Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PC

Rare’s latest release, Sea of Thieves, feels more like a promising proof of concept than a finished game. Gameplay revolves around simplistic fetch quests, and even an authentic sailing system and gorgeous visuals can’t save this half-baked experience.

Solo play is an underdeveloped afterthought, but multiplayer does have moments of greatness with fun moments of zany adventure and exploration.

Sadly, the limited fun that can be had here doesn’t manage to keep Sea of Thieves afloat.

Primitive, but sometimes intentionally so

When played alone, Sea of Thieves makes a terrible first impression. The tutorial section is about two minutes long, and teaches you very little about how to play the game. You’re told that you have radial inventory menus, that you can pick up items and…pretty much nothing else. It doesn’t even tell you where your ship is. I had to use Google to figure out how to pick up quests, which is totally unacceptable. There is such a thing as too much hand holding, but in this case, with systems of this complexity, the lack of any meaningful guidance seems like an oversight, not immersion.

All missions assume a level of familiarity with the game world that a new player simply won’t have. When you receive a quest, you’re given the name or picture of an island. To figure out where to go, you have to scour the map table, zooming in and out until you find the right island to proceed.

Complicating matters, there is no waypoint system in this game. If you want to check your heading, you have to release the ship’s wheel and run downstairs to the map table and see if your little ship icon is going the right way. Done alone, this attempt at “realism” feels frustrating and unnecessary.

Sailing alone is complicated, but as someone who has actually sailed before, it comes together. Adjusting your sails, steering, and dropping anchor all require moving to a slightly different section of the ship and adjusting them. It isn’t easy, but it is realistic. For gamers used to having control of every aspect of their vehicle at their fingertips, this will feel a bit awkward. 

Always bring friends

While you can play this game alone, there simply isn’t enough here to keep a single player engaged for more than a few hours. But when I got lucky and booted into a game with a fun and knowledgeable rando (Hi, Tokyo434!), the game really lights up. Quests become a zany experience of capturing wild animals, tripping on snake venom, and exploring the high seas.

This is when Sea of Thieves is at its best; when it stops being a game and starts being an experience.

Even one extra player changes the entire experience of Sea of Thieves. The player steering the ship needs to speak to the player charting the heading via the map table. A knowledgeable navigator can immediately identify the islands in the missions, removing a major source of drag. Another player might sit atop the crow’s nest, keeping an eye out for enemy ships with their telescope. In battle, one player steers while another loads and fires cannons at enemy ships. Another player can bail water out of the ship while another desperately patches the hull.

Sea of Thieves is like owning a car as a teenager. You can drive around alone, but that’s just a waste of gas money. But if you load that car up with your friends and drive around all night, you’re sure to have some memorable adventures.

Tokyo434 and I decided we wanted to hunt a kraken, so we set sail for the far eastern side of the map, and passed well outside of the designated area. The sky went black. The ocean turned blood red, and something mysterious kept smashing holes in our hull. We patched the holes until we ran out of wood, and tried desperately to turn around. Once we took on enough water, we couldn’t control the ship anymore. Stuck in the hold, Tokyo went down with the ship, while I was left stranded in the black sea.

That experience was way scarier than it had any right to be, and like any good adventure, was an extraordinarily memorable experience.  

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s very little consequence for dying in Sea of Thieves. After you spend some time chilling on the Ferry of the Damned, you can portal back to the game world on your ship, or, if your ship was sunk, the game respawns you and your crew back on the nearest outpost. This removes any sense of danger from the game, but it makes exploration totally risk-free, which was probably an intentional design choice on the part of Rare.

Musical numbers

Another memorable moment was when we busted out our instruments. Each instrument plays a number of old classical tunes, appropriate to the time period and the setting. You can play a song just by holding the left mouse button. If one of your other crew members breaks out their instrument and starts playing, they play another part of the same song, perfectly in time.

Together, you make a little orchestra. In a larger crew, you could very well decide that one guy’s job is to keep the crew musically entertained on long voyages. And when the crow’s nest guy gets tired of staring through his telescope, he can come down and play the harmony. This is the kind of goofy fun that makes Sea of Thieves memorable despite its shortcomings.

Pretty enough to make you sick

Water in Sea of Thieves looks unbelievable, even on my old GTX 880M-equipped gaming laptop. I have never seen computer-generated water look this realistic, and I include gorgeous Pixar films like Moana when I say that. This is the kind of awe-inspiring ocean that Herman Melville wrote novels about. I once took a vacation on a cruise ship, and after a week at sea, when I stepped onto dry land, I could still feel the heaving sway of the ocean. Stepping away from my computer after a few hours in this world, I had the same sensation.

Water in Sea of Thieves looks that good. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a tech demo.

A level playing field

There’s very little meaningful advancement in this game. If you start playing today or nine months from now, the only difference between you and an early adopter is that they will have a far snazzier pirate outfit and more factional rep. You can adventure together, sail together, and the only barrier to your cooperation is your teamwork, not your minimal access to an extensive skill tree. The core of this idea is solid. One of the reasons I could never get into World of Warcraft was because all of my friends had max level characters, and trying to play catch up at level one was not enjoyable. Sea of Thieves will never suffer from this issue.

But this system also prevents you from feeling a sense of accomplishment when completing quests. I find it baffling that in a $60 AAA release, the only advancement is cosmetic, attained via fetch quests. This would’ve made a terrific F2P game with cosmetic items you could earn through questing or pay for via MTX.

There’s also no story either, as far as I could tell. While that feels like a missed opportunity to me, Rare didn’t promise us The Witcher 3; they promised us a vast open world pirate simulator, and on that they deliver.

I just wish there was more game here.

The hefty price tag combined with the monthly cost of XBOX Live Gold are a dealbreaker for me. If this was a F2P game, I would encourage my friends to hop on and have some wacky pirate adventures every so often. Folks who liked the game could stick around and gather gold to get snazzier looking cosmetic items while folks who just wanted to play casually could hop in when they felt like it. As it stands, there’s no way in good conscience I could talk my friends into spending $60 on this barebones game and another $10 per month just to play together.

Sea of Thieves, in its current state, is more a promising beta than a full game.

Lost at sea

A game like this is hard to categorize. It’s innovative, but incomplete. A level-less MMO is an idea whose time has come, but any game that removes all Skinnerbox grinding elements had better have deep and fascinating gameplay to make up for it. If the current MMO market is Call of Duty, then Sea of Thieves was trying to be Overwatch - a disruptive, addictive, grind-less game where players pursue aesthetics over prestige leveling. But Blizzard understood that the whole formula falls apart without gameplay you want to revisit again and again. It appears that Rare did not, and unless they patch the hull of their beleaguered release soon, I fear that it will sink without a trace.