Happy birthday, Sea of Thieves - my most-played game of 2018, and, would you believe it, my most-played game of 2019 so far. Today, Rare's piratical multiplayer sandbox adventure celebrates its first 12 months upon the waves, and - having brought the likes of giant killer sharks, marauding skeleton ships, and even a fiery hell pit of a new region beyond the Devil's Shroud - it's been quite the year.
Things did, however, get off to a slow start following Sea of Thieves' launch on Xbox One and PC last March. On release, it offered a wonderfully polished, and enormously entertaining, foundation - but there's no denying that it felt a little sparse. For a while, though, the simple pleasures of sailing, swashbuckling, and derring-do were enough to maintain momentum, particularly given Rare's pre-launch promise of regular, live-service-style limited-time events, designed to expand and enhance Sea of Thieves' core. Unfortunately, however, that new stuff was a long time coming.
It wasn't until the end of May that Sea of Thieves' first content update, The Hungering Deep, arrived - and by then, even I, usually perfectly content to splash about aimlessly on the waves, was starting to feel the itch for new things to do. Thankfully, The Hungering Deep was a promising start to Rare's post-launch plans, bringing a number of fun additions - most notably a thrillingly cinematic communal boss fight against an ancient megalodon, and a wonderfully flavourful mini-quest introducing legless sailor Merrick and his obsessive search for the shark that devoured his crew. Merrick would depart once the event was over - and I still think it's a real shame that Sea of Thieves' lore vignettes, which add so much life to the world, are unceremoniously jettisoned after each update - but his legend lived on in the form of Alliances.
Sea of Thieves' waters had, it's fair to say, run especially red since launch, with pirates, desperate for new activities, passing the time relentlessly terrorising the waves - much to the chagrin of other, more benign pirates. Alliances were Rare's canny answer to that, incentivising crews to join forces, while still enabling more dastardly sorts to indulge in betrayal and skullduggery. Its impact on the game and player interaction was profound, and the addition of Alliances offered the first reassurances that, with its focus on open-ended tools to empower pirates and create richer stories, Rare was heading in exactly the right direction.
It wasn't until June, however, over three months after launch, that Rare finally kicked its long-promised programme of regular limited-time events into action. Unfortunately, the first of these, Skeleton Thrones (essentially an extremely brisk treasure hunt for chairs around the map), was an underwhelming start. It did however, introduce two crucial components that would serve Sea of Thieves especially well in the months to come: doubloons - a limited currency used to purchase special cosmetics - and an expanded commendation system to earn them.
Commendations are perhaps the game's smartest addition, and a response to those that find Sea of Thieves' sandbox nature a little too directionless at times, delivering mini-objectives that players can work toward within the usual framework of adventuring. A year on, there are now hundreds of these - tasking players with everything from deadly cargo runs in perilous waters to besting the game's most elusive foe, the Shrouded Ghost - lending a much greater sense of purpose to the game. Sure, the core structure - doing simple deeds for your Trading Company overlords - has remained the same, but that's hardly the point. After all, it's not the countless treasures I've handed in over the last year that I remember most fondly, but the unscripted contrivances, weird encounters, and surprising adventures experienced along the way.
And as Rare's confidence and craft has grown throughout Sea of Thieves' first year of release, the scope for these kinds of stories and standout moments has expanded significantly. The Hungering Deep's megalodon marked a welcome broadening of Sea of Thieves' roving encounters, while Forsaken Shores brought (alongside the comically haphazard rowboat) a deadly new corner of the world. Not only is The Devil's Roar a dazzling audio and visual showcase - with its luminous orange waters and perpetually smokey vistas, its ceaselessly spewing volcanoes, spouting geysers, and broiling shores - it also gives an entirely different rhythm to the underlying game, forcing a new, more cautious, approach to familiar activities (although its first iteration was perhaps a little too extreme).
My personal favourite update, though, was July's Cursed Sails. Quite apart from the pure cinematic joy of the new skeleton ship battles, and the combat enhancements introduced through cursed cannonballs and the speedy new brigantine, it saw Rare finally, truly embracing Sea of Thieves' live-game status and demonstrating that it could do world building and living, breathing lore stuff, really, really well.
