Sea of Thieves' slick, sizeable first story campaign is a little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Goonies
Coming as part of this month's Anniversary Update.
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.
But it's always struggled to tell its own tales, never really allowing players to get to know its world. Poke around enough, and, yes, you'll find hints of long-gone civilisation, or the remnants of more recent adventures in gloomy corners - but these more intimate stories have always remained frustratingly out of reach, making for a setting that's often felt lifeless away from the ocean, a beautiful staging ground for stories not yet told.
There've been attempts to remedy this; we've chased missing crews in the Devil's Roar as part of the Forsaken Shores update, searched for an ancient menace at the behest of a crazed captain during the Hungering Deep, even traced the fate of an accursed weaponsmith-turned-bloodthirsty-undead-pirate during Cursed Sails. But, as fun as these were, bringing a sense of place and personality to the world, they were few and far between. And, worse, their limited-time nature meant that when they were gone, the slate was scrubbed clean.
And that's where Tall Tales - what you might call one half of Sea of Thieves' enormously ambitious Anniversary Update, the other being the raucously entertaining competitive Arena Mode - comes in. It finally introduces something that many have been clamouring for since launch: crafted narrative adventures to complement the more free-form, anything-goes style of player-generated storytelling at Sea of Thieves' core.
But Tall Tales isn't simply a one-off dollop of story content; rather it's the result of an extended development effort to create a suite of tools that will enable Rare to more easily introduce bespoke stories, with additional complexity and unique mechanics, into Sea of Thieves. To that end, you could consider Shores of Gold (as Sea of Thieves' initial nine-strong cluster of story missions is known), the first season in an ongoing piratical narrative, with the promise of new adventures - both similarly sized arcs and smaller tales - still to come.
And the team's ambitious goal is to ensure that these tales, with their varied story beats (at least a portion of Shores of Gold, for instance, is said to focus on an ages-old love story), go beyond mere swashbuckling action, offering the kind of emotional richness, and strongly defined, recurring characters, that give players a different sort of connection with the world.
Sea of Thieves nerds like me will, for example, likely be thrilled to hear that one of the game's most memorable faces - the wonderfully wry Madame Olivia, first seen in last year's E3 trailer - is set to gain a bigger role in the Sea of Thieves mythos as Shores of Gold unfolds, with Rare evening bringing back her original voice actor to record new lines. And, crucially, none of this stuff is limited-time, meaning that it will remain in-game for everyone to enjoy, no matter when they first set sail, establishing a base that should only grow richer with time.
Rare's inaugural story arc, though, sends fearless crews out across the ocean in search of a mysterious island known as the Shores of Gold - a journey that begins with a hunt for a powerful artefact, the fabled Shroudbreaker, rumoured to be the only means of parting the deadly Devil's Shroud surrounding the map. And if you're hoping that might lead to hitherto unseen climes, you could be in luck; the wonderfully evocative trailer created to promote Tall Tales' first season (shown to press during a recent studio visit, and due to release publicly in the run-up to launch on April 30th), heavily implies that we'll be voyaging to new corners of the world.
In practical terms, each Tall Tales campaign mission begins when crew members interact with a specific in-game object - in the case of the first chapter (the only mission shown during my time at Rare), that's an old journal belonging to the familiar, tavern-dwelling Mysterious Stranger. And from the moment the quest begins, it's clear that Rare is going all-in here; there are cut-scenes, a bespoke musical score, and - praise be - professional-grade voice acting for its characters. I'm not ashamed to admit that I had goosebumps as the music swelled and the Mysterious Stranger began his portentous tale.
Once the preamble is over, all crew mates are given access to a new item in their quest wheel - a wonderfully presented journal that gradually expands as the story progresses. It's a delightful thing, the personal account of a famed pirate's earlier spirited excursion into the unknown - and its passages are full of clues and curious illustrations that may or may not prove useful down the line. Indeed, its guidance strikes just the right balance, with enough room for interpretation (and misinterpretation) that our eventual success on the seas felt genuinely earned.
One particularly neat thing about Sea of Thieves' new story system, incidentally, is that campaign missions can be active alongside standard quests, meaning that players are free to meander to their destination, embarking on their usual Trading Company pursuits, or even indulging in PvP incursions if they so choose - indeed, there don't appear to be any restrictions to the activities you can partake in, ensuring that Sea of Thieves' sandbox heart remains pure.
Shore of Gold's opening moments are, admittedly, relatively low-key, as crews zig-zag from island to island in search of their ancient and powerful prize - a journey that can only be plotted by scouring the journal for potential destinations, teased in vague allusions to specific landmarks or half-remembered directions. And, as that voyage progresses, brave adventurers will slowly accumulate new nicknacks and tools.
One of these, the new Collector's Chest, is a particular highlight - staggeringly simple in design but enormously useful, to the point that I've missed not having it in vanilla Sea of Thieves. It is, as its name suggests, a portable chest for storing personal items - be they skulls, trinkets, gems or anything else you might find around the world - dramatically reducing the need to return to your boat for drop-offs each time you stumble across new spoils on your travels. And before you ask, no, you can't (currently) fill it with your own vomit and then gift it to an unsuspecting friend.
What's particularly promising about Shores of Gold's opening campaign (and I realise I'm being light on specifics, but I'm trying to keep things spoiler-free) is its sense of pace. Following that early bout of quiet, familiar island-hopping, things soon ramp up, introducing more bespoke elements specific to the adventure. There are mysterious keys to locate and ancient contraptions to ponder, secret entrances behind heavy stone walls, and even striking new enemies - all culminating in a booby-trapped finale that would leave Indiana Jones breathless.
What's more, with Rare suggesting that its first nine-mission story campaign could take as many as 20 hours to complete (although that'll likely vary wildly depending on crew size, efficiency, and tendencies for distraction), and teasing the likes of boss battles, star navigation, and special enchanted items in later chapters, it sounds like there's a lot more to look forward to.
And the systems that drive it all are fascinating. Although story beats remain the same for all adventurers, there are, says Rare, procedural elements to every quest - bringing numerous benefits. Most obviously, it means that missions can be played over and over (which is actively encouraged, given that Shores of Gold features its own set of achievement-style Commendations), with variable riddles and destinations keeping things fresh.
More subtly, though, by regulating player journeys behind the scenes (and by providing different staging areas for key set-pieces around the map), Rare is able to keep teams apart during story missions, avoiding awkward queueing scenarios and ensuring that Tall Tales' adventures always feel personal to a crew.
One relatively straightforward mission in, I'm hesitant to make any great proclamations about the impact that Tall Tales will have on the future of Sea of Thieves, but it undoubtedly has enormous potential - and could go a long way toward winning over those who've been hoping for this kind of more-traditional, crafted experience since day one. And if Shores of Gold's remaining eight missions can hit the same highs as the first, while offering further variety and a genuinely engaging yarn along the way, that'll be very good news indeed.