Far too many gigabytes of Rare-made pirate MMO still litter my hard drive, reserved for an imagined day when Sea of Thieves's gorgeous ocean will be blessed with the vibrancy and variety it deserves. SOT achieved the peculiar duality of burning indelible ocean-faring images into my mind while being entirely forgettable moment-to-moment, and the concept that it might blossom into something meatier currently feels more like a fond daydream than a belief.
Newly-revealed full details on its first major update, The Hungering Deep, sadly aren't doing much to make that dream a reality, but they do at least offer a few hints on what SOT could and should yet become.
In one respect, The Hungering Deep looks set to double-down on what SOT arguably does at the expense of deeper raisons d'être, which is to offer a vast sprawl of cosmetic choices for its avatars and boats. Tattoos and scars are being added to the customisation menus, which a) is obviously enormously pirate-appropriate but b) the fact that I didn't even notice their abscene before now perhaps speaks volumes about their actual importance. Same goes for tweakable flag designs for your ship - was that really not in there already?
It plays into the idea that SOT is about bombing around on the wide shader-glow sea, doing whatever and looking like whatever, which I'm absolutely on-board with in concept, but found increasingly hollow in practice. There's only so many times you can stab identical skeletons or kidnap identical chickens before the existential crisis hits. I'm not sure more cosmetic options was what SOT most urgently needed, in other words.
On the other side of the coin, I am 100% delighted by the addition of drums and trumpets, as a crew of ne'er-do-wells gathering on deck to play sea-shanties to pass a long, otherwise boring trip is the absolute highlight of the game. More instruments for that is a joyful thing indeed, even if it doesn't address the core problems.
Fortunately, there is another side to The Hungering Deep, which is closer to what SOT most urgently needs: an optional sense of purpose and urgency. I'll quote directly from the update details here: "Join this time-limited adventure that leads from the outpost taverns to lonely, forgotten isles, piecing together the tale of Merrick the bard and his brush with hungering horror. Those who can find him and untangle his groggy recollection of events can join the hunt for his nemesis – and reap the rewards!"
Great, but... what we need is about 50 similar quest chains, not just one "time-limited" option. I get that SOT wants to be more like Elite: Dangerous than Pillars of Eternity 2, which is to say freeform player encounters, battles and groups, as opposed to be narrative-led adventures, but its basic infrastructure doesn't currently provide the flexibility and variety needed.
'Course, I'm judging on details rather than first-hand experience of The Hungering Deep, but its quest stuff currently scans as a little too ephemeral to me. And bizarrely transitory too: they'll be closing down the quest after a while, though the new AI baddies and cosmetic collectibles added as part of it will remain in the game afterwards.
The Hungering Deep is due on May 29, that being next Tuesday. Ahead of that, this week has already seen a patch that introduces a few quality of life improvements, such as per-weapon sensitivity options, colourblindness toggles and easy ditching of unwanted quests. Further down the line are plans for anti-cheat measures and early testing of updates. More details on those are in this here video devlog:
For more on my conflicted feelings about Rare's salty sea-dogging, here's my Sea of Thieves review.