There are 3 minutes left on the clock. We're a little under 2000 points behind the team that are leading the contest - it's the guys on the blue ship. They've won every match I've played in during this session - and they're extremely vocal about their talents in the Sea Dog Tavern between matches. They hold court in the hot tub, all wearing matching outfits; a mix of the standard Pirate Legend outfit and the sailor tattoo set. They trash talk constantly. They aren't offensive, they're just good and they know it, and comfortable in bragging about it. Needless to say, I really don't want these guys to win. Not again.
The Anniversary Update for Sea of Thieves dropped on 30th April, and it's changed the game dramatically. It's not the first time content has been added to the game that has had a big impact on what you can do and how - Shrouded Spoils back in November added depth and emergence to the sandbox and at the time stood out as the largest expansion Rare had shipped to their Piracy-As-A-Service game. I think it's fair to say that the Anniversary Update absolutely dwarfs it. It's enormous - consisting of The Arena, a new campaign mode - Tall Tales: Shores of Gold, and sandbox updates that include new food types, fishing, cooking, harpoons, an improved ship damage model, and two new trading companies (one of which is specific to the Arena mode).
My little yellow ship has been patched to within an inch of its life. We didn't start well - spawning in a crew member short. We managed to grab a couple of chests early in the game but then got sunk, losing us most of the points we'd scraped together. Then we had a stroke of luck - our ship respawning next to a tiny island that, as the maps refreshed, had a decent number of chests on it. A couple of us dived overboard and dug up what we could. Scrambling back to the ship, we've got enough onboard to overtake the blue team - as long as we can sell it. But, as the game announces to all players every time a team digs up a chest, the blue team know what we've got - and they're coming after it. Fast. The red smoke of the seapost is to port - to starboard, the blues are making a bee-line for us. The wind is with them. We drop the sails and begin to turn, realising that we're going to end up in a drag race that will end in a scrap. The guy on the wheel tells everyone to man the starboard cannons and angle the sails to the wind - and the crew of strangers respond to the text instructions. This is going to be close... and we all know it.
This kind of thing is the moment-to-moment gameplay you can find the The Arena - the new PvP focussed mode. It's tense and it's exciting - five galleons in a reduced area all fighting over treasure that everyone in the game has a map to. At its core, the Arena mode boils down the Sea of Thieves experience into a 24 minute competitive experience. The often leisurely pace of the Adventure mode is replaced with one that is all urgency and chaos as teams race to dig up chests and sell them. Each chest sold results in silver being earned - but you can earn it from damaging other ships and killing other players too. The whole game mode is super aggressive with no-one pulling punches. The new damage model that allows holes in the ships to expand with additional landed cannon shots, masts to be toppled, and capstans and wheels to be damaged all adds another new dimension to the combat - once you've got your eye in, you can target parts of an enemy ship to either stop them in their tracks or make it more difficult for them to get away. Players are killed and their ships spawn camped mercilessly. Camping the loot drop off points is a totally valid tactic, as is picking up chests from smaller, less busy islands and staying out of the range of other players as much as possible. As the mode is still so new, the tactics and strategies are still settling down a lot - the ones I've mentioned above are the ones I've seen or tried (or both!) in the 20 or so matches I've participated in. I didn't expect to particularly enjoy The Arena - PvP is something that I seldom look for in Sea of Thieves, although I admit I don't often shy away from it when it comes up. A whole mode dedicated to it didn't excite me - right up until I played it. Sea of Thieves is famously a game that requires a good couple of hours per session for it to make sense, but this makes a quick 30 minute session viable. I'm still looking to get a whole crew together and into this mode - but I'll manage it. And when I do, it'll be even more fun.
As we approach the seapost, the blue galleon is almost upon us. They fire several of their crew out of cannons to land in the water ahead of us and attempt to board. With one minute left on the clock, the guy on the wheel engages his mic for the first time all game, telling us to take the chests and jump overboard to sell them. With the seapost upon us, the three of us who aren't at the helm grab a chest each and leap over the side; as I do so, I can see a member of the crew of the blue ship climbing the starboard ladder. We hit the water hard and swim to the seapost, racing to sell the chests. By this point, the music is reaching its crescendo. Our galleon is sailing away, the blue ship still in pursuit and now slamming cannonfire into the starboard side. The three of us make it up the ladders onto the decks of the seapost and sell all three chests - putting us into the lead with seconds to go. As the game ends, I'm blunderbussed in the back at point blank range and killed instantly. My opponent is on his mic, trash talking. I engage my own, and laugh at him. The blue crew's reign is finally over. We won - by the skin of our teeth.
