Would you like some Morrowind with that Skyrim?
If you want more Skyrim, then look no further than Dragonborn. Unlike Dawnguard, this latest DLC manages to capture what made Skyrim so compelling, and though the quality of content does not match up to the main game, Dragonborn is substantial enough to make it worth the time and money. Unfortunately, this time spent will be plagued by numerous technical issues. Sadder still, these problems don’t fall under the endearing category of lovable open-world glitches.
Dragonborn still works due to its location. Rather than adding more content to the existing world, Dragonborn takes the player to a new province ripe for exploration, and presents a solid narrative premise. Miraak, an ancient Dragonborn, plagues the isle of Solstheim. While he tries to escape from a plane of Oblivion to enact a plan of island domination, you, of course, have to stop him. However, the only path to stopping Miraak involves becoming more like him. But the key problem here rests with the main quest's story. It takes you to one or two great locations and through some fun dungeons for no good reason. Players may think they are in for some abyss gazing as Bethesda toys with a prominent Nietzschean theme: When fighting a monster, you must be careful not to become a monster yourself. This could have been very interesting, providing a dark take on a typical video game story as an enticing prospect, but Dragonborn never delivers. Yes, NPCs will occasionally warn you of journeying down the same path as Miraak and point out parallels between the two of you as your eyes take on a sinister glow the more time you spend in the new plane of Oblivion. You may also be forced to work with some suspect characters who could easily lead you to perform equally suspect acts. Yet there is no payoff in the end, and the themes the game hints at are in no way explored. The story only leaves room for your corruption to exist after you do what must be done.
The inclusion of dragon riding also disappoints. As the perfect back-of-the-box feature, flying these dragons may be the greatest addition to Skyrim a DLC could make, in theory. In practice, it’s rather lousy and something you will not come across until the very end of the main quest line. The real problem manifests as the actual riding, though. You don’t have full control over your dragon and can only tell it to target certain enemies and land while you sit on its back and use magic. The execution feels incredibly clunky and completely tacked-on. Skyrim’s already fragile engine may not have been able to cope with full control of flying mounts, or it may be the best Bethesda could pull off during time constraints, but the results are an awkward and ultimately superfluous feature that the game would be better without.
Now with dragon mounts!
The story and the dragons may be a letdown, but there's still a lot to love in Dragonborn – the main positive being the breadth of the content. Bethesda has filled the sizable island of Solstheim full of side quests and interesting areas to explore. These side quests vary in brilliance, and the entire isle incentivizes you to take full advantage of Skyrim’s already established features. Doing so with Dawnguard felt like you were neglecting the content you had paid for, but here, even playing the game like you normally would will be making the most of your purchase. It’s a fine opportunity to get back into smithing (especially with another new armor set added), meddle in alchemy, or enchant to your heart’s content. Dragonborn also provides the player with fresh abilities after completing certain dungeons that either improve the core elements of Skyrim or encourage you to reacquaint yourself with them. The power to summon a merchant once a day by magic, for example, retains the incentive to loot everything even if you find little of worth in the environment.
As a brand new sandbox, one of the most enticing features of Dragonborn is Solstheim itself. Morrowind players should be familiar with the area, as it was the setting for the Bloodmoon expansion. This makes for a rather nostalgic setting and a big plus point for older Elder Scrolls series fans, but needless to say, the Skyrim incarnation looks quite different due to jumps in the timeline. The most notable change involves the volcanic activity in Morrowind, which has now covered Solstheim in ash. Morrowind-inspired architecture also populates the island, as does a giant mushroom settlement and a Silt Strider. These touches do make for a nice break from the typical Skyrim surroundings, though a lot of Skyrim can still be found in the island's snowy, mountainous north. A thick layer of familiarity, which can be hard to get over, hangs over the dungeons too. Thankfully, Solstheim is littered with worthwhile side quests and miscellaneous tasks that reward you with more than mere scenery. That's great, because the developers could have done more with the locales. Although the Morrowind-like architecture treats players to some lovely eye candy, a single mushroom settlement is not enough. In providing a middle ground between Morrowind and Skyrim, Bethesda has not taken advantage of either, which feels like a lost opportunity.
This does not hold true for all of Dragonborn. Dotted around the world are five black books which transport you into Miraak’s realm – Lovecraftian environments full of tentacled beasts and gothic imagery. They look great, and more importantly, they play really well. The level of imagination shown in these dungeons helps them excel: Tunnels will bend and contract with you in them, tentacles lash out from the water around you, and there even a few clever puzzles to solve. Some of the island’s dungeons even impress and stand out thanks to the puzzle design and the way you interact with these areas. It’s easy to take a stance against Dragonborn due to its faults, but this installment works in spite of the island's visuals and generic story because the content fits so perfectly into the Skyrim mold. During your travels, you will stumble upon numerous interesting characters and plenty of fascinating side quests. Bringing down Miraak may disappoint, but solving the mystery of a dried-up mine, foiling an assassination plot, and retaking a mead hall from little, drunk goblins makes for hours of fun. You cannot walk far without stumbling onto great content; it’s never Skyrim at its best, but some moments get close.
Some areas are love-ingly crafted.
Of course, all of this comes with the notable caveat of technical issues. Installing Dragonborn dramatically increases load times, which can last in excess of a minute and are very prevalent. You will often have to enter a building to briefly talk to somebody and leave again. This makes for two long loads that turn this simple encounter into an arduous task. It also makes death more annoying than ever. A high-level character will have little trouble with this DLC, but death can still come when you least expect it, forcing you to sit through an excessive load once again. The laborious save/load times are also coupled with a tendency to freeze. The game hard-locked on me a few times and stalled every time I hit an autosave. This meant that area transitions were extremely painful, and the first thing I was greeted with when I arrived on Solstheim was not a lovely vista, but the game freezing as it attempted to create a save.
In spite of these issues, Dragornborn remains a highly enjoyable piece of DLC, mostly due to the quantity of content. It capitalizes on Skyrim’s successes by giving the player a new playground and incentives to exercise Skyrim’s excellent mechanics. The world may not look as good, but Solstheim's littered with enough areas of interest, side quests, and otherwordly dungeons to make exploration wholly rewarding. Dragonborn's also an excellent fit for Skyrim veterans hungry for fresh content, and will keep thorough players involved for upward of fifteen hours. Although Dragonborn does not stray too far from the Skyrim formula, if you are eager to jump back into Skyrim, then Dragonborn makes the perfect excuse.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date: December 4, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed)