Platforms: Xbox. PS3 and PC versions to come early 2013.
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Price: 1,600MSP (£13.71)
Thanks to Bethesda for supplying a copy of Dragonborn to review.
On paper Bethesda’s latest expansion for Skyrim has a lot going for it: a brand new island to explore, dragons to ride, loads of quests to undertake, new weapons and armor and an epic showdown with the first Dragonborn. That’s all on paper, of course – back in reality the Dragonborn DLC, which sports a rather hefty price-tag of 1,600MSP, delivers on some aspects and fails miserably on others, by which I mean dragon riding. Oh, dragon riding, you could have been great, you really could have.
We’re going to get back to dragon riding later, though, because it almost feels mean to kick off this review with the single worst part of Dragonborn. Instead, let’s delve into the island of Solstheim where the Dragonborn DLC takes place. Long time fans of the Elder Scrolls should recognize the name of Solstheim as it appeared in the Bloodstone expansion pack for Morrowind, but now its covered in ash having been the unfortunate victim of a volcano. It’s amazing how those things can sneak up on you. As such Solstheim is a bit of a visually boring place: the large majority of it is buried in a layer of ash and the rest of it in snow, so the predominate colors are grey and white, making for a bleak and sort of depressing environment to wander around like a kid that lost his parents in the supermarket. It got so bad that I took to carrying around large quantities of Nordic Ale so that when it all became a bit too much I could drown myself in alcohol – my character also carried a couple of bottles as well. Color pallete aside, though, the island is a considerable size and packed full of dungeons to delve into, castles to explore and cool locations to find, each having awesome things to discover or side-quests attached to them that lead you on fantastic little mini-stories. Of course there’s plenty of new enemies to beat the snot out of as well roaming the island, such as creatures made of ash, to keep you on your toes. There’s just one town called Raven Rock, which is fairly small, to act as a save haven for you, but the rest of the island is your virtual playground. Not counting the story there’s probably a good 6-8 hours worth of content to be had just exploring the island and its various dungeons and interesting locations, such as a patch of overgrown mushrooms that are home to some magic users. On that note one thing I do advise should you decide to purchase the DLC is to run through the quest line for Raven Rock’s steward as that’ll give you access to a house of your very own to store all of your garbage in. Eh, I mean valuable loot.
Speaking of which what would an expansion pack be without some new gear for you to play with? Dragonborn packs in a fair amount of new stuff to add to your ever-expanding collection, with the new Bonemold armor being the first you’ll encounter when you reach the town of Raven Rock. Not long after that you’ll probably run into the Chitin armor as well. But the real star of the show is the new Stalhrim element, which unlike Bonemold and Chitin comes in both armor and weapon form. Stalhrim is a sort of incredibly hard ice that gives any armor and weapons crafted from it a lovely, slightly translucent, blue color, and so any item made from it looks absolutely beautiful. Needless to say there’s full suits of both the light and heavy versions of the Stalhrim armor adorning my house back in Skyrim. Of course Bonemold, Chitin and Stalhrim are all available for players to forge and improve as well, increasing the already impressive roster of available gear for you to create and enchant. On top of that there’s quite a few unique items to find lying around the place, usually buried somewhere in a barrow or cave, just waiting for you to hunt ’em down or earn by slaying some big baddie that has an unhealthy obsession with introducing heavy metal objects to your face at velocity. Some of the unique items are a little disappointing, mainly those that you earn for defeating the big storyline boss, but others are more than worth taking the time to hunt down, like a sweet set of Stalhrim amor that gives you a massive defensive boost if you’re wearing the complete set, as well as other benefits. It’s not just new physical objects for you to grab, either, there’s some new Dragon Shouts to be discovered along way, such as Dragon Aspect which lets you take on the “Aspect” of a dragon once a day. This basically translates into you manifesting some awesome translucent armor and your shouts and blows becoming massively more powerful. And then there’s the Cyclone Shout, which does exactly what it says on the metaphorical tin. There’s also a few other interesting things to come across – just take a wander into White Ridge, for example, to discover a machine that lets you create mutant spiders you can then deploy in battles.
So, in other words the Dragonborn DLC is like Skyrim in the regard that it’s at its best when you’re making your own story, simply exploring the land and discovering its many secrets. And like Skyrim it’s generally at its worst when you tackle the main storyline. Speaking of which, I should probably explain how you end up on this grey island.
After an attack from a few Cultists while you were wandering around Skyrim conveniently leaves you a note explaining that they were sent by a chap called Miraak to ensure you enter the land of the dead in a timely fashion, which is about now, thank you very much, you decide to head off to Solstheim and confront the problem head on. Miraak, as it transpires, was the first Dragonborn and now he’s trying to make a make a classic villain comeback. He’s not the only one you’ve got to deal with, though, as Hermaeus Mora also plays a part in the story and quickly becomes a far more interesting character than Miraak, choosing to appear in our mortal realm as a mass of writhing tentacles in mid-air. The problem is that even as a Dragonborn Miraak doesn’t feel all that threatening: he makes a few brief appearances before your big battle but never comes across as dangerous, and when the final battle comes it’s decidedly anti-climatic with Miraak putting up little fight and having almost no close-combat ability. On the flip-side Hermaeus Mora feels like he could kick your butt any day of the week, and the trips into his realm, Apocrypha, are highlights of the Dragoborn expansion: towering piles of books, unfolding bridges, tentacles that try to kill you from pools of black liquid and the maze-like nature of the world make it a joy to explore and a very clear homage to H.P. Lovecraft. It’s dark, eery and inhabited by awesome enemies in the form of the Seekers who can clone themselves and appear as if from nowhere. The only shame is that Apocrypha quickly becomes repetitive – there’s only so many times you can wander around a dark, book filled environment before it all starts to drag, and Bethesda do little to set each visit to Apocrypha apart from the others.
Ultimately Dragonborn’s tale isn’t all that engaging or interesting, which is a bit of a bummer considering all the ingredients are there: Dragonborn showdown, evil tentacle thing, enslavement of the world. Mostly it just fails in the same way that Skyrim’s storyline did, in presentation of it all and the lack of personality on display from the characters. Miraak doesn’t really get any time to shine, he’s just some guy in a mask who turns up a few times that you kill because that’s what the game says you should do – And who are we to question the infinite wisdom of a game when it tells us to do something? As the first ever Dragonborn Miraak should have a considerable backstory behind him and be an intriguing character, but he’s really not. Nobody seems all that bothered about all of this either, a problem that plagued Skyrim. You see, Miraak’s influence has resulted in many of the population falling under his control and going outside to construct strange monuments around the island in a trance-like state, and yet this doesn’t really seem to bother the islands inhabitants all that much. It’s like all those people in Skyrim’s story that didn’t seem that fussed about the end of the world. Finally, there’s just not much narrative: you go and kill the bad guy because he tried to kill you. That’s it. There’s a bit more you can dig up by talking to various characters, but there’s really not much to it.
