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Sea of Thieves Xbox One review: Fun is in the journey, not the destination

Sea of Thieves establishes a framework for promising concepts, yet fails to deliver on its true potential.

Backed by four years of development at esteemed UK studio, Rare, Sea of Thieves has been shaping up as one of Microsoft's most promising new franchises. Shipping wannabe pirates on daring adventures across the seas, it proposes unique ideas not only with the premise but also its approach to gameplay.

After spending a couple dozen hours sailing the Sea of Thieves, you'll build a story worth telling. The game establishes some engaging concepts, making for a fresh and most importantly, fun take on shared-world multiplayer. However, some clear issues tarnish the Sea of Thieves experience at launch, paving an uncertain future in the months ahead.

Sea of Thieves: In brief

Sea of Thieves offers an open sandbox with countless opportunities, delivering the best pirate game you'll find on console today. Its inviting world houses some unrivaled social multiplayer experiences, with a dynamic edge to gameplay that keeps you playing for what may lay ahead. Putting fun first and foremost, its perilous voyages are best enjoyed with a four-man crew of friends. There's simply nothing like it.

Despite being a strong foundation, Sea of Thieves has still some major hurdles to overcome. Without a sustainable offering of content at launch and clear post-launch content plans, the game's future remains uncertain. Going forward, Rare's ability to deliver new content and communicate with fans will have a heavy bearing on the game's long-term success.

While I strongly recommend Sea of Thieves under Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass subscription service, it struggles to justify a $59.99 price point (opens in new tab) for the retail version.

Exploring a pirate's paradise

Sea of Thieves is a shared-world adventure game at heart, although also adopts traits from a variety of other genres. Exploring handcrafted seas and islands in search of treasure, pirates earn themselves a name, building their own stash of hard-earned gold. You'll overcome the challenges of the seas, fighting rival crews and work up to the rank of "pirate legend."

Unparalleled water effects, a gorgeous skybox, and dynamic lighting cycles help build stunning virtual vistas.

What makes Sea of Thieves so appealing is its character, in a similar vein to previous hit Rare franchises. From launching yourself with a cannon to throwing vomit on intoxicated foes, it's a wacky yet endearing world that encapsulates its developer's persona. Sea of Thieves isn't afraid to embrace the medium and have fun between its key moments.

This tone is complemented by the game's charming art style, injecting further character into every inch of its world. Taking advantage of clean visuals draped in vibrancy, even the gloomiest areas feel welcoming. The inclusion of crisp 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR) support on Xbox One X only affirms this style, with some of the best implementations of the enhancements. It might not strive for photorealism, yet unparalleled water effects, a gorgeous skybox, and dynamic lighting cycles help build stunning virtual vistas.

Becoming a legend of the seas

Many aspects of the game reward those sailing in groups, with mechanics specifically built to house groups of players. Putting cooperative first frequently alienates solo players, but allows multiplayer to really shine as an essential aspect of the package.

Controlling ships is a team effort, with sails, steering and hull integrity all tasks to consider on the move. Complemented by proximity voice chat with foes, players are encouraged to consistently communicate under a single social experience. In many ways, when paired with its sometimes mellow gameplay, Sea of Thieves can be a social platform, fading gameplay into the background among talk with friends.

For the bulk of their pirate careers, players will undertake dangerous quests known as "voyages." Obtained from a trio of trading companies, these quests entail the collection and redemption of goods for gold rewards. The "Gold Hoarders" challenge players to track down hidden treasures using cryptic maps and riddles. "Order of Souls" voyages are manhunts for infamous skeleton warriors, handling in their skulls. Crews can also race against the clock to fetch and deliver freight between "Merchant Alliance" vendors on a deadline. For these missions players are also compensated with merchant reputation, unlocking access to voyages with increased payouts.

Lack of mission variety soon leaves gameplay feeling repetitive, highlighting the "grind" for rewards.

Fulfilling missions from these factions forms the basis of Sea of Thieves' gameplay loop, with variations upon these mission structures as you progress. While three strong foundations, you'll have experienced a fair portion of the complete Sea of Thieves experience in just a couple hours. This lack of mission variety soon leaves gameplay feeling repetitive, highlighting the "grind" for rewards.

