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Wot I Think: Skyrim - Dragonborn

Morrow is the wind

Dragonborn, the second major Skyrim expansion (third, if you count Hearthfire) arrived on PC this week, after an unfortunate two-month wait from the Xbox version. I've unearthed my old character and dragged him off to the island of Solsteheim for adventures anew. Was it worth it? Hearken to me now, traveller.

Ah, that's the stuff. Previous Skyrim expansions have been focus on filling in gaps that didn't especially need filling, not to mention largely doing it in an awkward, hamstrung way (i.e. flying vampire lords who can't fly, houses that can only be built in pre-determined ways and places), but Dragonborn is a traditional landmass & adventures expansion, just like mother used to make.

Whereas Skyrim's first expansion, Dawnguard, had me grimly point-to-pointing through a desultory campaign, in Dragonborn I found myself constantly fighting the urge to go off-piste. In other words, playing it like an Elder Scrolls game, which is exactly what I wanted. (The only reason I felt I should fight the urge, by the way, was because I was conscious that I should get to the bit where you get to ride a dragon for this write-up).

Set on Solstheim, a sizeable island between the provinces of Skyrim and Morrowind, Dragonborn thus offers a return to the setting of venerated Elder Scrolls III expansion, Bloodmoon. I'm not sure that it's recognisable as such, as Skyrim seems too setup for rock and ice, but it's certainly working hard to not simply be More Skyrim.

Fan service abounds, but in sweeping ways that will make Dragonborn visually exciting for new as well as lore-drunk veteran players. Mushroom forests, houses inside giant crustacean shells, even a lone (sadly static) Silt Strider: it's like Morrowind's greatest hits out there. Perhaps it's a little more contrived and too evidently zoned, but it brings some of the much-needed weird back to Tamriel after two games with relatively homogeneous environments. It pleases me enormously, both as a fan of Morrowind and as a fan of seeing strange new worlds on my monitor.

The weird also makes itself known in a new Daedric realm, which the 'main' campaign in Dragonborn weaves in and out of. We've previously seen the hell-plane of Oblivion and we've had multiple visits to the dark prince of madness's crazyland, but this time around we're visiting the realm of the self-proclaimed lord of knowledge. Imagine if Cthulu ran a library, essentially. Squid-faced priest-horrors patrol impossible towers of books, while pages flutter in the air like malevolent pigeons, Giger-esque corridors rotate and contract, and gruesome tentacles swipe at you if you get too close to the slime pits all over the place. Progress through these areas is all but linear, but presented in maze-like, consciously confusing style, to the accompaniment of dramatically strange vistas. It's very different to Skyrim as we know it, and its deeply sinister, mixed-motive ruler, Hermaeus Mora, also seems as though Bethesda's artists have finally been allowed to takes the brakes off.

By comparison, Dragonborn's posterboy baddie, rival Dovahkiin Meerak, is a right old damp squib. Initial encounters with this dragon-riding, soul-eating masked nemesis suggest you're in for a titanic airborne battle against someone who can handily out-Shout you, but alas it winds up in a straightforward, highly game-y, grindy bossfight against a dude who can regenerate his health a bit. An anti-climax in what's becoming an Elder Scrolls tradition of anti-climaxes, but at least there are big fat hints that the infinitely more interesting (and creepy) Hermaeus Mora might have more in store for us later on.

Presentation aside, the main quest is perfunctory stuff. Unlike Dawnguard, it's but a mere fraction of a much larger offering though - a new, demi-world of new sidequests, secrets, craftable items and large-scale sights. I.e. more of what Skyrim did best. Solstheim isn't particularly large, but crams enough in and under it (as well as having those Daedric nightmare-library alt-worlds) to offer a healthy amount of new adventures. Some are disappointing, like what appears to be a new Thieves Guild questline, only to grind to a halt moments later, but there's enough that's long running and more unpredictable.

The question, I suppose, is whether it's enough to drag one back into Skyrim. For me, it was. In Dawnguard I felt like I was continuing because I had to, here I feel like I'm having a good time doing my own thing in a new place that hybridises Skyrim and Morrowind.

The much-ballyhooed Dragon riding is, I'm afraid, a huge let-down however. Gained in the late stages of the new main campaign, it looks, feels and handles like a rough-around-the-edges mod, and it's all too clear that the game was never designed with it in mind. The dragon, with you perched on top of it like a He-Man figure sat stiffed-limbed on top of Battlecat, basically controls itself: all you can do is tell it what to attack, which it will only do for a few, miserably low-damage moments before wheeling away again.

A real let-down, but I can't say I'm surprised: the game wasn't designed with sky-battles in mind and no doubt re-engineering it now would be a colossal demand. I can't help but think that Dragonborn would have been better off leaving dragon-riding well alone, instead of undermining the other stuff it does so well with something so overtly silly and ultimately pointless. Attacking things on a dragon is just a huge, drawn-out pain, so traditional on-foot battles are by far the better alternative, leaving the only purpose of dragon riding to be travel. Only you can't tell it were to go. Unless you do Fast Travel, which is the same as standard Fast Travel except you're still sitting on a dragon at your destination. Oh well.

That major let-down (and the underwhelming nature of the villain) aside, Dragonborn is by far the most essential Skyrim add-on to date. All of Skyrim's existent sins persist, so it'll do nothing for those who didn't get on with the parent game, but those who did will be eminently grateful for more of the good stuff, in a setting that combines both spectacle and fan-service. Hell, there are even a couple of good, and funny, characters, which is not something I'm used to saying about recent Bethesda games.

I must admit that I've increasingly felt negative towards Skyrim since its first weeks, but by getting Skyrim basics right and lending a little more wildness too, Dragonborn reminds me that I'm being churlish. There's still so much Skyrim is short of, still too many situations which are resolved by violence alone, but within the confines Bethesda set for themselves they've really done ever so well here.

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