If there is one thing Xbox know how to do, it is to build hype for any one of their exclusive games and let us be honest here and they have to because there are simply have so few of them. When word came out that iconic British developers RARE were working on brand new game, their fans and those on Xbox stood up and paid attention before cheering when it was revealed that they were working on what they promised was the ultimate Pirate experience before entering into a very lengthy period of beta testing. I was really hyped up for this title and along with my friends was eager to crew our ship and go searching for buried treasure, but immediately Sea of Thieves had issues, and not just with its own servers.
I am not going to beat around the bush here because Sea of Thieves has a whole ship full of issues and problems right now that have left me really disappointed with this game. What I had hoped for and expected from it after being a part of the betas for months before release quickly vanished the moment I fired the game up and in the few weeks since launch at the time of writing, this is a game experience that can be at times amazing but at others left me scratching my head and asking where is the rest of this game is. It is just so frustrating to see the usual Xbox marketing machine swallow up one of their exclusives, to sell merchandise such as expensive custom controllers but then only to deliver an actual game that has more problems than it should.
Sea of Thieves is essentially a shared world experience game that provides certain tools for players to live out the dream of becoming a pirate and living a pirate’s life. The first thing to notice is that this game does not have a tutorial system of any kind; it neither explains how to play nor suggests anything to do. It merely provides a world to exist in with things to do once you piece together how to make it all work which for anyone who did not take part in the beta period before release, may feel completely lost in working out what to do unless shown by other players. You are not told how to pick up voyages which are the objective quests or how the shop system works and you are certainly not taught how to sail a ship. It is an interesting mechanic of being thrown in the deep end so to speak to trust that players will show each other how to play in order to negate the need for a tutorial.
One of the aspects I was really looking forward to doing was to create my own pirate and my personal love for The Secret of Monkey Island series growing up meant I was hoping to recreate Guybrush Threepwood, the mighty pirate, for my game. However just before release came the update that players would have to pick a randomly generated pirate instead of making their own one. How does this work in the game, well when you start for the first time you are giving a choice of 8 options and then like a slot machine, by pressing X you can then lock in a choice before spinning the wheel again to see if you are giving anything more pleasing. It took me twenty minutes to find one that I felt was half decent and if honest I was never really happy with any of the options provided and basically went with the least terrible one which I am now stuck with and annoyingly so.
So how does it all work? So when you start the game and log on to the servers you are giving the choice between two ships; the impressive and large Galleon or the small but agile Sloop. You then get to choose the size of the crew you want which with the sloop is a maximum of two crew and the Galleon can have a maximum of four crew but minimum of three. You can go out solo in the sloop as a crew of one, but as I will come to later, this is not advisable. The game can match you with random people much like the beta but the real aim and only way this game can ever be fun, is with your friends which can be invited to your crew and then you are ready to set sail. You will start off on a random outpost with your ship already docked waiting for you. There are very few things to actually do in this game surprisingly; the first is to collect ‘voyages’ from the three guilds such as the search for buried treasure from the Gold Hoarders or looking for cargo for the Merchant Alliance or completing bounties for the Order of Souls. You will be given a parchment with the location or list of items required which you will then take to the ship, place on the captains table and the crew must then vote for which voyage to undertake.
Now on the surface these seem perfectly fine as quests, but the truth is this is really just a basic fetch quest system which never changes and simply has crews going to different islands, repeating the same tasks over and over again for very little reward other than of earning reputation with the guild that gave the voyage. By leveling up you can then unlock new levels of voyage but again, it is just the same ‘go here, get/kill/collect this and bring back to me’ type quests. The higher your reputation the more difficult the voyage will be with some giving you multiple treasure chests to find or multiple skeleton captains to hunt down. Skeletons do increase in difficulty though depending on the level of the bounty with the normal white variety or the green ones that will heal if they get to water or if it rains or shadowy ones that can only be damaged in the light and gold ones that must be soaked with water in order to weaken them. Other than that, there is very little to do but these voyages are basically….it.
I am not a fan of the grind either as the gold rewards when you start are really rather pitiful when you compare them to the cost of the cosmetic items the game others to start making your pirate and the ship look even half way decent. The cost of cosmetic items simply mean one thing, the introduction down the line of real money micro-transactions and it is a blatant one. The cost of say a simple belt or coat/dress for your pirate means hours of grind with the low level voyages, it took three hours to earn enough gold just to buy some shoes for my pirate after handing in eight treasure chests and three skull bounties. It is even worse if you want to make your ship look a little fancier with everything from hull paint to sails costing 70,000 gold coins which is an unfathomable session of grinding to attain. It just makes it all the more frustrating instead of fun when hours of gameplay only result in enough to buy a basic cosmetic item. In the three weeks that I have been playing since launch I have only just managed to get my pirate looking like a pirate to the point where I can now start to build up towards working on my ship but crikey that means a whole lot of fetching and carrying.
