The executive producer for Sea of Thieves has just called me a “motherf**ker”. I can’t stop laughing. I didn’t expect this when I arrived at Rare this morning. To be honest, I didn’t really expect that kind of reaction to ever emerge from a session in Sea of Thieves. Despite its piratical set-up, and the built-in opportunity for meanness that allows for, Sea of Thieves has always struck me as an almost uniquely friendly shared open world.
We all know how Sea of Thieves started out. Around release, I grew fond of calling it “the world’s nicest chatroom” – a place where I hung out with my friends while doing a few odd jobs, rather than undertaking grand quests (mainly because it didn’t feel like those quests were really there). It wasn’t what I could achieve in that world that drew me in, rather just the pleasantness of being there.
The executive producer for Sea of Thieves has just called me a “motherf**ker”. I can’t stop laughing.
“Obviously, the feedback at launch was, ‘everything is great, you don’t need to add anything else,’” jokes Joe Neate (of ‘calling me a motherf**ker later that day’ fame), “but we decided to turn that on its head and go and add some stuff.” And yes, the game’s four major updates to date have made my self-satisfied chatroom bon mot less and less accurate, slapping far more meat onto that bare-bones first impression. Much of those updates’ work consciously centred on how to make players used to acting adversarially come together and play even more nicely together.
Which is why I think it’s so brilliant that, in my hands-on with the upcoming Anniversary ‘mega-update’, I got sworn at quite so forcefully. It’s not brilliant because the new additions do turn Sea of Thieves into a more competitive, potentially foul-mouthed place – it’s brilliant because they can.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales
There’s a lot to this update: entire fishing and cooking systems, improved ship damage (including the ability to take down individual masts), harpoon guns for the front of your ship that, hilariously, can attach to anything. All of these quickly begin to feel natural as you’re playing, seamlessly sliding into the old experience. But the undoubted standouts are the Tall Tales campaign, and the new PvP Arena, primarily because these two additions pull in completely different directions.
The former is a fully-fledged story mode. Suddenly, the Mysterious Stranger – who’s been hanging out in the darker corners of the game’s Outpost Taverns since Day 1 – gets a lot chattier, recounting the legend of the Shores of Gold.
My crew was handed a 10-page journal covered in writing, sketches and clues, all about the doomed treasure voyage of a long-lost ship. That led us to a shipwreck, which contained more pages for the journal. Those pages led to more pages, until we had a full account of the voyage, and where the final treasure could be found. It’s intoxicating to realise that the book in your hand holds all the answers, and all you have to do is work them out – never more so than when you’re locked in a hidden vault that’s filling up with water, with your crewmates yelling for you to find the codes that must be hidden in the journal somewhere.
Across the course of around an hour, we were gently floated between riddle-solving, treasure finding, Indiana Jones-like puzzle solving and combat, not to mention a classic pirate storyline. And this is the first of 9 episodes, each with a different journal, and a different style of storyline, from romance to horror – the Shores of Gold campaign promises to comprise what amounts to an in-game anthology series. I’m already surprised both by how long this campaign could be, and how much more fulfilling it is to play out than the game’s baseline quests.
Brilliantly, Rare has jerryrigged several of the game’s islands to allow this same first quest to take place on them. As you receive it, the game will guide you to the island with the least player activity around it – hopefully safeguarding you from having other crews interrupt your fun – and altering the journal accordingly.
In a small but lovely move, these islands haven’t been altered to allow for this – hidden vault doors, and even the wall-daubed clues that point to them, have been in the game for a year: “I remember asking the art team shortly after launch, ‘tell me where there’s places where we could place potential hiding areas’”, says design director Mike Chapman. “You’re adding content but you’re not retconning the world – it kind of feels like someone’s just found the key now.”
That feeling ties in nicely to what Tall Tales promises. It’s the first time I’ve felt that Sea of Thieves is offering a journey and a reward (finishing the campaign will allow you to visit the titular Shores of Gold, a mysterious island that Rare tells us is the biggest it’s made yet) that match its original promise. This truly feels like it could become the treasure hunting, legend-building pirate fantasy people hoped for.
And then there’s Arena, which feels completely different.
The Arena is a five-boat, 20-player PvP mode built around ship combat, treasure hunting and all-round pirate conniving, set in a condensed version of the open-world. It is, as you might expect, the part of the game that caused me to be called a motherf**ker.
If you must know, it’s because I was trying to sneak up on an enemy team to kill them without provocation, allowing our team to cash in some treasure and take the lead. I probably deserved it.
Perhaps cynically, I think Arena might be a tidy way to give the more violently-minded portion of the fanbase (me) a space to get more of what they want – and siphon them away from more peaceful treasure hunters in the process. Rare prefers to call it ‘Sea of Thieves on-demand’, a space for the team to cram the game’s most action-packed elements into one half-hour package.
Whatever the reasoning behind it, the result is as close as Sea of Thieves can really get to a sport, with the minute-to-minute thrills, desperate tactics and out-and-out bastardry that entails. As the game begins, all five crews are given the same treasure maps, and a race begins to dig up the chests marked on them. Points are awarded for both digging up and then cashing in those chests (at a few set points across the map), which is when the evil really begins.
I saw crews using their empty boats as distractions while they snuck onto enemy ships to steal treasure, or hiding out on the cash-in points themselves to kill enemies and cash in their chests at the last moment. My personal favourite tactic was, as soon as my team began winning, digging up chests for the first points reward, then just throwing them into the sea – if you can’t find any treasure, you don’t have much hope of beating my score.
Each 24-minute round becomes a frenzy of cannon fire, hurried repairs, screams of anguish, bursts of laughter and, yes, the occasional swear word. As much as Tall Tales excites me, Arena might be where I head first when the update’s released on April 30, simply because it’s quite so different an experience – Rare’s not just extending Sea of Thieves anymore, it’s changing what it can offer at a base level.
In the long term, perhaps what’s most exciting here is the language Rare uses to talk about Tall Tales and Arena. They aren’t referred to as new modes, or options – they’re “platforms”, ideas to be built on. Tall Tales could extend to whole new campaigns, or one-off event episodes. Arena could become more than a single mode, or throw in daily challenges for those with less time to jump in and out of at their leisure, without the commitment required from a full quest line.
Taken altogether, it truly is an anniversary update, a fulcrum point between years one and two, showing quite how far Sea of Thieves has come at the same time as promising how much further it could take us. Best of all, it’s a motherf**king good time.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK Deputy Editor, and he’d like to point out that Mr. Neate apologised to him several times, and is a thoroughly nice man when he’s not killing you. Follow Skrebs on Twitter (no swearing, please).