When Sea of Thieves initially set sail in 2018, it was met with somewhat mixed reviews. Rare's pirate playground is undoubtedly a masterful creation; a vast, dynamic, hyper-stylised sea world dotted with mysterious islands and skeleton forts in which players are set free to create their own grand adventures. However, it was one that was initially lacking in activities and diversions; one which perhaps put a little too much of the onus on its players to go out and make their own fun without any real direction in how to do so. Now, approaching its second birthday, this is a game transformed by updates and meaty additions. What was once – in terms of content – something of a Sloop is now a veritable Galleon packed to the gills with diversions for full crews and solo players alike. The core gameplay loops may not have changed in any meaningful way but they now exist in a game which feels like it's got real purpose and momentum, its content curated in such a way that players don't need to work quite so hard to get to a foothold and unleash their inner sea dog.

Launching into Sea of Thieves in 2020 is an immediately more user-friendly experience, with the game's 'Maiden Voyage' tutorial area giving new players a chance to get to grips with the in and outs of the systems which make up the vast majority of the moment-to-moment action before they're cast out into Adventure mode proper. With the Pirate Lord himself to guide you, you'll learn all the little intricacies of commanding your own ship – little intricacies in which Sea of Thieves thrives.

You don't just jump in a boat and steer it across the water here, you – and your crew, if you've got one – have got to manage every element of your vessel, from plotting a course, raising and lowering your anchor and sails, manning the cannons, watching the horizon for incoming enemy ships or storms and ensuring you've got the necessary materials to patch up the inevitable damage to your hull as you bail bucketfuls of water back over the sides of your craft in an effort to stay afloat. The life of a pirate is a busy one, and the PvPvE nature of Sea of Thieves means you and your crew must always be prepared for the worst case scenario – to handle the unexpected interruptions of other players and AI enemies whilst constantly dealing with the ever-changing elements – if you're to successfully complete expeditions without sinking beneath the waves.

These adventures and expeditions are, as they were in 2018, focused mainly around taking on quests for one of the various trading companies holed up at outposts dotted around the world's map, working your way through levels in order to open up more prestigious and challenging contracts and earning money to purchase some of the 100% cosmetic upgrades in which the game deals. There's no upgrading of strength or weapons here; this is a game that puts its players on an equal footing, it's mastery of your pirate skills and a well-trained crew that'll see you through its toughest encounters.

It may initially seem somewhat odd to work towards purely cosmetic upgrades but Sea of Thieves is all about personalising your experience, decking out your ship, pimping your pirate in the most elaborate gear and making its world your own. Rare wants you to dip in and out as you please, go on grand adventures with a group of friends or take to the seas solo without the constant pressure of keeping up with others or upgrading in order to survive. There's no great punishment upon death either; this is all about having a jolly good time without consequence. It's also commendably easy to hook up with other pirates to form a crew and, while we do enjoy taking to the seas alone, this an experience which is at its anarchic best when working as part of a team.

April 2019's Anniversary update saw three big additions made to the game which have transformed Sea of Thieves entirely for the better. Where once the main meat of the experience involved you taking on somewhat repetitive contracts for the Sea Dogs, Gold Hoarders and Order of Souls, you can now set out on grand adventures in the narrative-driven Tall Tales, pit your wits against other crews in the PvP arena and hone your hunting, fishing and crafting skills – elements which have been greatly expanded upon – as you take on quests for the Hunter's Call. Of all these new additions, however, it's Tall Tales that, for us, has seen Sea of Thieves really spring to life.

Making a quick visit to the mysterious stranger, who you'll find lurking in the shadows of any outpost's tavern, you can choose to set out on these elaborate multi-part story quests which do so much to infuse this once quite sterile world with much-needed character and drama. Perfectly suited to either solo players or full crews, Tall Tales see your pirate skills put to the ultimate test as you solve riddles, plot courses across your map following the cryptic directions of long-dead crews, battle enemies, discover secret vaults, decipher puzzles and survive the ever-changing elements as you make your way through the initial nine chapters on offer. There's a much needed over-arching narrative here and it's one that's transformed the game's world into a place filled with mystery, danger and intrigue. These new adventures also help give some import to the slightly basic on-foot combat sections – which once seemed so flat and repetitive – by virtue of the fact you now have a mission to accomplish, a critical path to follow, rather than just hacking through skeletons in order to rifle through some barrels for materials.

The Arena adds further to proceedings by giving crews the chance to show off their skills and impress the Sea Dogs as they face off in teams of either four or two players in twenty four-minute matches where the aim is to earn coin by finding treasure and laying waste to your enemies. It's a mode that sits nicely alongside the much more relaxed nature of the main adventure, an indulgence for players who love the thrill of PvP combat, and a great way to hone your skills and ensure you and your crew are a well-oiled machine fit for any chance encounter you may come across back in the game proper.

Alongside all of these new gameplay additions and the Forsaken Shores expansion – which added a whole new volcanic region to the game – Rare has ensured that Sea of Thieves is constantly busy with daily and weekly challenges and, as you set out on the high seas your horizon is now always full of places to go, with mysterious skull clouds, ghost ships and all-manner of otherworldly beacons beckoning you forth as you keep one eye out for the ever-present danger of other players. Of course, as we've mentioned, the core gameplay has remained pretty much unchanged and, if you already bounced off the game's mix of sailing the seas and on-foot combat, then all these new ways in which to engage with its world may not be enough to draw you back in – but, for those who just felt there wasn't enough to do, it's a much-improved situation.

There may still be the odd bug here and there – we've had occasions where quests fell apart as some NPC or other refused to respond to our enquiries as well as having cargo mysteriously disappear from time to time – but there's just so much to love about the moment-to-moment gameplay in Sea of Thieves that it's hard to stay bitter for very long. It's the very best kind of story-generator, with every play session usually resulting in some unexpected hijinks or other. There really is nothing else quite like it, and we can't think of another game that's managed to make its seas feel so alive.

We've never seen so many rapidly changing variations on the colour and temperament of the ocean and sky. The dynamic nature of the water and the weather here means one moment you'll be sailing in perfectly idyllic conditions, the next you'll be caught up in some horrific storm, thick black clouds gathering quickly overhead as the elements turn almost supernaturally against you. Struggling to command your ship through uncontrollably rough waters, listening to that hull groan and strain, the little bell on deck ringing frantically, your compass spinning out of control as you crest some enormous wave and crash right back down into the swirling, churning blackness below is one of the most absorbing experiences we've had in a game.

There's a real weight and physicality to sailing your ship in Sea of Thieves, a level of intricacy and involvement that really ties you to its world and to your crew. It's a world where even the simplest of missions, the easiest delivery of goods from point A to B can result in total carnage. Whether it be other players engaging you as you return to port in an attempt to steal your hard won booty or some great abomination rising from the deep to tear your ship apart, this is a game where adventure is always guaranteed and one which, two years on from its initial launch, finds itself in ship-shape condition.

Conclusion

Sea of Thieves has managed to successfully steer a course through turbulent waters during its first two years. Its once somewhat sterile and empty world is now full to bursting point with activities and distractions and it's got a sense of direction and purpose which mean players don't need to work nearly as hard to find ways in which to indulge their inner Black Beard. Tall Tales provide a properly meaty, narrative-driven campaign that works equally as well for solo players as it does for eager crews of four and that once empty horizon is now full of things to see and do as you make your way from the lowliest bilge rat to a pirate of legend.