Sea of Thieves was an opportunity for Microsoft and studio Rare to do something completely new. The multiplayer pirate simulator promised endless hours of entertainment. A sandbox world steeped in lore in which you make your own adventures. But upon the game's release in March this year, the internet was befuddled, asking the question: Is this really it? There just didn't seem to be that much to do, but Sea of Thieves was always supposed to follow the "game as a service" model of trickling in new content. That starts with The Hungering Deep campaign that beached earlier this week in a flawed but potentially important step in re-injecting some semblance of fun into the game.
Sea of Thieves generated a lot of excitement in the run-up to its launch. Popular streamers participated in the many beta tests, which ran from late January through to early March, and it appeared to be the pirate fantasy title you didn't know you wanted. Captaining a galleon required just the right amount of cooperation and busywork to make it rewarding but not tiresome. And whether it was drinking grog until you hurled, playing pirate shanties on creaky instruments or firing yourself out of a cannon in the direction of an enemy ship, there were plenty of good old-fashioned giggles to be had.
It was perhaps this significant amount of pre-launch exposure that ultimately led to universal disappointment. You don't have to spend much time in-game for the novelty of these cliché pirate actions to wear off. Beyond that, the game felt... unfinished. The three types of quests are simplistic and get repetitive very quickly. Plus, the payoff is leveling up towards the end goal of becoming a pirate captain and earning coin to buy wildly expensive cosmetics. In other words, it's an unrewarding grind.
As it stands, the multiplayer aspect isn't much more engaging. The sword- and gun-play is shallow, and while ship-on-ship battles have a higher skill cap, they often end up being an exercise in who exhausts their cannonballs or repairs planks first, or who can spawn-camp on the enemy's ship the longest. There's no real reward for sinking a ship apart from being annoying, and if you're on the receiving end, you just come out the other end annoyed.
That's why The Hungering Deep is such an important update. It's the first chance Rare has to flip the script and keep people raising anchor on the Sea of Thieves. There's a couple of different aspects to the patch: new cosmetics, including scars and tattoos, and a flag you can now raise atop your mast. You can choose the Jolly Roger, a white flag and several other colors. These are intended as a long-range communication tool, but don't have much value as far as I can tell.
The meat and potatoes of The Hungering Deep, however, is a campaign-esque quest that follows the tale of one 'Merry' Merrick, who encountered a legendary sea monster somewhere in the blue. You get a couple of new items as you progress through the story -- a new instrument in the drum and a speaking trumpet that allows you to broadcast your voice to ships outside the range of proximity chat. The vast majority of the quest, however, is spent sailing from clue to clue.
The Hungering Deep progresses differently to the standard quest fare you pick up at trading outposts. Instead of getting a map or a location spoon-fed to you, you have to actually engage your gray matter to pick apart riddles and work out your next step. You also have to read the clue and remember its contents, as you can't take it with you -- pro-tip, take screenshots so you can revisit them if you get stuck. To some extent, it does make you feel like you're on an actual journey, following the most elaborate pirate's tale the game's spun yet.
That said, break the whole thing down into its constituent parts and it's really just a glorified fetch quest. There are no puzzles to solve or discoveries to make along the way, apart from ending up where you are supposed to be, reading the next text-based clue, and setting off again. The milestones are fairly spread out, too, making long and sometimes tiring voyages unavoidable. It's a bit of a grind. Still, it's a welcome enough departure from the resource farming and monotonous trading missions.
The Hungering Deep did serve to remind me of one facet of the game I had taken for granted, having not played in over a month: It's not the worst way to kill time. I did the early portion of the campaign with my colleague Tim Seppala on deck. Between the five-minute stints of activity at new clue spots, we chatted for hours, I made and ate dinner while he steered our sloop, and I actually wrote most of this piece while concurrently in-game. It's not a bad place to just hang out, especially with friends on voice chat. As Tim describes it: "It's a great online lobby."
But therein lies another problem with The Hungering Deep. It's ended up being a huge time-suck. Without spoiling too much, you eventually get to a point where there are no more clues, and you have to head out in search of danger. Only, you need at least five people cooperating to trigger the final event, meaning even a fully manned galleon is incapable of completing the campaign. I've spent twice as long trying to find other ships to party up with for the last hoorah than I have done getting to that point. Hours and hours.
I lurked around the locations of some of the campaign's turning points waiting for people to pass, I've spawned into random galleon squads hoping to find like-minded folk. I've even chased after ships I've seen, shouting into the new speaking trumpet, trying to persuade the crew to follow me.
The thing is, you don't encounter that many ships in the Sea of Thieves sandbox. The game is intentionally designed that way to make every set of sails you spot on the horizon remarkable. I shouldn't have needed to be so patient -- there's no doubt in my mind this is the biggest flaw in the campaign -- but it finally paid off.
When I sat down to write this, I loaded up the game and sailed aimlessly around for about an hour before I found a frustrated Frenchman waiting at an island you revisit several times during the story. Half an hour later, another ship showed up. One 'looking for groups' post broadcast through the clunky Xbox One interface later, and we're ready to take the final step. Another ship turned up just as we were leaving, too, the lucky devils. In all, it took me roughly four hours to track down all the clues, then another six-plus (I kinda lost count at this point) to find other cooperative crews for the big finish.
The actual end-game is at least more exciting than the route there, but it's still basically a question of whether you have enough resources to buy the time you need to survive the encounter. And I've little interest in doing it again now I've seen all there is to see. Nonetheless, it's the best thing there is to do in Sea of Thieves right now, but that fact has only served as a reminder of how sparse the sandbox really is.
Perhaps an unfair comparison given they're totally different games, but I can't help but think of GTA V. How rich and varied that world is, and how much there is to do by comparison. Sea of Thieves could have come right out of the gate littered with these types of longer quests, rather than its audience having to wait for time-limited events like The Hungering Deep, which consists mainly of sailing downtime as it is.
The Hungering Deep is just the first entry in an immediate roadmap Rare has planned. Over the summer, Cursed Sails will add a new ship type, while Forsaken Shores will expand the sandbox to include a new area. The Hungering Deep doesn't add that much depth to the game, but it's a glimmer of hope -- a clumsy baby step towards something better. The type of damage extra content can't fix might already be done, though -- the "game as a service" model only works if you can keep people playing.
There's no sign that further updates will truly enrich the world of Sea of Thieves, beyond giving players a few more things to do. Despite it being a seafaring game, the water is lifeless, bar some excitable sharks and the odd school of fish. Many of the islands are plain and uninteresting. There's only one real environmental enemy in skeletons. The formidable Kraken is a bunch of disembodied limbs poking out of the water. Ships don't even have visible anchors. The list of missing pieces goes on.
In that sense, Sea of Thieves might always feel like a shell -- an elaborately painted papier-mâché model. If the sandbox isn't varied and engaging, no amount of extra missions is going to make the world feel alive. The water still looks gorgeous, though.