Helpful Goat Gaming Reviews: Sea of Thieves
Sea of Thieves is the new pirate simulator from Rare Ltd. which you may have heard of, seen being streamed, or perhaps entirely missed, as the gaming community seems divided in the degree to which they’ve noticed this game, much as opinions are divided over what to think of it. This review will break down what’s in the game, what isn’t, as well as provide a summary discussion of the content.
What it is
Fun with Friends
A way to generate stories and share experiences
- Some of most physically tangible sailing that we've ever seen
Loading into the game, you’ll be treated to an opening cutscene that roughs out the (very) broad strokes of the world of Sea of Thieves. These occur in doggerel verse making them at home in a sea shanty, a theme and form that the game returns to early and often.
After selecting your character, which is accomplished by choosing from a pre-generated pool which you can reroll through what the devs at Rare term the “Infinite Pirate Engine,” you can proceed into the game by selecting what type of voyage you would like to set out on - Galleon or Sloop. Within these choices, you can choose how many people you want to sail with, with the ability to add/invite any or all friends you want before either sailing short-handed, or matchmaking with another pirate looking for new crewmates.
Once you load into the game, after a series of game tips, again in verse, you are presented with… the game. There is essentially no HUD to speak of, at least in a standard view. You have all the tools that you ever will, though you can acquire more looks for these tools, and indeed for your pirate, as you amass wealth by performing quests for the three NPC factions in the game. Oh, and robbing people. You’re a pirate, if I hadn’t mentioned. Yarr.
Your new ship will be awaiting you at anchor at the end of the dock, stocked with a basic level of supplies, and you are free to purchase a mission and head out, exploring the sea, the islands, and the interactions with other players. Many of these interactions will involve explosives. Be warned.
The sailing itself is … breathtaking. The ocean, especially if you’re running the game on PC is amazing looking. The realistic effects of the water distinguish themselves amazingly from the stylized look of the ships, islands, and characters. The sky is a continual delight, and it is not an overstatement to say that you could enjoyable partake of a stream of the sky of Sea of Thieves with an ASMR Voiceover. Hmm… note to self.
Life on the boat consists of fairly basic interactions, setting sails, turning the wheel, patching the ship and bailing out water while praying to whatsoever power you might believe in, and looking at for other ships or hazards that could initiate the previous activity on this list. It is here that one of the simple joys of Sea of Thieves presents itself: It’s a ton of fun to just sail the ship with your friends. Seriously. There is tangible joy in sailing from Point A to Point B, exploring, and then sailing back. The ship careens in stormy seas, and the heaviest storms can cause the ship’s compass to spin out of control even as the ship’s steering is reduce to a suggestion instead of a command. The gentle lapping of calm waters can come as a visceral relief to you and your crew after such an incident, as can the sound of the waters after the roar of cannons during a naval combat. Your ship is your life while your on the sea, and it is appropriately grounded, as such.
The rewards from your explorations come in two forms: Coin, which can be spent on cosmetic items for you, your equipment, and your ship, and Reputation, which advances you towards the somewhat nebulous goal of becoming a pirate legend, as well as unlocking more cosmetics.
What it isn't
A fast-twitch shooter or action game
- A story heavy game*
- A game in which player progression/skill is likely to have a major impact on gameplay
Earlier, we mentioned that there is significant division in the video gaming community as to what to think about Sea of Thieves. A great deal of this centers around a perceived lack of content for this game. Some have even referred to it as the new No Man’s Sky, and the less said about that launch the better.
Before addressing these criticisms, it feels appropriate to discuss what the game isn’t. It certainly isn’t a fast-twitch, splash-play shooter, which have dominated the gaming gestalt with titles like Overwatch, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and most recently, Fortnite. There, the constant tension, the ability to prove your superiority with your powers and firearms, and the endorphin rush of Chicken Dinner (or the equivalent thereof) are never far away. Except maybe the Chicken Dinner. Freaking Chicken Dinner. This is, in no way a criticism of either Sea of Thieves or these powerhouses. It is, however, true. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will not find it on these seas.
Sea of Thieves is also not an RPG type game, where you lovingly (or hatefully, we don’t judge) drop points of progression into your character to achieve your goals and optimize your build. Welllllll, actually, there’s a reason that we put an asterisk on that. You’ll see. Your character is going to remain largely the same throughout the game. Outside of sweet, sweet fashions, they aren’t going to learn more skills (yes, fashion in games is a skill), power up (yes, it’s a power up too), or be able to do different things. You’re a pirate. One size fits all.
