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 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 (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!