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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Game review: Xbox’s Sea of Thieves sets sail in promising fashion but soon runs aground

The video game is fun but also incredibly beautiful with impressive stylised graphics

Xbox's Sea of Thieves.
Xbox's Sea of Thieves.

The Xbox One X is the most powerful games console yet made, which for many a hardcore gamer is reason enough to buy one.

But being able to brag that the latest third-party title looks better on your console than on any other is just not enough reason for most people to part with a not-insubstantial amount of money. Of the many other considerations that go into such a purchase, one of the most important is what exclusives a console can offer.

A strong line-up of exclusive content – Bloodborne, the Uncharted series, Persona 5, NieR: Automata, to name a few – has helped the PlayStation 4 outsell its Microsoft counterpart this console generation. Every new industry event that passed without an announcement of a must-have Xbox exclusive has plunged fans further into the depths of depression, the glory days of Halo 3 and the Xbox 360 are but a distant memory receding ever further on the horizon.

In sailed Sea of Thieves, helmed by the once legendary British developer Rare (and its day may come again).

Announced at 2015’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, the first gameplay trailer shown at the next year’s gathering stirred excitement and raised hopes that it may be the killer exclusive the Xbox One so desperately needed. Alas, it is not.

Sea of Thieves is fun, make no mistake about it. It is also incredibly beautiful. The stylised graphics may not appeal to everyone, but it features simply the best-looking water to ever appear in a game.

Waves behave realistically, and it’s actually easy to forget what you’re meant to be doing in-game while you instead just stare at the reflection of the sunset on the water.

And there’s the problem – the fact that looking at pretty vistas is often more appealing than playing the game tells you something. Yes, Sea of Thieves is fun, but not for a very long time.

It starts so promisingly. You pick your player character from one of the infinite number of randomly generated pirates before being let loose in an open world filled with more pirate clichés than you can shake a peg leg at. While you can go it alone, Sea of Thieves really is a co-op game at heart, and it’s best played with a team of four players working together, although two can make do.

You board your ship, decide on a mission to complete, and then it’s all hands on deck for the surprisingly enjoyable teamwork required to successfully get your sloop or galleon from point A to point B.

While much will depend on the size of your crew and whether you’re just sailing to a destination, attacking an enemy or defending against one, you will usually need one person manning the wheel, another one or two managing the height and angle of sails, and another on lookout.

During combat, there are cannon that need to be manned, and also the rather frantic work of repairing holes and throwing water overboard if you’re unfortunate enough to be hit by enemy fire.

These moments of frenetic teamwork are definitely a highlight, but it’s just not enough to convince you to devote hours of your precious time to Sea of Thieves.

The problem is that there simply isn’t that much to do, and what there is to do just doesn’t matter all that much. You can complete missions for one of three factions – but they’re all just variations on the same theme, and once you’ve played one of each of the three types, you’ve really played them all.

On-foot combat is ridiculously simple and boring, the complete opposite of the naval battles. But even these lose some of their appeal when you realise that it just doesn’t really matter in the end whether you win or lose. There’s no skill or stat progression, no items to be acquired to make you or your ship more powerful – you can buy only cosmetic items with the gold you earn during missions.

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There’s no real penalty for dying or having your ship sunk, and no real reward for being on the winning side either. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game so utterly lacking in incentive and reward, and with no true end-game – Destiny 2 players have rightly complained about the state of that title’s end-game, but it actually offers a veritable cornucopia compared to this.

Did I mention that there is no story, at all? The idea is that you and your friends create your own story, but even a beginner writer knows that you can’t have much of a story if there are no stakes involved.

Sea of Thieves is free to play for Xbox Game Pass subscribers, and if you’re already spending $10 every month for all the games it gives you access to, then you should definitely give this pirate simulator a try, even if it’s just to gawk at the scenery.

But there is just no way that this game can justify its stand-alone $60 price tag. It seems that the treasure hunt for the game that can turn around the Xbox One’s fortunes will have to continue.