Since launching in March, Sea of Thieves has sailed on some turbulent tides. Rare's online pirate masterpiece was criticised heavily at launch for being short of content and having a lot of problems with griefers due to proximity of respawns - enough to turn some (extremely vocal) players away. However, those of us who have stuck with the game saw a solid expansion in May's The Hungering Deep, and now again with July's Cursed Sails.
The Hungering Deep added a short campaign and a new AI threat to the world in the form of the Megalodon. The campaign was available for a couple of weeks, drove a dramatic increase in player co-operation, and left the Meg in the world once it was over. It was a solid, if short, piece of extra content - good fun while it lasted, and offering a sufficiently different experience to bring people back. Perhaps its most lasting impact though was driving the playerbase to be willing to co-operate - while other players will still sometimes open fire on sight, a conversation is often more likely to take place first, with truces agreed on the fly.
Rare have been quite transparent in their communications that The Hungering Deep was likely to be the smallest piece of additional content that would be released for the game due to their internal team structure; the team that made The Hungering Deep had the shortest period of time to produce content as theirs would be shipping first after the release of the game. Each subsequent release would have more time to incubate, resulting in larger drops of content. Rare have stated that they have four teams currently active, and are also recruiting - so it seemed fair to assume that The Hungering Deep could be seen as a small-scale demonstration of their plans for the game.
As with The Hungering Deep before it, Cursed Sails features a campaign. It requires sailing around islands, talking to vendors, reading journals and eventually results in you being rewarded with some handsome new ship cosmetics - and it took my son and I a little over an hour and a half to complete. Unlike with the previous DLC, this campaign is entirely optional - you don't need to have completed it to be able to go and fight the skeleton crews that are the central addition of the content - but it adds some context to the world that is appreciated. It's the weakest part of the DLC - I'm hoping that Rare will eventually be able to give us a quest that consists of more than "sail here, read this/talk to this person, repeat, repeat, end", but the fact remains that the quest is longer and more interesting than the one offered by The Hungering Deep - showing that progress is being made in this area.
New cosmetic options have also been dropped in - there's the expected sets of pirate clothing and ship cosmetics, with new hulls, sails, and flags all making an appearance. There's also the ability to change the colour of your pirate's hair - something I didn't know I wanted until I changed my chap's hair and beard scarlet, then white, then purple, and suddenly found myself wondering how we'd done without this for so long. Of the new ship gear, the new pirate legend stuff is ridiculously cool - I was lucky enough to see some in the flesh on another ship in our alliance, as I'm still a fair way from being allowed to obtain it for myself. The new skeleton-holding-lamp figurehead is especially beautiful. Completion of the DLC will reward you with a set that includes a Kraken skull figurehead - and it looks exactly as cool as it sounds.
Cursed Sails introduces a lot more than just a campaign and some new cosmetics though. The long awaited three man ship has now arrived - and it's an interesting vessel. The brigantine is equipped with two sails, four cannons, and one single long deck. It sits low in the water, but is quick and maneuverable - custom made for a crew of three. On a deeper level, the existence of this ship and some of its design elements are a very real demonstration of Rare's commitment to its community. Apparently, there were never any plans to add more ships to the game - it only exists because the community asked for it. When it first entered testing, the crow's nest sat atop the front mast - which is shorter than the rear mast and resulted in players not being able to get a 360 degree view of their environment. Player feedback was listened to and acted on, resulting in the crow's nest being moved to the rear mast. Once Cursed Sails ends, this ship will remain in the game - which is great news for me as I'm someone who often sails in a crew of three.
The other big addition to the game is alliances - allowing players to group up to defeat the skeleton crews and then, critically, share the loot after the battle. This is probably the element I'm most excited for. I play a lot of Sea of Thieves but I'm not particularly good at PvP, and as a result rarely manage to complete a skull fort as there's no incentive for another crew to allow mine to be involved. I don't know the metrics behind my experience - but in speaking to other players both in person and on Twitter there seem to be a lot of players who have either never completed a skull fort, or have only completed a few, and a smaller number who have completed loads of them. The Alliance system could be answer to balancing this out a bit - by adding the ability to share loot among the crews involved, the need to compete for it is diminished while remaining an option for the crew that are hell-bent on sinking all else that sail the same server as them.
The skeleton ships are an absolute blast. Setting sail last night, I wasn't certain of what to expect. We approached a fort where two other ships were docked and asked if we could join an alliance with them. The offer was accepted, flags were changed and we set sail. What followed was total chaos. Skeleton ships rise from the deep with a musical accompaniment, and the battles are fierce. These ships are faster and more nimble than you'd expect for a ship of their size, and the gun crews are surprisingly talented. The 30 minute battle flashed by in a blink of an eye - the constant cannonfire, bailing, repairing, grabbing loot, dropping and raising anchors, and being hit by the new cursed cannonballs was quite simply the single most entertaining experience I've had to date in a game that constantly provides me with entertaining experiences. The megalodon dropped by halfway through to take bites out of various ships, adding to the madness. By the end, our ragtag fleet was battered, bruised, out of resources, and limping back to port laden down with treasure and new tales to tell - which is exactly what you hope for after an evening on Sea of Thieves.
If The Hungering Deep was Rare delivering a statement of intent for their game, then Cursed Sails is Sea of Thieves hitting its stride. The content is right, the cadence is right, and after this expectations for Forsaken Shores are going to be very high. The voyage continues...