Rare has a history of producing some top AAA games. GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong Country, Battletoads and Banjo Kazooie are just a handful of the games they have created in the thirty plus years since the company was formed. Microsoft acquired the studio back in 2002 and whilst they got off to a decent start producing cult hits Like Viva Pinata, and the niche vehicle construction platformer Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, they've been relatively quiet for a number of years now. Sea of Thieves is their first major release for quite some time and Microsoft are relying on it to help catch Sony in the race to deliver the best exclusives to gamers. The question is, does the game do enough to turn the heads of loyal Sony fans?

The game is a sandbox pirate game with an emphasis on co-operative play and was certainly one i was looking forward to trying. A key feature is that players do not increase in power, instead the progression system is wholly delivered by earning cosmetic upgrades for your equipment or ship. The idea behind this is that if a new player joins a few months after launch, then existing players won't have more powerful characters and also a casual player joining a group of friends won't fall behind in terms of power and so will always be useful.

The first issue I found with the game was at the point of character creation. Rare have given gamers a wide range of body and face types, ethnicities and sizes. The choice leads to a very striking and appealing visual style and a pirate full of character. My issue is that you can't design your own pirate. Instead you are given a choice of 8 random pirates. If you don't like them you can generate 8 new ones. If there is a pirate you like the look of but are unsure about then you can set them as a favourite and when you select to generate a new set of random pirates, your favourite(s) remain as part of the next selection. The variety seems vast and due to this you're probably not going to get the exact look that you want. I ended up choosing the closest to what I was looking for as I was getting bored of constantly generating a fresh selection and scrolling through them. For a game that prides itself on progression being solely through earned cosmetics, not providing a true character creator is a huge omission. At this point I couldn't work out whether this was a strange design decision or for another reason. I soon figured out why.

Due to the game being online only and the amount of hype that has been generated the servers were slammed and in my first 45 minutes I was unable to play at all. This is fairly typical of releases as companies aren't willing to pay for additional servers that are only going to be used for the first 4 or 5 days. In fairness the servers did improve shortly after and i was able to play without issue, though with america hitting their peak a few hours later Rare had to stop new players joining the servers. Whilst frustrating for gamers the servers did settle down. In the days that followed i found the servers to be stable and there to be no connection or lag issues.

The first thing that struck me when I got into the game was the visual style from character selection was present in the main game. The style is slightly cartoony but bold and vibrant. It fits extremely well with the pirate theme and Rare have really done themselves justice with this design work. In addition to this the water is the most realistic and beautiful I have ever seen in a game, which is an obvious benefit for a game based on the sea.

I started my pirate career in a tavern, I spoke to the lady behind the bar but she was no help. Off I ventured into the small port town hoping to find some breadcrumb trail leading me forwards, or on screen prompts to appear to act as a tutorial. I got neither, no quests and no tutorial. After speaking to a number of NPCs I was still none the wiser until I found a merchant who sold contracts. Eventually I found 3 different merchants representing the games 3 factions who sell different types of quest. As you start out without a single gold piece thankfully the initial quests are free of charge. I then decided to have a play with the controls before I set off on my merry way. Unfortunately I had absolutely nothing in my inventory so there was nothing to try. This was likely a bug as on subsequent plays I found an array of standard equipment such as a bucket, compass sword and pistol. I then set out to find my ship. The problem was there wasn't a ship in sight, but there was a blue flare. I ignored the flare at first, assuming it was where I should be sailing my ship. After more searching I decided to give up on the search for a ship and swim out to the flare. Once I get to the flare a merman offered to reunite me with my ship. I agreed and was whisked away to another island (with no explanation). Being in charge of a boat isn't easy. You have to set sail length and angle, raise and lower the anchor, fire and reload the canons and manually carry out repairs. It clear that this isn't easy as a solo player and there zero explanation as how to do anything. After several failed attempts at navigating my boat I decided that going solo wasn't the best idea. I quit out of the game so that I could play as part of the crew. I opted for the 4 man galleon as I thought this would get me the best chance at learning from others and not being too much of a burden. Once you choose your ship time you are assigned with a crew at random. Again I found this odd, there was no search functionality or lists of open groups. My first few crews were absent. I was on the galleon alone and no one responded to my voice chat or in game calls. My next crew had a very vocal gentleman who was shouting orders in German. With my understanding of German being limited we didn't get very far. My next few crews either put me in the brig as the didn't want me to be part of their crew or wandered off making it near impossible to take to the waters.

I soon found that opting for a 2 man sloop was a far better idea. I soon stumbled upon a helpful Dutch guy who taught me a few things about the game. At this point in my piracy career I was still intrigued but was yet to actually get any enjoyment out of the game. And then everything changed. A few of my friends also had the game and so we got together as a crew of three on a galleon. Instantly the experience was vastly improved. One of us would steer while another would monitor the map and sort the sails with the third member of the crew in the crows nest looking for obstacles, shipwrecks and other ships. We rotated between tasks and were soon taking on basic quests with ease. We stumbled upon a lone sailor in a sloop and slaughtered him, we were killed by a kraken, we found treasure aplenty. At one point a random person was matched into our crew. While we weren't looking he took all of our treasure and threw it into the sea. We responded by placing him in the brig by using an in game vote function. Whilst in the brig we got drunk on grog, vomited into buckets and then threw it at him as punishment. The game was amongst the best multiplayer gaming I've had in a long time. The thrill comes from the sandbox experience where you make your own adventures and stories. The main challenge is the lack of variety. There are only three types of quest in the game and these are randomly generated. As there is no story the key content is repeating these quests which will soon wear thin. Also the only enemy you face are skeletons, whether roaming the small islands or defending their forts. Whilst there is a small amount of variety with a small number of different types it certainly lacks variety. Combat with other ships can be tactical and thrilling but as there is no weapon variety the experience is unlikely to change.

I find it odd that a game about piracy on the high seas where the sole form of progression is cosmetic, only has two types of boat. Granted there are cosmetic options for both of these but it's feels very strange that there are only two types. I would have expected three times that at least. I hope that Rare can address this as it would make a big difference.

The lack of tutorial will alienate many newcomers. The lack of ship choice, single enemy type, repetitive structure and limited progression make what could have been a great asset for Microsoft fall flat. Granted, the developers have indicated that there's a lot more to come in the future but the majority of people will, like myself, judge what we are given in the first few weeks and not what is on the very distant horizon. There are certain parallels between Sea of Thieves and the near flop No Man's Sky on PS4. Though that was a game that eventually turned things around. I hope that Rare can do the same with Sea of Thieves but for now I can't recommend it as a full price purchase. I've spent a fair amount of time recently with a few games in beta or early access and Sea of Thieves feels like it should be one of them. The underlying game is solid and there is vast promise but the lack of content and variety certainly holds it back. It really feels like the game should have had another 6-12 months development to fully flesh it out.

One saving grace for the game is that it can be found on Microsoft's game subscription service Game Pass. The service is the gaming equivalent of Netflix and Sea of Thieves suits this well. If you don't want to lay of the cost of a full price game you can subscribe for a month and get all of what the game has to offer. This genuinely feels like the future of gaming and I can certainly see myself keeping the subscription going for other first party releases such as State of Decay 2 or Crackdown 3.

In short Sea of Thieves is a big mixture of positives and negatives, if you have a group of friends and can see past the lack of variety then there is a lot of fun to be had. Solo players may want to either steer clear or find a community or clan where they can group up. If you are sitting on the fence and cant make your mind up, it's worth trying a 14 day trail of Game pass to see if this is the game for you. It's certainly a try before you buy title.