Sea of Thieves has had another update. It’s a common occurrence – developer Rare are rapidly becoming the best example of a developer that provides regular updates to their game and transparent communications with their players, and the latest patch to the game is probably the biggest testament to both of those things yet. Shrouded Spoils is unusual for a Sea of Thieves expansion in that it doesn’t add a specific goal to the world, but instead spins a number of existing mechanics. It’s a series of tweaks that feels considerably greater than the sum of its parts – and the impact it’s had on the game, from the perspective of a long-term player (technical alpha, beta, live, and pioneer!), is nothing short of incredible.
I’ve loved Sea of Thieves from the start, playing solo or in crews of people I know, and I’ve enjoyed all of the mission types. It’s been a game that has included considerable down-time though, with the peace and quiet being something that players either appreciated enormously, or were bored rigid by. That peace and quiet is largely a thing of the past now, as Shrouded Spoils has tweaked a bunch of existing gameplay mechanics and made emergent events more common, and your need to respond to them more urgent. The fact that this dramatic change to the game has been driven largely by changes to existing mechanics rather than the introduction of entirely new ones is impressive. For a while there, it felt as though Rare were stumbling around looking for the game inside Sea of Thieves. With Shrouded Spoils, they’ve found it, brushed its hair, put some make-up on it, and pushed it to the front of the crowd.
For instance, take the Kraken. Karen (as she’s affectionately known) has been in the game since the beginning, attacking ships apparently randomly – although it would seem to happen more often when you’re laden with loot – but aside from an achievement for defeating her, offered no reason to engage. Where once her appearance was awe-inspiring, it had become little more than an inconvenience. Shrouded Spoils introduces loot drops to the fight along with doubloon-earning commendations – and suddenly, seeing those tentacles raising above the blackened water is causing ships to slow down, rather than speed up and try to escape. The megalodon (Meg!) was introduced all the way back with The Hungering Deep. Back then, crews would form alliances to go and hunt her – but once the figurehead had been earned, there was no real reason ever to engage with the giant shark again. She’d appear from time to time, but would generally be docile unless you fired at her – and with no incentive to fire, most people wouldn’t. Personally, I’d take screenshots. Like this one:
Shrouded Spoils has introduced new breeds of megalodon to the waters… and every single one that I've met seems hellbent on eating my ship. Like the Kraken though, there are now commendations and loot on offer for defeating her – meaning that as soon as she pops out of the water, the bullets begin to fly. The mermaid statues introduced back in July return, and now drop jewels that can be sold to any trading company for considerable gold and reputation gains – another example of a pre-existing mechanic being re-introduced with an engagement incentive.
The Skeleton crews that used to be fought as part of a battle that players could choose to engage with (or not) now patrol the world and spawn randomly. Like the old megaladons, some will allow you to move around unhindered until you choose to engage, while others will rise from the depths immediately next to your ship and open fire. When this happens, chaos generally ensues – a few nights ago my brigantine was pursued from Ruby’s Fall to Devil’s Ridge, during which time we ran out of cannonballs, then out of planks, and still the pursuit continued. We ended up running aground and eventually sinking – it was only at that point that the skeleton crew turned and sailed back the way they had come, satisfied. We sailed back and collected our loot – and kept a man in the crow’s nest all the way. The sea is suddenly a much more dangerous place.
All of the skeleton forts are now active – and they spawn almost constantly. No sooner has one skull cloud disappeared from the horizon than another one appears at the opposite end of the map. The newly enabled skull forts feature some interesting shapes and layouts, and clearing them is a different challenge to clearing the existing ones.
Finally, fog has been added. I wasn’t sure how much difference this would actually make to the game, and the first time I experienced it I was impressed by the visual impact it had. The visibility drops to practically nothing, and objects come looming out of the fog. The ambient sound is wound right up – the ship creaks, the sound of the waves lapping at the hull can be heard… and if you’re being pursued, you can hear the enemy players calling out threats to you. It was a genuinely chilling moment, as a solo slooper, to be pursued into the fog by a brigantine. I managed to slip out of their site by pulling an anchor term and then changing direction, but I could hear them calling out to me over voice chat. I like to think I got my own back my making the ‘ki ki ki… ma ma ma’ sounds from Friday the 13th back at them – but if I’m honest I have no idea whether they heard me, and I was mostly relieved that I could tell from their voices that they had no idea where I’d gone. Slipping out of the fog near Plunder Outpost five minutes later, they were nowhere to be seen.
Taken on their own, none of these changes is particularly massive – but when considered together the tone of the game is now very different to what it was only a few short weeks ago. Suddenly, engaging with all of these features is worthwhile, and watching events unfold when these emergent mechanics collide has already led to several memorable moments – and let’s face it, if you’re still playing Sea of Thieves, those are probably one of the main reasons you’re still playing it.
I also hit Pirate Legend early last week, just before this patch hit, and part of me is jealous when I see the new players in the game. The experiences they’ll have in the grind to Pirate Legend status is, I think, much closer to what the developers have always intended than the one that I had. That’s not to say I didn’t love every moment; I did – and my time with the game is nowhere near its end – but damn, these guys are going to have so much fun. Looking back, I think Shrouded Sails will be remembered as the moment when Sea of Thieves really started to live up to its potential.
Being Pirate Legend is interesting so far. I'm generally equipping the figurehead and players respond to it in a variety of ways - some eager to join an alliance, some eager to fight, others turn tail and run. Watching a galleon try to outrun my sloop into the wind caused me to chuckle to myself - almost as much as their relief when I caught up with them and offered an alliance, as they were convinced I'd just want to sink them and assumed that my title would make me capable of it.
So, if you're someone who's been looking at Sea of Thieves sideways and wondering about the 'lack of content', now's a good time for you to jump in. And if you're already sailing, long may the voyage continue.