Where Are We And What Are We Doing?
For those of you who came in late: I’m sitting here in the Cave of Assessment, my mystical retreat located halfway up Mount Experience, atop which sits Hazizi’s Palace of Enlightenment, somewhere in Nahyoupushedittoofaristan. This is where I do all my reflection and scoring of videogames while chowing down on some weird grey hallucinogenic algae.
The Cave is a lot like Skyrim – it’s wintry, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in it and it used to be a lot buggier. And Skyrim is why I’m back in the Cave. Beautiful, solitary Skyrim (review here), which I haven’t played for a year.
Skyrim came out in November 2011, yet only now in 2013 do us long-suffering, no-friends-online-having, third-place-this console-generation-getting PS3 owners get our hands on Skyrim’s chunkiest add-on so far: Dragonborn. The question is: is Dragonborn a case of “It’s Too Late“? Or is it “Finally“?
For Dragonborn, I loaded up my second, less-advanced character: a level 36 sneaky archer Khajiit called Snappy Tom. After such a long hiatus, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to play Skyrim, as if somehow I’d forgotten how a Bethesda game works, or that without my supervision Snappy Tom would have dropped out of shape, gotten rusty on his skillz and pawned all his cool enchanted gear for skooma. But within mere seconds of inserting the disk and then within 15 minutes after that, downloading and installing the mandatory software update, then within a further couple of minutes after that waiting for my save game to load, it all came flooding back: Skyrim is primarily about listening to music while watching a loading screen. I remembered how to do that, no problems!
Once I was actually in the game, it didn’t take long to reacclimatise. All my gear was in my house in Whiterun where I’d left it and — surprise surprise — on Snappy Tom’s person. I took Snappy Tom out to the wilderness, aimed for a map location and slipped right back into the satisfying rhythm of adventuring. Beyond simply remembering how to play, it felt good to be back; the break made the game feel fresh again. It was like returning to a favourite holiday spot a year after you were run out of town by the locals and discovering that no one remembers you so you can do it all again.
The other benefit of a long break is that the game has been patched right up. Water used to be the scariest part of Skyrim, not just because I was playing a cat-man but because the game would freeze up if I even dipped a toe in. This has been fixed, along with numerous other issues. It shouldn’t really be a positive to say that something that should have worked the first time now works, but I appreciated it.
So for my first few hours, I didn’t even touch Dragonborn, I just enjoyed playing Skyrim again. But Dragonborn isn’t happy with that — it has ways of making you engage with its content!
Tell Me A New Tale — Spoiler Free Story Outline
The main story of Dragonborn is that there’s this dude Miraak on the island of Solstheim who has heard of you going around calling yourself Dragonborn and he’s pissed because he’s also Dragonborn and he sees it as a major branding conflict. I mean, he’s already taken out full page ads in the Solstheim Tribune and booked major ad spots during the Fredas night Troll Fight. Plus, he’s using his Dragonborn powers for evil and enslaving people and whatnot.
Instead of coming to a practical franchise zoning agreement where you can be the Skyrim Dragonborn and he can be the Solstheim Dragonborn, Miraak wants to settle things Highlander style — There Can Be Only One — so you have to go to Solstheim to deal with him. Dragonborn brings urgency to the situation in a clever way: Miraak starts showing up when you kill dragons and he steals their souls before you get them. That had me packing my bags toot sweet. I heard he was enslaving people and I went “meh”, but once he started stealing my Dragon Souls, it was Clobberin’ Time!
Solstheim is a separate island which you can go to and leave at any time. Solstheim has been done before in Elder Scrolls games: it was in Bloodmoon, an expansion to Morrowind, and those who played Bloodmoon will notice some continuity with that earlier incarnation. Some of the Morrowind music makes a return too, which will twang a few nostalgia strings.
Geographically Solstheim is located between Skyrim and Morrowind, and this is reflected in the environment. The north side is Skyrim: arctic and Vikingy, while the south is Morrowind: ashy and Elfy. The south side sits in the shadow of a recently-erupted volcano, which smokes ominously on the horizon. It turns everything brown, but despite the brown, the south side has refreshingly different architecture, clothing, wildlife and plants. Virtual tourism has always been one of my favourite things about Elder Scrolls games, so I really dug having different buildings and people to look at. A standout was Tel Mithryn, the village of mushroom houses with nary a Smurfing Smurf to be seen.
Solstheim is impressively big. It is basically a new Hold, with a main city, Raven Rock, and plenty of forts, ruins and dungeons to traipse around in and find sidequests. Just as each Hold in Skyrim has city quests that lead to getting a house there, so too does Solstheim, and the house you can get has all the crafting facilities that today’s busy executive Dragonborn requires.
You Is Where You At — New Places and Quests
The main quest will take you to the realm of Apocrypha, which has a decidedly Lovercraftian vibe. By “Lovecraftian”, I mostly mean “Critters with creepy face tentacles”, but also the environment itself. Apocrypha has its own flavour, with features you don’t find in other dungeons around Skyrim. The effect is weird and unsettling: physics-defying architecture, corridors that change direction as you walk down them, tentacles that emerge from black miasma and lash you, and toxic clouds of dark gas. The rewards are handy too. When you finish each dungeon in Apocrypha, you can choose from some interesting new abilities or perks, such as the ability to summon your own tentacles, or one of my favourites: summon a Daedric merchant so you can flog loot and restock arrows mid-dungeon without needing to head back to town.
