It’s been a while since I last ventured into Skyrim. My Dovahkiin, a Nord called Olaf, was all but retired. He’d brokered a tenuous peace between the Empire and the Stormcloaks, defeated Alduin, and foiled a vampire plot.
Last anyone saw of him he’d bought a smallholding and decided to build himself a home befitting the hero of Skyrim.
At the ripe old level of 41 he’d seen everything there was to see in Skyrim. The northern territory of Tamriel held no more secrets for him. The only thing left was to fade into legend and become the mad old bastard that lived in the mansion just out of town that occasionally set his house on fire with his alchemy experiments.
As the guy controlling him this feeling set in about half way through Dawnguard. It felt like a last hurrah, ‘Hearth Fire’ might as well of been called ‘And He Lived Happily Ever’ because I was done with Skyrim.
Thankfully so were Bethesda, Dragonborn is the fully fledged expansion that players have been waiting for,Including; a new map, new quests, new shouts, new monsters, new crafting materials and new weapons and armour to forge.
Solstheim itself is best described as the bastard child of Morrowind and Skyrim. The landscape of the volcanic island, despite being fairly compact compared to the main games colossal map, has plenty of variety. From the familiar Nord architecture and snow of Skaal village to the brilliantly bizarre giant mushrooms of Tel Mithryn
Arriving at the port town of Raven Rock I felt reinvigorated. I was no longer in Skyrim; this was somewhere new and exciting. The guards were wearing a new kind of armour, the architecture was almost alien. Buildings were made out of what looked like the armour of once dead giant insects and the locals were, well something wasn’t quite right with the locals.
Aside from a few stalwart guards, most of the inhabitants of Raven Rock seem have abandoned the small town and were instead busy constructing some kind of shrine around a bizarre glowing stone covered in runes. As I pressed on I found an even larger group of the island’s inhabitants constructing a giant temple around another stone to the first Dragonborn, Miraak; a corrupt priest who is attempting to return to the world of the living after a millennia trapped in Oblivion. It’s up to you as the current Dragonborn to put a stop to these machinations and free the people of Solstheim.
It’s clear that the new setting allowed Bethesda to experiment with the kind of tale they wanted to tell and the main quest line from the outset has a very strong Hammer Horror vibe; from the unfriendly locals to the otherworldly terrors attempting to break through. The best part of the main quest line however comes when you find yourself dragged into Apocrypha; the plane of Oblivion where Miraak and his master Hermaeus Mora the Daedric Prince of knowledge and fate dwell.
Apocrypha itself is a Lovecraftian fever dream. Tentacles reach up from acrid pools of corruption, the walls are constructed of parchment and forbidden tomes and long winding corridors twist and shift barring your progress. Eldritch horrors inhabit every corner, Cthuluesque Seekers and giant piranha headed Lurkers attack at a moment’s notice and provide a formidable challenge even to high level characters.
Despite the brilliant backdrop and, for the most part, strong story telling with fantastic pacing that does a good job of amping up the tension as the game progresses, the main quest line does end with more of a whimper a than bang, boiling down to a pretty easy boss fight with Miraak.
After the main quest is over though there is still plenty to see and do.
There are mines and barrows to explore, archaeological expeditions to protect, a secondary quest line involving the island’s ruling Dranii (dark elves) that is almost as long as the main quest. Not to mention more of Hermaeus Mora’s black books to find, unlocking more trials within Apocrypha, a special mission in the mountains for werewolves, caches of the game’s new material to find as well as several new creatures to fight, including the otherworldly Netch and surprisingly dangerous Ash Spawn which attack en masse with fire magic and brute force.
Oh yeah and you can use one of the games new shouts to tame and ride Dragons. Sound amazing? Well don’t get ahead of yourselves. This does not mean you can now fly wherever you want and rain fiery hell down upon all who dare oppose you. It’s more of an animated fast travel with limited control that isn’t that fast. A nice novelty to try a couple of times (well five if you want the achievement) and then forget about it.
Look at it this way. I’ve been playing Dragonborn for almost a week now and I still don’t feel like I can adequately cover all there is to see and do in Solstheim. The amount of incidental content is staggering, much like the main game every new location is full of colourful characters and new and interesting tangents to follow.
So should you get Dragonborn? If you feel like you’ve seen and done everything but find the prospect of restarting the main campaign daunting then I can’t recommend Dragonborn enough. It is the expansion that veteran players have been waiting for and successfully manages to recapture the magic of the macro game on a micro level while simultaneously bringing plenty of fresh ideas to the table.
However, players still experiencing the main campaign should wait until after the credits roll. Even at a high level I found it tough to beat some of the expansions more aggressive beasties and the new armour, weapons and shouts make you feel incredibly overpowered once you return to the mainland.
Although at 1600 Microsoft points it may seem a little steep for DLC at first glance, Dragonborn justifies its high price tag more than any other pack on Xbox Live. The main campaign by itself clocks in at around 10 hours and fully exploring everything the island has to offer will take many more.
So what are you waiting for? It’s time to go back to Tamriel and spend another winter out in the cold.