After releasing to mixed critical and fan reception in 2018, Sea of Thieves has blossomed into something far more endearing and worthwhile since launch. You can practically categorize the slow-yet-noticeable positive swing just from TechRaptor's Anson Chan's review to my assessment of its Disney-branded expansion, A Pirate's Life. That improvement in polished features and more meaningful content arrived through several iterative steps between its launch and its inevitable one-year anniversary. Enter the Sea of Thieves Arena!
This compliment to the standard PVE/PVP Adventure mode showed incredible promise when it first debuted. While a recent update nixed that mode entirely -- to my chagrin -- there's value to be had in listening to this old sailor's tales of a multiplayer mode that's now sunk to the sea bottom. How it compressed those winner-take-all scenarios left an indelible mark on anyone who tried it.
The Sea of Thieves Arena Mode Rules of Engagement
For the unaware, think of the Sea of Thieves Arena as a distillation of the main course PVP bouts. Unlike Adventure, there's no opportunity to form alliances nor split shares. It's your two-, three-, or four-pirate crew fighting against several other ships in a condensed area to turn in treasure and fight each other. Whichever crew nets the most points (silver) within a 15-minute timeframe is crowned the winner. There are numerous ways of netting points too: killing players, forcing them to respawn, successful cannonball hits, digging up the prized Sea Dog Chest, and finally turning in said chest to the only Sea Dog Agent on the map.
Of course, these disparate actions net varying amounts of points. Being as it's the most difficult, turning in this valued chest nets you 1,000 points; conversely, netting a kill on someone is just worth five points. You can intuitively tell what's most important: That chest with a permanent purple light beacon in the sky is top priority. But you can't also slouch on defense either since a sunken ship loses you 1,000 points. So, the expected template in 'vanilla' Sea of Thieves, such as repairing the hull, warding off raiding pirates, various cannonballs, and so on, is here within a different context.
Dastardly Tactics in the Sea of Thieves Arena
If you’re a pirate worth their salt -- like me -- you’re giddy about the conniving methods to exploit this system. Given that someone has to physically turn in this holy case, nothing is preventing a team's rogue from camping by the agent (who's standing upon an anchored ship) and flanking the hapless dolt who ran up there without an escort. Or perhaps an early high-scoring team gets casually dogpiled by everyone else and loses their first ship. The possibility space is quite expansive, and I've seen devious rogues win by being that ruthless.
This plurality of methods is stacked on top of the usual methods within Adventure: being a nettlesome pirate that may cannon over to an enemy ship, being a third-party opponent taking shots at a distance, and so on. If your team has a strong offensive advantage, they could just fire a fusillade of cannonballs to farm points as well; likewise, those risks can just as easily apply to your crew if caution is thrown to the wind. Maneuvers are constantly in flux when juggling between four opposing teams.
This is the potency I saw from my first game. The moment the clock is ticking, you're thinking of how to be a well-oiled machine: load cannons, lower the masts, angle the sails, have someone scouting nearby enemy ships. Given the modest proximity you'll have with at least one opponent at the start, there's no time to slouch around. I could go on and on about its hectic nature or flexibility, which the game's wiki goes into with tremendous detail, but what fascinated me the most was the separate cogs clicking together between communication, seafaring, cannoning, and scheming.
Where'd the Sea of Thieves Arena Go Wrong?
Going by these descriptions, it'd be fair to ask "why did Rare remove it outright?" After all, there's a dedicated Sea of Thieves following to this day; in fact, it's likely Microsoft's eighth-gen flagship title with respect to cultural impact and GaaS/MMO sustainability. So, if this franchise is still going strong, with promised updates past its fifth-year anniversary, why did Arena never catch on?
The simplest answer would be the paltry number of scalawags who ever tried it. According to Rare's estimates upon the tragic announcement, approximately 2% of players even played it on a consistent basis. As a consequence, Arena had some notoriously long wait times to even gather five Sloop or Galleon teams. It's tough to expect continuous support with those meager stats. But there has to be something more to it.
Just as Arena leverages Thieves' ship warfare template, so too does it graft on the same on-foot combat structure. As much as I understand the simplicity of its melee and ranged swashbuckling -- especially for a huge audience -- it's the one aspect that's always been a letdown. From the floaty swordplay to the lacking oomph! with firearms, you intuitively know it could be better. Given the proximity to other players and the allure of boarding another ship, it's a shame just how loosey-goosey the dynamics feel.
Beyond the combative foibles, Rare seemed to just drop it in Version 2.0 and not substantially build it up either. This feeds back into lacking player interest, but perhaps that just became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who's to say if a gentle push like custom games, rule tweaks, etc. wouldn't have been the hook it needed? Even integrating into Adventure in a subtle way, rather than splitting in the main menu, might've moved the needle. It's tough to keep excitement for an old fad when you see constant expansions and general tweaks so dedicated to Adventure.
Raise Yer Glass Of Grog
A part of me feels I'm disparaging Rare too much by playing Monday morning quarterback. Hindsight is 20/20, after all. My critiques carry a bit of remorse mostly due to not squeezing as much time as I wanted before it faded away. Given my rather lackluster time management, I preemptively knew Arena's addictiveness would've further damaged that reputation. It says a lot about a multiplayer mode that I know will have such an effect on me.
The nature of stripping content away in GaaS titles is becoming more commonplace. Out of all the recent examples, Arena is one of the roughest for me. Rare accomplished something special with this mode, yet never truly shined as one would've expected. The way it condensed those neck-vein-throbbing, vocal-cord-damaging moments of frustration will always stick with me. In short, it provided me with some of my favorite Sea of Thieves experiences.