‘Sea of Thieves’ Review: Pirate Pals Forced To Float Their Own Boat

Jeremy Ray
Game Reviews Games
Game Reviews Games Xbox PC Gaming
of 5
Review Essentials
  • Beautiful water
  • Ship-to-ship combat is quite fun
  • A few short-lived gameplay novelties
  • Samey quest structure
  • The onus is on you to create your own fun
Reviewed on Xbox One

It’s been a rough couple of years for Xbox owners. While Nintendo and PlayStation fans have had a slew of brilliant first party exclusives to keep them satiated, Microsoft-loving gamers haven’t been so lucky.

With Platinum Games’ open world opus Scalebound getting mysteriously canned and the long awaited Crackdown 3 getting delayed for a third time, there’s only really been Forza and PUBG to appease Xbox fans.

That’s all about to change. After years of anticipation, Rare’s ambitious pirate epic has finally drifted onto Xboxes around the globe. But does this colourful, shared world pirate game do enough to make it a must play?

Pirate standing on top of treasure chest

Taking after games like Destiny, this is a game that’s all about group play. In Sea of Thieves, you’ll be placed in a ship that fits your group size, up to a maximum of four. Right from the offset you have a choice in how you want to approach your pirating.

The larger, four-person Galleons have more firepower but require more communication to sail. Fully unfurling the sails, for example, obstructs the vision of whoever is at the helm. Constant communication is needed between the player steering and whoever’s at the front or the crow’s nest.

Smaller sloops made for one or two people are faster, and can be hard to hit when factoring in cannonball travel time. Sea of Thieves has done a nice job balancing these two kinds of ships so four-person parties don’t have too much of an advantage — at least until it’s time to chase an island objective, when 2v4 isn’t the best idea.

How it All Works

Sea of Thieves is divided between treasure hunters, and treasure hunter hunters.

Your server will be populated with around six ships at any given time, but depending on the other players’ movements, you might never actually see them. On the other hand, you might accidentally sail into a four-ship free-for-all.

When it comes down to quest structure, this is pretty basic RPG schtick. Grab your quests at the outpost, head out to fetch your buried treasure, hand it in.

Everything in-between is subject to open world PvP, which gives rise to interesting stories. “That time I stole a chest from under their noses and handed it in as my own,” or “that time I shot myself out of a cannon onto their ship to blow up their powder keg.”

Keeping it lighthearted, Rare makes sure there’s never a moment when you’re feeling too punished. Falling overboard will mercifully trigger a mermaid brandishing a flare, who reunites you with your deck-dwelling crew.

This applies to death, too. Here, loss of life means just a few seconds of being on a ghost ship before you respawn. Should your ship go down, it’ll be speedily recreated, waiting for its crew at a nearby island.

The Shape of Water

Rare has managed to achieve some of the best looking water in video games here, and it’s a good thing it has too — you’ll spend a lot of time looking at it. The waves change colour according to your situation, the sunlight, and what’s in the water around you.

It’ll have calm periods. Then it’ll swell and rage. The real star of Sea of Thieves is the ocean, and we spent more than a few hours naval-gazing.

Of course, the bobbing and swaying of waves has very practical effects on ship-to-ship combat. Trajectories of bullets and cannonballs must contend with both a moving target and moving origin. The choppiest of seas not only wrecks havoc on your aim, at times it even creates temporary barriers.

Since these waves aren’t just cosmetic, they need to be the same on everyone’s screen. This has never been done before, especially not on this scale. Sea of Thieves’ waves are a chaotically morphing battlefield that plays no favourites.

It’s not just beautiful. It’s a technical achievement.

Shoot First, Parley Later

Sailing is, by itself, an exercise in priority management. Without enough crew to comfortably sit at one station, it’s just the right amount of stressful. Add to that firing the cannons, bailing out water, and fixing hull breaches, and you’ve got frantic vessel violence.

Baked into every cannon shot is a healthy amount of risk/reward. Here’s why.

Ships in Sea of Thieves don’t have a health bar. Instead, their health is decided by water in their hull. Once it’s taking on more water than can be feasibly bailed out, it’s over.

This means shots to the lower part of the hull are inherently more threatening. You can hammer away at the top part of the ship and it’ll only really take on water when a massive wave crashes over it. Not too effective.

Diagram of cannon shot effectiveness in Sea of Thieves

If you can hit that bottom sliver, you’ve done some real damage. But naturally, that means you’re inches away from hitting the water — nullifying your shot.

Hitting ships during high speed chases is quite hard. But in situations when you’re confident you’ll score a hit, there’s always that risk/reward decision to make. How low do you dare aim?

This interesting choice, combined with all the other fun dynamics of sailing, makes ship-to-ship combat a highly fun, if rarely rewarding, endeavour. It’s easily one of the best parts of the game, in an ocean that’s otherwise a bit bare bones.

The Empty Seas

While the water and ship combat are stellar, they take up a small amount of time in an experience that quickly feels like it doesn’t contain much.

Part of this is by design. We’ve previously covered how Rare intentionally wanted quiet moments between quests to fool around and socialise with your crewmates.

Certainly, Sea of Thieves is a game more about the journey than the destination. But that doesn’t stop the destination from feeling a bit underwhelming.

There are a few kinds of quests in Sea of Thieves, aiming to service different brands of gamer. Combat-oriented quests have you targeting squads of skeletons on islands. Chest quests have you digging up treasure you find from maps and riddles. Delivery quests see you collecting pigs and chickens.

After three or so outings, you’ll be heading to the same islands, looking for the same landmarks, and doing the same things. Sea of Thieves somewhat randomly generates these quests forever. In a way, you’re never done. In another way, you’re done very quickly.

To make its random generation possible, these riddles are insultingly simple. Find a landmark, take a few steps in a cardinal direction, and dig. The delivery quests are your garden variety fetch quest. We couldn’t even get excited about the fighting quests because clunky combat mechanics and laggy rubber-banding meant we couldn’t take it seriously.

At worst, Sea of Thieves aims to serve everyone but only ends up pleasing a portion of gamers happy to make their own fun.

Sea of Thieves cannon combat

Is ‘Sea of Thieves’ Good?

The issues with lag bear repeating. At times, our greatest challenge was getting up the stairs on our own galleon. Such was the warping, we’d stop at the end of a pier and find ourselves swimming a second later. Footsies and distance management during combat became a joke. We experienced this on both Xbox and PC, in the US and Australia.

It’s a game full of short-lived novelties. You can play an instrument! You can get drunk! There’s a dance emote! And… Wait, is that it? We expect more to be added over the game’s life cycle, but we have to judge it on its launch content.

Just be aware going into this one that after a few outings, you’ve pretty much seen what Rare’s pirate epic has to offer. Sea of Thieves is a “make your own fun” game, but it’s difficult not to feel like the developers could’ve made a little more fun for you. Sail, stare at the water, and live the life of a corsair — ultimately, its longevity will come down to you and your crew.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.