The Arena. Contained chaos.
With the recent Ships of Fortune content drop into Sea of Thieves, big changes have been made to the Arena. Remember the Arena? It's the PvP mode that dropped with the anniversary update back in March 2019. I'll be honest - aside from a couple of early forays into the mode I haven't really bothered with it much. My eyes were firmly set on the prizes of finishing the Tall Tales then hitting Athena 10. Now though, with both of those things done and the grind back, I'd been quietly eyeing the Arena as a part of the game that I needed to develop my knowledge of and experience in - and this recent slate of changes have offered me a compelling reason to do so. The Arena was always a laugh - albeit a potentially frustrating one. Following this update though? The Arena is a LOT of fun.
Sea of Thieves has always been about PvP to some degree. The intensity of it ebbs and flows in the Adventure mode, with each server having its own vibe. Some will be filled with ships studiously avoiding one another, some will be filled with a spirit of jolly co-operation, and some will be dominated by a single overtly hostile crew. The PvP experience that Adventure mode provides has always been a bit inconsistent though - with some crews just turning tail and running when attacked, and others scuttling their boats as soon as they hear a cannon shot come toward them. The Arena was going to give the scrappier pirates in the community a place that they could go to find other like-minded scrappy pirates and... scrap. It succeeded - but that first version had some problems.
It was purely galleons to begin with, with matches lasting 24 minutes (the length of a single in-game day). Each crew would be issued with the same set of maps, and the crews would battle it out to get to the islands, dig up the treasure, and then sell it at one of a couple of drop-off points scattered about the map. As time went by it became clear there were a couple of issues with this - one being that the Arena was big enough for some ships to almost sneak around within it and winning by grabbing chests but actively avoiding other ships. The other issue was that the number of players required to man all five galleons often left one or more crew short-handed - which rendered a win impossible. These crews would inevitably (and understandably!) quit out, meaning that one ship would often end up with a lead that was impossible to catch. For that crew it was happy days, but for everyone else it could leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Spawning into a galleon in the middle of a match to realise that you're alone on the crew, and 15,000 points behind the lead ship with less than 5 minutes of match time left wasn't an ideal experience - and it was unfortunately a pretty common one.
The latest set of changes completely overhaul the whole system. I'd best put a little caveat out there at this point - from here on out, this post concentrates ENTIRELY on the sloop experience. Smaller ships with a couple of players is far easier to manage than getting a whole galleon crew together - and to my mind it's the best version of Arena to try out. I've been playing it with my son (he's an EXTREMELY enthusiastic scrappy pirate!) for the couple of weeks, and for the most part we've found a lot to like here.
The main changes that have been made are around maps and objectives. The shared maps and multiple drop-off points have both been ditched in favour of a single chest and a single drop-off point. Once a chest is dug up, delivered to the drop-off point and successfully sold, another chest spawns on an island somewhere in the Arena - which feels to be considerably smaller than it used to be. The 24 minute timer has been trimmed down to 15 minutes. All of these adjustments have a crystal clear underlying aim - and that's to make the Arena a place you have to fight in in order to win. Another happy side effect is that that matches generally seem to be a lot closer as well, with one team running away with a massive and unbeatable lead being far less frequent than it used to be. Skirting around the outside of the Arena and firing inward isn't going to win you matches anymore - you need to chase chests. Everyone in the server knows it, and they're all doing the same thing... and the result is wonderful chaos. Some will go straight for the chest. Some will cover the drop-off. Some will try to hijack a chest with a ship on the sail back to sell. Some will simply wander into the fray firing indiscriminately. The result is an game mode that's almost entirely unpredictable save for one thing - you WILL have extremely stressful fun. I'm paraphrasing here, but Rare once described the first version of the Arena as the "distilled Sea of Thieves experience" - or words to that effect. If that was true, then the new version is distilled again and triple filtered in an oak cask. It's exciting and it's loud, no quarter is asked - and even if it were no quarter is EVER given. Those 15 minutes are brutal.
The Arena demands you to concentrate on ten different things simultaneously - and the results can be overwhelming in a way I've never experienced in another PvP mode. As a comparison, I'll offer up Destiny - mainly as that's probably the game I've played the most PvP in despite not having touched it in months. In a Crucible match, you're considering your position, and that of they guy you're firing at. You may be peripherally considering your grenade charge, the position of his buddy who just ducked behind cover, how much ammo you have left before you re-load. A couple of other things slip in and out of that thought process depending on the situation. It's busy - but it's nowhere near as busy as an Arena match that's in full flow.
In a moment, you may be considering the angle of fire for your cannons, turning the ship to get a better angle or avoid an impact, wondering how much water is coming in below, whether your sails are in position. Was that last cannon fired at you a cannonball coming toward you? Or another player? If you bring sails up, will you turn tight enough to hit that ship on the left? Or should you harpoon the ship on the right. Is that firebomb going to hit you in the face? You have a lot more to consider than just your pirate's position and your health and ammo. You need to be constantly thinking about those things and for the same things about your vessel as a whole - and those things need to be considered just to stay afloat, let alone actually score points and win. Winning an Arena match requires a lot more than simply being the best player at shooting - Rare leans into their 'tools not rules' philosophy just as hard here as they do in Adventure mode. That harpoon on the front of your sloop can be used to turn tightly, lift barrels out of the water, or lift a chest off an enemy player's ship. That blunderbomb in your hand could be used as an anti-personnel weapon, or you could fire it at another ship to knock it off course. In its best moments, the Arena is one of the most exciting PvP videogame experiences I've ever had.
So it's all good then? Well... most of the time. There are still a couple problems - and they're technical for the most part. I've had some really REALLY laggy games. I've been disconnected several times mid-match. Those disconnections always seem to happen when I'm doing well and in a lobby of mixed Xbox and PC players. It's a strange(!) correlation. Speaking of PC players... generally speaking playing against them on an Xbox is horrible, with their higher frame-rates and mouse and keyboard accuracy combining with their own ability to make them seriously formidable foes. If you're playing with your kids (I know lots of us do), be sure to mute chat from other crews - including text chat. Salty players make for salty messages, and the swear words flow freely from the players with keyboards - each letter separated by a space to beat the text filter. The waiting times for getting into matches can sometimes be considerable as well - with a general rule being that the longer you wait, the more likely you are to end up in a game that's going to have some performance problems. Overall, it feels as though the Arena still needs a bit more love from a technical perspective. My big hope is that it will get it... and that with the launch of the Xbox Series X, we'll get a machine that will let me play this at 4k/60fps - I might never leave. These little issues though are just that - in the scheme of things they're little issues. For the most part, I'd encourage anyone to grab a buddy and check the mode out. It's far more fun than I was expecting it to be.