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Dragonborn is the third and most substantial add-on for the role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — a new limb grafted onto a comatose patient by an optimistic doctor who, to everyone’s surprise, not only wakes up the patient but then proves all those situations where having an extra limb would be useful. What that tortured metaphor means is it’s the first downloadable content worth returning for. Dragonborn doesn’t just add a new island to visit and new quests to do when you get there; it also adds something surprising — answers to our prayers. It feels like a response to criticisms of vanilla Skyrim, and you get the sense that the gods have been listening, or at least looking at a few blog posts and comment threads.
Tomorrow and to-Morrowind
One of the most common complaints that players whoremember the older Elder Scrolls games have of Skyrim and of Oblivion before it is that it’s not Morrowind. The fondly remembered third game in the series, Morrowind had its share of flaws. But what sticks in the mind was its strength: the deep oddness of its setting. It was a land where houses were grown from fungus or carved out of the shells of giant insects — where oversized fleas called Silt Striders were used as transport. It was distinctively surreal.
Dragonborn takes you back to Solstheim, an island first visited in one of Morrowind’s expansions. The unusual architecture, plants, and monsters return, a couple of characters have managed to survive the hundreds of years between games, and there’s a single Silt Strider (unrideable, sadly) there to prod at your memories with the stick of nostalgia. The thing most likely to inspire nostalgia is the music, much of it directly borrowed from Morrowind. Thankfully, the Cliff Racers — squawking pterodactyls that were Morrowind’s biggest annoyance — don’t return. But if you’re the kind of joyless soul who shows up in every Elder Scrolls comment thread saying, “Well, it’s still not Morrowind,” then Dragonborn is a cake that developer Bethesda has baked just for you.
Variety is the spice of dungeoneering
The first time you solve a puzzle in one of Skyrim’s dungeons by matching some symbols of animals, you might feel pretty clever. By the seventh time, you’re probably over it. Although Solstheim’s dungeons were designed with the same tile sets and some of the same obstacles (undead Draugr and steam-powered machinery), each one has something unique about it. In one dungeon, you leap across spinning gears while fighting robotic spiders; in another, there’s a magic sword that opens a door by carving patterns into it. And in a submerged dungeon, you alter water levels to access lower areas like something out of a Zelda game, only less annoying. That goes a long way toward reducing the tedium you used to feel when realizing a quest is building up to another familiar dungeon crawl.
They’ll make great pets
Finding a pet dog in Skyrim wasn’t easy, but as every Fallout game proves, we love owning pets in RPGs. The first plug-in, Dawnguard, added some new ones, including trolls, but Dragonborn improves on that. Now you can have a steam-powered dwarven automaton tagging along on adventures or one of the goblinoids called Rieklings. These jibber-jabbering, spear-waving creatures are normally enemies, but it’s possible to befriend a tribe of them who will then swear allegiance to you. In addition to the one you adopt as your mascot and drag around the island, showing him off like he’s your new poodle-cross, others are so devoted they’ll randomly leap out from behind rocks when you get into fights and charge into battle, fearlessly poking their tiny spears into ancient dragons. This is obviously the very best thing.
Lydia, the housecarl of your first home in Whiterun, was the companion of choice for many players. But she had very little to say, and her dialogue options were even shallower than those of characters who seemed less important. That sarcastic sigh of “I am sworn to carry your burdens” whenever you opened her inventory to give her a better piece of armor got on everybody’s nerves almost as much as the “arrow to the knee” line or the thing about the sweetroll.
Well, not anymore. Take Lydia to the island of Solstheim, and she has things to say about the new locations and creatures, as well as a new battle cry — and, thank Christ, new lines when you open her inventory. No other follower I’ve dragged to Solstheim has been given additional dialogue love, but admittedly, none of them needed it as desperately. Lydia still walks into the same traps over and over, but at least now she has a variety of complaints to make when she does.
You may need to bring Lydia with you because Dragonborn’s fights are tougher. A lot depends on your character build and level, but I found the battles in Dragonborn significantly more challenging, especially when the story separates you from your follower and pet and forces you to rely on your own abilities. Dragon Shouts change from being an optional way to liven up fights to essential abilities you need to use wisely. Potions run out quickly, magic weapons need to be kept charged, and abilities you forgot you had suddenly become useful again. I found myself falling back on skills I’d already maxed out instead of using the ones I was trying to improve — simply to survive.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m just terrible at playing games. Please tell me so in the comments.
My first wish is … .
During Skyrim’s main quest, you summon the dragon Odahviing and convince him to take you for a ride. It’s a one-time thing, but it’s built up by the game as a pretty big deal. Then you climb on his back and ascend on powerful wing-strokes — into a loading screen. Afterward, you immediately climb down, having arrived at your destination. It’s a great honking tease is what it is. So when word got out that you’d be able to ride the dragons in Dragonborn, that was also a pretty big deal. Don’t get your hopes up, though. How low are they right now? No, you’ll have to lower them a bit further than that.
Riding dragons is rubbish. You can’t steer them and instead simply hang on as they circle, picking out targets for them to attack, which they do halfheartedly before backing off for another round of pointless circling. You feel like a backseat driver — and you are. You can fling spells at enemies when you’re close enough to them, but otherwise, you’re redundant. There’s also the option to fast-travel on a dragon, which has no advantage over fast-traveling not on a dragon.
Presumably, the reason for this lack of control is so that you can’t fly over city walls and realize that if you don’t go through the loading screen at the gates, the settlements are empty. That’s necessary to keep your processor from melting, but I would happily trade learning that there’s a man behind the curtain for the ability to steer a dragon anywhere I want. I’m glad they tried to add another feature we all wanted, but the implementation doesn’t cut it.
With any luck, the PC version will be improved by mods. There’s already one that at least lets you watch while fast-traveling. Obviously, that’s no consolation for console players, though.
Pointing out all of the ways Dragonborn seems designed to fix Skyrim — or at least to chip away at some of its flaws — may make it seem like the whole expansion is nothing more than a sap designed to shut up the complainers. But there’s more to it than that. The best thing Dragonborn adds is something nobody asked for — something I didn’t know I wanted until I had it.
Read one of certain cursed books across Solstheim, and you’ll be sucked into it like Gumby, appearing alone in a magical otherworld called Apocrypha that’s a sort of interdimensional library. Books are everywhere, even seeming to grow out of the walls, and storms of torn pages whirl around you. There’s a sickly greenish tinge to everything, slime and tentacles are all over the place, and tunnels suddenly and dramatically stretch or shrink while you’re walking down them — removing an exit from your reach or bringing a dead end right up to your nose. It’s creepy in a way that Skyrim never usually is, with proper H.P. Lovecraft eeriness.
The most promising thing about Dragonborn isn’t that it proves Bethesda is listening to us but rather that the developer is still having ideas of its own.