Towards the end of Donkey Kong 64’s development, Rare encountered a game-breaking bug. The glitch occurred only when playing without the 8MB expansion pack, and because it proved impossible to identify the cause, Nintendo resorted to chucking in the add-on for free.
In an ideal world, Sea of Thieves would have also shipped with an essential add-on. To wit: a headset of some description. A co-op experience through and through, it’s impossible to play this seafaring sim as intended without a means of verbally issuing orders and warnings to fellow pirates.
In Rare’s defence, the ‘pirate talk’ radial menus cover most bases. When using the spyglass, for instance, the text-based menu automatically changes so you can let teammates know whether other ships are in the vicinity. Even with this robust set-up in place though, those without a headset will likely come a cropper more frequently than those able to fully converse.
We’ve even heard of instances of headset-less players being locked in the brig, due to being unable to forewarn of danger.
If not for ensuring full functionality, Microsoft should have thrown in a headset just to hammer home how heavily Sea of Thieves relies on teamwork. We’d even go as far to say that those hoping to explore the seas on their lonesome should stay clear. Without anybody watching your back, you will be targeted repeatedly, all treasures ransacked, and your ship left to sink to the bottom of the oh-so-pretty ocean.
Presumably to encourage friendly teamwork from the outset, there’s no tutorial to speak of. Your handpicked pirate starts their journey by lifting their woozy head from a dank tavern’s table, complete with an inventory fully stocked with pirate paraphernalia. It’s then a case of working out the basics either for yourself or by gaining advice from other players.
Most items have obvious uses, such as the shovel and compass, but a few may provoke head scratching. The bucket springs to mind here, simply used for bailing water on damaged ships.
In addition to a tavern, every outpost has item vendors and quest givers linked to three factions – Gold Hoarders, Order of Souls and Merchant Alliance. Missions (or voyages, as they’re known) must be voted on via a table on-board the ship, of which there are just two types – a galleon intended for parties of four and a small sloop for parties of one or two.
Quests for the Order of Souls entail heading to an island and killing a bunch of skeletons, those for the Gold Hoarders involve using a treasure map to find buried booty, while the Merchants simply task you with catching and delivering pigs and chickens. All aboard to Chicken Island!
The Hoarders’ quests are the most involving of the three. Treasure maps lack island names, and so a spot of detective work is required, prompting players to huddle around the map table.
Ultimately though, the three main voyage types are rather samey. The only diversion comes in the form of skeleton forts, indicated by an ominous skull-shaped cloud formation. A wealth of pirate plunder can be found here, but you’ll have to fight for it. The ability to go in all guns blazing is thwarted by the bizarre ammo cap – just five rounds per firearm. Because of this, most confrontations – either with skeletons, or rival pirates – end with swords drawn. Forget to pack a cutlass, and you’ll face a swim back to the ship. Or a brief visit to the Ferry of the Damned – the game’s equivalent of purgatory, used to distance warring factions.
In a game that boils down to little more than tracking down and flogging booty, even the most earnest of players may find it hard to restrain from the game’s ‘mob mentality’ ethos.
All booty – be it a treasure chest or glowing skull – must be returned to an outpost’s faction member. This is Sea of Thieves’ defining masterstroke. If nearby rivals aren’t merrily trying to complete similar voyages to yourself, then they’re likely out to cause trouble and swipe booty from others.
Messy, chaotic, battles often occur at outposts when numerous clans turn up at once. The potential here is fascinating – it’s possible to hide on other player’s ships to launch a surprise attack, or to ambush others as they arrive at an outpost. That’s providing nobody has spotted your ship sitting at the dock, of course. It’s wise to designate a player the role of a humble lookout.
After a successful voyage, your reputation grows with that respective faction and a fistful of gold is thrown your way. It’s here we hit a major snag – all purchasable items are entirely cosmetic. That’s to say, the starting pistol is no more powerful than the gold-plated model that costs several thousand gold. It’s safe to assume this was to keep the playing field level, but it comes at a cost, almost removing all sense of character development and progression. If you aren’t too bothered about how your pirate dresses, gold holds little worth.
But it soon transpires this is the smallest of Sea of Thieves’ problems; a drop in the ocean. Voyages quickly become tedious, combat is one-dimensional, and sailing between islands grows laborious during lengthy sessions. That said, with all-hands-on-deck seafaring does become more pleasurable and working together to catch up with other ships holds its own rewards.
While the scope for exploration is huge, with the map chock full islands isles in close vicinity, it soon becomes apparent that they’re all rather similar. You may find barrels containing bananas, wooden planks, and cannon balls – the three main resources – but that’s about it. Over the course of just one evening, we went from wanting to make a pit-stop at every island to simply focusing on essential destinations. It’s genuinely astonishing how little there is to see and do.
It doesn’t help that the enemy assortment can be counted on one hand: skeletons of varying toughness, snakes, sharks, and the almighty Kraken – Sea of Thieves one and only showpiece. The snakes are so easily avoided, effectively rooted in the ground, that their presence is laughable.
Sea of Thieves does, at least, look the part. Like a sea siren, it deceptively lures you in with beauty.
The perilous ocean is quite the sight, elegantly changing in colour from murky green to sky-blue hues depending on location and time of day. Of all Rare’s past works, it resembles Grabbed by the Ghoulies the most thanks to the angular geometry of, well, almost everything. This lends a weathered and chiselled look not just to ships, but to weapons as well.
There are no loading screens after the initial load, during which matchmaking takes place, and the HUD is pleasingly minimalist. You’ll find no luxuries like an on-screen map or here. As for novel touches, we heartily approve of the way the map updates in real-time, like something out of a lighthearted pirate film.
But the biggest mystery here isn’t the tavern’s mysterious shadow-loving stranger, but what exactly Rare has spent the past three years doing.
This is a simple game, with basic rules. If perceived as a virtual rendition of a pen and paper RPG, Sea of Thieves fares a little better and Rare’s vision makes more sense – an exclusively co-op experience, with strict bindings, and the smallest hint of resource management. A virtual board game, if you’ll excuse the word ‘virtual’. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the clacking of dice. Roll a six to avoid the Kraken!
If it was promoted as such and hadn’t spent the same amount of time in development as a fully-fledged big-budget release, maybe we’d be more accepting of the result. As it currently stands, we can only assume Rare has spent the last year or so playing their multiplayer classic GoldenEye. The amount of squandered potential is astonishing.
We hoped for amusing sea-shanties to rival The Great Mighty Poo’s infamous ditty, a wealth of secrets and sub-quests, dozens of random events, optional story missions and more; something resembling a conventional, modern day, video game.
It’s a passable enough ambassador for the Game Pass service, providing something to dip in and out of with friends, but it certainly isn’t designed with single player or long-haul gamers in mind. Considering State of Decay 2 is launching with a £25 price tag, it’s simply bewildering that Microsoft felt this worthy of a full price release.