It's been a long time since since Rare has had a blockbuster. Part of the reason is that the developer isn't afraid of trying unconventional ideas.
The studio made a gardening game of all things with "Viva Pinata." The team followed that up with "Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts," a title that lets players create their own vehicles. "Kinect Sports" allowed the developer to experiment with the motion controls on the Xbox 360. These are projects with risks, offering experiences that are as unique as they are unexpected.
Rare's latest game follows that ethos. "Sea of Thieves" throws players into the deep end of an open-world pirate experience. They're equipped with the basics: a cutlass, a pistol, planks, cannonballs, a few instruments and a tankard of grog for good measure. Working with a crew up up to four, players have to use these tools to sail the high seas.
It's a simple yet expansive premise and one that's full of emergent gameplay. In "Sea of Thieves," players won't encounter any scripted scenarios or narrative. Instead, they come up with the story themselves. They can be sailing along and find a sunken ship that holds treasure. A few minutes later, they could find rival players who attack the ship hoping to take whatever is in the hold. Having defeated other online pirates, players and their crew could happily sell the loot at an outpost for gold.
Because the experience depends so much on randomness and players, "Sea of Thieves" is dependent on its community. If a player hops on and finds that his teammates voted to lock him in the brig and sink the ship, then it can leave an awful impression. It's important to have a trustworthy crew that can handle different roles on the ship.
Group dynamics are vital to success because "Sea of Thieves" forces players to work together. It's nearly impossible for one pirate to sail a ship alone. Teammates have to raise the anchor or navigate for the helmsman at the wheel. Someone has to raise and lower the sails while also angling them to catch the wind.
Those jobs change with the situation. If the ship is attacked, one crew member may have to man the cannons while another patches up the holes below deck so the boat doesn't sink. Another person will have to bail the water out. When the pirates reach their destination, a crew of three may go on shore while leaving a person aboard in case a scoundrel tries to steal the ship. (It's called "Sea of Thieves" for a reason.)
At first, the game's foundation seems solid. The concept of playing with others and going on different voyages is wicked fun. The core gameplay loop of signing up for missions, completing them and earning gold for missions is solid, but as players keep adventuring, they'll discover the novelty wears off.
That's where "Sea of Thieves" hits troubled waters. Rare wanted to make a game accessible to everyone so that experienced players could sail with newcomers with no problem. To do that, they sacrificed potential gameplay depth. Any gear players buy is cosmetic, so one sword isn't better than another. Without any noticeable difference in gear, it's hard to feel like players are progressing or growing more powerful.
Instead, advancement revolves around fulfilling quests from three factions: the Gold Hoarders, the Merchant Alliance and Order of Souls. These three organizations offer different mission types with the first focused on digging up treasure, the second built around finding and moving cargo such as pigs and chickens and the last centered on defeating skeletons and taking their skulls. Rising through the ranks lets players tackle tougher and more elaborate voyages and all that work is to attain the title of Pirate Legend.
It's an admirable goal, but the rewards and quest system has to be compelling enough to entice players to reach that. The world of "Sea of Thieves" needs to be richer with different enemy types and bigger places to explore. Without a lack of variet and repetitive missions, it could be a tough task for Rare to keep players engaged in its this ambitious pirate simulator. The developer will need to add more meaningful content to improve a game that has potential.
"Sea of Thieves"
Two and a half stars
Platform: Xbox One, PC
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