Sea of Thieves’ Anniversary Update includes a new PvP mode known as the Arena. It was originally announced as a stand-alone expansion but was later rolled into the comprehensive, wide-reaching update. That’s probably for the best, because the Arena is chock full of everything I love about Sea of Thieves in condensed 24-minute matches. But there are some shortcomings in the Arena that make the experience far more hit or miss than I was hoping.
The goal of Arena is simple: five teams, each on their own galleon, fight each other to rack up as many points as possible, landing long bombs with their cannons and working together as part of a four-player crew. The frenetic action of the Arena is in stark contrast to the game’s Adventure mode, where my crew takes long breaks to eat handfuls of grubs, salvage rowboats, and solve puzzles. The Arena is much closer to a battle royale match: accumulate booty and win at all costs.
Players win by collecting silver, an Arena-specific currency point. Killing people grants a pittance of points (5), but buys you valuable time as a downed player respawns. Landing a cannonball gives you a smaller amount of points (25) that can add up quickly. Finding and digging up a chest gives you a bunch of points (100), and most importantly, selling the chest at a drop off center gives you a 1,000 point bonus. If your ship is sunk, you lose 1,000 points. You can’t go into the negative, but giving up a cool thousand is still a powerful deterrent.
The good news is that the core gameplay loops here is fun. It’s immensely satisfying to have a friend on helm steer through a storm while I leap off with a chest, dodging blunderbuss shots from a foe in order to turn the chest in and gain a narrow lead. It feels fantastic to roar “PORT GUNS, NOW!” and have all three cannons fire while our point tracker ticks upward in rapid succession with each blow that lands. At one point, three galleons ended up entangled with each other, our masts broken and bowed and our hulls filling with water, and we just went feral and sword-fought with each other while yelling pirate-related trash talk over voice chat.
The problem with the Arena is that queueing up with a full group of friends is fun and fulfilling, but going it alone can be absolutely dire. Sometimes I’ve met friendly and helpful crews, but more often I feel like I’m back in university, and I’m assigned to a group project full of people who are too busy texting to help with the PowerPoint.
Stop playing a shanty! We don’t need music! Quit ringing the bell!
Many of the problems I’ve experienced with Arena seem like things that can easily be fixed, and more importantly, have been seen in titles like Call of Duty or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Blaring mics that play discordant music in the pre-game lobby, people who go AFK or drop out of the game willy nilly, and that one pirate who keeps joining the game and fishing while we all get slaughtered by the enemy team are all bumps in the road. They’re not enough to ruin the ride, but they do need to be smoothed out.
The new game mode feels more like the core of something bigger, a prototype that’s ripe for addition and experimentation, than a game on its own. And that’s fine; it still stands in contrast to the far more developed Adventure mode. Right now, it’s pleasant to have a Sea of Thieves experience that only lasts a half hour, especially since our crew has young kids and personal obligations to deal with in real life. It also means that when our crew loads into Adventure mode we are set for longer journeys; we don’t squeeze big voyages into short gameplay sessions anymore.
I’m excited to see where the Arena is heading. Overall, Rare stuck the landing with PvP, and I’m glad it’s in the game ... but I can also see all the little rough edges that need sanding down, and all the potential additions that would make the mode better. Digging up chests, for instance, can get frustrating due to the way the player-held maps scale. If alternate Arena modes offered the ability to, say, snatch up fleeing pigs or acquire skulls via judicious use of explosives, that would alleviate the frustration and stop a feeling of repetition. And I trust Sea of Thieves to make these changes and additions, based off the last year of expansion and updates to the current Adventure mode. For now, I’ll only brave the Arena with a crew at my back, but I’ll keep an eye on it from afar to see how it develops.