Sea of Thieves Kraken Fight

Sea of Thieves Kraken Fight (Image credit: Xbox )

Outside of these voyages, Sea of Thieves also packs various side activities to explore. The Skeleton Forts are a highlight of these, pitting players against countless waves of enemies, before killing a final boss. These missions drastically switch up the game's pacing, while offering huge payouts. The legendary Kraken sea monster can also randomly interject your voyages, sometimes requiring multiple crews to band together and fight.

Each of these mission types deliver some interesting concepts, putting an emphasis on tangible in-game objects that need to be swiftly deposited. Although simple fetch quests, the intricacies of finding and transporting goods at high risk never loses its charm. It's just a shame that these ideas are ultimately forsaken when consolidated into a single, uninspiring currency.

Getting your grind on

Sea of Thieves also ventures away from the traditional sense of video game progression, abandoning gameplay-altering upgrades in favor of a cosmetic system. Players can purchase cosmetic skins from vendors with their gold, such as clothing pieces, tools, and weapons.

Deeper gameplay would be welcomed, rather than differentiating players by the color of their pants.

The game's developer pits this as "horizontal" progression – an approach seen in other established games to prevent player upgrades from disrupting balancing. But by putting all sense of player reward on the experience, Sea of Thieves offers essentially no progression at all. Some form of deeper gameplay would be welcomed, rather than differentiating players by the color of their pants.

Many upgrades require hours of grinding similar missions to unlock, repeating the same gameplay loop than feeling truly special. Many "higher-tier" rewards such as ship upgrades also feel artificially inflated simply to keep you playing, requiring way into six figures of gold.

This is ultimately Sea of Thieves biggest flaw – while it delivers some interesting concepts, it's simply a framework of what could be a bigger title at launch. Despite numerous promising mechanics, we're left with only the promise of more content to come later down the line.

This is a trend among many shared-world games as a service titles, launching with a lackluster offering of content, while promising more in the future. Yet in Sea of Thieves' case, we're yet to recieve a roadmap, only leaving players with the game's current offerings. It's hard to recommend Sea of Thieves for long-term players, especially without the security of major updates on the horizon.

However, even with a lack of content, I do keep finding myself being drawn back. Sea of Thieves, at least initially, feels so fresh – there's nothing quite like it on the market. It's the journey, not the destination, that makes it so special.

The journey ahead for Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves offers an open sandbox with countless opportunities, delivering the best pirate game you'll find on console today. Its inviting world houses some unrivaled social multiplayer experiences, with a dynamic edge to gameplay that keeps you playing for what might lay ahead. Putting fun first and foremost, its perilous voyages are best enjoyed with a four-man crew of friends.

Despite being a strong foundation, Sea of Thieves has still some major hurdles to overcome. Without a sustainable offering of content at launch and clear post-launch content plans, the game's future remains uncertain. Going forward, Rare's ability to deliver new content and communicate with fans will have a heavy bearing on the game's long-term success.

Pros:

  • Unique gameplay you won't find elsewhere.
  • A strong foundation for cooperative play.
  • Dynamic sandbox means a surprise is always around the corner.
  • A beautiful world to explore.
  • Fun and humor are never punished.

Cons:

  • Questionable longevity.
  • With limited launch offerings, the game's success is dependent on post-launch support.
  • Lack of meaningful progression for many.
  • Solo players will feel lonelier than ever.

While Sea of Thieves offers some unmissable fun you won't find elsewhere, the game currently struggles to justify its $59.99 (opens in new tab) price point at launch. For many, this will be an ideal title to pick up via Xbox Game Pass – Microsoft's Netflix-style subscription service, which provides access to a rotating library of games for a flat monthly fee. At just $9.99 per month (opens in new tab) and the promise of future Microsoft games like State of Decay 2 and Crackdown 3, this makes a convincing case to jump on the service.

Sea of Thieves now available on Xbox One (opens in new tab) and Windows 10 (opens in new tab), as well as Xbox Game Pass. The game also embraces Xbox Play Anywhere with cross-platform purchases, multiplayer and progress, while also offering enhancements for Xbox One X.

This review was conducted on Xbox One X using a copy provided by Microsoft.

Matt Brown is Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.

