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Sea of Thieves’ 2018 updates made it my most anticipated game for 2019

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Rare nailed a successful update strategy after four expansions

Sea of Thieves - woman on boat at golden hour Rare/Microsoft Studios via Polygon

Sea of Thieves’ launch was highly anticipated, and then struggled to live up to the hype. That’s the context that has surrounded most stories around Sea of Thieves since then: a promising title that launched a little too empty. Since then, Rare has worked tirelessly, providing four free expansion packs throughout 2018. The original premise drew me in and invested me in the world, but it’s those expansion packs, along with weekly events and upcoming announcements, that kept me glued to the game. Sea of Thieves was my game of the year for 2018; it’s also my most highly anticipated ongoing title for 2019. With the PvP Arena mode on the way, along with new quest formats in Adventure, 2019 will likely finish Sea of Thieves’ turnaround.

On the horizon

In 2019, Sea of Thieves will support two different game modes. The first will be Adventure, which is the Sea of Thieves experience currently in game where players sail about, collect loot at their leisure, and explore the map to complete voyages. The second mode will be the Arena, a fast-paced PvP mode that takes place in shorter, more frenetic sessions where players compete to get as much loot as possible.

Adventure is set to get a new and improved quest system, and recent changes have made it much more interesting. The kraken has been reworked to be a deadlier and more complex foe, and megalodons now drop loot, which makes turning to fight them worth your while at sea. Skeleton ships roam beyond the borders of their event, chasing players down from across the map or bursting forth from the ocean. The global events are off the three-hour timer, and can now spawn back-to-back-to-back.

There’ll still be opportunities for combat and betrayal in Adventure mode, but you won’t have players logging on just hoping to get some PvP; they’ll have the Arena to fulfill that need. Instead, betrayals and attacks in Adventure mode will likely happen around stories: a showdown at a fort, or an opportunity to rob a ship loaded with loot. I’m excited to see the quest system create those opportunities and flesh out the already charming world that exists in the game.

Sea of Thieves - a kraken attacks a player’s ship
The kraken is kind of a jerk!!
Rare / Microsoft Studios via Polygon

Scope, scale, and sails

The first and most obvious thing to note about the four Sea of Thieves expansions is that none of them returned to reinvent the wheel. There was no Battle Royale mode, no gear or advancement systems stapled on. Sea of Thieves remained true to what made Sea of Thieves compelling, even in the face of a rocky launch, and that’s what led to its success. Additions like the upcoming Arena mode have sprouted out of natural play patterns from the community; the developers chose to focus on the community who loved the game instead of chase a new audience.

Rare took the right approach to content for Sea of Thieves — the first three expansion packs added new and exciting things, and then Shrouded Spoils went back and cleaned up the core elements of the game and polished the base experience. That base experience was compelling, unique and worth preserving.

Between the expansion packs and the weekly events, Sea of Thieves has kept me engaged. Sea of Thieves is sailing in 2019 as a better version of itself; the updates have brought fun stuff into the game and filled out the need for content nicely without sacrificing the soul of the game to chase trends.

Rare / Microsoft Studios via Polygon

Off the treadmill

“Content” is often ill defined; even a game that offers a lot to do in terms of hours can fail if that gameplay isn’t compelling or interesting enough. There’s also the fact that every online game is competing with previous titles; a title like World of Warcraft with more than a decade of development behind it is always going to dwarf the content available in a brand new game.

Sea of Thieves has been adding more to do in the pirate sandbox, but not adding new systems or progression elements to the title. The core concept remains the same, there’s just more elements to play with. Many titles offer progression systems: stats and numbers, a nice pair of epic boots or a new gun attachment that gives a strong statistical upgrade. Sea of Thieves is a breath of fresh air; if you started tomorrow, you would have the exact same advantage as I do with hundreds of hours poured into the game.

With everyone on equal footing and the only unlocks being cosmetics, every session has an equal amount of opportunity and risk. Every ship on the horizon could be a viable threat or a tempting target. On the flip side, I’ve had a blast bringing new friends into the game, knowing that they don’t have to hit the grind to catch up. With no carrot to chase, we play for the joy of the experience ... and if we take time off, that’s okay. In an age where so many ongoing online games feel like a part time job, Sea of Thieves is far more forgiving.

That’s ultimately what has driven my excitement and interest in Sea of Thieves since its launch; the fact that the game is, at its heart, so pure and simple. Playing pretend pirates at sea is fun, especially with a community who buys into the concept. The game does plenty to test my skill and reward my daring, but more importantly it gives me an arena for adventure. At times, when I’m on a full galleon and laughing with my friends in Discord on our way to the next voyage, the game takes on the feeling of a really good road trip. At other times, my heart is in my throat as I desperately steer through a storm, a megalodon gnashing on my starboard while an enemy ship veers towards us, cannons blazing.

Those moments have been in the game since the beginning, and each successive DLC package has worked toward making the high points come more often and smoothing out the quiet lows. Sea of Thieves survived its launch and kept its identity strong, and there’s nothing else quite like it to play right now. In 2019, I’m excited to see how that base game evolves, and what new spectacles it can offer.