As someone who ordinarily only tolerates Sea of Thieves' PvP side, rather than proactively engages in it (although, to be clear, I will send you to Davy Jones' Locker if you try and mess with my sloop), I was a little apprehensive when Rare first announced that its multiplayer pirate extravaganza would be getting a new competitive-focussed standalone mode.
From April 30th onward, when Sea of Thieves' Anniversary Update arrives, the existing game (now retitled Adventure Mode, and massively expanded with new rip-roaring, story-focussed campaign missions) will be joined by the new combative Arena Mode. The latter, I had previously assumed, would surely be the domain of bloodthirsty reprobates and toxic trolls, not friendly, carefree sailing-folk like me. Yeah, I might have been wrong about that.
Based on the handful of matches I managed to play at a recent Sea of Thieves press event, Arena Mode is astonishingly good fun. It offers exactly 24-minutes of swashbuckling carnage per game as five crews of four battle it out, galleon-to-galleon, on a truncated version of the familiar Adventure Mode map, frantically outmanoeuvring each other to accrue the most coins.
Superficially at least, Arena Mode is designed as one big treasure hunt. At the start of a game (once you've been whisked away from the gorgeously designed social hub, where all players assemble pre-match for casual banter and innocently saucy hot tub fun), every team is handed a clutch of identical maps. Or sometimes just the one.
Almost immediately, the race is on, with crews hoisting anchor, lowering sails, and bravely setting forth in the same direction, all primed to dig up some chests and earn those precious points - or, as is more likely the case, to tumble headlong into pure PvP pandemonium.
If that was the extent of Arena Mode, I'm sure it would be a blast, job well done. However, its smartest trick is that coins are rewarded for pretty much any notably aggressive act, meaning there's a huge amount of scope for employing different strategies and play styles.
Sure, you'll get points for digging up treasure and turning it in at the nearest makeshift floating outpost, as delineated by the plumes of smoke on the horizon, but you'll also gain a few for taking a speedier approach, simply tapping a chest with your shovel then racing along to the next one. And there are points for stealing opponents' chests and cashing them in yourself, or for embarking on a rampage of sword-swinging slaughter, and there are significant amounts up for grabs if you successfully manage to sink an enemy ship (and a nice chunk of points to lose if they sink yours). You can even increase your tally by pummelling another vessel with cannonballs, making long-distance aggression a reasonable strategy of its own.
In fact, there are more tactical options than ever before, thanks to a swathe of newly introduced systems affecting ship-to-ship combat - all of which are also available in Adventure Mode. Not only is hull damage now variable (larger breaches requiring more planks to fix than smaller holes), but carefully aimed cannon fire can now topple masts, shatter wheels, and obliterate the capstan, affecting a crew's ability to sail, steer, and move. That brings added frustrations for your opponents, but, crucially, more time to saunter aboard their vessel for some close-quarters obliteration as they faff around with repairs.
Additionally, the new dual-harpoons mounted at the front of all ships introduce fresh possibilities of their own. Not only can they be used to hoist valuables and crew mates out of the water (a handy time saver), they can latch onto other ships and reel them in. And if you're feeling particularly flash, it's even possible to hook onto rocks for a comically dramatic U-turn, offering a useful tool for quickly regaining ground on a vessel that manages to give you the slip.
You could even dabble in Sea of Thieves' wonderfully implemented new fishing system, which enables players to catch and cook food for a bit of a health boost, meaning there are minor gains to be had from a spot of languid rod-dangling during the chaos of battle. I suspect, however, that most will save this one for Adventure Mode - settling back and zoning out to the lilting banjo accompaniment, switching lures, locations, and even the time of day in order to hoist up ever-rarer fish and turn them over to the new Hunter's Call trading company.
Not everything is shared between modes, however. Notably, the kraken and megalodon are absent in the Arena (although storms are still in), as their unprovoked attacks simply felt unfair in the midst of battle, says Rare. And, perhaps surprisingly, cursed cannonballs are out too.
All these tweaks, changes, and adjustments to the familiar Sea of Thieves formula are profound. And Arena mode unfurls in 24-minute-snatches of astutely designed, sweaty palmed, frequently hilarious mayhem, in which crews switch and refine strategies on the fly, desperately attempting to wrestle some kind of order out of the chaos - firing cannonballs, stalking outposts, laying spontaneous traps, all with the added pressure of that ever-ticking clock. It's immensely entertaining (in that inordinately tense, skin-of-your-teeth kind of way), fiercely competitive, and has ample scope for intelligent, skilful play. Even I, oceanic pacifist that I ordinarily am, immediately wanted to hop back in for another crack at sweet, bloodthirsty victory.
In fact, the ease with which it's possible to slip in an out of an Arena session is a definite boon. As much fun as standard Sea of Thieves is, it's undoubtedly a time-commitment thanks to the relatively languid pace of its adventuring. Arena mode, however, at a brisk half-hour, can elicit all the emotions in the time it might ordinarily take to stock up on supplies, raise the anchor and set sail. Perhaps more importantly, it's liberating too. While PvP encounters in Adventure Mode might mean the loss of several hours' toil, there are few repercussions for defeat in Arena Mode - aside from, perhaps, an overwhelming sense of shame.
Victory does, of course, enable you to climb the ranks of the new Sea Dogs trading company - meaning there's now a choice of five possible paths (including Adventure Mode's new Hunter's Call) toward Pirate Legend. For the most part though, Arena Mode is as consequence-free as it is frenzied. And with the shackles off, even the most PvP-averse pirate might be surprised at just how much of a bloodthirsty scoundrel they can be.