It’s hard to say what makes a good expansion. Some games only need to offer new maps or enemies to keep the player happy, giving them a little more opportunity to grind through baddies before reaching the end credits. For a game like Skyrim, however, a game that already practically drowns the player with content, something more is required. To be worth the time and effort, it must not only add more gameplay, but make that gameplay build on what came before. It should be narratively fresh while still relevant to the overall plot, and put new tools at our disposal without invalidating the old ones. On these counts, Dragonborn succeeds. Where it fails, however, is in its bugs.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Dragonborn is about even with SimCity for buggiest release of the last year. Some of these are fairly minor, such as entering a location and finding the floor has disappeared. These can usually be resolved with a simple reload, but are still a frustrating inconvenience.
Even more annoying is that like the first expansion, Dawnguard, with its persistent vampire attacks on previously safe cities, you’re more goaded into playing it than anything else, and punished for ignoring it. In this case, the villain Miraak has a chance to show up whenever you kill a dragon and prevent you from absorbing its soul, taking it for himself. This is meant to motivate the player into hunting him down, but I would have much preferred the game offer a carrot than a stick. Add to this the pre-existing bug where dragons would sometimes not give souls anyway, and this feels very unfair. In my case Miraak never did steal a soul from me, but this may have led to a greater issue where he wouldn’t steal a soul when it was absolutely crucial for Dragonborn’s main quest that he must. For bugs this big to persist so many months after release is simply inexcusable, and erodes players’ faith in the developer.
When it works, however, Dragonborn works well. Some of the new additions almost make you forgive the horrendous bugs. The new Dragon Aspect shout is brilliant, as it supercharges all your other shouts for five minutes per game day. When combined with my Elemental Fury shout, I was swinging a dragonbone greatsword almost as swiftly as if it were a dagger. Dragon Aspect works because it supports and enhances your particular play style, whatever that may be.
The setting of Solstheim is a striking place, half of it bearing the familiar snowing woodlands and icy caves of Skyrim, and the other half dry and barren, smothered by ash from a distant volcano. It serves as both a border and contrast between Nordic and Dunmer culture, and there is a litany of new books to read that detail much of the local history and legends. These range from humorous to chilling, but are all fascinating.
Speaking of books, finding any of the five Black Books will transport the player to Apocrypha, realm of Hermaeus Mora, Daedric Lord of Fate and hoarder of forbidden knowledge. Make it through these dark, shifting worlds built almost entirely out of books, and you will be rewarded with your choice of unique upgrades. These include the ability to cast spells at no cost for thirty seconds, and summoning a spectral battle drum that boosts stamina regeneration. Not all of these upgrades seem to work as intended—I never did get a fire wyrm to spawn from enemies killed with my Fire Breath shout—but for the most part these upgrades are a worthy prize for the effort required to get them.
New weapon and armour types are a nice addition, but three of the four require components unique to Solstheim, meaning that if you later feel like a set of Chitin armour, you’ll have to go all the way back to Solstheim to get it. It’s a small gripe that only means one more Fast Travel, but it still makes for a more contrived playing style, such as stocking up on piles of Netch Leather (why wouldn’t regular leather suffice?) so you don’t have to come back for more later.
Overall, Dragonborn is a great idea well executed, but poorly polished. With a little more time spent ironing out the significant bugs, it could well have been flawless. As it stands, however, it’s only halfway there.
The undercooked seafood of gaming.