Sea of Thieves Anniversary: Tall Tales and Arena offer thrilling new riches

Sea of Thieves
The Sea of Thieves Anniversary Edition, including Tall Tales and Arena, is released on 30 April

As Rare prepares to embark on year two of its successful pirate adventure, Tom Hoggins visits the beloved UK studio to take a closer look at Sea of Thieves Anniversary update

“Have you tried it this way?!” comes the panicked cry from a shipmate on the other side of several inches of thick rock. One other crew member and I are in a cavernous chamber, hewn into the cliffs of the island we have been guided to on a quest for glory and plunder. We need to twist several pillars of rock burnished with symbols into the right order, with sea water quickly filling up to our waists.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. No, much better that our crew of four pirates should be in this together, twisting assigned pillars to solve the puzzle. But we made a mistake somewhere, the rock door slamming shut and carving our gang into two.

“This is bad,” I observe with the expertise of a veteran sailor, as water reaches our necks, the two of us needing to plunge into the depths and desperately swim between each pillar. Outside, our crew-mates are gainfully yelling advice as they flick through their journals scribbled with clues. We’re done for.

Until we’re not. Somehow --through Crystal Maze-inspired teamwork, dumb luck or a likely combination of both-- the final pillar clicks into place. The chamber drains. The doors open and our treasure is revealed. And we are reunited with our crew members to the result of drinking too much celebratory grog back on the galleon and vomiting on our shoes.

This is the kind of thing that Sea of Thieves, Rare’s emergent multiplayer pirate adventure, was made for. Those stirring campfire tales of teamwork, peril and victory. It hasn’t been the calmest of voyages for the game since its release, initially impressing with its character but criticised for a lack of content, but Rare is starting to reap the rewards of its invention, patience and confidence.

Following a spate of free updates and improvements across the 12 months since its release, culminating in the well-received Shrouded Spoils, Sea of Thieves has begun to strike gold. In January it became a big hit on streaming platforms Twitch and YouTube; duelling with Fortnite at the top of the charts as popular streamers such as Ninja drew millions of viewers to Sea of Thieves' family-friendly, unpredictable adventures on the high seas.

Its upcoming Anniversary update, released on 30 April, is looking to further its rise with major additions that bring Sea of Thieves' strengths to the fore. Tall Tales is a narrative ‘platform’, as the game’s designers describe it, that will host authored stories for Sea of Thieves players to star in.

While there has been little overt storytelling in the Sea of Thieves sandbox so far, an expanded universe has sprung up featuring novels and comic books. It is from these that Rare has plundered some of the characters and direction for its Tall Tales, an upcoming series of stories that form a connected narrative.

The first of which is called Shores of Gold, where you and your crew of up to four pirates are sent on a quest to find the mythical Shroudbreaker goblet. Tall Tales will send you out into the open seas, guiding you to its myriad islands with clues and riddles scribbled in that journal.

Sea of Thieves has made its name on providing a wide-open sea to forge your pirate reputation, but hasn’t yet provided the focussed yarn that many players crave. “Tall Tales may appeal to players who want to consume something and be done,” says Design Director, Mike Chapman. “But we think of it much more than that. If you’re unsure of what the game is, Tall Tales is a great way to get direction. You can cut loose and go and do your own thing; or be taken on this guided adventure around the world. When you finish it, hopefully we’ve done enough to make you fall in love with the game. And you’re in then!”

Shores of Gold is the first 'Tall Tale'

As well as Tall Tales, the Anniversary update will burnish the wider game with new features that will play into the new narrative adventures. Enchanted lanterns spill ghosts into the world for story tidbits. The night sky can now be used for navigation, following constellations to your destination. A harpoon on your ship can be used to grab barrels out of the sea, or help tether yourself to docks or enemy ships in the heat of battle.

The much-requested fishing, meanwhile, has you casting your line over the edge of your galleon as it sails, or off the golden shores of the world’s islands. It’s a splendid way to pass the time while on a voyage across Sea of Thieves’ raucous and undivinable waters.

Caught fish can be cooked on your ship’s new galley or delivered to The Hunter’s Call, a new trading company that will give you gold and renown in exchange. While on dry land, you can also hunt animals and monsters for meat.

Taken in isolation, many of these specific changes can seem minor, but together make for a significant impact on a game that had already begun to fill out its features. Many at the request of its player base.

For all that Sea of Thieves may have been criticised for its lack of content at launch, Rare has constantly been talking to its players and taking their feedback on board. To the point that the path ahead for Sea of Thieves has become very different to what Rare envisaged. Studio Head Craig Duncan tells me that, in fact, Rare totally threw out its original post-launch plan.

“I think what we’ve been really brave at doing at knowing when there are other things we should be doing,” he says. “And not be convicted to something that seemed like a good idea five months ago.”

The studio lets its players know what it is working on through regular updates and podcasts, while it has an ‘Insider’ programme to let select members of its community to play preview builds of any updates.

“Even when we’ve faced the issues of running a live service, the fact that we’ve been direct and communicated to our fans directly has built up trust,” says Chapman. “You’re never going to know exactly what they’re looking for or what they’re going to ask for. We’re moving down that list of player desires.”

The approach has lead to fine fettle that Sea of Thieves is in. And also why it has built up a rather wholesome community, comparatively speaking. “I think as an industry we have a perception of how certain people play games,” says Duncan. “We’ve always said when you meet other players in the world, we want it to be like real life. You don’t know what their intent is. You don’t know whether they’re helpful or not. So it leads to these interesting social standoffs; but often they turn into positive stories."

While you can sink other players' ships and plunder their booty, there have been plenty of tales of veteran pirates travelling the world to help others; handing over treasure and helping new sailors solve the world's riddles.

"Most games encourage you to dominate other players whereas we don’t," says Duncan.

At least not in the main game. Another major addition to the Anniversary update is the Arena; a quick-fire, skirmish-based mode that pits crews against each other. Each team is given maps flush with Xs marking the spot. You must travel to each island and plunder as much loot as you can. You can also get extra coin by sinking ships and beating opponents in close-combat.

The Arena is a fast-paced skirmish between ships

The twist is you have to cash in your winnings at set-points across the seas, because you will lose your silver if your ship is sunk. It leads to some thrilling back-and-forths, with teams shifting tactics mid-game. Sailing away from other crews to quietly dig up what you can, or heading straight into sea battles. We even formed uneasy alliances with other crews in order to take down leaders.

The Arena’s 24-minute matches are Sea of Thieves in microcosm. The ‘Match of the Day highlights’, as Duncan puts it. Which is as good an analogy as you might find. It brings Sea of Thieves mechanical elements and teamwork to the fore. At one point, we were on the brink of being sunk after a cannon barrage and losing our plunder, but a concerted effort of two pirates sailing the ship out of danger and two of us desperately bailing water out of the hold saw us cling onto a second place finish.

Taken individually, the Arena and Tall Tales feel like Rare covering all the bases; catering to a wide range of how players might want to experience their game. But in tandem, you can see how new players might be drawn to its guided narrative, while a dalliance in the Arena can familiarise crewmen with the finer details of running a ship. It all seems in aid of a goal to draw more people into Sea of Thieves’ pirate world, one that seems to be getting richer in opportunity with every passing tide.

  • The Sea of Thieves ‘Anniversary Edition is released for Xbox One and PC on 30 April 2019