Bethesda have a real hit and miss relationship with gaming expansions. For all the goodness of a Shivering Isles, you get a Dead Money to balance things out. You never quite know what to expect when one releases, but you know you need to have it regardless.

This time, all the groundwork has been laid for something truly special. Skyrim’s third expansion is, by far, the biggest Bethesda have ever done. It adds new gameplay mechanics, new abilities, enemies and armor. Most importantly, however, it brings back a fan-favourite area and allows players to explore it once more.

Dragonborn has finally arrived on all formats and we’ve got the full verdict right here…

FUS-RO-DAH

Format: PC/Xbox/PSN
Format tested: Xbox 360
Availability: Out now
Price: 1600MSp, £13.99

The Dragonborn’s greatest challenge has arrived. One that matches the champion in skill, enchantment, sheer force of will and ferocity. The dragons may have immense power, and abominations roaming the lands may test the champion’s mettle, but one of the same birthright is surely too much to handle for Skyrim’s greatest hero?

After mastering sacred shouts from the Greybeards, once the player walks into any of the major cities, they will be confronted by a cultist. The cultist has been given a mission to slaughter the ‘fake Dragonborn’ and return to the mysterious Miraak with the news. Unfortunately for the cloak and dagger sorcerer, our Dragonborn isn’t just merely combat-trained and quickly puts a stop to those plans with the sharp end of a sword. Once defeated, players can harvest the cultists’ remains and discover a note which directs them to the harbour in Whiterun where the cultist docked and arrived into Skyrim.

After interrogating the timid fisherman who arranged the cultists’ transport, the Dragonborn is given passage to Raven Rock at Solstheim, the setting for Morrowind expansion, Bloodmoon. While much of Solstheim’s identity is intact and will remain familiar to previous Elder Scrolls players, these are changed lands. Many of the inhabitants are indoctrinated by an unknown power, and feel compelled to work on pillars of light, hacking at them with chisels and hammers.

Even the Dragonborn is susceptible to these mind-bending powers at a touch of the illuminated pillar, though they are able to resist and shake off the effects shortly afterwards.

There are dark forces at work in Solstheim, and it is up to the Dragonborn to learn what controls them, while also discovering the identity of Miraak, the mysterious figure who has a keen interest in seeing Skyrim’s champion dead and forgotten.

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The road previously travelled

It’s a genuine pleasure returning to Solstheim. It bares many of the traits one now associates with Skyrim. Craggy, high-peaked mountains, snowy conditions and long-reaching waterfalls, but this is identifiably Morrowind. Silt Striders majestically move along the Solstheim beaches, striding with purpose, entranced in their own endeavours. Nirnroot glows and hums on every corner and the environment exudes a distinct brown/orangey hue.

This isn’t just a cheap tack-on from Bethesda. Solstheim is a large addition to Skyrim. There’s around 30 hours of content for players to sink their teeth into. Forgetting the 8-10 hour campaign, Solstheim is littered with side-quests and hidden caves.

The geography of the island also offers great diversity. The north, as previously mentioned, is bitter and ice-cold, while the south long suffers as ruins of a volcano doused-earth. This, naturally, affects the wider environment, the wildlife and the type of locations that players will stumble upon. Morrowind’s imagination doesn’t feel hampered here, and has been masterfully redesigned with the same care and devotion Elder Scrolls fans of all types will truly appreciate. Even netherworld areas, such as Apocrypha, are welcome in this Skyrim recreation, and add both mystery and diversity to the lands.

Of course, there are familiar landmarks which will set off pangs of nostalgia, and recognizable dwellers of old, such as the Rieklings, will make a triumphant return, serving both as enemy and friend.

Bethesda have done an excellent job recreating these lands with the Skyrim engine, and while many of the faults people have with Skyrim remain, such as clipping issues and freak physics, this expansion is a true work-of-art and an example for all other developers to follow in terms of quality and value for money.

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All those extras

Dragonborn is absolutely full of new things that contribute, not just to the expansion, but the overall game of Skyrim. For starters, players can learn a whopping five new shouts. One is a Dragon Aspect that infuses the player with the power of a Dragon for one full day cycle. It gives the Dragonborn stronger shouts, more furious attacks and even lets them summon an ancient dragonborn when low on health. There’s also a Cyclone shout, the ability to bend the will of a dragon and have it fight alongside the player, a battle fury for NPCs and finally, the most eagerly awaited of all shouts, Dragon Mounting.

Except, well, Dragon Mounting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s the initial rush of riding up into the skies on the back of the hard-scaled fiend, but then, unlike the free-roaming, open-world nature of the game, dragon mounting is restrictive, clunky and mostly pre-determined with players merely pressing a button to fire, and finding themselves unable to direct or manoeurve the dragon. What i’m trying to say is, don’t come into this expansion hoping to live the life of Eragon Shadeslayer. You’ll be sorely disappointed

Still, there are a lot of other reasons to be excited. For starters, there are ten trophies/achievements to collect, and they’re not all focused on story as they reward exploration in equal measure. There are also several key locations to be located, but again, not all are relevant to the story. As I mentioned, Solstheim is full of hidden caves and off-road paths, but there are also farms, ruins, grand halls and temples. It’s an expansion of story and discovery, and there is no finer compliment to the world of Skyrim than that. This is how an Elder Scrolls expansion should play and should never be confined to a linear story-driven path.

Then there’s the new enemies and armor weapons that can be used to fight them. Solstheim’s enemies are brutal and offer a serious challenge to the player, no matter their level. Perhaps most punishing of all are the werebears that start as humans, but then morph into ravenous  rampaging bears that can kill  in just three swings. Then there are Lurkers, blessed with an insane amount of health and some of the mightiest attacks in the game. They will serve a great challenge, but also drop a substantial amount of gold and loot when defeated. Players will also have to contend with Ash Spawn and, as previously mentioned, Rieklings.

Still, new protective and empowering potions can be created with flora and fauna unique to Solstheim, as well as the essence of its weird and wonderful wildlife. There are also new weapons players can use to quell the threat including spears and scimitars.

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Grace these lands

Dragonborn is rich and fulfilling. It has a fascinating main quest that intersects, not only with what is happening in Skyrim, but also what has happened in previous Elder Scrolls games. There are even hints as to what could happen in future expansions.

While the price may seem extortionate, Dragonborn is extremely rewarding. It does more for Skyrim than any other expansion before it, and will enthrall players as they explore every nook and cranny of its content. Yes, Dragon-mounting is a disappointment and proof that the game wasn’t designed for such implementation, but fortunately there’s plenty to keep you occupied.

 Rating 4.5 out of 5

Without doubt, Dragonborn is the best Elder Scrolls expansion to date, and one of the finest this generation. Absolutely essential.