Sea of Thieves Anniversary Update is exciting, but the love/hate relationship continues

Sea of Thieves is one of the more controversial games in recent memory, at least in terms of polarization. I'm not sure I can recall a game that has created such a passionate reaction across the entire spectrum. People seem to either love Rare's pirate adventure or loathe it. And then there are a few people like me, who simply cannot figure out whether they actually like the game or not.

The Anniversary Update has made it even harder to figure out, adding piles of new content and intersecting mechanics. It's this update that really exemplifies what Rare has been gunning for since the game launched — hands-off adventures where players create the drama, rather than the game itself.

The new Tall Tales stories and PvP-focused Arena help to condense the adventure more succinctly than Sea of Thieves did at launch, but Sea of Thieves still exists on those polarizing extremes between euphoria and deep frustration. And wherever your adventure falls on that spectrum, the excitement in between is largely unique to Sea of Thieves, for better or worse.

A renewed pirate world awaits

Sea of Thieves adds a range of new content, including fishing, ship-mounted grappling hooks, and cooking, but the headline features are the new PvP Arena, and the Tall Tales story quests. Both of which add some much-needed depth to the year-old title.

"Tall Tales" are essentially story missions, strung together in an episodic format. A range of characters throughout Sea of Thieves, armed with professional-level voice acting and unique, ominous pirate music, put you on a series of adventures leading to a treasure hoard on a hidden, mystical isle.

Like the rest of Sea of Thieves, Tall Tales are set up for dynamic hijinks. They take place in the regular world, meaning that all the perils that exist in Sea of Thieves today, like the Kraken, Megalodon, and Skeletal raider parties can all spawn to scupper your trip. Not to mention players themselves.

From the very first quest conversation, you get a sense of greater investment in the game, budgetarily speaking. The Mysterious Stranger suddenly has some professional-level voice acting and many of the cutscenes that occur come with unique animations and effects that elevate the experience. It may seem like a small thing to praise, but Sea of Thieves still feels relatively lacking in this department, with NPCs that mostly feel like part of the furniture rather than living, breathing characters. If this step up in character delivery is indicative of Sea of Thieves' future, then it's a grand step in the right direction.

Without spoiling too much, the Tall Tales are split into missions that, again, feel similar in structure to what we know already, with some notable twists. New book-style items like journals and ledgers give players some much-needed context, on top of more complex riddles to solve than the existing "X marks the spot" maps that have, until now, made up the bulk of Sea of Thieves' PvE content. One mission will have you tracing the final moments of a ship back to its wreck, besieged by skeletal haunted pirates.

Another will have you charting the stars themselves with an enchanted telescope to find a bearing. You'll dive into sunken ancient ruins beneath the waves, do battle with more powerful skeletal lords, solve booby-trapped mystical puzzles, and, of course, get piles of gold along the way.

Along with Sea of Thieves' Hunter's Call trading company, which adds rewards for hunting animals and fishing, and the condensed action of Sea of Thieves' Arena PvP mode, Tall Tales just piles on additional reasons to jump into Rare's mystical pirate story. The big highs come with craterous lows, however.

A double-edged cutlass

Like other Sea of Thieves adventures, Tall Tales' quest items are physical objects, meaning they can be lost at sea without proper care. Of course, this adds tension and drama to what would otherwise be a fairly simplistic series of fetch quests. Sea of Thieves is very much about the journey, rather than the destination.

In one adventure, my hapless crew and I had to take a bunch of items back to a quest giver in order to complete the voyage, when ominous music began to filter through Sea of Thieves' gorgeous ocean waves. Indeed, it was Sea of Thieves' big nasty shark, the Meg, who set about munching on our boat. With one of our crew AFK, who shall remain nameless, the Megalodon made short work of our boat, turning it into kindling, swallowing the chap who had been holding the quest item.

If you lose the quest items for Tall Tales, you're pretty much doomed to starting the mission all over again, some of which can take upwards of over an hour.

Thankfully, our item survived the Megalodon attack and was floating in the water. We managed to rescue it with a rowing boat, which had survived Meg's onslaught and proceeded to row our way out of danger. This is the kind of experience that represents some of Sea of Thieves' best moments, filled with high ocean drama wholly dynamic, as a result of the game's overlapping and intersecting systems. The dynamism of players, however, can still create a very frustrating experience indeed.

This is the kind of experience that represents some of Sea of Thieves' best moments, filled with high ocean drama.

