The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dragonborn Review
After being as disappointed as I was with the last big Skyrim DLC, Dawnguard, I was pretty skeptical about the next one, whatever it was going to be. But Bethesda Game Studios surprised me with Dragonborn, an add-on that takes you to an entirely separate landmass - the island of Solstheim - and adds a little bit of everything that made the original game so fun in the first place.
Dragonborn begins shortly after you've begun the main game's central quest about becoming, well, Dragonborn. Once you've met the Greybeards, there's a chance you'll get attacked by some crazy cultists if you hang around in towns. From there you'll be able to book passage to the island of Solstheim, which sits just next to the island of Vvardenfell (the setting of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind). Solstheim itself was also the setting of Bloodmoon, one of the expansion packs for Morrowind, but you'll see that after 200 years, things are pretty different. The battle at Red Mountain at the end of Morrowind caused the volcano to erupt, and it's been spewing ash all over the place for centuries. The southern half of Solstheim has been covered in blankets of ash, and you'll find a few pockets of green in the middle section of the island as well as the kind of snowy, rocky terrain up north that is more familiar to Skyrim players.
Now, I'm not sure exactly what teeny-tiny parts from Bloodmoon survived through to be seen here in Dragonborn as I haven't played that original expansion since it first came out more than a decade ago, but I can say two of the main pockets of civilization on the island, the Skaal clan of Nords and the Raven Rock mine (and now a town that's sprung up around it) are back. Your whole point to come to Solstheim is laid out very early, before you even arrive on the island, so I feel comfortable "spoiling" it: the spirit of an old Dragonborn has returned, and he is amassing power, searching out for supposed pretenders like you, and trying to eliminate them early. Your job is to stop him. Beyond that, I won't say much, but I do feel like the story delivered here is a little more respectful of the developers' own past games, and while I'm no true Elder Scrolls lore expert, the new books and spoken history tell an interesting tale that catches up with what's happened in the region since the Nerevarine killed Dagoth Ur in Morrowind.
But there's lots of new stuff, too! Bethesda delivered us a new, fairly sizable island to explore complete with properly-working world map (rather than trying to tack on new areas to the existing Skyrim like Dawnguard did, and failing to let players see this part of the world on the big map). There are several new enemies to fight, many dungeons and ruins to fight in, along with plenty of additional armor and weapon types - including one entirely new kind of mineral that will make use of your crafting skills for a full range of armor and weapons. There are some really cool Words of Power to learn, more spells, and some really interesting perks that players will gain by completing the main storyline and finding the more potent sources of power on the island.
Speaking of the main storyline, you can probably get through it in rather long evening if you're not trying to speedrun it, but there's at least that much content on top of that in mysteries on the island, side quests, and miscellaneous objectives. All of this adds up to the kind of add-on that actually feels like it's worth the princely sum of $20 to charge, if only barely. Seriously, though, it was only a few years ago when RPG developers like Obsidian Entertainment (with Fallout New Vegas) were setting the standard for DLC value by giving you 6 to 10 hours of gameplay for ten bucks. But then I guess stuff like $15 Call of Duty map packs came along and some of these publishers decided it was time to start doubling the fee. If the price is an issue for you, the best I can suggest at this point is to wait for these DLCs to go on sale - if you enjoyed Skyrim, then I think Dragonborn will certainly be worth your time, but you have to decide whether it's worth what the publisher is charging.
Bethesda smartly tried to pull on the strings of nostalgia that are woven into some of our gaming memories, and so they've carefully slipped in music, architecture, weapons, ambient sounds and even a couple of returning storylines from the Morrowind era here. Some of it, you'll never hear me complain about; I find that Jeremy Soule is making the best RPG soundtracks in the business, and the tracks they chose to dig up from Morrowind still serve as some of the best music he's ever made. But if you're looking for a full-on nostalgia overload, you might be disappointed. Sure, you might be delighted to get called Outlander for the first time in a decade, but it's not in that original super-gravelly voice the dark elves had in Morrowind, and the few tidbits of the old world you remember that are present here aren't enough to really bring you back fully. Sure, you'll find the Skaal village, a Telvanni tower, some of the Morag Tong, that iconic Dunmer bone armor and architecture, and even an old, decrepit Silt Strider, but don't expect to get the best of both worlds at once here. The feeling's nice for a little while, but it doesn't last long. (Admittedly, I think that nearly all modern-day attempts by developers to relive these kinds of gaming memories end in disappointment, so it's hard to blame Bethesda for not being in that 1% or whatever - but hey, that's just my opinion on all of this. Your mileage may vary.) The voice acting in this add-on is really pretty good and I thought it sounded generally better than what I usually expect from Bethesda, but it's not exactly Voice Acting of the Year material, either.
I couldn't help but be disappointed by a few things as well. I found that crafting with the new mineral that can be found on Solstheim to be a real letdown, as it made items that were worse than what I'd crafted 100 hours earlier in my playthrough, and it doesn't really look amazing, either. There's also a curious new shout that allows you to take control of a dragon and ride it, but it's very limited and only really works as a novelty at best. You can only stay in one relatively small area at a time, you can't really control the movement of the dragon directly, and the interface for targeting enemies from afar and ordering the dragon to attack them is awkward at best.
So yeah, that does not mean Dragonborn now allows you to use a flying mount with the freedom you had in World of Warcraft or something, especially with how the dragon can't just fly around freely - the best you can do is bring up the world map and then instantly fast-travel, while still on the dragon, to a new location. Simply put, there are some serious technical limitations on consoles and low-spec PCs that would make free-roaming from a dragon's back impossible in the engine Skyrim's using, and if developers are going to make games across multiple platforms like this, they need that feature parity that allows them to sell their game on all platforms, especially when they're spending the tens of millions required to make a game like Skyrim. (But maybe a modder can somehow add this functionality for the PC users whose systems can handle it? It's certainly possible!) Sure, you can take this new dragon-riding shout and use it back on the Skyrim mainland, but it has the same limitations, and your imagined epic dragon-on-dragon sky battles will often instead turn into something much more awkward, robotic, and sometimes just downright broken. But this is just one half-working feature out of many that are offered, and I don't really feel like much is missing even if you just ignore it completely. On the upside, Bethesda did just release an updated 4GB+ version of their high-res texture pack for PC that covers both Dragonborn and Dawnguard. I played through half of Dragonborn without it and the other half with it, and these new textures do make a substantial difference; I can say without a doubt that PC gamers are still getting a vastly better-looking and smoother-running game as long as there's a solid PC running it.
Skyrim was such a wonderful game, and it was disappointing to see something as half-baked as Dawnguard serve as the only example of what Bethesda could offer for post-release support for this game. Dragonborn, however, is truly worthy of the Elder Scrolls name - even if it doesn't have characters casually pulling actual Elder Scrolls out of their back pockets and buying or selling them for a few thousand gold - as it adds the kind of large, epic feel you should be experiencing when playing an open-world RPG. That's fully in effect here, and the new activities, quests, loot, enemies, and abilities that are available to the player make this one certainly worth your time. Is it worth the twenty dollar bill you have to plunk down to play it? If you're a Skyrim fan, then yeah, I think so, and if you're not, how did you get this far into this review in the first place?
Disclaimer: This review is based on a downloaded PC version supplied by the publisher.