[NOTE #1: This review will act in a way that naturally catalogues the first four expansions as I experienced them. Although this score reflects the general sentiments of what I thought of Sea of Thieves (SoT) around launch, it's hard to really grasp a lot of memories solely from the 1.0 version when so much time has been near-equally spent between it and The Hungering Deep, along with some time in Cursed Sails and Forsaken Shores; and now an even greater amount in Shrouded Spoils. This evenly-played time across 2018 should be taken into consideration compared to the more front-loaded playing time of others.]
[NOTE #2: The vast majority of my playtime is subject to my experience of playing with other friends between a 2-man Sloop and 4-man Galleon on a near-consistent basis. I have possibly less than two accumulative hours of experience joining random queues.]
[NOTE #3: Assessment of visuals will note my experience on Xbox One X and Xbox One S consoles.]
We'd just dug up a Captain's Chest, the last of that loot to be hauled aboard. Sixth mate Chad was directing us westward towards promises of skull bounties. Ah…hearing those masts clutch the northerly wind to the verge of rending in two, lurching our Galleon (*ship name tbd*) nearly out of the water was a sight to behold. Suddenly, we stopped dead in our tracks and the surrounding deep blue bled an inky purple. Surrounded, we were, by this murky mantle in all directions! Those dreaded tentacles piercing through the sea never struck such dread into a crew's collective heart. "Kraken!" Everyone began chattering in discordant fashions while we loaded...
...those blasted scoundrels had been chasing us ever since escaping the Kraken's clutches. The only good news was being out of cannonball range. Hah! They couldn't hit the broad side of a barn anyways! We....
...this was it: our last ditch effort. If we couldn't elude them between craggy rocks and circling outposts, we drifted straight towards the ocean edge, plummet off the turtle’s side if need be to ensure they wouldn’t get our treasure. But before reaching uncharted waters, I ordered me crew to drop anchor with the wheel committed hard right rudder. The ship whipped a ninety-degree turn, we immediately acquired a newfound tailwind, and sped down south while our pursuers were left in total disarray. We…
…And that’s how I became the greatest captain to sail these seas, to put it modestly!
Perhaps it’s not decorum for a review’s cold open to be, by all respects, fan fiction; and yet, I couldn't think of a better way of magnifying the emergent adventures anyone can encounter. After what seemed like an eternity stowed in the brig working on sports titles, Rare's arisen with a new IP encapsulating the pirate adventure within the amorphous "shared world shooter" sub-genre; the quickest comparisons will corner it to the Destiny or The Division series. But it's not content in filching those archetypes outright; instead, there’s this unique marriage of pirate double-crosses paired with a playful aesthetic and tone. Obvious comparisons can be made—especially where it lacks. Even so, the foundation in place is suffused with unique character and admirable design ideals which hold surprisingly well in shouldering against the wild gales of criticism.
So how can we define SoT as a genre? Rare's definition of the hybrid would be a "shared world adventure game." It's an online-only pirate sim where you and optionally up to three other people boat around islands in search of loot. While it's easy to prop up examples like Destiny, inspiration from survival games come to mind just as often. But rather than dark, unsettling campaigns in a hostile wilderness where you can lose everything at once, that risk/reward system is implemented with accessibility first in mind.
This convivial tone is especially emphasized through visuals and sound design.
Considering the state of the industry, there’s temptation in following in tow with other shared world games’ realistic art design. SoT sets itself apart with Rare’s signature emphasis of soft-textures for cartoonish character models and a more light-hearted attitude. Not quite straining with the exaggerated facial features as, say, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts yet livelier than various avatars across Kinect games. Everything within these environs feel reminiscent of constructs you'd find in Laika Animation movies (Kubo and the Two Strings, Coraline) with fastidious attention to realistic lighting.