Those dynamic moments when you raid another player's vessel, steal their loot and live to tell the tale also represents some of Sea of Thieves most exciting scenarios. It is called Sea of Thieves after all, not Sea of Friends. The game is only as good as the amount of interaction you're willing to have with players — playing solo, avoiding all confrontation remains a pretty hollow experience. That said, Tall Tales has, perhaps unwittingly, given griefers additional tools, camping quest NPCs in order to screw around with other player's story progression. When a player steals your chests, it feels like fair game, as the rewards can be lucrative. When they steal your quest items, however, it's an act of pure griefing, since they're useless to anyone besides those who are on the quest. This has made for a couple of particularly annoying experiences on my end, especially as someone with fairly limited time to replay lengthy story missions over and over.

Beyond Tall Tales, Arena itself feels like a Version 0.5 experience, at least at a systemic level. In a perfect setting, such as the one I experienced at Rare HQ a few weeks back, Arena can be incredibly fun. It condenses chest-stealing action down into 20-ish minute matches, rewarding teams for looting, plundering, killing, sinking, and handing in chests as rapidly as they can.

When you're in a team with experienced friends all on microphones, it's a unique PvP experience that showcases Sea of Thieves best moments. If you solo queue, however, Arena has generally been a pretty poor experience.

As of writing, Arena is fraught with quitters, who suffer no penalties for leaving early. It will matchmake replacements on the fly, but I have found myself spawning in on a sunken ship while the previous team had rage quit, which makes for a lame experience on both ends.

Sea of Thieves' melee combat also feels clunky, crying out for some love at Rare's end.

I've also spawned on teams where people were just standing around AFK, hoping to get some sort of match bonus at the end, even if it meant doing virtually nothing for 20 minutes. When you start losing, it feels like there's little incentive to see the match through to its conclusion. Teams of randoms often just "give up" halfway through, getting farmed by organized groups.

Arena also puts a bit of a spotlight on Sea of Thieves' PvP mechanics in general, where mouse and keyboard players have an obvious advantage both in terms of communication and aiming. Sea of Thieves' melee combat also feels clunky, crying out for some love at Rare's end. It just all feels so unresponsive, especially when you stack it up against similar melee combat games like For Honor (opens in new tab) or the recent medieval PC combat game Mordhau. I found myself getting spawn killed too at one point, unable to move while another player stuck a blunderbuss in my back. The fact you're only able to use a lunge attack and a 3-hit combo swipe just feels aggressively lazy, when melee combat is so central to the pirate fantasy. Thankfully, Rare has signaled to the community and to myself in a previous interview that they plan to make improvements on all of these systems.

What comes next?

Sea of Thieves' Anniversary Update is a tantalizing look at what the future of Rare's pirate adventure game looks like. Tall Tales is such a gigantic leap in quality across the board, showcasing the ingenuity of Rare's development team, and the dynamism of the gameplay systems they have put together. But as some aspects improve, it shines a spotlight on other areas that are lacking.

The most encouraging thing here is that Microsoft is sticking with the game. Recently, I've been thinking how Sea of Thieves could be compared to Minecraft in a sense, that it depends on your willingness to create your own fun with the tools on offer. Minecraft has ten years of development under its belt, however. What might Sea of Thieves look like with a similar amount of on-going development and investment? It's truly exciting to think about, and hopefully, we'll learn more about what's next for Rare's oceanic odyssey at E3 2019.

