Version tested Xbox 360
I've fallen back in love, and it feels great. My romance with Skyrim last winter - has it really been a year? - was heady and intense, but over the months since it cooled considerably. My levelling up had levelled off. The map markers were all filled in, and all that was left for me to do was maybe consider finally trying my hand at alchemy.
My malaise was deepened, rather than alleviated, by the lacklustre DLC so far. Dawnguard tried to spice up our waning passion by squeezing a perfunctory questline into an already busy map, but leaned too hard on a clumsy gimmick that let me turn into a lumbering Vampire Lord who couldn't fit through doors or open cupboards, as if that was a thing I'd ever expressed an interest in. Hearthfire tried to get me to settle down, offering three plots of land on which to build identical houses that I could fill with furniture, provided I didn't mind having no say over what the furniture was or where it was placed. There was also talk of adoption, but the life of an adventurer leaves little room for watching an eerie digital child loop through the same animations and voice clips over and over.
Just as I'd resigned myself to the thought that it was time for me and Skyrim to part ways, along comes Dragonborn and all the wonder, the thrill, the passion comes flooding back.
This isn't DLC. This is an expansion, like in the good old days. It's an entirely new area, a blank map waiting to be filled in as you roam, packed with new quests, miscellaneous tasks, dungeons, barrows, ruins and crypts. It's an absolute beast, with a main storyline that lasts a good few hours and enough supporting content to keep you playing for weeks more.
"This isn't DLC. This is an expansion, like in the good old days."
The island of Solstheim is the location, and it'll be familiar to those who played the Bloodmoon expansion for Morrowind. It's a desolate place, perched on the edge of Tamriel and plagued by volcanic activity. There's a town, of sorts, called Raven Rock, which is ruled by aristocratic Dark Elves; a community of hard-bitten hunter-gatherers known as the Skaal; and small bands of bandits and pirates taking whatever they can get their gnarly hands on.
Solstheim has more immediate problems though. Its people are being strangely drawn to a series of sacred stones, erecting temples around them in the thrall of some unseen force. There's a cult at work, and it's their assassination attempt on you that brings the player to Solstheim's shore. They worship the first Dragonborn, a corrupt priest called Miraak, who has been trapped in a plain of Oblivion plotting his return. You, unsurprisingly, must put a stop to such shenanigans.
It's a solid storyline taking in seven major quests, each with a unique tone or flavour. Most notable are the jaunts into the realm of Apocrypha where Miraak dwells. It's a trippy place, with Lovecraftian tentacles reaching down from the sky and constantly shifting corridors made from books of forbidden lore. Seekers, squid-faced guardians of this knowledge, are your main foes here, along with Lurkers, gigantic Pumpkinhead-like beasts who combine the strength of a giant with the magic abilities of a mage.
Like most Elder Scrolls plotlines, the main Dragonborn story is join-the-dots stuff when you step back and consider what's being asked of you, but it ties together neatly enough and never feels like its padding itself out for no reason. Only the ending lets it down, with Miraak remaining a sketchily drawn antagonist and his potential as a mirror of the player character untapped. In the end, inevitably, it all comes down to a boss fight.
Oh, and you can ride dragons now. It's surprising how easy it is to overlook this fact. The ability is unlocked as one of two new Thu'ums on offer in the main quest, but it's not something I can see taking off, if you'll pardon the pun. Dragon flight is awkward, control is vague and it makes a right mess of the camera whenever you come close to land. I'm not sure Skyrim desperately needed a rough knock-off of Lair stitched onto its face, but here it is. As a novelty, it's worth a look. As a useful way of getting around the map? No thanks. At least the dragon-riding is more of a throwaway extra, unlike the similarly awkward but less avoidable Vampire Lord business in Dawnguard.
Dragonborn is at its best when you've polished off the main quest. What reels you in is the amount of incident and adventure Bethesda has crammed into Solstheim's relatively small landmass. A huge part of the appeal of the Elder Scrolls series is the knowledge that you can set out in any direction and find something of interest. That's undoubtedly the case here.
There's a secondary quest line, almost as large and important as the primary one, that finds you investigating a plot against the Dark Elf family that rules the island. There are mines full of Draugr Deathlords and hidden “black books” that lead to yet more Apocrypha realms to explore, each one a navigational puzzle in itself. There's a treasure map and several archaeological expeditions to tag along with. If you're a werewolf, there's something just for you up in the mountains. Thieves Guild membership pays off in another quest. Even something as esoteric as knowing about The Lusty Argonian Maid can lead to fresh content, if you rummage in the right place.
There are new creatures to fight, such as the eerie floating Netch which resemble Mass Effect's Hanar, lumbering Bristleback boars and the fearsome Ash Spawn, who attack en masse with heavy melee attacks and fire magic. There are new crafting materials - Heart Stone and Stalhrim, a tempered ice that can be used to make armour and weapons. There are even new plants and ingredients to add to your recipes.
Any game that demands hundreds of hours from the player must build a long-term relationship, and relationships must remain fresh if they're to endure. With discoveries around every corner, Dragonborn just gave Skyrim fans the perfect excuse to lose themselves in the wild for another winter.
9 / 10