Everything purchasable in the game so far is cosmetic items, either clothing or vanity items or better looking equipment such as telescopes, buckets and musical instruments. Weapons do not improve in power but will look much better for the asking price and you can equip any two weapons at a time so a sword and pistol for example or maybe the sniper rifle and blunderbuss which is pretty much a shot gun. The only way to get these items is through the stores, so no finding a new sword on an island or outfit in a cave in this game. Now this does mean that all players are on an even playing field as a result, though some will be better turned out than others but it did sink my heart that at the heart of this game is nothing more then a massive grind to buy cosmetics.
The only way Sea of Thieves becomes fun is having a good set of friends to fill your crew so you can experience this game the way it was designed to be played. Believe me, this game really comes to life when you have your friends and together you take all the tools this game has and make an experience with them. Looking for treasure, fighting skeletons together is fun just as learning to sail the ship and becoming a well oiled team with everyone knowing their roles and completing each others voyages can lead to a fun session. The repetition however and lack of real reward in the early stages can make this game drag though as if after two hours and multiple voyages completed have only earned the crew the shared gold of about two to three thousand gold can be disheartening and has been for my own crew of pirates at times. It can be fun to sail around in this beautiful world and it is can be beautiful to watch a sun rise or set or to be caught in a storm and all the sounds and panic of lightning strikes whilst battling the waves can be exhilarating.
The down side however comes in the nature of the shared experience of being an online only game. The servers for this game since launch have been terrible with rubber banding and lag still very much issues now three weeks post release. When roaming an island these issues are containable but when out at sea and suddenly find yourself fighting another ship and crew, it can really be problematic if another crew cheekily boards your ship with a blunderbuss and starts one shot killing your crew and you can neither shoot or catch them because they are moving too fast or lagging, something my friends and I have noticed whenever we come up against a mixed crew of Xbox and Windows 10 players on PC. It is noticeable and it is a game killer. The PVP side can be great fun, there is nothing quite like battling another ship and winning to watch that ship slowly sink into the deep and it can be exciting when carrying treasure chest or skulls to then have to suddenly defend against an incoming ship. But it can have a more sinister side of trolling with some player ships simply seeking out other crews; especially if they happen to be in a small sloop for no other reason but to sink their ship and spawn kill the crew just to be annoying. I have literally been at an outpost and watched as a galleon has sailed past firing at my docked ship just to sink it or watching as a Sloop which has only two canons and at best manned by two players, is hunted down and just destroyed by a Galleon with full crew and six canons. Yes PVP is a factor and pirates being pirates, ship battles and dirty tricks are a part of it but there is a toxic level of this trolling behaviour which will push players away from the game.
Sea of Thieves has so much potential but right now has very little other than repetitive fetch quests to do. It does have a raid which is signaled by the Voldermort style giant Skull in the Sky giving the location of an island fort to attack. This involved fighting waves of skeletons in a horde mode style fight with increasingly difficult skeleton forces in order to draw out the Captain of the fort to take it down, retrieve his key and open the fort Vault to take the many riches inside. This is all whilst also defending against other ships all aiming to do the same thing. My first one took close to an hour to complete and the rewards of 16 thousand in gold was well worth it. You also have what I feel is my favourite aspect of the game and finding sunken ships which could be filled with treasures to take whilst fighting off sharks. Even the iconic kraken experience is a thrilling and epic gaming moment to experience as you use the ships cannons to fight off its tentacles or using your sword should you be swept up by the Kraken to try and save yourself. When you bring all the positive elements together this can be a cracking game to play but it has too many problems and far too shallow of content to justify the full game asking price.
Some of these issues are completely self inflicted as well with some strange choices having been made right before release that both helped and hindered this release, but Sea of Thieves is perhaps the biggest example of exactly what is wrong with Xbox and how it manages its own exclusives and delivers an experience that is less than what was promised. To start with, Xbox suddenly announced that Sea of Thieves and Crackdown 3 were going to be instantly part of the Xbox LIVE ‘Games Pass’ subscription which for £7.99 gives players access to a multitude of old Xbox One games. This mean that on launch, thousands of people either using the Games Pass or more likely, using the free 14 day trial that everyone with the console has, to try out the game leading to all the launch week server issues and even now, server issues remain with the usual developer explanation of “more players than we expected”.
The simple truth is, do not buy this game at full price but instead use the same money to buy a yearly subscription to the Games Pass. It is simply lacking of enough content to justify a price of £40-50, something that has been reflected in the reaction of players since release. This is a game that can be fun but equally disappointing thanks to server issues, lack of content and repetitive grinding. There is a next stage to the game once you reach the “Legendary Pirate” status by reaching maximum reputation in all the guilds but unless you are a popular streamer with hundreds of fans willing to help you boost to get there, the natural progression to this will require a tremendous amount of grinding to get to that point.
This is just another disappointing Xbox exclusive and I do wish that those in charge of the platform would kindly stop focusing on all the marketing and merchandise opportunities they can muster over an exclusive and instead just deliver a damn good game because right now Sea of Thieves shows all too well that the promise of buried treasure can often lead to nothing more than an old boot not worth the cost of the voyage to get there.