30 years ago, I was hooked to Pirates! on my Commodore 64. I even skipped some school classes to run home and play it. Pirates! was an open-world game in a time when there wasn’t even a notion of such a genre. You could sail anywhere in the Caribbean Sea, pillage and loot treasure ships, rob merchant vessels, recruit defeated crews or let them sink along the wreck, hunt for buried treasures, trade goods (tobacco, flour, and sugar), conquer enemy towns, encounter fearsome pirate hunters, and even have flings with governors’ daughters, challenge your rivals, and get married. It was only up to you when your pirating days were over and you decided to divide up the plunder. I thought that Sea of Thieves, a long-awaited pirate adventure by the British developer Rare, would be a modern way to recapture those wonderful days of pirating.
As a long-time Rare fan, I was cautiously hopeful that Sea of Thieves would mark their return to form for good after wasting their talent for so many years developing petty Kinect games. I was also prepared for disappointments along the way. The first letdown is the character creation, or rather, the lack of it. I obsess over how my characters look in games where I can create them, or at least customize them. I can spend hours tinkering with characters until I get the looks right. Sea of Thieves presents only a motley crew of randomized presets of pirate men and women. No matter how many times the selection is refreshed, it comes down to choosing the least ugly mug (unless you really want to look like a scruffy ruffian). In the end, my pirate girl wasn’t too shabby, but there’s not much to rejoice about as the game is presented strictly in the 1st-person with no option to switch into the 3rd-person view, apart from occasional emotes.
Before hitting the seas with freshly recruited buccaneer, there’s a matter of choosing between a sloop or a galleon. The first is the only option for solo pirates, as it’s perfectly manageable from its small deck. Adjusting sail length and angle, lowering or raising the anchor, and yanking the wheel are only a shoulder-length away. There’s also room for one online crew mate. Galleon, on the other hand, needs three or four people to man it. After collecting the inventory wheel full of bananas (to replenish health), planks (to fix the ship with) and cannon balls (to shoot with onboard cannons, duh!), and gathering available voyages from the quest givers, it’s time to set sail.
The first thing you’ll notice is the absolutely beautiful world. Rendered in Rare's tradition of stylized forms and exaggerations, the breathtaking scenery bathed in a beautiful lighting and colors of dynamic weather and time of day. Oh, and the sea… it’s simply astonishing. The calm and clear sea is a pure paradise sight straight from a postcard, while the storming ocean is a frightening beast, crashing wildly around and beating mercilessly your ship. Technically, the game is impressive even on a standard Xbox One. Most people will agree that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was best when on the seas, and Sea of Thieves easily beats the overall experience of steering the ship. It’s rigid and unwieldy, just like it should be. No arcadey controls here. They say the shortest distance between two spots is a straight line, but try it in a storm. Zigzagging through the waves leaves a funny curlicue on the sea chart. All in all, it feels good and looks fantastic (and I swear I almost could smell the sea too!). But there should be something to do too, right?
My idea of a seafaring adventure would be setting sail and traversing uncharted seas, to find excitement and adventures, something to be constantly surprised and inspired by. What does Sea of Thieves offer? Three types of voyages, all fetch quests, and an empty world. Gold hoarders send you searching for buried treasure chests and turning them back. Damn it, if I’m a pirate, I want to keep the loot myself! Order of Souls have you hunting down rogue skeleton pirates and bringing their cursed skulls in, while Merchant Alliance sees you collecting and delivering goods (like chickens). It’s a fetch quest after a fetch quest. Repeat, head back to the outpost to turn in the loot and collect more voyages, as there’s only room for three of them at a time in the quest log. What’s in it for me? Reputation among the factions to get more of the samey voyages and earn gold to buy cosmetic items with. It’s ultimately pointless. You’ll be seeing the world in the 1st-person view anyway, so what’s good in having that shiny new hook or fancy hat? Please, Rare, add an optional 3rd-person view to the game! Not only for the aesthetics but also to get a better view of the action. It would be handy to see your crew mates screwing around without a need to turn your head left and right to catch them.
Apart from a thin content and skinny motive to do the voyages, another thing that’s bogging down Sea of Thieves is that there’s no life outside the players in the world. Just outposts with copy-pasted merchants and deserted islands populated with undead skeletons and local fauna. Scary looking fortresses are desolate, as are lush paradise islands. Where is everyone? It’s a strange, inbred world of mischievous player pirates and nothing else. Usually, open world games can be riddled with too many things to focus on, but here, it’s complete opposite. An open world game with no life within is pretty much doomed.
None of my online friends on Xbox One got Sea of Thieves nor do they have Xbox Game Passes, so it was up to random players to fill up the crew. In the sloop, a random mate is passable but the galleon really needs a group of friends communicating via microphones. Otherwise, it’s all fumbling about and not fun at all. Sometimes, it’s just better to go solo but even then, the world is shared. There you are, minding your own business, collecting chickens for the delivery, and suddenly a galleon sneaks in, its crew mocking you through their microphones, peppering your sloop into splinters and sending you to the netherworld. Even though the ship will be handily resurrected by the time you come back, everything you collected for the voyages are gone. You bastards! I mourn for the drowned poultry. Seriously, I’m not happy about the gankers in their galleons harassing sloop people. Crossplay between Xbox One and Windows 10 players work perfectly, though, as I had several Windows crew mates (you can detect them by their typing while console players are restricted to canned responses via d-pad).
In its current state, Sea of Thieves comes off as a boring and meaningless. It’s astonishing how void of content it actually is. Absolutely beautiful to look at but completely underdeveloped as a game. In comparison, Pirates! from 30 years ago was ugly even at the time but brimming with things to do and rich world to explore. As a full-priced title, Sea of Thieves is daylight robbery. Game Pass owners get a considerably better deal out of it. I’m delighted that Rare is back, but unfortunately it didn’t happen with a bang but with a splish. I feel I’m even being generous with the score. The game surely isn’t broken, there’s just nothing interesting to do in it. Rare and Microsoft must hear pleas of us players and add new content. Otherwise this wreck can’t be salvaged and I can see no reasons to return to the sea. I think it’s time to dust off my Commodore 64 and load up Pirates!...
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.