Sea of Thieves is a unique video game for many reasons. Along with offering a unique take on a cooperative online experience, it also represents one of Microsoft’s few, first-party Xbox One games. When it released a year ago, there were enjoyable elements, like in the way it pushes you and your crew into silly experiences, like trying to dock your ship without crashing, or even just hanging out on the deck and playing instruments while you move to your next destination. Those moments were hampered, however, by a general lack of incentive to progress. Playing with your friends typically lead to strange happenings and stories, but the fiction of Sea of Thieves was shallow. Also, there just wasn’t anything particularly exciting to buy with the currency, which made the difficult task of delivering chests found on distant islands underwhelming.
Over time, new items and missions have been added to the game to help extend its life, but the one year anniversary update is easily the biggest update the game has received yet. You can now go fishing, play through a series of story missions dubbed Tall Tales, and play a competitive mode that streamlines Sea of Thieves into an exciting, truncated versus mode. For all those additions, though, Sea of Thieves still lacks a compelling reason to pursue riches, and the world can still be unforgiving in ways that hampers the fun.
I was surprised that Arena ended up being the highlight mode for me, considering that when it comes to online experiences, I generally don’t enjoy competitive modes. What Arena does, however, is highlight some of Sea of Thieves best gameplay – working together with a crew – and let you play it 24 minutes at a time. You can play it competitively, seeking out other ships and fighting them in order to acquire silver, but just working together as a team to recover as many chests as possible and avoiding conflict is a totally viable avenue of play.
I had a good time taking orders from experienced players who set up systems where you would fly by an island, drop a crewmember off to find as many chests as possible, and then swing back by to pick them up later. Using the harpoon gun to pull players and chests onto the boat feels good, and there are rewards regardless of how well you do. Getting first place is obviously the goal, but on the occasions where my team didn’t do well, it was still nice to get something for the time investment.
Arena is a unique take on a unique game and it ends up serving as a highlight reel for the things Sea of Thieves does well with less time commitment.
Adventure Mode Updates
The most exciting update for me was the opportunity to play through some story missions. The world of Sea of Thieves looked interesting at launch, but I didn’t get the sense that it was a lived-in place with real pirates who had tales to tell. After playing a few matches in Arena, jumped into adventure and sped to the closest outpost and struck up a conversation with the mysterious stranger in the bar. He began telling me about a difficult mission I could take to recover the Shroudbreaker.
While he was speaking, I heard blasts coming from outside, but didn’t think much of it. I let the stranger finish his story, received a book of clues, and walked outside to see my boat half-submerged in the dock with a trio of pirates swimming around it. I sighed, put down the controller, and pulled out my phone to jot down some notes. I got about three words in when someone came up from behind me and stabbed me in the back and killed me.
I persevered despite the early setback and joined with some random players to try and complete the first leg of the story mission. When we got to the first island, which you must pinpoint by piecing together some clues, I jumped out and started exploring looking for a sunken ship’s log. Unfortunately, I was killed by some pirates scoping out the location. I respawned, sprinted back to the wreckage, and was killed again. When I started my third sprint, my random crew member asked, “Why do you keep jumping off the boat?” clearly eager to do something other than watch me die over and over while I searched around underwater. I died again and the other player understandably left, so I decided to start over with a sloop and do the story on my own.
I had much more success, and fun, when I was able to fully focus on the task and solve the story’s assorted puzzles and piece together its clues without worrying that another player would be left waiting around while I read. I found the log in the sunken ship which lead me to an island that had the key to a mysterious door on another island. Using the key I opened a door that lead to a puzzle in a cave that began to fill with water adding a fun sense of urgency to figuring out its solution. After that, I had to track down a series of coins on the island while fending off a series of powerful coral skeletons. It was the kind of experience I had hoped for when I first played Sea of Thieves. After retrieving the Shroudbreaker and sprinting off the island with an army of skeletons behind me, I headed to the nearest outpost to kick off the next section of the story.
It was smooth sailing! Until I arrived at the outpost. The second I docked, someone jumped on my boat, killed me, and took my prize. I respawned on the island and my assassin called out to me by my gamertag. “Do you want your Shroudbreaker back?” they asked, clearly smirking on the other line. I wasn’t wearing a headset so I used the clap animation, and the player doubled down saying, “Do you want it back?” I stood and looked at them for a little while, but decided I would rather just replay the mission than deal with this player, so I shot them. As they died, they laughed and said, “Now you’ll never know where it is!” I decided to quit the game and started writing this feature.
Is It Worth Revisiting?
On one hand, that is a very specific, interesting story that would be difficult to recreate in another game. Those players that killed me, sunk my ship, and stole my Shroudbreaker before I could deliver it to complete the quest are fully embracing the pirate lifestyle and that’s interesting. On the other hand, when you’re on the opposite end of pirating activity, it sucks. Those players were just waiting to ambush me because I wanted to play through the story missions on my own and it ended up souring the whole experience.
Overall the one-year anniversary has improved Sea of Thieves. Arena is a surprisingly fun alternate mode, the puzzle-solving of the story mode are fun even if I didn’t find the narrative particularly compelling, the harpoon guns lead to some fun moments, and you can fish now, which offers a whole new avenue of interaction within the world. The issues I had with the game when it originally released, however, are still present. I am earning money, but there is nothing really compelling to spend it on. Other players in the world are a double-edged sword where sometimes they’re helpful and you discover an online friendship in Rare’s pirate world, but they can also kill you and destroy your ship for no particular reason setting your progress back significantly. It can be frustrating and compelling all at once. If you bounced off of Sea of Thieves when it released a year ago, I don’t know that its anniversary update will inspire a previously unfound appreciation for the pirate life, but the new additions are solid and I like them.