As a little boy, I had many ‘phases’. There was the dinosaur phase, the Star Wars phase (which I’m still kind of stuck in if I’m honest) and, of course, a pirate phase. In my early years, I was drawing secret maps, donning an eyepatch and taking a shovel into the backyard in the search for buried treasure. Afternoons at the pool were spent looking for shipwrecks. Given that, it might come as a surprise that I totally let Sea of Thieves fly under my radar. Perhaps the mixed reception it received at launch was enough to dissuade me, but for whatever reason, a sandbox in which I could live out every pirate fantasy I ever had was not enough to entice me.
But when Rare invited me to their studios just outside of Birmingham to see what lay ahead in the game’s second year, I finally gave it a shot. Although I was a little overwhelmed and would have enjoyed being a little more directed in the opening hour or so, I could see why Sea of Thieves has cultivated such a passionate community in its first year. It has a certain magic, even if it wasn’t necessarily realising its full potential.
But that could all be about to change. Having gone hands-on with Sea of Thieves’ Anniversary Update, out at the end of the month, it might be time to consider raising the anchor and setting sail.
The Anniversary Update, which centres around the beginnings of new authored story content, Tall Tales, and a new PvP mode, The Arena, addresses some long-awaited fan requests. Tall Tales takes some of Rare’s experimentation with storytelling, such as that in past update, The Hungering Deep, and takes it to the next level. Although there are some procedural elements within the narrative, changing the locations of buried chests and hidden vaults, it’s the most focussed story has ever been in the game. Playing through the Tall Tales various quests helps you grapple with Sea of Thieves’ systems and unpacks the gameplay loop in a condensed, easy-to-follow story that plays beautifully into the sense of adventure integral to the game. Speaking to Sea of Thieves’ Executive Producer, Joe Neate, and Senior Designer, Shelley Preston, they confirmed that you can jump into the Tall Tales story right upon booting up the game, even if it’s for the first time, meaning its perfect for first-timers starting out their pirate campaign.
But that’s only part of Rare’s strategy with the Anniversary Update. Joe told me, “it’s about meeting a wider range of motivations, which ultimately will bring new people in, [but also] it will satisfy our existing players.” In that sense, there’s something here for veterans of the high sea and newcomers alike; a lore-rich story that neatly wraps up everything there is to love about Sea of Thieves in a neat package sprinkled with mystery and intrigue. And Shelley says this is just the beginning, that they are “just scratching the surface of what we could really do with authoured story.” Whilst it’s already a promising start, it’s a sign of much bigger things to come.
Our first session had us play the opening two hours or so of the first Tall Tale, starting our journey to the Shores of Gold. You begin – as Sea of Thieves players will be familiar with – by talking to a mysterious stranger in the tavern. He gives you a captain’s journal which you must read through to uncover clues as to where you might a sunken wreck containing the ship’s log that will help you later in your voyage. Retracing the captain’s footsteps, you must explore the shipwreck on the seabed, locate the log and employ your detective skills further to uncover an abandoned chest, thrown overboard in battle. As we journey on, we load bait onto our hooks and engage in a spot of fishing, another long-requested addition that is making its debut in the Anniversary Update. I very nearly become distracted from the quest as hand as I realised this opens up an entirely new progression system inviting you to collect some fifty species of fish and return them to a hunter for extra rewards. Gotta catch ’em all, you know?
We eventually find the chest which contains a key to a hidden vault, which we too must find on an uncharted island. It becomes immediately apparent that Indiana Jones has been used as a source of reference as we nervously enter the tomb wary of traps around every corner. There is, of course, a puzzle which we must solve, made more difficult by the fact that we managed to misplace some important medallions in a fight with a bunch of skeletons. Eventually, we uncovered the Shroudbreaker, an important part of Sea of Thieves’ expanding lore that was going to help us later in our journey. At that point, we were asked to down out controllers, much to my disappointment. I was already hooked. Talk of secret pirate treasure and bountiful booty was scratching an itch I’d forgotten I had. Childhood fantasies of being a pirate were suddenly reawoken.
I am, of course, being intentionally vague with the specifics of those first couple of hours of Tall Tales. They benefit from being unspoiled, allowing you to progress at your own pace and solve the mystery by yourself. Coming at it as a relative Sea of Thieves newcomer, I was enthralled. This was the sort of direction, a focus I felt I needed when I first played Sea of Thieves. Very quickly I felt I had a new appreciation for the game and a better understanding of its systems. I was even beginning to tinker with new additions, such as the fishing, but also the harpoon guns, which have also been added to the front of the ship. To achieve the immersion realised in Tall Tales in a shared, pirate world is an impressive feat. I went from being kind of ho-hum about Sea of Thieves to being giddily excited about the potential adventure awaiting me.
