Sea of Thieves Anniversary Update puts new wind in the game's sails

Sea of Thieves has proven to be polarizing.

Critics and fans alike were divided when the game launched last year. Sea of Thieves has little structured narrative, save for that you make yourself. There's no vertical power progression grind to keep users hooked, with rewards focusing entirely on cosmetics. Sea of Thieves is a sandbox game with a flat progression system, where players are encouraged to make their own fun, interacting with others and using the game's array of wacky pirate tools. As such, it struggled to appeal to vast swaths of gamers who had hoped for a more structured title.

Most of Sea of Thieves' biggest critics agreed on one thing, however, and that is the game's potential. Here's how Rare's upcoming content drop, dubbed the "Anniversary Update," might be the one that helps convert bystanders into active players

We went hands-on with the first mission in Rare's "Tall Tales" feature, which is the studio's ambitious attempt to bring cinematic story experiences into Sea of Thieves' multiplayer world.

If Indiana Jones was a pirate

Tall Tales is Sea of Thieves' first real shot at structured story-telling, complete with professional voice-overs, content-specific musical cues, and set-piece events. What makes Tall Tales unique, however, is that all of that story structure still exists within the framework of the Sea of Thieves world. If players attack you mid-quest, that simply becomes part of your story.

Tall Tales' first story arc (more will be added in future updates) is comprised of nine separate missions, kickstarted by the Mysterious Stranger, who hangs around in Sea of Thieves' various taverns. Right from the start, Tall Tales represents a step-up in production quality from Rare, with a fully-voiced introduction and suitably ominous music to match. The Mysterious Stranger tells players about an artifact that will allow them to access new lands, known as the Shroudbreaker, granting players a weathered journal full of clues to decipher.

Tall Tales will turn hungry treasure seekers into archaeologists, with an array of procedurally-generated puzzles and quests. Like in-game maps, players can hold up journal pages for others to read, which contain all sorts of whimsical riddles and diagrams. The journals introduce further complexity when it comes to finding your next heading, adding an air of romantic mystery to proceedings.

The journals pointed me towards a shipwreck, and I backtracked through the ship's logs for a clue at the Shroudbreaker's location. Rare noted that the journals will try to send crews to different locations to reduce chances of plot device overlap, but everything you'll experience still takes place within Sea of Thieves' dynamic world. In closed server conditions, we didn't encounter any enemy ships, but when the update drops at the end of April, there's no reason we couldn't have. Many of Tall Tales' quest items and keys are physical objects, too, meaning they can be stolen or lost to the ocean depths, which creates a sense of desperate attachment to the ancient relics you'll gather along the way.

The game now has openable chests, complete with spots for storing items. The unfortunate pirates had abandoned their quest for the Shroudbreaker, and inside their chest we found more clues and a small statue that appeared to be a key of some sort.

After more riddle solving, a tense encounter with a Kraken and a skeleton ship, we made our way to a hidden shrine ensconced behind a waterfall. Simply entering the shrine felt ominous, flanked by spooky music unique to the encounter.

Failed puzzle attempts increased the speed at which the water was pouring in, making the four-player panic all the more palpable.

Aztec-inspired reliefs stood carved into the wall, overshadowing a small altar in a waterlogged alcove. Once the entire crew was inside, the door behind us slammed shut, and water started pouring in from above. At the imminent risk of drowning, we then had to rapidly solve a puzzle using obscure, smudged notes from the journals and weathered hieroglyphs on the walls. Failed puzzle attempts increased the speed at which the water was pouring in, making the four-player panic all the more palpable. My crewmates managed to solve the puzzle, and we were rewarded with a treasure room and pointers to the next part of the journey, while getting ambushed by a new breed of skeletal enemies.

Just this small hint at a wider Sea of Thieves world was incredibly exciting, with Rare teasing various other tomb types, traps, new enemies, and access to new islands, including the largest landmass the game has ever seen thus far.

Cooking, fishing, grappling hooking

Alongside Tall Tales, Rare is also injecting a range of new features to elevate the overall experience. The result is a greater sense of depth, in addition to more things to do for solo players or while waiting for friends to come online.

After a fairly sizeable and consistent feedback cry, Rare finally added fishing mechanics, and they work extremely well. If you've tried fishing in Far Cry 5 or Red Dead Redemption 2, you'll find Rare's offering relatively similar. Bait is a physical object in Sea of Thieves, and there are various types: Leeches, worms, grubs, and more, and fish prefer different kinds in different scenarios. Of course, you can also chow down on the bait, in typical Sea of Thieves style. It might make you sick, though...

