Two of us stand, stranded on a small island in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. The pouring rain is thrashing about in the wind as we guard five chests brimming with gold. Our galleon is circling the island, but poor visibility and crashing waves are making it difficult for our captain to find the island, and we only have five minutes left to cash-in our treasure. With hope ticking away by the second, we ask ourselves, how did it go so horribly wrong?
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Since its release, Sea Of Thieves has been a game about people coming together and creating their own stories. In the past year there has been a steady release of content that added new ways to play and things to do, which stays true to that core vision. The Hungering Deep added a new threat in the world with the Megalodon, Cursed Sails brought AI-controlled skeleton ships to battle on the waves. The Forsaken Shores increased the size of the map adding The Devil’s Roar, a whole new area to explore, and Shrouded Spoils put a little bow on all of that by bringing fog into the game and changing up the way you play. The game has come a long way in such a short amount of time, but now with the recent release of its Anniversary update, Sea Of Thieves has changed more than ever.
The Arena adds a PVP mode, which is separate from the main game and is now called ‘Adventure’, in which players gather gold to become top of the leaderboard. Gathering gold can be done in different ways, such as making solid hits with cannons, sinking ships, finding treasure and handing in your booty at cash-in points that are denoted by ships billowing plumes of red smoke into the sky. It’s a self-contained mode that allows people to play in a way that hasn’t been possible before.
“For me, whenever I play Sea Of Thieves Adventure, or I watch people play, I just get lost for hours,” explains Rare studio head Craig Duncan. “We see our average session lengths and it’s north of 90 minutes, and we didn’t really have Sea Of Thieves on demand in a bite-sized way before. I mean, if you’re going to play Sea Of Thieves over a weekend, you’re committing to a multi-hour session. What I love about Arena is that [it’s] 24 minutes of, ‘I can play a Sea Of Thieves Arena session, and I can do it in a bite-sized way, and it has an end and I know what the goals are.’ That’s something that we haven’t served up until now that I think is really important.”
Our first Arena session starts as normal. Each crew receives a random selection of maps showing locations of buried treasure (during one session we were given only one) and we immediately set sail towards an island we recognise. But we’re not the only ones, two other ships are heading in the same direction and they’re almost already at the island. We hold back and, predictably, the two ships begin to fight each other, so we take the opportunity to slip onto the island unnoticed. But as we do a third enemy ship arrives and fires a barrage of cannonballs at us.
We fire back, but it all gets a bit heated so we retreat and sail away to a different island. Taking a look at the ship’s map, which displays the location of each rival crew, we see that we’re not being followed. We arrive near the island and two of us swim ashore. The other two crew members manoeuvre the ship to circle the island, but a storm begins to brew. We find all of the treasure chests on the island, but our ship is lost in the storm. We’re second from last on the leaderboard, but if we can hand in at least two of these chests it will bump up our position to at least third place.
We can just about see our ship through the tempest, so we each grab a chest and swim for it. We’re running out of time but miraculously we make it and head for the cash-in point. By the time we reach it there’s only one minute left, so grabbing the two chests, we jump ship to hand them in. We manage to hand in one of them but the team that was in last place has managed to jack up its score, overtaking us. The game ends, and we tumble hopelessly into last place.
The Arena may focus on PVP, but it’s still very much part of the Sea Of Thieves experience. Even though we came last it was an exhilarating session in which we created our own story and adventure.
The Tall Tales mode changes things up once again by giving players a crafted narrative that they can enjoy with their friends as part of the shared world. You’ll still come across everything you would in Adventure mode, but now there’s more opportunity for escapades. At the start of our mission to locate the Shores Of Gold, we followed the directions found within the Pirate Lord’s journal and ended up not only fighting with the Kraken, but we also brushed up against the Megalodon (which thankfully only seemed interested in checking us out) and went up against a Skeleton ship that sunk us. All of which was on the same journey. We had a blast solving the puzzles and figuring out how to reach the different locations, and at every moment we felt in control and immersed in the world, just as before. And it’s not the only adventure Rare is taking us on.
“Shores Of Gold is just the start,” says design director Mike Chapman. “Tall Tales as a platform allows us to do ongoing story content, and I think Tall Tales represents the tip of the iceberg. You have nine tales that play out as part of that campaign but this is an ongoing platform for us, players are going to see ongoing story content in Sea Of Thieves.”
With all of this content you now have new ways of becoming a Pirate Legend: you can work with the Sea Dogs in Arena, and the Hunter’s Call with fishing. Add those to the Gold Hoarders, Merchant Alliance and Order Of Souls, and you now have a total of five companies that allow you to progress, giving players more flexibility in choosing their own path. And Rare won’t stop there. It’s committed to building the game with the community, listening to feedback and adding to the game to enrich everyone’s experience.
“I think what we’re doing now, with Tall Tales and Arena, is that natural evolution of, we’ve delivered that core vision of Sea Of Thieves, now it’s about giving players different routes to enjoy that fantastic experience,” says Chapman.
If you’ve yet to pick up Sea Of Thieves, or have swam ashore to wait for a good reason to return, now has never been a better time to plunder the high seas.
Looking for more excellent games to play on your Xbox One? Then why not check out our list of the best Xbox One exclusives.