And The Arena, Sea of Thieves’ new PvP mode, only sweetens the deal that is the Anniversary Update. Whilst PvP has been limited to chance encounters you have out in the shared world, The Arena creates a new opportunity to engage with Sea of Thieves in a more bite-size fashion. Matches take only 24 minutes, allowing you to have smaller play sessions than adventuring typically afford, and pit five crews against each other in a race to uncover buried treasure, and return the chests to cash-in points, themselves ships at sea. Everyone starts with a treasure map revealing the location of a chest, which refreshes once it’s been dug up. You gain score for digging up the chests, returning them, sinking ships and killing enemy pirates, inviting a number of different strategies. Some teams were quite successful in engaging in conflict head-on and scavenging any chests that fell overboard. Others would try to sneak onto the island unnoticed and hoard treasure chests whilst others were distracted by battle.
Our crew attempted to be quite confrontational at first, leaving others to do the hard work in reading the maps and digging up the goods. Sadly, we weren’t as prepared for a fight as we thought we were. Between loading cannons, frantically repairing masts and bailing out water that flooded in from the holes riddled in the walls, we were defeated in the chaos. We scrambled to get any points at all, racing between stations on the ship, failing to notice as enemy pirates scrambled on board, dropped out anchor and stole our treasure, leaving us stranded and sinking. Admittedly, we didn’t really know what we were doing.
The Arena is a mode for people well accustomed to Sea of Thieves’ mechanics, such that everyone knows their strengths and fulfils a predetermined role aboard the ship. I can’t imagine it is possible to jump straight into The Arena; you really do benefit from having spent some time in the Adventure portion of the game to familiarise yourself with everything, but specifically how to sail the ship. Cohesion and communication amongst your crew is also absolutely essential. That being said, there’s room to facilitate a tonne of different playstyles, as Shelley suggested.
“… [The] Arena is not your typical competitive mode,” she said. “It’s competition, and it’s highly competitive, but it’s Sea of Thieves‘ version of competition. So it’s not taking a template of any other competitive mode, it’s still about your soft skills, your social skills, your strategizing, how good you are at reading the maps, bating the water, steering the ship. It’s not just about hand-to-hand combat or PvP or twitch reactions, and I think because of that we believe it can bring competitive multiplayer to a more accessible, to a broader audience. And because of that, I think we are aware that there is that crossover that people who are playing Sea of Thieves for the Tall Tales or for the Sandbox Adventure might find themselves enjoying Arena more that they necessarily thought they would because it’s not your traditional competitive mode.”
With that in mind, our second attempt faired a little better as we set about to individual roles. With someone steering the ship and two crew members including mys managed to get to some islands ahead of the opposition and dig up some chests for a reasonable point score. That was despite accidentally disclosing our genius strategy of ‘scoring more points than everyone else’ in the pre-game lobby, in which all twenty pirates lark about in a tavern as the game loads.
But in the final game is where things got real intense. Having sussed out our roles, a pair of us cannonballed onto an island. We swam in the shallows, hiding from a pair of cutlass clashing swashbucklers on shore. Stealthily, we worked our way on land and uncovered a hoard of chests. Unfortunately, our ship had run into trouble off-shore. Unsure what to do with our chests, we stashed them in a lake on land, crossing our fingers no one would stumble across them. We returned to our ship to support the crew and journeyed back to the island to reclaim our booty. As the clock counted down, we scrambled to get the chests on board. Fog began to roll in and to our east, we saw three ships fighting it out, cannons ablaze. But on the horizon was the cash-in point. We had the equivalent of 3,000 points on board the ship, assuming we could make it in time. There was 60 seconds on the clock. As we approached, a ship sank costing the team points and putting us within reach of second place. We stood poised at the prow, ready to crash into the ship where we could cash-in the points. But alas, time elapsed, and the fairytale finish not to be.
But I did not feel the pang of defeat. Instead, I felt exhilarated. I and the rest of the attendees poured out of our booths, loudly sharing our stories. As we raced the clock, a massive skirmish has taken place in the final moments with chest changing hands repeatedly. Clearly, multiple stories took place simultaneously, and I grew envious of the team watching the visual feed in the adjacent room. It would have been great as a spectator, making me think of the potential for this mode, full of adrenaline-inducing, nautical carnage, as an emerging esport.
I guess that depends how well it takes on, but I was convinced. I fully expected to resonate with the Tall Tales component of the Anniversary Update but was pleasantly surprised by how much The Arena took my breath away. Of course, it depends on your ability to assemble a crew. That makes all the difference, but trust me when I say I’m trying to convince people already that they need to get aboard. I’m convinced, and if this is just the beginning for many more anniversaries to come for Sea of Thieves’, we’re in for a treat. It’s the pirate life for me.
EWAN FLEW TO THE UNITED KINGDOM AS A GUEST OF XBOX FOR THE SEA OF THIEVES ANNIVERSARY EVENT.