Dragonborn, the latest DLC package to be released by Bethesda for its RPG behemoth, Skyrim, was something of an enigma for me. Anyone who read my previously published preview for the expansion will know that I was very optimistic. We were promised a genuine expansion, with a plethora of additional weapons to wield, items to use and enemies to fight, all set in a brand new setting. Let’s be honest, what die-hard Skyrim veteran wasn’t excited to hear that? After all, while the core game was (and continues to be) hugely engaging and immersive, after you pass the several hundred hour mark it’s only natural that the world, enemies and scenarios would start to feel a touch repetitive. The sheer fact that it takes that long for the game to get that way is tribute enough to its staying power and variety.
The thing is, no matter how good the preview looked and how many new features it showed, there was always going to be a niggling doubt in the back of your mind. Why? Well, for that we need to look at the previous DLC packages for Skyrim, Dawnguard and Hearthfire. While both interesting and varied expansions to the original game, they offered limited new variety. The former provided a new quest line, skill trees and shouts, while the latter provided the opportunity to custom-build yourself a new home. However, both (and particularly Dawnguard) had you travelling the same sort of areas fighting the same sort of enemies as the original title, meaning that while the new activities and stories did expand the life of the original, burnout was still an ever present while playing them.
The thing is, when I started on my odyssey into Solstheim, the doubts began to creep further in. While the initial settlement has some slight variance in architecture and aesthetics, the overall feeling was very ‘samey’. This was lightened slightly by the appearance of the Netch, a floating creature very different to any other creature seen in Skyrim thus far.
However, the appearance of the Ash Spawn was not promising. These felt rather like a pallet swap of the Draugr already repeatedly encountered in the game. Great, more bloody zombies, I thought. After a few encounters with these things and a quest involving storming a keep full of them, one can be forgive for losing some enthusiasm for the package.
However, it’s still Skyrim, so I press on, of course. I mean, even if it’s more of the same, It’s still going to be good right?
The next thing you encounter is a mysterious spike of stone which, without wishing to spoil anything, leads to a series of events which escalate rather deliciously, drawing you all over the island of Solstheim, discovering a plot that feels initially small in scale, but blossoms into an intriguing narrative.
Then it happened. In every game that aspires to greatness, be it full or expansion, there is a moment where the battle for your heart is won or lost, that tipping point where the title either falls into ignominious also-run status or ascends into something truly special. For Dragonborn, that moment came some 90 minutes or so into the expansion. There you are, in standard Skyrim style, hacking, shooting or enchanting your way through an underground cavern when SMASH! Alice, you smash through the metaphorical looking glass and end up in a bat-shit mental world of Cuthuloid monsters and shattered scenery. And.It.Is.Glorious!
This is the change we were promised and more. Harking back to the hell-like aspects of Oblivion, without the eye pain, the new setting really does up the ante variety wise, really breathing new life and intrigue into the Skyrim formula.
The Elder Scrolls games were always about the world they were set in. What defines the game is not the main narrative, not really. What defines the experience and what’s unique for every player is what you do with the world when not actively following the plot railroad. That’s when the magic happens. Half the fun of Skyrim and its predecessors is just picking a direction and setting off; that feeling of exploration and discovering new things, of probing new frontiers.
That’s precisely what this expansion provides. Not only is the island of Solstheim varied enough to be interesting to explore, providing more or what you like about the original game, with a new paint job, the wonderland-style feel of the latter half of the package is akin to the artists putting the design of the game in a wood-chipper and shouting ‘Wehey!’ Its impressive, actually, how different the setting feels, while still retaining the reassuring Skyrim experience, different but the same, reinvented while still somehow traditional. How they pulled it off I don’t know, but Bethesda deserve plaudits for their execution.
I’m sure like me, many of you reading this will be weighing up whether you should pick up this expansion; let’s face it, 1600 MS points is a lot, especially when you have a sneaking feeling the content will be more of the same you’ve already experienced. All I can say to you, my friends, is that this expansion, more than any other so far, really justifies its cost. This is a genuine expansion in the traditional sense of the word, extending the gameplay of the original title with added features and storylines, while providing the much-needed influx of freshness and creativity Skyrim has been crying out for.
Pick up Skyrim: Dragonborn and I guarantee you’ll hurl yourself, horned helmet first, through that looking glass, cackling with delight all the while and never regret the decision.
For those who are reading this and considering giving Skyrim a try: 1) what took you so long?? And 2) if you own an Xbox 360, head on down to our Facebook page www.facebook.com/zero1gaming and join us. There’s a competition afoot from Thursday afternoon in which you could win a digital copy of Skyrim, so you too can experience the epic high adventure!
Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org