Sea of Thieves: The Arena artwork

Sea of Thieves: The Arena – your first look at all-out war on the high seas

Sea of Thieves has never been about calm oceans and sunsets. It’s full of dodging cannonballs from enemy ships, fighting three scary skeletons at the same time and trying to outrun a Megalodon.

And it’s about to get even more exciting.

On April 30, Rare will roll out the Anniversary Update for Sea of Thieves to mark a year since the popular shared-world adventure title was released. As well as containing a collection of story-rich quests called Tall Tales – Shores of Gold, it will also see the introduction of The Arena – a competitive mode that pits rival crews against each other as they race to find bounties and treasure.

Rare gave us a sneak peek of both new features during a special event at its UK studio recently, with The Arena unlike anything that the Sea of Thieves world has seen before.

Joe Neate, Executive Producer at Rare, has called the Anniversary Update a “game-changer”, offering players the best of both worlds – a story-driven quest spanning nine chapters, and a more direct, player versus player element.

“We listened to gamers and they said they wanted a more on-demand way to take part in ship battles,” said Shelley Preston, Senior Designer at Rare. “We took that feedback and created The Arena. We had always had this idea in our minds about making a competitive version of Sea of Thieves, and The Arena is our version of that. It’s unlike any other competitive game out there.”

The Arena takes place in a more compact map, forcing four-player teams to confront each other on sea and land. Each battle lasts just 24 minutes – a day in the Sea of Thieves world – with points gained for finding treasure, selling it on specified, neutral ships and killing other players. Points are lost if your vessel sinks. A live league table is displayed in the top-right-hand corner of the screen, and the team with the most points at the end of the game, wins.

Each player starts in a shared lobby that looks like a tavern, complete with an interactive bar, jacuzzi, cannon, ship’s wheel and a new trading company – The Sea Dogs. Here, they can chat to each other and buy new weapons, clothes and accessories.

They then hop aboard identical ships and are given the same maps, which show the location of treasure chests. There are no natural enemies such as the Megalodon, Kraken, skeletons or sharks, so the action is focused on which ship can get to the treasure first and then take it to one of the many neutral ships dotted around the map. These can be easily identified as they shoot a continuous plume of red smoke into the air. When a player hands in a treasure chest, that map disappears from all players’ inventories and they must move on to finding the next undiscovered dig site.

On the way they will inevitably do everything they can to scupper their rivals’ ships, including firing cannonballs and using the two harpoon guns that are fixed to the deck at the front of the vessels. This new weapon can be used in many ways: to grab barrels floating in the sea, pull crew members back on board when they fall overboard, force your vessel to perform very sharp turns, and to connect your ship to others. This last use is particularly handy during a battle, as players can ensure the enemy ship remains in range of their cannonballs, or drag the two ships closer to each other to enable their crew to jump on board a rival’s deck and start a swordfight or destroy the vessel from the inside.

Unsurprisingly, Rare is expecting a lot of people to stream their action-filled experiences of The Arena online via sites such as Mixer.

Sea of Thieves - a year in review

Sea of Thieves statistics since its launch a year ago

“It doesn’t really matter what your prior experience of Sea of Thieves is, The Arena has something for you,” Preston said. “If you’re new to the game and just standing in the Crow’s Nest, looking out for hazards, you are just as important for your ship as somebody who’s played the game a lot and knows it inside out. There is no one role or one type of player that can play an arena.

“In Sea of Thieves, we’ve got people playing who have not played together before or haven’t even played multiplayer, and we want The Arena to do that for competition games. It’s a more approachable take on competitive multiplayer games because there are some titles out there that have a very high barrier to entry.”

Neate agreed: “Because The Arena has short matches, you know you can jump in for half an hour and have a great experience. I think it will create very different emotions to Tall Tales.”

Tall Tales takes place in the main Sea of Thieves world and features nine adventures in total, each with their own story but with a single narrative running through them. The first will be made available as part of the Anniversary Update, and gamers can play on their own or in a group.

A book about The Pirate Lord leads players on a quest to find the Shroudbreaker (interesting side note: the Shroud is the name given to the fog at the edges of the Sea of Thieves map that kills anyone who enters it).

While The Arena is a fast-paced action-filled thriller, Tall Tales is an intriguing, mysterious adventure in the style of 1980s films such as Indiana Jones. The trailer for Tall Tales shows traps and characters navigating their ships by the stars, promising players more variety in Sea of Thieves gameplay than ever before.

If solving clues and puzzles is your thing, then this update will be right up your street – or river, I guess.

“We are trying to drive different emotions in players from the stories and narrative in Tall Tales,” Neate revealed. “A year ago, I wouldn’t have predicted we would have been bringing crafted narrative to this game in the way that we are, but we did it a little bit with some of the earlier updates and it worked really well.”

Preston added: “That’s testament to the commitment we have to listening to feedback from our community. We have a plan of what we would like to do with Sea of Thieves but it’s very open and flexible depending on what the players want, and what works and what doesn’t.

“We have always thought authored stories would be cool, and we put a little bit in with The Hungering Deep. That’s when we started to see an avenue, and thought about how we could bring authored stories into a shared world like Sea of Thieves.”

As well as Arena and Tall Tales, Rare has introduced more ubiquitous updates to the gameplay. Damage can now be inflicted to specific part of a ship, so masts and wheels can be broken, while raising the anchor is a lot harder when the pulley system has been hit by a cannonball.

Players can now fish, with or without bait, and catch a variety of sea creatures. Catching them is a game in itself, as you have to move a thumbstick in the opposite direction to the way the fish is pulling, before reeling them in with the “A” button when they get tired. Fish can either be sold or cooked and eaten, as can the pigs, chickens and monsters that roam the Sea of Thieves world.

“We have the magic of the stories but in this cool multiplayer game,” Neate said. “When you come out of the puzzle vault, you might meet other players, and maybe they will help you, maybe they won’t. That’s part of what makes this game special. Sea of Thieves has had a lot of success, but we believe there are a lot more people out there who can fall in love with this game.”