Your reward for getting through the storyline and kicking Miraak’s ass is a shiny new shout that lets you tame and ride dragons, the much-anticipated feature that Dragonborn introduces. And let me make this very clear, just in case you missed it the first time I said it: dragon riding sucks. I know that’s a pretty harsh thing to say, but we do need to be clear on the subject. The disappointments begin with the actual taming: rather than having to beat a dragon down in an epic fight to get its health low enough for your “Bend Will” shout to work on it, you simply use it whenever you feel like it and the dragon will land, ready to do your bidding. It feels rather odd that such a powerful creature as a dragon can be tamed so very easily, although it won’t work on named dragons, and it also acts as a get out of jail free card when it comes to fighting them: just use the Bend Will shout and they’ll land on the ground, where you can then just carry on your merry way It sort of makes a mockery of dragons being a threat, turning them more into a mild inconvenience, you know, like politicians. Or possibly mime artists. Once you’ve caused the massive fire-belching beast to land the time has finally come to mount your ride and take to the skies. Things start of well: a tap of the A button has you clambering up onto its neck before it then leaps into the air and gains height with a few sweeps of its huge wings. Your dragon begins a lazy spiral, and you think to yourself, “Okay, this is freaking awesome!.” Your brain comes to an automatic conclusion of how the controls work based from years of playing other games and general common sense: you push the stick right, intending to bank to the right and investigate that shiny thing over there. The dragon does nothing. So you push the stick to the left. The dragon does nothing. At this point you’ll probably regret having skipped through the tutorial window that popped up when you first got on the dragon and will head off to the help section in the pause menu, only to discover that you are in fact a glorified passenger on Dragon-Breath Airlines. Here’s the extend of your control: you can bring up the map and fast-travel to any location on the map while your on the dragon, and you can also target enemies and tell it to attack them. That’s it. You have no direct control. Even more bloody annoying is that the controls you do have are a bit useless as the response of your dragon is incredibly slow. Target an enemy and hit the button and it’s a 50/50 chance whether your dragon will actually go and attack them or just continue to fly in a lazy spiral. Tell it to land and it can take several minutes to actually do so, like it’s a little bit unsure of which direction the ground is in and needs a moment to get everything sorted out. It wasn’t until I had been playing around on a dragon for a while that I realised what Bethesda had actually done: rather than build new code to allow players to fly dragons, they’d just modified the base AI code a little bit and allow the character model to climb up on it. Pressing the target or land button simply activates that bit of AI coding the dragon normally uses, and that’s it. The spiral pattern it uses, the way it attacks enemies, everything resembles the AI that normally powers the dragons. Sorry, Bethesda, but if I’m correct in surmising that you just added some triggers into the AI coding that could be activated by players, then that’s downright lazy and the result is dragon riding fails on every level. It’s not fun, and it’s poorly executed. The only thing that can be said is that Bethesda themselves never really pushed dragon riding as a big feature all that much: it was hardly even mentioned in the press releases. It’s clear now as to why they didn’t, and I guess I can’t be too angry about the dragon riding if Bethesda themselves weren’t making a big deal of it. Still…all those daydreams about epic battles between dragons in the sky lie in ruins.
It doesn’t help that dragon riding comes with a fiew of bugs and problems, either. Sometimes dragons will just fly straight up into the sky and you’ll have to wait a good half-minute for them to stop acting stupid and come back down. And for God’s sake, don’t try to transform into a vampire lord while you’re riding around or you’ll fall to your death. The rest of Dragonborn comes packing the usual shed-load of Bethesda glitches as well, including a lovely one where Miraak phases out of existence in your battle with him and never returns and events not triggering properly. Look, Bethesda, I love you guys: Skyrim was one of the few games I’ve ever awarded a score of 10 to, and I spent hundreds of hours in Oblivion, but you really need to test this stuff more thoroughly. Easy for me to say, though, considering the amount of variables involved.
But I’m not going to end this review on a disappointment. Because like Skyrim the Dragonborn expansion is simply at its best when you’re wandering around and taking on various side-quests that are scattered around Solstheim. And just like Skyrim, these side-quests are often more fun than the main storyline, getting you hooked and keeping you playing until the wee hours of the morning, which is usually when I remember I’ve got to get up in…5-minutes. Dragonborn is a rare thing in this age of DLC that offers an hour of gameplay that feels like it was taken out of the game for not meeting quality standards – it gives us a load of content that weights in at an easy 8-10 hours, and while there are disapointments and flaws, it’s a great addition to Skyrim. Ultimately, though, it comes down to a simple question: were you only interested in Dragonborn for dragon riding and nothing else? If you said yes, then don’t buy Dragonborn, because it’s crap. But if you want more Skyrim, more places to explore, more gear to covet and just plain more, then Dragonborn is completely for you. Solstheim is a joy to explore and its packed with stuff to do.
+ Plenty of stuff to do.
+ New loot!
– Dragon riding.
– Storyline could have been much better.
– It’s pretty damn expensive.
The Verdict: 8
A great chunk of content from Bethesda that provides many happy hours of exploring. Sure, there are disapointments and quite a lot of glitches, but like Skyrim these things are forgotten when you’re strolling across hills and exploring ancient ruins, forging your own story from the emergent gameplay.