Sea of Thieves is a role-playing game in the truest sense of the phrase, and the exchange below exemplifies its highs and lows. You are a pirate. You’re not a stealthy merchant with a silver tongue or a dwarven archer. There is only one choice in this world: pirate.
Do. Not. Fucking. Stop. He’s right behind us.
I know, I know!
Just keep going. Turn sails to starboard!
Which is that?
Fine, just say “right” from now on.
Shit, they’re gaining on us. How is that possible? It’s only a little ship! We can’t lose all this treasure — it took us, like, an hour.
We can make it. It’ll be — WAIT, holy shit, he’s on our boat!
He’s here! And his buddy is shooting at us! Repair! Repair?
Where are the planks?
Wait, why the hell are we stopped?
Oh shit. He dropped our anchor. I’ll try lifting it ag— nope, I’m dead.
We’re sinking. He’s doing a dance. Cool.
You drink, you sail, you dig up treasure, you attack other pirates and steal their treasure. You know, pirate-y stuff.
Diving into something so all-encompassingly pirate is pretty overwhelming at the start. Sea of Thieves gives you next to no direction on what you should be doing, apart from some brief tutorial pop-ups. Unless you’re willing to go online and hunt for it, you’ll basically spend the first few hours figuring out how to sail, how to do quests, and how to catch chickens in cages and sell them for a tidy profit.
If you’ve got the patience, these first few hours are thrilling. Managing to coordinate your crew well enough to get multiple sails full of wind as you bound off massive breakers is a rush rarely felt in games. It rewards player coordination in a natural way, not one that requires you piece together some arcane riddle as you might in a Destiny raid. One person’s on sails, one person’s steering, one person’s giving directions and another is acting as lookout. When everyone’s doing their job, it’s finely tuned majesty.
That journey across the waves is also visually astounding. No game has ever come close to simulating the terrible ocean better than Sea of Thieves. The first storm you sail through is a sky full of fury, with lighting cracking on the deck, bursting holes into your hull and filling your hold with briny deep. The helmsman fights the wheel as he attempts to steer through a trio of rock formations as every crewmate is below deck trying to fix the wreckage.
And then suddenly the sky clears, the sea calms and a gorgeous sunset is laid before you. Relief fills you, just as the last bailing bucketfuls are tossed overboard. It’s incredible.
After those first few hours, though, the redundancy begins to set in. In seafaring terms, it’s called the doldrums. And I’m sad to say that the doldrums extend into the foreseeable future of Sea of Thieves, at least until the game is dramatically updated.
The first time you do a mission, whether it’s finding buried treasure or fighting a horde of skeletons, it’s just as thrilling as that storm you survived. And then you begin to realize that all subsequent quests are basically randomly generated copies of that first mission. Go to island X instead of island Y. Dig here instead of there. Deliver two white chickens instead of one red chicken. People bemoan Bethesda’s algorithmically generated missions in games like Fallout 4 and Skyrim, but at least they have a ton of handcrafted stuff as well. The vast majority of Sea of Thieves is made up of random, dreary missions.
It’s then that Sea of Thieves starts to feel routine. Sailing across the open ocean becomes less of a thrilling embodiment of cooperation and more of a chore.
Role-playing games typically solve this stagnation by giving the player increased powers to cut through the monotony faster. Missions that used to take you an hour might take you a fifth of that, thanks to a faster ship or better guns. The idea of expanding the arsenal aboard your ship until it’s something truly dreadful to behold is exciting. But that idea is simply not in Sea of Thieves.
All you can work for in the game are cosmetic upgrades. Your gold, earned from quests, goes into a new eye patch, a new pistol skin (that works exactly the same as your old one), a cooler-looking tankard of ale.
I get the rationale. It sucks to be fully outgunned by kids who have been playing for hundreds of hours when all you have is a Sunday morning’s worth of time. It also means you’ll never be left behind by friends who are more advanced than you are.
And honestly, if the minute-to-minute gameplay of Sea of Thieves were more interesting and complex, limiting things to cosmetics would be fine. Other games work with that model. But those games also succeed on the strength of their combat or the variety of their content, whereas Sea of Thieves never seems to offer very much to keep you engaged.
Even the unique aspect of Sea of Thieves, the player-versus-player combat, has limits. I’ve seen players come up with amazing tactical strategies to broadside ships, board them and make off with the treasure, but since everyone is generally equipped with the same tools, there are only so many ways that ship-to-ship combat can currently play out.
That’s not to mention that those who wish to just sail around peacefully with their friends — simply completing missions and chatting with each other — can be out of luck. The folks who like the feeling of earning more gold and buying different hats for their characters are liable to get steamrolled by well-coordinated, aggressive PvP players who crush their puny boats into splinter. Unlike in games such as The Division, which has discrete PvP areas, there’s nowhere in Sea of Thieves that’s safe from torment. You just have to hope your luck holds out.
As for those dedicated PvP players, there’s no real upside to marauding. There’s no faction that rewards you for PvP, and the odds of getting really high-end loot from another player’s ship are totally arbitrary. You’d make way more money just going around doing missions yourself than you would chasing silhouettes on the horizon that may have an incredible fortune onboard.
Sea of Thieves has the foundation of an incredible experience. It is a true pirate game that simulates the experience of piracy perfectly. And yet, after those first few jaw-dropping hours, you’re going to start feeling less like Blackbeard and more like Blackbeard’s accountant.
Sea of Thieves was reviewed using a final “retail” Xbox One download code provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.