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.