That one-of-a-kind art style is still bolstered by solid—if inconsistent—technical design. For starters, this ocean is among one of the best created for this gen. Seems oddly specific, as if desperately searching for a praise to latch onto, but it's key to consider how integral it was to get this right. Sailing is the only means of legitimate transportation to and fro. Losing that would wreck the game's core gameplay, yet it succeeds with honors. There's been countless times I've taken a step back to admire how fluid & pleasing boating feels, in a similar manner to admiring polished shooting mechanics. Whether in a terrible storm or calm waters, the waves lapping against the ship can be enough to make the easily seasick reconsider coming aboard.
A chief criticism to level against visuals is the disparity of quality between Xbox One X and S. Though not incredibly pronounced, moments of texture pop-in, frame rate dips, and reduced draw distance had a knack of cropping up during my time on the S console. As stated, these weren't a high number in quantity but did sully the experience at times.
Calling upon the merriment in the Pirates of the Carribean ride, SoT knows how to capture a kid-friendly spirit of thieving—a strange bit of praise. At any time you or the crew can bust out musical instruments to kill time. The available tracks to play plus the special background OST tracks are catchy. But the intricate tunes & overall sound complexity doesn’t carry over to the game’s inhabitants. Despite what expansion trailers may show, there’s currently no chatter boxes within these various hamlets. NPC’s typically recite an mmm-hmm response or canned line while informational text provides exposition. This is a terrible shame. Here you have these instruments which can play soundtrack beats in-game, minute details like wood creaking in a ship's hull, and much more, yet don't even utilize a Banjo Kazooie dialogue template of garbled words spitting out silly dialogue for the player. That may be an “outdated” consideration for some, what with modern sensibilities assuming full voice acting by default, but that method works in spotlighting the delivery and tone of their voice: soft-spoken & nervous sister, pesky sidekick, dreadful witch. Here? There’s not that same kind of nuance to find with the fat bartenders, traders (male/female), and the rest of the assorted list. It's especially weird when so much character is distributed elsewhere, from the funny quips in loading screens to typed dialogue.
So what sort of adventure awaits, ye may ask? The core quest structure rests on three core alliances and one added via update:
-Gold Hoarders: focused on treasure chests. Their means of quest-giving is bifurcated between treasure maps and riddles.
-The Order of Souls: contract-killing skeleton bigwigs and returning with said skulls.
-Merchant Alliance: chore tasks that can range from capturing pigs, chickens, or snakes out in the wild. Levels with said faction also increases by random drops like spice crates, silk crates, or gunpowder barrels.
-Bilge Rats [Expansion]: Defeating The Kraken, various Megalodons, etc. for commendations and titles. But it’s important to note they don’t have a reputation meter like that of the other three factions.
There is no leveling like in a traditional RPG, in essence. Increasing reputation specifically leads to accruing better quests, which in turn keeps you out on the high seas repeating the loop ad infinitum.
Therein lies the rub: what's incorporated within that structure to make players' twentieth hour feel like the honeymoon period? The answer comes up short in respect to the prefabricated quests. Gold Hoarders voyages will have either buried treasure marked with red X's on a topographical map or a carefully-termed riddle. While I personally enjoyed dealing with some of these brain-busters, it's tough to maintain enthusiasm for them when higher-level X-marked maps could have several chests bespattered across an island—increasing the likelihood of getting valuable Captain's Chests. Merchant's Alliance quests are often the most generic requiring orders of different colored chickens, pigs, or—on rare occasion—snakes. The Forsaken Shores expansion also added a pirate-themed UPS driver system: delivering silks, plants, and/or rum bottles, all of which run the risk of getting damaged and devalued.
Collection of skelly bounties renders at the fine-yet-sometimes-tedious status depending on the situation. Skeletons are the only typical adversaries, varying in make between standard, leafy skellies that heal in water, gold ones which become rusted in water, and shadows whose weaknesses are in shining a light to expose their skeletal frame. Sometimes location can make all the difference though. Skeleton forts, broadcasted via glowing skull cloud, emphasize the game's core ethos of never leaving your guard down. Not only is a naval and land assault demanded for quick success, these balances are weighed by potential perfidious pirates wishing to secure the Fort's riches for themselves. Since everyone in the server could spot the icon, it's within reason to expect Galleon v. Galleon v. Sloop—or some other combo—to be waged whilst managing waves of skeleton crews.
