Sea of Thieves is, I think, a phenomenal story generator - and excels in delivering the kinds of unpredictable encounters that can so frequently turn a routine play session into a genuinely unforgettable one.
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.
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.
Picking Sea of Thieves feels like a bit of a cheat. After all, the ever churning innards of Rare's multiplayer pirate adventure are expressly designed to generate memorable adventures. But in a year packed with wow moments (that first glimpse of Subnautica's bountiful choral reef, for one) and full-on WTF moments (why hello there, Fortnite's inter-dimensional butterfly), no other game has, for me at least, managed to create so many wonderful, lasting memories as Sea of Thieves.
Today sees the release of Forsaken Shores, Sea of Thieves' most ambitious content expansion yet. Not only does it add an entirely new, extra-challenging, area of the world to explore, alongside rowboats and more, it marks six months of post-launch updates for Sea of Thieves since the game's arrival on Xbox One and PC in March.
'D-do you fancy playing some Sea of Thieves later tonight?' I ask, although not sure how I managed to stutter seeing that it was a WhatsApp message. I waited for a response, feeling actually pretty awkward. Oh god, blue ticks but no reply.
We can all agree there are reasonable criticisms to be levied at Sea of Thieves; its launch state was slender, even for a "service" game (and its long-promised, much-needed programme of regular weekly events is well overdue), its regular patches are desperately in want of better quality control, and its misuse of the term 'sloop' is deeply suspicious. Yet I still love it, all the same.
It's the the pirate game I always dreamed of, and I still haven't tired of its swashbuckling charms; I love the pure tactile pleasures of traversing that glorious heave and heft of ocean, the hypnotic delights of carefree meandering, of ferrying livestock, and digging for gold; I love the ever-present threat of looming disaster from all sides, and the slapstick chaos when it all comes together - when storms and sea monsters and player encounters collide in unscripted, unbridled mayhem.
There's a problem though. When I enthusiastically wrote about Sea of Thieves at launch, I hoped that Rare would be able to maintain a steady flow of new ingredients to ensure that the kinds of unpredictable stories and meaningful players interactions so crucial to its success kept coming. But with the developer's attention focussed on fixes and feature improvements (such as much-needed private crew options), that simply didn't happen.
Sea of Thieves offers players a vibrant, cartoon world of stories big and small - but perhaps none of them are as significant as the tale of developer Rare itself. It's hard to believe that Kinect projects aside, it's been over nine years since we last saw a full game from the studio. Much has changed since then, with the studio's reliance on custom, per-game engines replaced by a shift towards Unreal Engine 4. But this game is a title quite unlike any other built on the Epic middleware - Sea of Thieves is beautiful and unique.
I've been playing a lot of Sea of Thieves this week and so far it feels very much like being in an exciting new relationship and not being able to work out why your friends aren't as happy for you as you thought they would be - a heady combination of being incredibly enthusiastic, with just a slight creeping sensation that you're making a fool of yourself. I'm not overly bothered, mind you - I'm still having a lovely time - but it did get me thinking about what exactly draws me in so strongly while putting others right off.
Sea of Thieves has just gone live on the Microsoft Store for Xbox One and PC, and we're setting to the high seas to bring you our review as soon as we've had plenty of time with final code on fully stressed servers. Before then, though, here's some early impressions from time with the various betas and a small while with final code.
Six years ago, we asked "Who Killed Rare?" Fast forward to 2018, and Sea of Thieves is about to set sail on a journey its creators hope will secure the future of the legendary video game developer for years to come.
A note from the editor: Jelly Deals is a deals site launched by our parent company, Gamer Network, with a mission to find the best bargains out there. Look out for the Jelly Deals roundup of reduced-price games and kit every Saturday on Eurogamer.
While the Sea of Thieves closed beta answered many questions about Rare's big new shared-world pirate game, it left many questions unanswered. Chief among them, perhaps, was, is this it?
How should you play Sea of Thieves? Think about what we've seen so far of the game, what the message has been: play with your friends, take control of a pirate ship and hunt treasure and other players on the high seas. But what if you don't want to play like that? What if you want to play alone? And what if I told you some of the best experiences I've had in the Sea of Thieves closed beta were while playing solo?
Size matters on the Sea of Thieves, but when you're up to your berringed earlobes in pirate gold, cunning is king. Earlier this week myself and three other buccaneers spent an hour chasing a single, wily captain in the game's closed beta. Our target led us a merry dance, steering his nimble sloop in amongst the looming rock spires by the aptly named Shipwreck Bay, but eventually he made a break for the open sea, and with the wind behind us and our galleon's sails at full spread, we quickly closed the distance.
I am being somewhat facetious with that subheading, not to mention self-indulgent. (For the uninitiated, it's a reference to my predecessor Tom Bramwell's classic, stinging editorial on Microsoft's misguided plans for how Xbox One software would work - plans that would eventually be ditched.) With yesterday's announcement that all first-party exclusive games would be added to the Xbox Game Pass subscription service on release date, Microsoft is not killing game ownership. It's not even trying to.
During Ubisoft's E3 2017 media briefing, the company unveiled a new pirate game due out in autumn 2018: Skull & Bones. The news didn't exactly come as a surprise to the developers at Rare, makers of fellow 2018 pirate game Sea of Thieves, but they'll have watched the detailed gameplay trailers with interest nonetheless.
During its E3 2017 media briefing, Microsoft faced pressure to convince the gaming public to fork out its hard-earned cash - £449 in the UK to be exact - on an Xbox One X, née Project Scorpio. With the specs out of the way, it was all about the games. And so the games came - 42, 22 of which with rather vague "Xbox console exclusivity" attached. But while we saw some lovely little games as part of a different side of Microsoft (The Last Night, Artful Escape and Ori 2 spring to mind), where were the big first-party exclusive new game announcements? You know, the kind of announcement that gets early adopters fumbling over themselves to pre-order? There weren't any.
We've decided to take a slightly different tack with our E3 awards this year. Rather than pick a single game of the show, or nominate games to other sub-categories based on genre or achievement in some specific area of technology or design, we've simply picked five games that particularly impressed us this week and presented them with our Editors' Choice Awards.
Sea of Thieves lets you and a group of friends sail pirate ships in a huge open ocean. You can drink grog. You can play the accordion.
Microsoft's E3 media briefing was strong, I thought, although its impact was dulled by a pretty spectacular set of leaks that not only revealed the existence of the Xbox One S and Scorpio ahead of time, but the running order of the show.