24 Comments
  • Not fun here. Keep getting Cyanbeard connection errors. Have a 100mb d/l, 50mb u/. Not happy at all!
  • Been experiencing those issues since launch?
  • Just get a refund.
  • The net speed is irrelevant, if you have high ping, jitter, bufferfloat... Check those aspects of your connection.
  • I was so excited for this game and the potential...they definitely did not take advantage of the potential that lies at the foundation of the game. This really could have been a F2P game at it's current state. I know many people are checking it out as part of the Game Pass but I would feel horribly let down if I dropped $60 on it. The developers leave it to the hands of gamers to "create their own fun and adventures" simply because the actual content necessary to create those adventures is not there. Leaving it in gamers hands to create their own fun has led to griefing, spawn camping, and overall d baggery.
  • It was a fun game at first but it got boring real quick with the repetitive quest to get money and there's no upgrades just cosmetic stuff that is way over priced
  • Yeah, making treasure worthless is probably the strangest decision in gaming I've ever come across. What's the point in gathering treasure if you can't buy anything worthwhile for it?
    Sure, the voyage can be fun at first, but later on, you need a goal to keep you going.
  • Sigh.......... One day... One day Microsoft will return to the greatness of the original Xbox days of great first party titles... It amazes me how the most wealthiest company that has more knowledge of hardware and software than all of their competitors always manages to be one step behind. So many great IPs going unused. Hopefully one day they will make it back to Greatness. Sea of Thieves is not the answer. It's more of a question of why I waste so much time and effort on something that graphically (not performance wise) looks it could have been done on the Nintendo switch. Please start using Rare the way they were meant to be used. As the Heavy Hitters that they used to be.
  • So true man.
  • Any connections issues should be overhauled with a patch this week I couldn't play the first day and I've been good ever since. My cuz kept getting kicked yesterday I've just lagged a few times but no issues on PC or Xbox for me.
  • I've been playing and the experience had been outstanding with only one bug. When quests are completed, you get the experience and gold but the gold counter doesn't update until you log out and back in.
  • People are expecting too much and saying they're bored. Just like any co op game it gets repetitive and boring. #1 for that was Destiny. This game can bring amazing stories and fun journeys. I'm having a blast with it. Never know what to expect when seeing other ships.
  • "Never know what to expect when seeing other ships." that they'll try to kill you on-sight, unless you kill them first?
  • Actually a couple of guys approached me the other day and help me complete my voyage... Pretty cool if you ask me ;)
  • This game makes me (and others) very sick when playing it. Nothing to do with the sea, just something weird with the camera or framerate or something. Can't play it for more than about 10 minutes. No word from MS/Rare even acknowledging the problem. Shame, it seems kinda fun.
  • I do get Dizzy too
  • Tried increasing the FOV? Possible on both Xbox One and PC and could help a lot
  • Yeah, tried that, but no use. People saying they should increase the maximum FOV to 110, but I didn't see even a slight improvement when I upped it to 90.
  • The first couple of times I felt ill too, but it has seemed to get better now that I've plated a few times. I'm just going around trying to still figure it out but enjoying it mostly.
  • I`m loving it! Bugs and PC hackers and everything else. Have been playing for a year through all the tests and it is a truly unique game, great when its good, awful when its bad. There are a lot of passionate people working on this game and they listen to feedback, if you aren't into this game long term then don`t bother complaining.
  • As a solo-player, the game is fun for about 2-3 hours. Then it becomes boring, repetitive and without any sort of substance at all. I imagine it being enjoyable for 12 year old's who organise playing-parties with friends (kinda like the LAN-parties of old but without the need to be in the same place).
    Or for adults suffering from Peter Pan-syndrome. For the rest of us who enjoy a console as a solo, relaxing time, Sea of Thieves fails miserably at achieving anything. Here's hoping that Skull & Bones will be a better experience...considering it's based on Assassin's Creed Black Flag pirate experiences...and that game is still a better pirate game than Sea of Thieves IMO. And at least that one will apparently have a single player mode.
  • No, it isn't based on Black Flag. For that check the upcoming Skull & Bones.
  • I think you need to read what I wrote again. But pay attention this time ;)
  • I'm glad there is no vertical progression system. That industry trend needs to die. Sea of Thieves is off to a good start as long as they stick to their guns.