Despite a loop anchored by repetitiveness, the amount of ancillary design details help to ameliorate those qualms. For all the recent 'shared world' games found nowadays, it's astounding how the over-expositive UI and informational text is pared down to virtually nothing within SoT. This isn't to say the maximalist UX/UI in The Division doesn't have a purpose; however, it feels in keeping with this 'pirate sim' aesthetic for everything to feel tactile. There's no interfaced compass with highlighted objective markers for hand-holding; such demands are kept in-universe by pulling out your own compass and/or crew communication. Whether on the high seas or on foot, physical maps must be consulted. For so many of the expectations found in AAA quasi-MMO’s today, Rare seemed more interested in consulting exploratory design utilized in Firewatch than in Destiny.
This philosophy extends to the quest framework as well. The integral reminder about SoT's rewards, whether from voyages, skull forts, or elsewhere, is they must be physically delivered to the appropriate faction member for you, or your crew, to acquire coinage and reputation. This is what heightens the risk/reward system of playing in these servers, and what made the cold open of this review so fresh in my memory. The reinterpretation of The Division's Dark Zone ruleset has expanded upon the word go; at the same time, the breezy atmosphere makes it easy to let others’ guard down in the most hilarious ways. One of my usual crew mates regaled to me his wiles in convincing a different 2-man crew to 'allow' him to empty their ship quicker by selling a few of their chests, securing the spoils all to himself right under their noses. He ran a rig that scored him much of their best treasure! Such chicanery brings a smile to this pirate's heart!
The plundering lifestyle is most emphasized by naval combat. Lacking, or overly simplistic, in other areas though it may be, SoT has the dynamics of ship combat down pat. For one, the visual design is perfectly clear on effective places to attack. Taking on water from successful cannonball shots requires a well-oiled machine of the crew patching holes, scooping up unwanted water, and dumping back into the ocean. There's a special demand of tactical coordination when weighing whether to commit limited resources for offense or defense as result. This dalliance is further complicated if enemy pirates decide to board. Then you're also forced to berid pest(s) whilst managing a leaky vessel.
And some of the technical details about vessels make it one of my favorite aspects of the game. When talking about commanding a 4-man Galleon, it's so easy to become rapt in attention of directing all the masts to get the perfect directional wind and seeing the teamwork it takes to pull it off. Even if taking a hit on the Galleon's mid-deck, though water may not be POURING in upon impact it will fly in and seep to the bottom dependent upon splashing waves.
None of the individual tasks at hand are difficult on their own, but bigger ships have such a demand to keep on course, watch for enemies, turn masts in accordance with wind, load cannonballs, etc. that's rewarded by the celerity and commutation of everyone, which has its own implicit reward. Later-added naval features include the ability to forge alliances with other nearby ships, which can be precarious, humorous, or sometimes both. One voyage involved us forming an alliance with a new crew that’d successfully raided a skull fort. We offered assistance but then secretly stashed some of the best items for ourselves until we disbanded.
While coordinated ship combat can have an incredible skill ceiling, gameplay for swords and guns is relatively simplistic. A basic lunge, block, and hack for swords—paired with an unreliable parry maneuver. Guns function as you'd expect. And, sure, it’s passable but individual complaints hold it back from anything above that:
-Swordplay feels floaty and doesn't have the impact it should—even in respect to sound foley.
-Eye of reach (sniper) bullet-drop is too unforgiving. I understand the intention here for the most powerful weapon, but even the Battlefield series doesn’t go this far.
-Skeletons had near-perfect aim until being patched several months back.
-Visual information of enemy health is lacking. Although I think health bars wouldn’t be the best route, there should be SOMETHING which provides better communication outside of a skelly cronching a banana.