Sea of Thieves is also not an RPG in the sense that there is very little story within the game. Gahhhh, there’s an asterisk there too. We’re getting to it, we promise. Outside of an opening cutscene, and some scattered poems and dialogue in the world, there is very little sense of a larger world picture, at least at launch. This is neither a Bioware story immersion, nor a Soulsborne “there’s a story here but you need to find the items and piece it together” experience. Largely, it’s a blank slate. If you want anime cutscenes, brooding anti-heroes, or wisecracking sidekicks, you’d best look elsewhere.****
What we think
Gah, okay, too many asterisks, can’t take it anymore. In our opinion, here’s what Sea of Thieves is:
About as close to a tabletop RPG as you can get.
This might seem weird given what we just said about progression and story, but bear with us for a moment.
We pride ourselves on telling stories, creating worlds, and sharing those stories and worlds with our friends. That, to us, is the core of Tabletop RPGs. The stories that we can tell from playing Sea of Thieves are easily the equal of those from any tabletop game. Every time we drop into Sea of Thieves, even just quickly on our own, we have the urge to turn the camera on and record. Amazing things can happen very suddenly in the game. If those things don't hold your attention and generate wonder for you, then Sea of Thieves may not be for you. Neither may most Tabletop RPGs. But if you love recounting your epic escape from a herd of owlbears, then we believe you could find a similar thrill from escaping from a treasure-hungry galleon through a raging storm with your friends.
To walk through the comparison on a more step-by-step basis, take Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) as an exemplar of RPGs (many people seem to).
You have a character progression system, and roles you fulfill. Sea of Thieves absolutely doesn’t have the first, though any crew wanting to proceed smoothly will likely quickly fall into roles.
You have missions, with sometimes… nebulous motivation. This honestly depends on your DM, but I’ve known plenty of players whose every character was a professional munchkin.
You have a world, which you explore, interacting with your party, NPCs, and innumerable monsters. Sea of Thieves has this too. Sometimes other people being particularly difficult or clever enemies/monsters.
However, as much as we remarked on the lack of story in Sea of Thieves, that makes perfect sense because Sea of Thieves is a game that is nearly uniquely suited to allowing you to create your own story. DnD might have provided a different framework, provided more definition in some places and less in others, but still, fundamentally, there are more similarities than differences.
What you take from Sea of Thieves is largely about what you put into it. We (Andy and Galway) have memories of racing across the seas towards and outpost, desperate to turn in loot, only to be terrified by the appearance of a sail on the horizon. We stumbled our way around Snake Island for god knows how long, trying to find the next step in our riddle. This wasn’t frustrating per se, but it did make us think of how our characters felt. Hungry for treasure, hungry, and really, really tired of getting bitten by snakes.
Go into Sea of Thieves wanting to create a character that is a part of the world. Don’t rely on the world telling you what it is. Rare developers directly stated that the project was about telling stories with your friends in an interview with IGN: “Sea of Thieves wasn’t originally conceived as a pirate game, rather Rare’s ambitions were more simple: the team wanted to make a game where players could create their own shared stories. ‘We had this vision of bringing a small group of players together and putting them into a world where they'd being encouraged to cooperate,’ said Neate. ‘But there was also a bit of competition, because we thought both of those would lead to really interesting stories. But we wanted the kind of group to be small so there was a really good social dynamic.”
It’s no accident that the game limits you to a group of 4. This isn’t about building a pirate armada, it’s about being part of a crew. DnD, I have found, is rarely better than when it has 4 players. The implicit assumption at every point in the game is built upon that number.
If you view the game this way, and come in with the assumptions of playing a game about story building, many of the decisions in Sea of Thieves make far more sense. The world feels richer for the fact that you’ve built up history in it. Sure, Snake Isle is the same geographic body to every player, but for Andy and Galway, it’s about depleting the ship’s stock of bananas because every snake on the island has decided that you are pure evil. There’s a series of rocks near an outpost that are likely viewed by most players as a landmark or an inconvenient geographic feature. For us, they will always be the site of our epic battle with the Kraken with a hold full of treasure.
Ultimately, if you aren’t interested in trying to make a game’s world yours, then there won’t be a lot in Sea of Thieves for you, at least not at first. Rare has committed to producing more content, and their community responsiveness has to be mentioned and lauded in an era of “Bungie, plz” followed by deafening silence punctuated only by frustrated tears.
Others have written and spoke about the problems with coming to a tabletop RPG with a mindset from video games. That’s a challenge that lots of DMs with new, younger players have faced, are facing, and will face. But, similarly, there may be an issue here with not coming to Sea of Thieves with a mindset that is the familiar mode to a Tabletop gamer: The belief that you have been given a marvelous sandbox in which you can produce stories that you and your friends will share for years. Because if you come to it with that feeling, you will find a beautiful world waiting for you to leave your mark on it as you build your way to pirate legend status.
4 out of 5 Johnnies, unless you're looking for something fast-paced or can't bring yourself to provide your own story.