For the first few days Sea Of Thieves feels like the best thing ever. It’s bold, it’s different, it’s refreshingly cheerful and yet encourages thievery and skulduggery as a way of life. Being a pirate is one of the curiously long list of job positions (including cowboy, ninja, and robot) which video games constantly flirt with but very rarely put any real effort into simulating. But Sea Of Thieves does it all perfectly and effortless, or at least that’s how it seems at first. Sea Of Thieves openly promotes itself as being one of the new breed of games as a service. If things go well then it will be supported for years to come and the end result is likely to be something that is barely recognisable as the same game released this month. Or maybe it won’t be, our clairvoyance skills are not advanced enough to tell. Which means we can only review the game as it exists now. And in that sense Sea Of Thieves is a much more familiar story: an online-only game whose fundamentals are good and which is a huge amount of fun in the short term, but as you slowly begin to realise how little content there is the disappointment quickly begins to set in. The game has already been accused of being an early access title in all but name, and while it’s considerably more polished than that might suggest the description feels uncomfortably accurate.
For the longest time what exactly you do in Sea Of Thieves has been left frustratingly obscure, but the current gameplay loop is extremely straightforward. Although you can look for treasure wherever you want the only way to guarantee you’ll find some is to take a mission from one of three trading companies: one of which doles out maps and riddles to help find classic treasure chests, one of which wants you to bring back the skulls of defeated undead skeletons, and one of which has you delivering captured wildlife and other commodities to specific locations. And that, as it stands now, is pretty much the whole game. You don’t earn experience points for your character and money can only be spent on cosmetic items for yourself and your ship. So the only formal progression is your reputation with the three companies. The higher that gets the more difficult missions you can take on for them and the more exotic cosmetics you can buy.
All this is fine in principal – the idea of an online game where the people that have played it the most don’t have a huge, built-in advantage is a noble one – but if you’re not going to have to have any kind of structure to your game then you need a greater, not lesser, variety of things to do than normal. You can’t even customise the physical appearance of your character (weirdly, you just pick randomly-generated pirates from a carousel), give yourself or your ship a name, or design your own flag. There aren’t even any parrots in the game yet. Pets are apparently coming soon, and perhaps some of the other stuff is a reward in the end game, but at the moment it feels like Rare are going out of their way not to include the obvious. But although reaching the status of legendary pirate, and accessing a special pirate den and unique missions, is the end goal at time of writing nobody in the world seems to have reached it and the thought of how much grinding repetition that would involve makes us shudder.
While there are lots of different missions, which seem to have a small random element, most of them are very similar and you will start seeing exactly the same treasure locations repeat sooner or later. It’s all very reminiscent of Destiny, except that in Sea Of Thieves the first person gunplay is purposefully slow and clunky and you get all three weapons right at the start (and, again, there’s no functional upgrades of any kind). That’s not necessarily a problem because the only common enemy are reanimated skeletons. They come in different variants but apart from sharks, other players, and a randomly-appearing kraken that’s all there currently is in terms of opponents. There are skeleton forts that occasionally fill with enemies but the only satisfying action in the game comes from ship combat. Although its mechanics are simple, successfully aiming a cannon, when the seas are rolling and your target is desperately trying to get out of the way, is very difficult and can only be done with the help of a co-operative crew. Although you can play the game on your own it feels like purgatory to do so and ship combat is rendered all but impossible, since you can’t steer and shoot at the same time. The other options are a faster two-man sloop or a four-man galleon, but it feels like both should allow more crew members if you want to really run a tight ship. More specific matchmaking options would be better too, as unlike Destiny you can’t set-up crews on the fly with people you might meet along the way. You can talk to them, and the community so far seems remarkably well-mannered, considering they’re all grog-swilling pirate scum, but there’s not much to do with them except try and steal their stuff or perform a little song and dance with a hurdy-gurdy.
We’ve not been look forward to writing this review. Not just because we enjoyed the opening days so much but because when you describe the game like this it feels absurdly simplistic. But do read some of our earlier impressions for examples of all the little stories that emerge even from the game as it is now. The camaraderie of co-op feels vastly more personal than a game like Destiny, and Sea Of Thieves is at its best when you’re just messing around, chatting with friends and laughing at your own inability to perform the task at hand. Rare’s stated goal with Sea Of Thieves is to create a game from which you can generate an infinity of personal stories that are different every time and for every person. And to a degree they have achieved that, but only by narrowing the range of possible outcomes to a frustrating degree. They’ve set the stage for something that feels like a mix between live action role-playing and improv comedy, but at the moment the complete lack of stage dressing and harsh limits on the repartee of players feels very restrictive.
As many have already pointe out, you do have to wonder why a company would spend five years making such an ambitious game and then suddenly release it just a few months before it had time to add a proper variety of content. At the moment this is not a game we would advise anyone paying £50 for, but it is the first Microsoft exclusive to be available free of charge via Games Pass and if you have that we would absolutely recommend playing it because those first few days are truly magical. Hopefully future updates will be able to gradually extend how long that honeymoon period lasts, until Sea Of Thieves is finally the pirate adventure you imagined it to be – rather than the bare bones early access title it’s currently stuck as. We suspect that in the future Sea Of Thieves will evolve to become a truly great game, perhaps even a classic. But as much as we treasure some of our memories from its launch that’s not the game that exists right now.