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Sea of Thieves' Hungering Deep update is a significant step in the right direction

Sea change.

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.

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It's not just that storms and sea monsters became overfamiliar and rote though; worse is that the spirited, ad hoc camaraderie present between pirates in test sessions prior to launch - one of the game's greatest strengths - all but disappeared. When the floodgates opened on release day, most players immediately set upon Sea of Thieves through the limited lens of a PvP murderfest, rather than a oceanic sandbox inviting all manner of interactions - and things rapidly devolved into an tediously predictable game of aggression. Paranoia mounted and, where once a distant boat could be a potential new alliance, soon a shadow on the horizon all but guaranteed an inevitable, drawn-out fight to the death.

This, then, is why The Hungering Deep is so significant. Sure, if you scrutinise its additions purely as a feature list (it introduces a new instrument, new flag and speaking trumpet tools, new tattoo and scar cosmetics, new ship and outfit options, a brisk campaign quest, and a new AI threat), it's perhaps a little underwhelming. Its true strength comes in how these new features work together to course correct and reinvigorate the game.

Getting the complaints out the way first, the new hour-long, limited-time story quest is disappointingly undercooked. Its bulk consists of a series of simple A to B voyages which, despite a few welcome moments of exploratory puzzling, mostly just repurpose existing assets, add a bit of dialogue text, then call it a day. There are no bespoke crescendo moments along the way, no close encounters for greater impact, and it's honestly hard not to regard its simplicity and wonder: if this is Rare's idea of a meaningful quest, why isn't it churning out these things to add some much needed texture to Sea of Thieves' evocative but rather empty world?

Sea of Thieves' Captain-Ahab-like Merrick is a wonderful addition, even if his quest is lacking.

As a proof of concept though, The Hungering Deep's campaign is much more promising. Merrick, the Captain Ahab-like NPC at the centre of the new DLC, and his quest to find and kill an ancient aquatic beast, is exactly the kind of focus the game needs. He creates a wonderful anchor point for the new content update, and serves as a welcome strand of lore in a world which has always felt like it has stories to tell, but never quite manages to tell them. What's more, it's a fun way to introduce the update's new tools, and, more importantly, gives a sense of purpose, albeit fleetingly, to the usual sandbox meandering.

Yet while the quest itself falls a little flat, it's hard to overstate the immediate impact that The Hungering Deep had on Sea of Thieves. As I approached Shark Bait Cove to begin the new story sequence on launch day, closing in on the throng of sloops and galleons nearby, something unexpected happened - or, rather didn't: I pulled up to shore with no cannonball to the face, no fury and flurry of gunfire. Instead, crews were crowded in happy unison around Merrick to start their journey - dancing, and chatting, and slaying skeletons as one. With a shared goal, everyone suddenly seemed to remember that interactions didn't always have to end with someone at the bottom of the ocean.

Inter-crew revelry has sadly been in short supply since launch, but The Hungering Deep makes great strides in remedying that.

And that's just the preamble. The real meat of The Hungering Deep right now is a boss battle that requires at least five people to band together to initiate. With galleons limited to four players, crews are forced to lay down arms and work together to slay the beast - and Rare has provided some wonderful, genuinely game-changing new tools to facilitate this. The speaking trumpet lets you yell across the ocean, bellowing your intentions and requests for assistance without appearing too threatening, while the new flag system for ships works in tandem.

For the first time in what seems like ages, random crews across the ocean are communicating and interacting positively, and Sea of Thieves seems to have rediscovered its soul. Remarkably too, that community spirit hasn't yet abated; I've been waved at from afar, had impromptu mid-water musical shindigs, shared an outpost with a stranger, and even followed up a boss fight with collaborative skeleton fort. High seas murder is still rife, of course - as it should be a game that lets you live the life of a bloodthirsty pirate if you want to - but, crucially, the possibilities have broadened, and once again, Sea of Thieves has interesting stories to tell.

Meg is a cool fight in itself, but the encounter's brilliant design starts early as you're forced to roam the seas wooing other crews to join in.

So as much as I'm excited to see the new lands, ships, and threats promised in the coming months, I hope Rare moves quickly to add further activities that bring crews together for more than just routine, rote slaughter. Give us a cursed chest whose value steadily depletes if it's not constantly juggled between two ships, give us the occasional purely co-operative skeleton fort, scatter treasure map fragments for multiple crews to find and unite, or instigate Splatoon-like monthly competitions that see crews pick a side and fight for the glory of their faction.

Sea of Thieves doesn't need massive marquee additions to keep its world feeling fresh; it just needs to maintain a steady flow of interesting, varied ways for players to interact (be they collaborative, nefarious, or both), so as to ensure that its spirited high seas adventuring remains appropriately unpredictable.

Sea of Thieves isn't perfect, and it's absolutely right to highlight its shortcomings - if only so that Rare can, as it's shown a willingness to do, react to constructive feedback. What it is though, is a uniquely entertaining (and, yes, inevitably divisive) experience - and an incredibly solid foundation for things to come.

The Hungering Deep feels like a statement of intent, and one pointing in exactly the right direction. Sea of Thieves' long-promised weekly updates are scheduled to begin immediately after Merrick's limited time quest ends, and if this regular influx of new goals and ways to play proves as shrewdly effective as they have in The Hungering Deep, the future should be bright out on the waves.

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