In an era where it’s not uncommon to pick up a full-priced shooter and be done with the singleplayer campaign after an evening or two, Bethesda Softworks' singular commitment to epic singleplayer experiences shows no sign of abating. Anyone who has spent a month of playtime making their way through Skyrim and its first two expansions, Dawnguard and Hearthfire, can now go ahead and book in another solid week on their calendars to get through its latest downloadable content pack, Dragonborn. Someone in that place really loves designing ancient Nordic catacombs.
Avoiding a sense of repetition is the biggest challenge to producing more material for this modern classic, as anyone interested in venturing back into Tamriel has likely already looted large numbers of chests, barrels, and burial urns. Dragonborn tackles this potential issue by moving the action out of the land of Skyrim itself, and onto the island of Solstheim, located halfway between the regions of Skyrim and Morrowind. After cultists from Solstheim show up in Skyrim, the player is alerted to the fact not all is well on the island. One convenient clue-giving note and a boat journey later, and the Dragonborn arrives at the port of Raven Rock to do a spot of sleuthing.
Solstheim is perhaps about as large as one of Skyrim’s nine holds, but it's removed from Skyrim both culturally and geographically. The dark-elf architecture and black ash drifts of the volcano-bombarded island reinforces the fact that the Dragonborn isn’t in (metaphorically) Kansas any more. The new land harbours its own distinct landscape, culture, and flora and fauna, which means new vistas, new enemies, new alchemy ingredients to discover, new books to read, and even a local school of cuisine to sample, and then master.
The shock of the new
It’s all charmingly novel for players who have by this stage seen a great deal of the Viking aesthetics and snowy scenery on offer in Skyrim, re-injecting the gameplay with a renewed sense of exploration and discovery. There are also new craft items on offer - besides using local Solstheim ingredients in cooking and alchemy - the expansion offers several new types of armour and weapons (and new raw materials) for the player to craft. New shouts and new special abilities are also available.
With this new land comes new people to meet and new quests to tackle, and Dragonborn acquits itself well in this department. Beginning as a mystery, the main questline unfolds to illustrate the darker side of the power the player wields as a Dragonborn, and offers a couple of memorable villains with a dark master and apprentice-type of relationship, both of whom must be taken on in frequent visits to one of Skyrim’s daedric realms. The level design, enemies and themes here recall H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, tentacles and dread grimoires of secret knowledge, and if the theme is perhaps a little familiar in this regard, it’s still all quite new and different in the context of Skyrim’s gameplay, and ties in well with the game’s established, extensive lore.
Beyond the main questline, all the side-questing we’ve come to expect from this franchise is also on offer. There’s many hours that can be spent restoring the fortunes of a mining town, helping the goblin-like rieklings with their errant livestock issues, or tracking down missing relations, shiny baubles, or animal bits for risk-averse townsfolk. A number of the quests given require action back on the Skyrim mainland, helping to make Solstheim feel like a part of the larger world, while the appearance of one or two decent characters in the expansion continue to address one of the few complaints levelled at Skyrim. And for those not inclined to pursue another fetch-quest at any given moment, it’s a perfectly viable alternative to simply set off into the wilderness and find a dungeon or cavern to poke a horned helm into.
Fus Ro Damn
Here’s where Dragonborn disappoints slightly though - a lot of it may be new, but its makers apparently weren’t quite ready to throw their Nordic crypt and Dwemer ruin asset sets out onto the streets of Maryland just yet. Many of the dungeons around Solstheim subsequently have an awfully familiar feeling to them, and although there’s usually an interesting story to be uncovered as players progress through each dungeon, they can also expect their already well-exercised draugr and automaton bashing arms to get another extensive workout.
Disappointing too, when it finally arrives, is the chance to ride a dragon - something that sounds like great death-from-above fun in theory, but in practice, dear me. Players who previously thought that trying to fight from horseback in Skyrim was frustrating will tear their hair out as their auto-piloted flying mount randomly circles the skies to no particular purpose. Wish to fly off in a straight line somewhere? Too bad. Foes spotted below can be attacked, but don’t try to guess how the dragon might decide to interpret this order though though, as for every swooping fire-breathing fly-by that might have been the desired goal, like as not the dragon will decide the best course of action is to set down on the ground in the middle of a firing squad of archers or magicians. Players that prefer their frustrating circling to be over different scenery may fast travel across the world map while riding, but sightseeing is probably the most useful thing to be gleaned from the whole exercise, which seems like a rather wasted opportunity.
Almost needless to say, too, it wouldn’t be Skyrim without bugs, and this reviewer ran into a number of console-hanging freezes and on one interesting occasion, a disappearing cave section that left the hapless Dragonborn with an uncrossable five or 10 metres of white skybox void between him and the exit door.
Skyrim players gladly pay the price of such glitches for the chance to adventure across the game’s epic landscapes, though, and Dragonborn delivers another helping of these adventures in a package that may not be entirely new material, but still has more than enough novelty to make the whole game feel fresh again.