With newer games, I feel like we’re always chasing down these short-term dopamine rushes. We’re always looking for that next level-up, that next cool upgrade, or always just looking for some sort of objective to complete. It can be a good design philosophy when done correctly, but I feel that many such games begin to lose their fun factor. That is why I like to see games like Sea of Thieves, where that entire concept is subverted.
Fun, open-ended gameplay. Oftentimes, when I’m playing Sea of Thieves, I’ll just open it up, get on my ship, and start sailing, with no clear objective in mind. I’ll maybe slap down a voyage to at least give me a direction to head in, but once I’m going, I just wait to see where the game takes me. Maybe I’ll take down a skeleton fort along the way or maybe I’ll have to deal with a megalodon. Maybe I’ll come across other players and duke it out for their treasure or maybe I’ll just do some casual fishing. Maybe I’ll actually end up at that voyage destination and find some treasure, only to come across maps for even more treasure. There’s just so much that can happen in this game and no session is quite like the rest.
Of course, the game isn’t completely devoid of objectives (there are story-based voyages in the form of tall tales, reputation ranks that can be leveled up, and cosmetics to unlock), but Sea of Thieves is pretty much just a big sandbox. It is perhaps one of the purest forms of “fun” that I have seen out of a AAA game in the last several years and the fact that the devs keep adding content to it just makes it that much better.
And it’s not like this content is shallow either. Since the game was originally released, they’ve added entire story arcs, huge new sections to the world map, a new game mode in the form of The Arena, and a bunch of gameplay mechanics to further refine the core experience. With every update, I find something new to love about the game, but it’s the core, open-ended gameplay that keeps everything tied together.
Excellent multiplayer elements. Given that each session of Sea of Thieves takes place on a map with a bunch of other players, you’re bound to run into another at some point. This is yet another area where the game really shines, as you never quite know what you’re getting into when dealing with other players. They can be friendly and maybe want to form an in-game alliance (which shares gold rewards across ships) or maybe they’re out to just PVP as much as possible. They could even be somewhere in-between, playing the friendly pirate, but betraying you later on.
This creates this sense of tension whenever dealing with other players, or even when you’re out just completing voyages and such. It becomes this balancing act of “should I head back to an outpost to sell all this loot or should I take on another voyage and risk losing it all to a PVP encounter”. I know there are people that have issues with this, but I feel that it makes the experience more exciting — it adds a risk-reward mechanic to everything you do, just like how piracy works in the real world. And of course, it’s fun to be on the opposing side as well. Why go through voyages and such when you can simply steal treasure from another player? I find myself flip-flopping between the two depending on the session, it’s what makes the multiplayer so fun here.
As for the community, I’ve dealt with all types of players during my time with the game, forming friendships here and there and dealing with numerous PVPers as well. Sometimes these PVP players can be toxic, but sometimes you’ll get those that say stuff like “great fight” or “nice shots”. From my experience, the toxic individuals are in the minority and I’ve had a great time with the community overall.
I believe this to be partly due to how the game manages progression. There’s no progression outside of leveling up your reputation, no end game, and the only thing you can actually buy with the gold you earn are cosmetics. This puts you at the exact same level as any other player in the game, even those with hundreds of hours.
Really, the only thing holding new players back is the lack of experience with the different game mechanics, but those are something that can be picked up over time, you’re not barred behind some massive grind to get to that point. It’s a great way to level the playing field while also encouraging players to actually play the game for fun rather than to grind out upgrades and such.
Great co-op mechanics. A large part of what makes the whole experience work is having some friends to play the game with. This is a game that is heavy on co-op, but given how in-depth the co-op mechanics are here, that isn’t a bad thing. Once you’re on anything but the smallest ship, you’ll have to work together with your crew in order to effectively navigate it. The wheel must be manned, the sails need to be constantly adjusted to keep with the wind, an eye needs to be kept out for other pirates, and you’ll want to have a navigator to check the maps and make sure the ship is on track.
As you and your crew learn more about the game, you’ll begin to pick up on more advanced mechanics, like anchor turning, tacking, and how to effectively use the harpoon both in navigating and when dealing with enemy ships. It’s a group effort for sure and one my friends and I have fun with. We will often roleplay the different positions, assigning a captain, a navigator, and a shipmate and using nautical terms to describe positions and such. It’s a fun way to make the game more immersive if anything.
However, it isn’t just the sailing that requires such teamwork. PVP, skeleton fort raids, tall tales, you name it, it’s probably better to have some friends along to help and the game is designed in such a way that it’s more fun to do so. From my experience, I’ve found the ideal crew number to be three on a mid-tier ship. It’s the perfect compromise between the nimbleness of the sloop (the smallest ship) and the speed of the galleon (the biggest and most difficult to navigate). But regardless of what ship you take, having friends to play the game with really elevates the entire experience.
Nice art direction and graphics. Instead of going for straight realism, Sea of Thieves instead opts for a more stylized aesthetic. It’s at this crossroads between going full cartoon and being at least somewhat realistic, and the end result actually looks pretty good. The models are simple, yet have a good amount of detail to them, the color choices are excellent across the board, and the lighting is really well-done, which is especially noticeable when in caves or during a sunset. And of course, the water is some of the best-looking I’ve seen in a video game. That may sound trivial, but it’s honestly one of the highlights of the game’s graphics.
Lackluster enemy variety. Sea of Thieves may have a ton of content to it, but enemy variety isn’t one of them. Regardless of what type of voyage you’re on, what fort you’re raiding, or where you are on the map, really the only AI enemy you’ll come across are skeletons. Granted, these skeletons have different types with different properties (such as ones that can only be attacked after a light has been shown on them), but in the end, they’re just skeletons. Bosses do shake up the experience at least a little bit, but when you’re not fighting other players, sharks, or a kraken, you’re fighting skeletons. The game could really use some more variety there.
Not nearly as fun when playing solo. Perhaps the game’s biggest flaw would be that it simply isn’t as fun to play when going solo. I’ve spent a decent amount of time sailing around in a solo sloop and the experience, while still fun, just doesn’t match that of when I’m sailing with some buddies. It’s not like it’s not doable as a solo player, but that it’s just much harder to take advantage of some aspects of the game. Skeleton forts, for example, are much more difficult to tackle, especially when you’re also having to keep an eye out for other pirates looking to come in and swipe up your loot.
You get a slight advantage in PVP by being in a much more maneuverable ship, but that advantage is pretty much meaningless when the other ship has the advantage in numbers. It’s such a different experience that I would honestly not recommend the game if you don’t at least have one other friend to play it with.
Sea of Thieves is a reminder that you don’t need constant level ups, unlocks, upgrades, or really any concrete progression to make a fun video game. It is perhaps one of the best examples of “pure fun”, where I often find myself loading it up without any idea of what I’ll be doing and without any specific goal in mind. The core gameplay is just that good, and combined with the excellent multiplayer features and the in-depth co-op mechanics, it’s honestly one of the best multiplayer games available today, one that the devs are constantly adding to at that. It may not have the best enemy variety and may not be as fun as a solo player, but if you’ve got some friends to sail with, it is 100% worth the buy.
You can buy Sea of Thieves on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.