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 (opens in new tab) (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 (opens in new tab) ($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 (opens in new tab) ($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 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 caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • Figure out if you like it, how about figure out how to get started? I found the on boarding tutorial quite lacking. It was to the point where I couldn't figure out what to do next because the help tip that was displaying stayed on the screen even though I performed the action ( this was 2 minutes in on the initial island). I'm sure it was a bug, but I haven't been back since.
  • Hmm, when was that? Was that recently? I think they overhauled the tutorial recently.
  • That was some time after one of the inital reports came out regarding the new update, but before it released. Maybe 1-2 months back? If they did revamp it, then it would certainly help. Hopefully I didn't play the revamped version, because I would hate to see how it was!
  • Sea of Thieves is one of my favorite games of this generation, and I've sunk hundreds of hours into it, but I also have a love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, the constant threat of other players on the horizon is what makes the game so special. There's nothing quite like sneaking aboard an enemy ship and pulling off a furtive heist. But, on the other hand, when you're just trying to accomplish other goals and other players harass you, it can be incredibly vexing, especially as they have the power to literally waste hours of your night. Case in point, if you're already two hours into an Athena's voyage or Tall Tales quest and another ship pursues you, it's not in your interest to fight them, so you flee. But if you're both skilled sailors, they will never catch you but you'll also never escape. It ends up being a boring stalemate. I've literally had other ships chase me for hours without giving up, and there is nothin you can do about it. I can rarely get my friends to play with me because of this issue, and when they do, we all have a great time until something like that happens and they get so annoyed that they quit and won't pick up the game again for months, leading me to play mostly solo--which lead to another huge issue: lopsidedness. There's a huge difference in experience and capability being on a 4-man galleon vs. a 3-man brigantine vs. a 2-man sloop vs. a 1-man sloop. All other things being equal, combat in Sea of Thieves is a game of attrition. No one wants to play Halo 5 in lopsided situations (e.g. 4 vs. 1, 2 vs. 3, 1 vs. 2, etc), so why would anyone want to do that in Sea of Thieves either? Arena mode tries to combat this by making everyone a 4-man galleon, but Jez highlighted the issues with that: randoms vs. coordinated crews is a disaster, and there is no Arena modes for brigantines, sloops, or solo players to counter that. Not having the ability to opt-out of crossplay is ridiculous when PC players have such a huge advantage (in aiming, in movement, in communication, and in loading times--which is huge in the heat of battle, coming out of respawn). That should've been here long ago, but absolutely should've been here before the Anniversary update. Having said all that, Sea of Thieves is a great game, and the amount of content they've added in the past 13 months is fantastic. If it were reviewed fresh today, it's Metacritic score should be a 90+ instead of the outdated and underrated 69 it's currently at. The Tall Tales -- Shores of Gold campaign alone adds 18-27 hours of story-content, and they've already promised more to come. Add that onto all the existing things you can already do, and the new Arena mode, and there is so much variety and stuff to do that hearing ignorant fanboys who've never even played the game still trash it is even more frustrating than the gameplay challenges delineated above. Anyway, Sea of Thieves was my favorite game of 2018, and it's already my favorite game of 2019 too.
  • Thanks for your thoughtful comments as always sir.
  • Jez, I can relate to your comment when you said "especially as someone with fairly limited time to replay lengthy story missions over and over". This is one of the main reasons I stopped playing SOT. It's also why I don't play many games that don't have manual save points but I do still play them. When you have a family you don't always have time to play or wait until you reach a save point, so when someone steals your stuff one has to ask what's the point? Because now you don't have time like you said to do it again. I think that's why there is a love/hate relationship with SOT and why some can't decide if they like the game or not. Also, you are correct in saying "It is called Sea of Thieves after all, not Sea of Friends". However, wouldn't you agree that playing in PvE with Friends while Thieving NPC's in PvE would still be "called Sea of Thieves but with a Sea of Friends"? I think many more would play if they didn't have to contend with ROGUE pirates and with PvP Arena everyone can get a piece of the action without grieving. Just think how much fun Neverwinter is. Everyone gets their fix either with PvE or PvP and no one has any grieving. Same with Division. I'll stop short of Halo as an example because it's not an OWG.
  • I still really like the idea of this game, and I really want to get into it but there is still many things holding me back. like for example, the combat just isn't deep enough or fun enough for me personally. And I would like if there was just a little bit of progression in the game so I felt like I was making progress toward something others then just cosmetic items. Finally, because the combat is not fun to me fighting other players becomes extra annoying because I don't want to engage in combat. I don't think the fighting needs a lot of tweaks But just a few to really put it over the edge.
  • I tried this game at launch and hated it. I couldn't do a thing without griefers killing me and waiting for me to spawn. Without a PvE mode or any way to play single player, it's only for hardcore PvP teams. I wish I knew that before I bought it. It's a game that could have had so much potential, but they locked out casual gamers like myself from every being able to play.
  • I don't get griefers as much nowadays, so long as you steer clear of the current "content" and just do other stuff sometimes you can play without ever seeing anyone.
  • I play mostly solo and have limited time. Not ploughed much time into it since launch but tried the update and enjoyed it. Fully.understand the problem of doing things for a hour only to lose all of your plunder though but I guess that's the pirates life. Must try and play in a team soon but rarely get more than and hour or two to play and it's a steep learning curve. Maybe a nursery mode would be good for newbies like me to sail about, collect stuff and experience all its nuances in relative safety before becoming the black beard we all want to be. How about it rare?
  • The lobby system for Arena is God awful. There's no ready up system to speak with people to get a new crew each game, no proper timer, and you play with the same people each time? Have it as a huge gathering with hundreds of players who have the ability to talk and create new crews. IMO.