The sea turned a blood red as my shipmates and I struggled to get our galleon back under control, begging for mercy from Poseidon and panicking, unsure of what exactly was going on. This was a tale of old, from Sea of Thieves’ beta (which you can watch below), and, unbeknownst to us, was the game’s clever way of telling us that we had strayed off the map and out of the area.
You also need to decide the size of crew you’re looking for from the off. Do you want to play by yourself? Or as a duo? Do you need a full crew of four? Or are you already partied up with two willing friends, ready to do your bidding as Captain? The choice isn’t the issue, but rather the fact that you’re locked into that choice for your entire session, unless you quit back to the main menu and start the process again.
When you do finally enter the game - greeted by an animated map sequence, complete with cryptic messages and a dropped hint here and there - you awaken in a daze at a tavern. If you aren’t careful, you could dash to your ship and set sail without even picking up a voyage to keep you busy.
Sea of Thieves is steeped in Rare’s trademark charm.
Being a game focused on player freedom, there’s nothing wrong with that of course, but you’re probably better off getting a mission from one of the factions if you feel like making some money for your time. The Gold Hoarders are all about treasure, making their missions treasure-hunting affairs, either following an X marks the spot map or solving a riddle to dig up your plunder.
The Merchant Alliance tend to ask for an assortment of animals, caught in traps and cared for on your voyage - chickens soothed with music, pigs fed on copious bananas - which isn’t a lesson the game teaches you actively, you need to pick it up for yourself or rely on the experience of your crewmates.
The final of the big three is the Order of Souls, mercenaries who pit you against undead skeleton pirate Captains and ask you to bring back their skulls for payment.
The other ‘currency’ all three deal in is reputation, which grows as you complete voyages and sell their spoils to the respective faction. In theory this grants you access to higher level voyages, which can potentially have multiple parts and bring greater rewards, but in our experience it’s just as likely they’ll be much the same as those that came before, and fail to introduce new ideas and challenges to the table to keep them fresh.
Once you’ve completed your first voyage, you’ve likely seen much of what the game has to offer. Sailing your ship, of either size, is accessible, and even possible with random players thanks to a context-friendly text emote system, though for whatever reason the wind has a nasty habit of always coming from the direction you’re heading and slowing things down to a crawl.
There are chests and artifacts to uncover randomly as you search various islands, or if you take a chance and investigate an abandoned shipwreck, but quickly these finds become pedestrian as well, rarely giving you something to feel really excited about.
There are skeleton strongholds to take on, which see a large number of enemies defend their turf and offer up rewards for those brave enough to defeat them, but these skirmishes feel like a distraction or a brief departure more so than something you can invest a lot of time and planning into.
In our experience higher level voyages are much the same as those that came before, and fail to introduce new ideas and challenges to the table to keep them fresh.
Some of the game’s best moments come from trading blows with other crews. Seeing another galleon on the horizon prompts a quick decision about the potential risk of taking them on, and how much loot you stand to lose should they send your ship to the briny depths. Firing cannonballs wildly as the two ships dance around one another is exhilarating and takes a certain amount of skill and team coordination. Taking cannonballs, in turn, brings its own challenge, as crew members patch up the holes with wooden planks and bail water from the ship to bring it back from the brink.
Other classic pirate activities fill out the experience, giving you something fun to do with your chums, including playing music and drinking grog, either from a tavern or a bottomless barrel aboard your ship. Of course with the active weather effects potentially bringing on storms at a moment’s notice, there can be little time for larking around if you don’t want to find a new home in the drink, encircled by deadly sharks.
The most heartbreaking thing about Sea of Thieves is that there’s little that’s really wrong with it - other than our main gripes in that it’s often impedingly dark at night, avoiding pursuing players can grow tiresome, and the misbehaving wind can make for slow progress - it’s more that it doesn’t have the depth or breadth of activities you might hope for in a game you’re expected to pay full whack for (unless you’re an active Game Pass subscriber) and keep on coming back to.
As soon as you’ve gained a few levels of reputation, standard chests hardly make a dent in bringing that number up higher, and the only real endgame items to go after once you’ve cosmetically kitted out your pirate are the pricey ship and sail skins, which bring a bit more personality to your vessel. There’s a telltale gap waiting for your ship to be named, something expected in a post-launch update, but as it stands (or floats, I suppose you could say) right after launch, you’ll find yourself getting through most of the range of activities the game has to offer in only a few days.
That’s not to say the game isn’t fun. There’s certainly good times to be had, and like many games of this nature, bringing friends along for the voyage makes all the difference in creating those memorable moments which really show off the game’s potential. Currently though, there’s so much potential and so little substance, some might not have the patience for it.
Perhaps the brightest spot for the game is its presentation. Thanks to the colourfully stylised visuals, it’s a real showcase for the technical powerhouse that is Xbox One X. Alongside the ability to cross-play with others on PC seamlessly, Sea of Thieves presents endless beautiful vistas, expertly realised water and lighting effects, and a fairly steady frame rate, all of which really show off just how good games can look on console.
Sea of Thieves is the first big title to leave Microsoft’s stable this year, and one which carries a lot of expectation for the future of Xbox, but it doesn’t feel like it’s done quite enough from the word go to really say “Yes, the Xbox is a great place to play fantastic first-party games”. Hopefully some of the areas which feel bare at the moment will fill out and the game will continue to go from strength to strength, but if you’re after something that will blow your socks off right now, it might leave you lost at sea.