The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn

"There is no spontaneity or surprise in Dragonborn, especially for those who have played the core game and the other DLC extensively."

The third DLC for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dragonborn eclipses its predecessors with breadth, not depth. Dawnguard has a better narrative with interesting choices, but Dragonborn has an entirely new island, brimful with the detail fans love to discover. For those who have already scoured the nine frigid fastnesses of Skyrim for every last septim, Dragonborn is a blessing from the All-Maker. For those who shelved Skyrim months ago, it's likely only to remind them why they did so.

Two men of cultish appearance approach our hero in his wanderings and denounce his claim as Dragonborn. They then proceed to attack him and – in the universal plight of the fanatic – expose their allegedly doubtless beliefs for the flimsy falsehoods that they are. They leave behind a convenient note of exposition for our hero: one of those ubiquitous Elder Scrolls paper trails. This is business conducted as usual for Skyrim, but at least the good stuff isn't difficult to access. With this overly familiar plot hook sunk deep in the Dragonborn's cheek, the invisible fisherman above drags him across the Sea of Ghosts to the island of Solstheim.

Although some of the promotional material for the Dragonborn DLC suggests a vacation away from Skyrim, this is no more than a half truth: don't expect a full-fledged adventure into Dunmer territory. Only the southern half of Solstheim resembles Morrowind, as ash from the active Red Mountain volcano settles on the tundra. In the north, however, you'll think you're back in Skyrim, inundated with snow storms and random dragon attacks. The island isn't even new to the franchise; the werewolf expansion Bloodmoon for The Elder Scrolls III took place on Solstheim, although this was admittedly a distant incarnation, and is now just a moment in history. Essentially, Solstheim acts as a tenth hold to Skyrim's nine: more of the same, but a significant amount of it nonetheless.

In the south, we trade a snowy wasteland for an ashy one, but that might be just the sort of change fans have been seeking since the first rather disappointing Dawnguard DLC. New Morrowind-based enemies, items, armor types, and scenery stimulate the adventurer's mind and scratch the explorer's itch, and these are among one's first glimpses of Solstheim. Raven's Rock, the biggest town on the isle, greets newcomers with a detailed, dark elf-ridden hamlet to explore. There are quests small and large, juicy morsels of news from the mainland, and new items to admire. Exploring this half of Solstheim, there were moments – discussing Morrowind current events with the Dunmer, fighting bull netches on the shore, climbing to the entrance of a wizard's mushroom tower – when I almost forgot I was playing The Elder Scrolls V. Soon, however, I would be back in a Nordic tomb fighting draugr or sliding down the slope of an icy crag. From anywhere on Solstheim, snow is but a 90 second jog away.

This is where my frustration overcomes the spark of exploration and those bursts of rampant joy that bless all those who still have another hill to mount and another corner to turn. I've been doing the same things for almost eighty hours now, and the developers seem to be drawing from the same tired well of ideas. There is no spontaneity or surprise in Dragonborn, especially for those who have played the core game and the other DLC extensively. You expect a strange pocket of Oblivion and a Daedric Prince behind every door. Once enigmatic sources of dread, these demi-gods now have no more power to frighten or mystify than a caged goblin at a fraudulent wizard's fair. The main quest can be completed in four or five hours with ease, and its abrupt conclusion leaves a "that's it?" lingering behind. The easiest way to make The Elder Scrolls VI the best one yet is to improve the writing and find a new well – a sparkling fountain, perhaps – of ideas.

Thankfully the new section of Oblivion, called Apocrypha, is the best yet. The art design is unlike anything I've seen in an Elder Scrolls game: pillars of books twisting and twirling in grotesque shapes, oily with a contagious evil. Loose pages swirl about in miniature tornadoes or quietly stir on the ground as creepy sentinels await trespassers. Corridors telescope, shift, and contract, boggling the eyes while you try to puzzle your way through these surreal segments. Although slightly repetitive, the Apocrypha "dungeons" are among Skyrim's finest moments.

Dragon riding, however, is not. Acquired near the end of the DLC's main quest, the ability to ride a dragon is about as interactive as watching a cutscene. Sure, you can target enemies and command the dragon to attack, but by withholding control of its actual movements, the developers ensured that dragon riding remains an unfulfilled dream. This could have been what those players who dream of dragons really wanted. Instead, it's a poorly executed gimmick. Once, when my dragon took me to the pinnacle of a mountain and encountered another dragon, I thought I was about to witness something monumental. However, the two dragons merely circled about impotently for a few minutes before loosing a few breath weapons at awkward camera angles. Eventually, the camera spun out of control and my dragon was slain by its elder. I fell to the ground, recovered, and ran away to spill down the mountainside in a careless rage.

For those who haven't stopped playing Skyrim since its release, the Dragonborn DLC will come as a fire-warmed hovel for the starved and bereaved. This infusion of new content could probably occupy the thorough player for 15 or 20 hours. That in itself will please innumerable fans. There's an emphasis on quantity over quality, however, and the island of Solstheim is more Skyrim than Morrowind. The content just isn't very compelling, except for Apocrypha, and the Elder Scrolls V is getting old and exhausted. Let's send Skyrim to Sovngarde before the wise and venerable becomes crippled and insane.

© 2012 Bethesda, Bethesda Softworks. All rights reserved.

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