Have you ever seen someone crunch down on a coconut like it's an apple?

There are currently 50 types of fish to catch in-game, ranging from small fries to relatively big beasties, and a new trading company headed by Merrick is eager and willing to purchase all of your fish meat. In fact, he's eager to purchase any and all meat, since now all of Sea of Thieves' animals drop fleshy morsels behind when they die. And you can cook them, too. Using a stove on board your ship or out in the wild, you can drop items onto the pan and fry them up. Merrick will pay a premium for properly cooked meat, so pay attention to that browning chicken drumstick. Alternatively, you can eat cooked food to gain a small pool of additional health. Beyond fish and animal meat, there is also a pile of new fruit to accompany those pesky bananas.

Some of the game's most iconic threats, including the dreaded Kraken and the ravenous Megalodon Meg, also now drop meat. And thanks to the Anniversary Update, you now have access to a new tool in the form of a ship-mounted grappling hook. As an entirely physics-based system, you can use the hook to grapple onto virtually anything. You can even rip loot straight out of an enemy's hands if your aim is true, which might come handy in the new Arena mode.

Player vs. player: The Arena

Alongside all of this fresh content for Sea of Thieves' main sandbox, Rare is adding an all-new side experience dubbed "The Arena," where five crews of four players will battle it out in a smaller oceanic area over chests. While The Arena is separate from the main game, unique cosmetic rewards gained there will also be usable in the main game. If you see a pirate ship on the horizon sporting elite Arena colors, you may want to flee, since the frantic battle sandbox is about as cut-throat as it comes.

When you join, you're dropped into a tavern-like lobby social hub area (complete with hot tub and booze) to prepare for the event. The Arena represents an additional trading company in the context of the game's story, encouraging pirates to battle it out on the high seas in a series of high stakes contests.

Each of the five ships is granted the same maps, marked with treasure chests. It then becomes a battle of wills and wits, as you and your team strategize amidst the chaos. Do you go straight for the chests? Do you hang back and let someone else dig them up for you and then take them out? Or do you try to camp the treasure chest drop off points?

Players are rewarded with points for every competitive action made in The Arena, whether it's killing other players, digging up chests, or sinking enemy ships. The most points are rewarded for handing in chests, though, to the various Arena officials posted around the area.

You can now smash ship masts, as well as the hull.

You can now smash ship masts, as well as the hull.

The goal for Rare is to recreate some of Sea of Thieves' most exciting player versus player moments in short 24-minute sessions, and I'd say they've pretty much nailed it. I'm still not a huge fan of the relatively clunky gunplay and melee combat in Sea of Thieves, but like the main game, Arena tests your soft skills as much as it does your combat abilities. The best teams will be those that work together.

Sea of Thieves' biggest update yet

Fishing, cooking, new trade companies, the Arena, and the promise of dynamic in-game storytelling makes the Anniversary Update Sea of Thieves' most exciting addition to date. It also represents the game's biggest shot at claiming new audiences, especially among those who felt the game was a little lacking in content when it launched last year.

The update also represents a resurgent Rare, which has expanded its team, and ambitions, in the wake of Sea of Thieves' maiden voyage. Even though the Anniversary Update isn't expected until April 30, 2019, the team was eager to tease the future, hinting at even more new lands, new enemies, and even more Tall Tales to come beyond the planned nine missions that make up the Shroudbreaker story arc.

When I visited Rare last year, you could feel the nerves in the air as the studio geared up for launch, but this time around, there was a quiet, impassioned confidence about this upcoming update. And I think it's for good reason. If you're already a fan of Sea of Thieves, you're going to love the Anniversary Update. If you're skeptical, April 30, 2019, will be the perfect time to jump on with a friend and give it another look.

Awesome Sea of Thieves merch

If you're a Sea of Thieves fan, show off your piracy with these great gift ideas.

Sea of Thieves: Athena's Fortune (From $7 at Amazon)

Athena's Fortune charters the infamous pirate Ramsey and his quest to find the legendary treasure stash, fraught with peril, plunder, and plenty of piracy.

Tales from Sea of Thieves ($20 at Amazon)

Tales from Sea of Thieves is essential reading for any fan, granting a huge amount of background lore on the game and hints of possible future content.

Official Sea of Thieves keychain ($10 at Amazon)

Show off your love of the open ocean with this epic keychain (not real silver... sadly.)

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!