Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Dragonborn DLC
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Available on: Xbox 360 Only (coming soon to Windows PC and PlayStation 3)
Very few developers have a talent for creating game-worlds like Bethesda. Whether it’s the capital wasteland of Fallout 3, New Vegas’ titular fallen pleasure capital (it may have been Obsidian’s game, but it was Bethesda’s template all the way) or Oblivion’s stunning Cyrodiil, their worlds are immersive and deeply atmospheric, even upon the barren, post-Apocalyptic tundra of scorched Washington. But with Skyrim, the fifth game in the acclaimed The Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda surpassed everything they had ever achieved.
Say what you will about Skyrim (and it’s likely PS3 owners will do just that), but even with the carnival of bugs and glitches and patches, it’s a staggering example of world and game design. Clocking in at anywhere between 20 and 200 hours depending on how invested you choose to become, it even managed to keep Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 out of the Christmas Number One spot. No mean feat, as they say.
As with their full games, Bethesda have cultivated a reputation over the years for producing quality DLC, perhaps only rivalled by the likes of Rockstar and Gearbox. Yes, we are aware that once upon a time Bethesda released that “horse armour” nonsense and caused the internet to topple on its axis for a whole Friday afternoon, but they’ve since learned from such rookie errors and their run of DLC has been well above average for years.
Admittedly, the Skyrim DLC has been a mixed bag so far. Dawnguard was big, offering a dual questline that topped out at around 10 to 15 hours along with a handful of side-quests, new gear and deeper skill trees for all you vampires and werewolves, but it lacked character and consistent pacing and felt no different, no more exciting or exotic, than the main game. And as for Hearthfire, well, as much fun as it is to construct a mansion in three hours flat as a post-game, wealthy level 50, it doesn’t really add much of anything, and when undertaken alongside the main game, is a fairly exhaustive, stressful affair. But Bethesda are claiming that the third DLC, subtitled Dragonborn, is their greatest Skyrim add-on yet – and in fact, they’re absolutely bang on the money.
The main quest in Dragonborn begins when the Dovahkiin (that’s you, in case you slept through 80 hours of the main game and missed it) is accosted in the streets by mysterious cultists in silly masks. This will happen randomly at a certain point after you have completed the “Horn of Jurgen Windcaller” quest in the main story and been named Dragonborn. If you’re a fair way into the game, it will happen almost the instant you step inside a settlement. Killing them will reveal that they follow someone called Miraak and have travelled on a ship from Solstheim, a vast island between Skyrim and the Dunmer homeland of Morrowind (the fan-favourite setting of The Elder Scrolls III). Once you’ve retraced their steps and arrived in Solstheim, you’ll discover that Miraak is an ancient entity believed to be vanquished, who has the denizens of the island enthralled in a terrible spell. He’s also the first ever Dragonborn, which he believes gives him exclusive claim to the title and is the reason his cultists are trying to tear your sacrilegious guts out.
Similarly to Fallout 3’s Point Lookout expansion, Dragonborn presents Solstheim as an entirely separate map, complete with a smorgasbord of new caves, mines, forts, towns, abandoned shacks and haunted barrows. Exploring the island is its own reward; Solstheim is a hybrid land, part Morrowind, part Skyrim. As such, dry rolling hills stretch into the horizon, dotted with clusters of buildings hewn from the shells of giant creatures while creeping vines encroach on sand-blown roads. The contrast becomes starker the further north you travel, as the temperature plummets and the treacherous weather throws up walls of biting snow. New horrors stalk the sandstorms and blizzards of Solstheim, too, like the red-eyed Ash Spawn, explosive flame spiders and boar-riding Reiklings.
Fan service is paid in full, with Redoran Guards patrolling the towns, House Morvayn in power and blue-bellied Netches floating harmlessly by. To a degree, the landscape of Dragonborn makes you feel like you’re back in Morrowind, as that same aura of hopelessness blankets the island and the people live in oppressed fear under rusted, churning clouds.
You’ll find plenty to do in Solstheim, too. Besides exploring locales well away from the beaten path, the main quest leads you a merry dance along the length and breadth of the island and as a result you’ll pick up plenty of random tasks and side-missions. Unlike the main quest, however, many of these are small in scope and short on imagination. One in particular occurs when a warrior maiden asks you to clear out a mead hall that’s been overrun by the goblin-like Reiklings. I took the quest and slaughtered the beasts alongside my long-time ally, Calder (he of the Ginger Sideburns), and was subsequently asked to accompany the quest-giver to seek the blessing of her warrior deity. After reaching his alter without incident she was told that he wouldn’t bless her and she was to give up leadership of her band. Whether you choose to support her or not, the quest ends there. It felt completely pointless, and unfortunately it’s not the only superfluous quest in Dragonborn; there is more filler to be found and none of it is worthwhile.
That said, some side-quests are doozies, and the main plot is excellent. Smaller than Dawnguard, Dragonborn’s central plot won’t keep you busy for much longer than 7 hours, but with so much else to do and so many places to see – not to mention new weapons and armour to craft – it’s more than worth your time for 1600 MS Points. Particularly enjoyable are the “Black Books”, mysterious tomes scattered about the island that will transport you to Apocrypha, a plane of Oblivion lorded over by Hermaeus Mora. Completing the quests within will unlock some truly incredible rewards.
Where Dragonborn suffers is in the same places that Skyrim suffers. Inconsistent ally and enemy AI, occasionally horrendous pop-in, freezing, lag, screen-tear, disappearing characters, etc. Dragonborn is a patchwork of irritating technical cock-ups that’s as infuriating as Skyrim ever was. That said, if you can forgive the latter – and so many of you have – you can forgive the former, too, and just enjoy all the new content Bethesda have blessed you with.
Oh, on an additional note, and without going into spoiler territory, yes you do get to ride dragons, but the whole experience is a little bit underwhelming. If your sole aim in Dragonborn is to get some scales between your thighs and whoop into the wind like the Never-Ending Story brat, you’ll be left wanting.
VERDICT: Dragonborn actually is the greatest Skyrim DLC to date but, while Bethesda have matched the scale and scope of Fallout 3’s Point Lookout, they have fallen a dragon’s scale short of Oblivion’s Shivering Isles in terms of personality and imagination.
Still, the chance to return to Morrowind (sort of) will be enough to sell Dragonborn to some, and a heap of fantastic new content makes up for the continued plague of technical bugs and visual glitches. If you’re an established fan, Dragonborn is a no-brainer; if you’re currently travelling through Skyrim for the first time, then it makes for a brilliant, worthwhile aside absolutely packed with great new quests, gear and distractions. Either way, Bethesda have finally struck gold with this one.