The thing about snow is that it’s boring. It lies there on top of stuff like dull white dust, giving everything the universally bland appearance of a Christmas post-card. So in a game like Skyrim, with its Nordic-inspired winter setting, there’s only so many snow-capped mountain paths you can amble down until things start to look a little samey.
New expansion Dragonborn decides to shake things up a little, taking most of its inspiration on a visual level from the venerable Elder Scrolls game Morrowind, which was partially set in the ash wastelands of the titular island. This time around you find yourself directed to the new landmass of Solthsteim, an island off the coast of Skyrim that was the location from a previous Morrowind expansion, Bloodmoon. After a skirmish with a group of mad cultists, you’ll find an amusingly convenient letter leading you to Solthsteim on the trail of the mysterious Dragon Priest Miraak, who’s been mind-controlling the natives of the ash wastelands into building a series of strange monuments. Christ, that’s a lot of exposition for a review.
If the ‘ash wastelands’ doesn’t sound like a particularly exotic place to visit, well, that’s because it’s not. If you’ve been anxiously waiting for a game that lets you trudge around in brown gunk then you’ll be very happy, but others might find the dull colour palette and unremarkable landscape a little underwhelming. On the plus side there is an impressive variety of new enemies, new flora and architecture to look at, and the chitinous dark elf townships you visit still buck the typical fantasy visual trends, while veteran Elder Scrolls players will appreciate the various nods to the series history. Separated from the other alien locations and exotic sights that made Morrowind such a bizarrely beautiful place to adventure in, though, Dragonborn‘s ash-strewn environments lack the sense of wonder you’d hope for in an Elder Scrolls game. Travel past the southern wastes into the mountains of Northern Solthsteim and you’ll return to more of the same kind of mountainous environments familiar from Skyrim.
This sense of familiarity increases when you venture into the expansion’s wide variety of new dungeons. Most of them use the exact tile-sets as the original game, so you’ll see more of the same gloomy Draugr-infested barrows and cavernous ice caves that you’re probably already a little tired of. There’s a wealth of new quest content, much of it enjoyable, with plenty of cool new weapons and armour to get hold of, but it’s a shame that much of the gameplay itself is recycled. Quests still typically involve you marching into a cave and slaughtering everybody in it, with a few honourable exceptions, such as a visit to a sunken Dwarven city whose ancient creators made the ill-advised decision to base their entire energy infrastructure on the correct placement of a variety of brightly coloured cubes. The much vaunted dragon-riding mechanic certainly looks impressive, but in practise it feels more like a slightly clunky mod than a fully integrated feature. You can tell your dragon mount where to fly but you can’t directly control it, and above a certain level your dragon’s fire breath attacks become pretty useless.
Bethesda have always struggled to really get the physicality of melee combat down properly, and fights in Dragonborn still generally come down to awkwardly wiping your sword against an enemy until he falls over. This was already beginning to wear thin by the end of the main campaign, and other than a few new magic powers and dragon shouts Dragonborn adds little to the established formula. It should be pointed out that magic-wielding characters will find much more to play around with. Wannabe Gandalfs get some cool new creature summons and the ability to paralyze enemies with clumps of ash, while melee brutes earn little more than a few new weapon skins. Stealthy assassin types like my intrepid wood elf, meanwhile, are rewarded with precisely sod-all cubed.
The expansion is most successful when it attempts something new. Get hold of a daedric Black Book, and you’ll find yourself transported to the realm of the god Hermaeus Mora, a wonderfully bizarre Lovecraft-inspired vista replete with bizarre monsters, grasping black tentacles and towering stacks of ancient tomes. Visually, it’s one of the best things Bethesda have created in this console generation. Gameplay-wise, though, they don’t seem to know quite how best to utilise the setting. After your third or fourth outing you’ll be pretty tired of opening gates and swinging around on rotating plants, although to Dragonborn‘s credit it doesn’t force you to trudge around to the point where it gets obnoxious.
This new dimension is where your adversary Miraak the Dragon Priest resides. He’s basically the ‘Evil Spock’ version of you, a Dragonborn who’s chosen to use his powers for villainy. Unless you used your powers for evil like I did, in which case he’s basically just like you. He’s a decent enough antagonist, but you never really feel a pressing need to take him down because you’re never made to care about any of the people he’s threatening. Storylines in the Elder Scrolls games have always suffered from a sense of detachment, mainly due to the tendency to have every single line of plot exposition delivered to you by a static NPC in the manner of an dead-eyed accountant reading a thousand-page tax statement. Here you’re briefly introduced to a succession of people who hold the next secret to defeating Miraak, and then immediately sent on to the next dungeon. Major plot points are almost hilariously awkward in their delivery. It has always been thus with Bethesda’s open-world games, but as Dragonborn is slightly more focused on story than previous expansions, it feels more glaring here.
I’ve been moaning a lot about how there hasn’t been much innovation in Dragonborn like the miserable curmudgeon that I am, but for many people the sheer amount of new content will be reason enough to give this new expansion a try. You can’t fault Bethesda in the value for money stakes when there’s tens of hours of new content for those looking for more Skyrim adventuring. After completing the main campaign and several side-quests there were still plenty of others left in my journal to be getting on with. The appeal of Dragonborn will largely come down to how tired you are with Skyrim‘s core mechanics. It’s a massive chunk of more of the same, basically. If that’s what you’re looking for you’ll be more than satisfied, but lapsed players shouldn’t expect anything intriguing enough to drag them back in.