, one solo player continued to go after my three-man Galleon, dying every time but occasionally taking us down with him. He eventually managed to find our supply of gunpowder below our deck and annihilated us all. Another player found himself on the receiving end of our abuse, but parlayed with our crew and offered us a crate of tea as a peace offering. We accepted and sent him on his way.

“I can’t wait to have this stolen from me.”


The problem is that there’s no rhythm to any of this occurring. You could find three different enemy ships in an hour and engage in all-our war, or you could be stuck searching the empty sea for hours at a time. And when that happens, the only thing left to do is take on one of three different types of voyages: capture animals, kill a boss, or find buried treasure. When you do these the first few times, they’re enjoyable enough, particularly when you have to locate an unnamed island on a map based on its shape and then dig around in the sand, but it soon becomes apparent that this gameplay loop will continue for hours on end.


This again?

Fighting increasingly difficult skeleton creatures and locating chickens just isn’t that exciting, and Sea of Thieves’ clunky swordplay doesn’t help things. You’re able to slash, stab, and block incoming attacks, but it all feels slightly delayed and it pales in comparison to the flashy battles since in a game like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Guns feel a little bit more reliable, but with only a few shots before you’re forced to go search for ammunition, most battles inevitably end the same way: running around as you slash at enemies and hope they don’t kill you first.

Eventually, the monotony will take its toll and you’ll realize Sea of Thieves, unfortunately, suffers from a complete lack of incentive for players to keep plugging away. Cosmetic enhancements and the promise of a reward once you’ve increased your reputation with the various factions is fine, but we are given very little reason to care about the world.

“Ready, aim, fire!”


The story is nonexistent, and it never feels like you’re making any real progress toward your ultimate goal, aside from your ranks climbing ever higher. It’s similar to the issue Ghost Recon Wildlands faced in 2016, as its “do it your way” approach meant the writers had very few opportunities to throw in linear narrative. But there was still something there in Wildlands – here, it seems like story was on Rare’s whiteboard to-do list and never got removed.

 

“Eventually, the monotony will take its toll and you’ll realize Sea of Thieves, unfortunately, suffers from a complete lack of incentive for players to keep plugging away.”

 

Sea of Thieves has a great skeleton, but like the enemies you face, there isn’t much meat on its bones. If Rare truly plans to update the game with significant content additions on a regular basis, it could turn into a worthwhile online adventure and a reason to own an Xbox One or capable gaming PC again. For now, it’ll give you a fun few days followed by the realization that you’ve already seen everything worth seeing. Fun as it is to goof around and cause chaos at random, the traditional game objectives and storytelling we expect in open-world games would have benefited Sea of Thieves, even as Rare worked to make something as nontraditional as possible.


 


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