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Games of the Year 2019: Sea of Thieves

Rare's pirate adventure offered an object lesson in how service-based games can get better and better with age

I have thoroughly enjoyed 2019 in gaming.

As someone who was brought up on a diet of '90s and early '00s platformers and adventure games, it's been a thoroughly entertaining 12 months. Resident Evil 2, Luigi's Mansion 3, Super Mario Maker 2, Link's Awakening, Shenmue III, Cadence of Hyrule, Pokémon, Yooka-Laylee, Medievil, Crash Team Racing -- there has been a plethora of remakes, reimaginings and long overdue sequels to tickle my sense of nostalgia. I even spent over 100 hours playing Tetris (albeit the battle royale version) as if the past 25+ years never happened.

But I also understand the criticism that it hasn't been a vintage year for games, especially in the AAA space -- no God of War or Breath of the Wild to clean up during awards season. There are many reasons for that (we're at the end of a console cycle, for one), but it can't be ignored that so many of our most famed developers -- the Bungies, the Valves, the Rockstars -- are now fully in the world of games-as-a-service. They're just not making as many games anymore.

"Sea of Thieves is now so full of things to do that it can get in the way at times"

Many AAA developers have stopped making blockbuster interactive movies and are now creating blockbuster interactive TV shows instead. And with that in mind, shouldn't our awards and year-end lists be more like the Emmys and less like the Oscars? If Game of Thrones can win awards every year, why can't Pokémon Go? Or Fortnite? Or GTA Online? Or Rainbow Six? Well, we make our own rules here, so my game of 2019 is the same as my game of 2018: Sea of Thieves.

The first year of Sea of Thieves started slowly but with promise, and ended strongly. The main early criticism of the game at the time was that it was a 'Sea of No Content,' with not a great deal to do after the first few hours of finding treasure, killing skeletons and battling at forts.

That wasn't true by the end of the year, and certainly isn't true in 2019. In March, Rare released its Anniversary Update, giving the game an excellent competitive multiplayer mode, a creepy pirate story and a whole fishing sub-game that might just be the best fishing mode ever made.

The competitive multiplayer mode (or Arena) and the fishing have added something quite important to the game -- the ability to play for a short spell. Sea of Thieves has been one of those games where a 'quick go' hasn't been possible, but an Arena battle will take no more than 30 minutes and fishing is something that can be done immediatley without any real travel (which takes up the bulk of your game time). Fishing is also an entertaining way to experience the game solo, which has been one of the game's biggest drawbacks -- it really is better with friends.

This year, Rare obliterated all criticism that there wasn't enough to do in Sea of Thieves

However, the game is now so full of things to do that it can get in the way at times. My crew has often spent the first 20 minutes debating what exactly we should do on our voyage, and on numerous occasions my brother Ben -- probably our best player - has gone missing during a fierce fight because he was busy fishing off the back of the ship.

Rare has addressed this with a series of events and new elements that brings players, including rival crews, together. My personal favourite was the Fort of the Damned, which featured a mystical fort full of treasure that must be unlocked by completing a ritual and then taking on wave upon wave of difficult enemies. Once the initial ritual is complete, all ships on the seas are alerted to the fact the fort is active... and you then watch as everyone descends on your location.

Will they help you? Attack you? Steal your loot? Leave you alone? That uncertainty is what makes your experience of the adventure different to everyone else.

For us, two ships circled us as we took down the fort. Once successful, we quickly grabbed as much loot as possible and sailed away before our opponents arrived (we'd have grabbed more, but Ben was trying to find a rare fish). We rapidly dropped off our haul and then immediately turned around and began an epic chase across the seas as we hunted the rest of our prize.

It was one of the most exciting afternoons of gaming I've spent in years. Give the game an Emmy.

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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