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Sea of Thieves Review: The ocean is deep, the game is not

Have you ever been told exactly what you were going to get and still ended up disappointed? This sums up my experience with Sea of Thieves, the new pirate themed “action-adventure” title from developer Rare. Announced in 2015 and first shown off in 2016, Sea of Thieves promised to be an exciting sandbox for players to sail the seas and have all kinds of piratey adventures. To its credit, Rare was upfront about what we should expect here – two ships, three guilds and three mission types — still, when the release date rolled round and this full-priced game set sail, it still managed to feel like an early access title.

When you first fire up Sea of Thieves you’re able to choose your very own pirate avatar, randomly generated from all possible combinations of the character creator. You’re not able to customize any of your physical traits — nor are you even allowed to name your pirate — so you better hope that one of the random rolls suits you. I personally spent at least 15 minutes generating various pirates before finally giving up and settling on one I’d favourited many re-rolls ago. You then awaken in a grog-soaked tavern and, with absolutely no direction, are set free on one of the game’s assortment of outposts to seek your fortune.

This comes primarily from doing voyages for one of the three guilds available in the game: the treasure-loving Gold Hoarders, the skeleton-hating Order of Souls and the livestock-focused Merchant Alliance. Each of these three guilds will give you voyages to either dig up treasure, kidnap some animals from their islands or slay some skeletons who have apparently been up to no good. Levelling up each of these groups will give you some cosmetic reward options as well as access to paid voyages that have an increased chance of scoring better loot and having extra maps added to your voyage. While this sounds great in theory, what this mostly equates to is the voyages taking longer without offering any real increase in rewards.

Not that rewards are particularly compelling either – each voyage, or rather the items found on said voyage, will reward you with gold (there’s no experience to be had here) which you can then put towards getting your pirate a nice new coat, pimping your ship’s paint job or even getting that nice peg leg you’ve always wanted. While it’s nice to know that all players will forever be on an equal footing, and that no adventure is too tough, this also means that you’re never more powerful than when you first start your adventure; as a result, this gives you very little to work towards.

That’s ok though, right? Sure, the main gameplay loop may not be super exciting but there’s still Pirate vs Pirate action to be had, right? Well, yes and no. You can certainly set out with your black flag flying, but for the most part any PvP you undertake just feels bad. The combat mechanics in Sea of Thieves are far from tight and while ship combat is fairly good, the battles do tend to devolve into the two ships sailing circles around each other until one crew gives up and goes home.

If you choose to board the other ship though you best be prepared for a never-ending wave of respawns as, when killed, player will respawn somewhere around their ship, even if you’ve taken control of it. This means that should you outplay your opponent or even just steal the ship they’ve unwisely left unattended you’ll face on of three scenarios:

  1. The pirates you’ve just slain will respawn on their ship indefinitely until they finally kill you;
  2. They’ll use a mermaid to teleport to the ship you’ve just stolen; or
  3. They’ll scuttle the ship at no cost to them, only potentially losing some treasure they had on board.

This is not fun and ultimately creates a toxic gameplay loops as players, knowing they can’t gain anything from fighting, just aim to sink your ship to make sure you have a bad day.

I’ve seen a lot of comments that Sea of Thieves is like a sandbox with no toys, which I feel is a particularly fitting description given the lack of quest types and ship selection. There are no NPCs apart from the skeletons, which leaves the game world feeling empty and you, alone. You can have up to five other ships in your instance but, given the pointlessness of player interaction outside of the Skull Fort battle, most players will sail a wide berth around each other.

Perhaps the least forgivable aspect for me, given my love of exploration and discovery in games like these, is that all the islands feel the same. For Sea of Thieves to be a truly unforgettable experience for me I’d have liked to have seen islands and archipelagos that feel lovingly crafted with supreme attention to detail. What we have instead is a map that feels like Rare turned “Generate Game” on once and just ran with what the creator spat out. This, more than anything else, saddens me as it makes things feel even more devoid of life. Islands are too spread out, too samey and too uninteresting leaving the player with a, “seen one, seen them all” feeling.

There’s been a lot of talk comparing Sea of Thieves to No Man’s Sky, which is fair in some ways and unfair to both games in others. Yes, both games launched with very little actual content but No Man’s Sky at least had some semblance of a story and progression, something Sea of Thieves sorely lacks. To put it bluntly, No Man’s Sky over-promised and under-delivered, while Sea of Thieves under-promised and under-delivered. I’ll leave you to decide which is worse.

Perhaps a more fitting comparison is Elite: Dangerous, as both it and Sea of Thieves are stunning technical achievements held back by their restrictive gameplay loops. Developer Frontier has certainly saved Elite, so there’s still hope for Sea of Thieves yet.

Sea of Thieves is definitely a strong technical achievement, able to run on everything from a console or potato PC to a high end gaming rig and still look amazing. The way the wind catches the sail or the choppy waves froth and foam is stunning to behold and you could certainly spend a long time staring at the sea – which is good, as you’ll need to.

With this somewhat solid foundation of excellent visuals, I really hope Rare can take Sea of Thieves and make it something great. At a base level the game has everything it needs to succeed, and all of these gripes I have are 100% fixable given time. But what needs to change to make this game great? I personally would like to see NPCs introduced, be they traders, pirates or a navy to make this seem less like Pirate Purgatory and more like a living, breathing world. I’d like to see PvP improved to make it more interesting and piracy itself more viable, even if this means having PvP specific instances for players who are into this kind of thing. Finally, I’d also like to see better designed islands, more of them and closer together, and some kind of true progression or story to work towards and motivate players.

With all this said there is still some fun to be had in Sea of Thieves. This game already has a devoted fan base who are happy to relax and cruise between islands, enjoying what the game currently has to offer. These players existed for No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous too, and they’re ultimately what pushed those games to be as good as they are today. Rare will hopefully be able to tap into that market too, though they have a lot of work to do before the full priced cost of entry is worth it, and we’re a few leagues short of that yet.


4 out of 10

The good

  • A great core for Rare to build upon.
  • Looks gorgeous and runs flawlessly.

The bad

  • An early access title released with a full retail price tag.
  • Generic, boring and repetitive islands.
  • Hardly any features.
  • Flawed PvP and respawn system.


Sea of Thieves was reviewed using promotional codes on Xbox One and Windows PC (using Xbox Play Anywhere), as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.

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About the author

Hamish Lindsay

Avid reader and general geek, justifying the time I spend playing games by writing about them. I try not to discriminate by genre, but I remember story more than gameplay. I’ve been playing League for longer than Akali and I’m still Silver. Fallout 3 and MGS3 may be the pinnacle of gaming.