Solstheim is generally just a little bit a freakier than Skyrim. There are dozens of sidequests, which often start out normal enough but take odd twists. One particular example involves a bunch of warriors who have been kicked out of their Mead Hall by a tribe of goblin-like Rieklings. Usually this would be a straight out “clear the critters” assignment, but in this case you can choose to side with the Rieklings. Although many quests are combat-oriented, a number of them have solutions that cater for other skills, with opportunities for persuasion and sneaking. That said, Skyrim ain’t Fallout and it is near impossible to play a total pacifist without subcontracting your killing to a follower.
As for the NPCs you’ll meet in Solstheim, Bethesda seems to have recruited from 2 main voice acting schools: the Arnie Schwarzenegger Academy and the Dick Van Dyke School of Cockney Guvnor. Despite their dodgy voicework, the characters are reasonably interesting and have a little more attitude — you start out as an outsider in Solstheim and people give you some stick. Neloth, the arrogant wizard who lives at Tel Mithryn, is particularly amusing. There’s even talk of a special dude you only meet once you hit level 80 — I haven’t got that far yet myself.
The Dwemer ruins and other locations are not just carbon copies of their Skyrim counterparts either. Dwemer ruins in particular have more difficult puzzles in them, so you’re not just looking at a dragon claw to open a door. There’s a few new dwarven guardian robots to cause you grief. The ballistas on legs pack a wallop, with armour-bypassing, staggering crossbow bolts.
In fact, many of the Dragonborn critters seem tougher than your average Cave Bear, so I wouldn’t recommend going before level 30 unless you are playing on Easy. Ash Spawn can throw fire at you, Burnt Spriggans are resistant to fire, Reavers seem to be a tougher version of bandits and then there’s the annoying jumpy exploding spiders. Also, there’s a few new named Dragons and Dragon Priests, with their highly-enchanted masks. Rieklings are not so tough, until they swarm and one of them rides a boar into you. Ouchy!
What Have You Done For Me Lately — New Stuff
As well as the new environments and enemies, Dragonborn adds new elements into each of Skyrim’s systems: alchemy, enchanting, crafting, magic, even cooking.
If you are into poisons, you’d love Solstheim because scathecraw is all over the south end and it has 4 poisonous effects.
Enchanting gets a new effect you can add to weapons: Chaos Damage, which is a 50% chance to do extra fire, frost and shock damage all at once — a kind of “all or nothing” effect. Also you can unlock a place to enchant your own staves, something that seemed strangely missing from vanilla Skyrim.
Crafting gets a new material to use, Stalhrim, and new armour and weapon types to craft: Bonemold, Chitin, Nordic and Stalhrim. Stalhrim is especially receptive to frost or chaos enchantments. And there’s a place where you can make your own annoying jumpy exploding spiders.
Each school of magic gets some new spells. Conjuration in particular has been given a huge shot in the arm with a bunch of new critters to summon. Restoration gets an offensive spell in the form of a poison rune.
Cooking has, err, new recipes for things you can cook and eat. Does anyone cook in Skyrim?
There’s also new Dragon Shouts to unlock. Cyclone is fun, as it sweeps enemies up in a mini tornado, and drops them stunned to the ground. It’s good for crowd control, if a bit similar to Unrelenting Force. The big ticket item is the shout that lets you ride dragons … yeah baby! Once aboard a dragon, you can direct it to attack targets while casting a spell or shouting yourself, and you can use it to fast travel. I can’t wait to use it back in Skyrim proper to cause some radiant havoc around a giant’s campsite.
As for loot, it is plentiful and there seems to have been an effort to cater for character builds that may not have got much love in the main game. There’s a unique set of armour and swords that are geared specifically for dual-wielders, some awesome unique two-handed weapons and even some rings to wear if you’re a werewolf. Whatever your build, there should be some loot that takes your fancy.
More, More More — The Digital Appraisal
Overall, Dragonborn is a fantastic add-on for Skyrim. If it had simply provided “More more more” vanilla Skyrim, it probably would have been good enough, but what lifts it to greatness is that Bethesda took the opportunity to try new things, fill some gaps and improve on Skyrim’s original formula. There’s easily over 20 hours of things to do in Solstheim, and besides dealing with Miraak to stop him sharking your dragon souls, you don’t have to do it all at once. Solstheim is just an extra place you can visit now. It had me fantasising about if Skyrim was connected to Cyrodil, which was connected to Morrowind … oh wait, I guess that’s what the MMO will be all about.
As I keep saying, the true mark of good DLC is whether it draws you back into the game, even after a long absence. Dragonborn did this and then some. I am further impressed that it managed to do so after a year’s break. Even after finishing up a bunch of stuff in Solstheim, I am hook, line and sinker back into Skyrim and loving every minute of it!