If The Arena exists at one end of the excitement spectrum, then the new fishing mechanic could have been intentionally designed to occupy the space at the opposite end. Each player has had a fishing rod added to their item wheel, and you can pretty much fish whenever and wherever you want as long as you're close enough to water to do so. There are dozens of different types of fish to catch, including rarer "Trophy" versions of each. Some are specific to certain areas of the map, some are specific to freshwater - meaning they can only be caught on certain islands. All of them can be sold (cooked or raw!) to the new Hunter's Call faction in exchange for gold, reputation, and commendations. The actual implementation of fishing is very clever too. Fishing as a mechanic in games isn't new - most recently I've experienced it in both Final Fantasy XV and Monster Hunter: World. Both of these use a variety of UI tools to explain to you how much tension is on the line, which way you should be moving the rod, and when it's safe to reel. Sea of Thieves sticks to its minimalist UI with this new feature - instead relying on a combination of visual and audio feedback and pad vibration. You know how much tension is on the line - because you can feel it. You know when to reel, because you can see the line go slack and feel the tension disappear. It's wonderfully tactile and intuitive, and probably as a result of this, I'm finding myself spending a ridiculous amount of time doing it. This is coming from a guy who actually tweeted the developers at one point to say I wasn't particularly interested in it making it into the game - and who is once again happy to be being shown why game design is best left to people who know what they're doing, rather than being influenced by some guy with a website and an opinion.
For some of us though, the most eagerly awaited element of the Anniversary Update is the inclusion of Tall Tales. At launch, Sea of Thieves received a fair amount of criticism for failing to offer any form of campaign to its players. It was clearly a world filled with opportunity for lore and curated story telling, but there was almost none to be found. Since then, the tales within the game's universe have been expanded with comic books and a novel ("Athena's Fortune" by Chris Allcock - which was a fun read if you're a fan of the game), but this is Rare's first pass at actually dropping something like this into the game itself. When you think about it, their decision to delay doing something like this does make sense to some degree - dropping a fairly linear experience into a sandbox game could result in no end of problems, with players trolling one another by camping at the essential locations and sinking any approaching ship. These considerations have no doubt informed exactly how the Tall Tales work.
The Tall Tales themselves are a series of nine adventures, each of which feed into a larger story (the titular Shores of Gold). They're activated by visiting an NPC in a specific location (each one begins somewhere different) and voting on a book. This triggers an introduction of the quest, and drops you a quest item in the shape of a book - and from there, it's on you to figure out. While each one has a static beginning point and end point (for example, the Legendary Storyteller always begins and ends with speaking to Tasha at Ancient Spire Outpost), Rare have built several variations on the steps that take place within it - meaning that players are unlikely to be tripping over one another as they complete them. I haven't played all of them yet - I've only finished the first three - but so far they're an interesting spin on the game mechanics and include new bits and pieces like puzzles and traps, and also boss fights (Briggsy, I'm looking at you). The Goonies is a clear inspiration, as are the Indiana Jones movies, and it's all served up with typical Rare humour. I'm looking forward to finishing them all off and then running them again to see all the different versions of them, not to mention wrapping up all the commendations and achievements that are linked to them. One of the best things about them though is that this is clearly the start of the campaign offering for the game, rather than the sum total of it. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see smaller versions of these dropping more regularly, adding more depth and detail to this world that I've come to love.
So, with all this said, where does Sea of Thieves sit after its new expansion? Well, it's in the best place it's ever been - but there's still a question hovering over it and that's whether or not all these new goodies will attract new/lapsed players. The consensus I'm seeing from people that have been playing the game all along is that all of the new stuff is wonderful - and it's causing us to spend more time than ever before wandering the seas. A couple of lapsed players I know, however, tried out the new update and quickly walked away again - claiming that they either couldn't figure out what to do, that the game didn't make them care about what they were supposed to be doing, or annoyed at losing a quest item. I think their criticisms are valid - Sea of Thieves has always been divisive, with those who love it doing so passionately and those who don't really failing to see where the attraction lies. I don't think the Anniversary Update necessarily changes that. While the new player on-boarding has been improved, returning players aren't given any additional context or information - and that's maybe something that Rare need to think about if they want to hook these people back in.
For me though, my voyage has lasted a little over a year on the live servers, and about six months longer than that in total via the technical alphas and betas - and it's showing no signs of slowing down, let alone ending. I'm still hopeful that Rare will sort out a way of allowing multiple ships in a party onto a single server, but as a hardcore player I'm happy with what this is and where the game appears to be going. Here's to more fair winds and beautiful sunsets.