Several weeks before Cursed Sails landed, sharp-eyed players spotted that Wanda, the weaponsmith at Golden Sands Outpost, was acting a little strangely, obsessively examining her right arm when no-one was nearby. In the weeks that followed, a mysterious stranger took up residence in her store (which now bellowed pungent fumes from its chimney at all hours), and glowing cannonballs appeared on her shelves - all while Wanda's skeletal transformation continued. By the time that Cursed Sails arrived, Wanda was gone, leaving a somewhat surprised undead parrot in her wake, and all outposts were in uproar as skeleton ships terrorised the seas - ruled, as we'd eventually learn through the accompanying limited-time quest, by a rampaging, tragically cursed Wanda.
It was a wonderfully assured bit of (mostly environmental) storytelling, neatly offering narrative justification for Cursed Sails' influx of new features, and giving a real sense of life to the world - curious adventurers can, in fact, still meet Salty the undead parrot in Wanda's secret hideout on Wanderer's Refuge. Most importantly though, it demonstrated that crafted stories could happily co-exist alongside Rare's beloved, player-created emergent tales. It's a shame, then, that Cursed Sails' narrative ambitions haven't been matched since.
Forsaken Shores' quest to find a missing crew in the Devil's Roar felt small-scale and constrained in comparison to Cursed Sails, and Sea of Thieves' final major update of year one, Shrouded Spoils, jettisoned story completely. That though, was largely through necessity, given that it was focussed, as a sort of capper to Sea of Thieves' first 12 months, on revisiting and reworking existing elements into an experience that finally felt like a complete, cohesive whole.
Following Shrouded Spoils' tinkering, skeletal ships (previously only seen during timed events) roamed the seas at will, joining the kraken, megalodon, storm, and creeping fog banks as potential encounters - all adding a perpetual sense of dread to even the shortest of voyages. Elsewhere, mermaid statues, introduced as a largely throwaway idea in an early limited-time adventure, were given purpose and properly integrated into the world, while Sea of Thieves' long-neglected end-game was incentivised through new Pirate Legend commendations.
It was an enormously thorough, and much-needed update. Playing Sea of Thieves today, there are so many distractions, diversions, and goals away from the original three Trading Companies and PvP encounters that formed the focus of the launch-day game, it's a little dizzying to think how much the world has expanded in a relatively short space of time.
If there's been any cause for concern in Sea of Thieves' first year, it's in Rare's continued struggles to follow through on its initial plan to maintain a regular programme of smaller-scale, but still meaningful events. Bilge Rat Adventures, originally promoted as bi-monthly activities, grew less and less common as the year went on - with the last proper offering, a Halloween-themed update, arriving almost five months ago. Two extremely basic reworkings of existing Trading Company voyages followed in December and then February, but the increasingly long wait between has made for a live-service game that hasn't always felt particularly alive.
Granted, Bilge Rat Adventures frequently seemed like a lot of development effort for very little pay-off, with most (the mighty Gunpowder Skeletons update aside) failing to bring much that felt meaningful. The good news, though, is that their apparent, recently introduced successors, Mercenary Voyages, have bags of potential. They're designed to offer a new twist on existing mechanics, and the first proper outing - a recent PvP-focussed challenge that, hilariously, sent all players to the same island - was a raucous delight, more substantial and more engaging than the vast majority of previous small-scale events. Hopefully, Rare can sustain momentum this time around, filling those crucial lulls between more significant content updates.
Of course, we now have at least some inkling of why the last few months have been so conspicuously low-key, with Rare's main focus seemingly having been on Sea of Thieves' imminent "mega update" - a veritable bonanza of new features including, among other things, the PvP-focussed Arena mode, pets, story-based questing, and, if hints have been correctly interpreted, fishing and cooking. We'll get proper details later today, as part of Sea of Thieves' birthday celebrations, but that alone already sounds like one hell of a start to year two.
And here's the thing; while Sea of Thieves' first year certainly hasn't been without its wobbles (which reminds me, spyglass dongs, anyone?), it's still a game I absolutely adore - and I'm not even close to tiring of the simple, meandering pleasures, and occasional all-out warfare, of a life on the waves. I recently, finally, knuckled down to grind the last few levels to Pirate Legend - and I was amazed that one year on, after hundreds of hours of play, even the most modest sessions still managed to conjure up a surprising, often hilarious, story or two. There really is no game quite like Sea of Thieves in that regard, and hopefully Rare's wonderful pirate adventure will be weighing anchor and following the horizon for years to come.