The latest Sea of Thieves expansion, Forsaken Shores, focuses heavily on spectacle and danger. You’ll spend most of your time in the Devil’s Roar navigating around volcanoes as they rain down fire and death on you, or frantically trying to sprint back to your ship as earthquakes make the island you’re on dangerous and difficult to navigate. And there’s one new element that weirdly adds an incredibly tranquil, relaxing gameplay loop to the game: the Merchant Alliance’s cargo runs.
Previously, if you wanted to do work for the Merchant Alliance, you could pick up contracts to find animals from various islands. This was the least popular of the mission types, and it required a decent amount of luck as you checked islands in the area in an attempt to find one that was spawning chickens or snakes. Cargo runs, on the other hand, are reliable and simple: You head to a contact, pick up valuable cargo, and then deliver it to another contact somewhere else. Plants require regular watering, while luxurious cloth cannot get wet. Rum bottles are fragile, and smashing into a rock or getting hit by a cannon means they’ll take damage. If you want maximum rewards, you’ll have to keep all of your cargo safe as you sail across the ocean.
There’s definitely room for tension there, because cargo runs don’t occupy an active voyage slot. There’s nothing stopping you from picking up as much cargo as you can carry, filling your ship with thousands of gold pieces worth of stuff. You can even pack your ship with cargo as you pursue other goals, like Order of Souls or Gold Hoarder missions. That’s certainly a recipe for disaster if another ship jumps you.
That being said, the Sea of Thieves feels like a less brutal place these days. Part of that is that there’s a bigger map now, but the ships per server remains the same — you’re statistically less likely to run into someone just based off that math. The player base for Sea of Thieves has also matured, so the griefing and camping that defined the game’s earliest days has died down.
There’s also a change coming in early 2019 that will split up Sea of Thieves further, with an Arena mode being focused on more frantic, fast PvP encounters and the existing game mode being defined as Adventure. There’ll certainly still be marauders and dangerous pirates in Adventure, but conflict should be based more on pirates looking to gain something — for instance, a betrayal in an Alliance over a rich bounty of loot, or a sailor seeking revenge over an enemy crew taking a fort away from them. There’ll always be an element of risk to cargo runs, especially with the upcoming Shrouded Spoils expansion adding new environmental hazards like fog.
That being said, one of the best parts of Sea of Thieves is, well, sailing. The creak of a sloop’s hull as it sails over cresting waves, the satisfaction of having the wind at your back and in your sails, carefully parking at a dock and delivering loot, the tick tick tick of watching your reputation raise and your pockets fill with gold — it’s satisfying in a way the other gameplay loops aren’t, because instead of sailing being a means to the end, it’s the main challenge and goal of cargo runs.
Cargo runs are enough to even get me to log on alone and jump on a sloop, which is something I haven’t done in some time. The missions have revitalized the concept of solo play for me, and reminded me why I enjoyed it in the first place.
This new mission type isn’t enough on its own to bring players back to Sea of Thieves, but it’s a part of Rare’s strategy to continually add to and update the game. We’ve had three expansion packs, with a fourth coming in November and an entirely new game mode confirmed for early 2019. At its best, Sea of Thieves is a pirate experience party pack, and cargo runs are just one part of the sailor fantasy.