-Only given a 5 bullet maximum for each gunpowder-based armament without any variation. Although I’m against power creep for weapons I don’t see why stat tradeoffs can’t be a thing: slower reload for extra power, weaker shots for more pellets, or something else.
Even if it were simple, there's little in the way of contextualizing teamwork or piracy while in standard combat. Granted, scouring for an ammo box works; and yet, imagine how teamwork would look if it could be carried like a chest, maybe even throwable to other teammates. Better yet, how about relinquishing your pistol and/or ammo that can be auto-thrown to a teammate in dire straits? Those types of additions on communication-based mechanics further contextualize roleplaying as a resourceful pirate crew.
There’s also something to be said about Rare's deliberate social emphasis: developing various musical instruments even before guns and swords. Whether it be the concertina, hurdy-gurdy, or later-released drum, players can whip out said instruments at any time to play and harmonize a random tune. Since tankards be found at outpost bars or on ships, one can dance and carouse until you’re three sheets to the wind and projectile vomiting everywhere.
"So with the coin I acquire what am I able to do with it?"
There's been an ever-increasing assortment of skins for all accouterments in a pirate's inventory: weapons, spyglass, compass, bucket, musical instruments, etc. Costlier charges apply to the ship: stylish masts, capstans, hulls, and more.
Exclusively cosmetic upgrades have been a point of contention since SoT's release; contrary to said critics, I find the subversion a welcome change of pace in this instance. Beats the frustrating pre-planning from WoW, SWTOR, Destiny, to The Division being locked out of quests thanks to unmatched levels. Since all it takes is for friends to level up while I'm away, enthusiasm deflates until I grind myself to their level again. Here? There's no restrictions outside of not having the more-complex voyages as your friends do, which doesn't matter since you can play them too.
The issue of content clawed at the game during release. While the game world itself is vast and mottled with islands, there's very little in the way of aesthetic variety. The geography is often eye-catching but many islands rely on stony masses, generic flora and fauna, as well as beaches. The list of names—though inspired—run the gambit of expected nomenclature. Having such a grindy system with demanding pirates reach level 50 from all main companies doesn't help cases either; neither do missing items when flipping through the equipment tab.
Expansions have excelled in adding more though. The Hungering Deep provided items like the drum and speakerphone while Cursed Sails gave us skeleton-crewed ships and cursed cannonballs. Though I stand by [NOTE #1], I must admit the respectable drip-feed of these short-lived campaigns & new items show potential. The Game Pass-inspired timed lifespan is deflating for someone who's had a couple short vacations over the summer and simply wanted to focus on other games from time to time; having noted that, the time-sensitive design also complements the pirating theme. I only get to hear the tales regaled of how The Meg was first summoned by Merrick's music, which in turn impels me to make my own stories.
Yet for all the great tales which can be regaled from spontaneous stories of “re-appropriated loot” of other pirates or of dastardly sea creatures, the overarching story & lore is absent too often. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a disparity between available in-game and extra-game lore. From a novel to comics, SoT has some interesting concepts explaining how & why things operate as they do here; and yet, very little is extolled through what scarce books can be found across various isles. And this issue pervades throughout voyages as well. Harkening back the NPC quest-givers, the static nature of these over-worlds & questlines does hamper the notion of inhabiting this world. Adventure doesn’t so much wait around every corner as it does fester. And it’s double a shame when early expansions’ time-specific quests showed Rare can guide players from point to point in a way that wasn’t patronizing and revealed more surprises than the world had initially let on.
As shared-world shooter hybrids blend more and more with their MMO counterparts, ‘tis nice how SoT reinterprets the Darwinistic aspects found there; opting for something more accessible while marrying the perils of losing everything you (and/or your crew) earned. Such a game sounds contradictory yet Rare's done a solid job melding disparate designs—from visuals to the gameplay foundation. No one can shirk the frustrating questions of content, and odd technical hiccups at launch, but such issues wane in comparison to a distinctive personality permeating every aspect of the game.
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