Review

Skyrim: Dragonborn

Respect Your Elders

In Dragonborn, Skyrim sends its hero abroad.

By Drew Toal • December 10, 2012

The title of Dragonborn is not to be taken lightly. As the most impressive of your many accolades and awards in the open-world epic The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it means that you’re a mortal with the soul of a freakin’ dragon. To earn it, you must traverse mountains, glaciers, cities, and ancient crypts to acquire the tools you’ll need to stop an ancient dragon-god from once again subjugating your people.

But what do you do after you’ve defeated this scaly tyrant? Pack away your armor and don the comfy robes of that emperor you assassinated? Get drunk at a bar with Eorlund Gray-Mane? Design your warrior’s retirement home?

If you play the game long enough, Skyrim’s map—for all its expansive grandeur—suffers from overcrowding. Not in the way of, say, the crowds on the sidewalks of Soho (although both settings can inspire one to extreme violence), but the world map reinforces the sense that all has been discovered. The further you zoom out, the more it resembles a Viking pin cushion, a cartographic record of the days and weeks you spent neglecting your real-life family and responsibilities to take up the mantle of Dragonborn.

Skyrim: Dragonborn

So it was no surprise, when Skyrim’s first bit of of downloadable extras—Dawnguard—came out earlier this year, that it was set in the extreme northwest corner of the existing map. The vampire lord’s castle, of course, would be situated far away from polite Nord society, but the real reason for its remote location, I suspect, was that there was no other place to put it.

Bowing to geographical reality and the need for lebensraum, the latest add-on, Dragonborn, creates a new map to explore, far from the icy shoals of Skyrim. After being accosted by cultists with a mission for you—cultists in Skyrim always have a mission for you—you get boat passage to Solstheim, off the coast of Morrowind (site and namesake of Elder Scrolls III). Fans of the old game may recognize the misty alien landscape and weird mushroom houses, while a relative newcomer like me just appreciates the lack of omnipresent snow.

Soon enough, the main quest has you embroiled in a transdimensional power struggle with a guy who claims to be the first Dragonborn. Long ago he learned all of this arcane knowledge from black tomes that allowed him access to a place bordering on H.P. Lovecraft copyright infringement. (Seriously, this place is all weird green lights and tentacles.) In addition to cephalopodic horrors, this plane has mountains of books as far as the eye can see. (Gameological contributor Joe Keiser might never escape the clutches of this literary realm.) Although both you and your nemesis share a love of reading, there is room enough for only one Dragonborn in this town, and this guy isn’t ready for retirement.

Skyrim: Dragonborn

We all know how this thing is going to end. This old timer is going to prattle on about how he could have defeated the ancient god-dragon himself “if he had wanted to.” You’ll gently shove him. He’ll shove you back. Suddenly it’s all fireballs and enchanted dragon-bone battle axes and spectral warriors fighting on top of a monolithic skyscraper.

But the joy of Dragonborn isn’t this silly übermensch pissing contest, or even the new venues for unrestrained looting. (At this point, my houses back in Skyrim are filled to the gills with weapons and precious gems anyway.) It’s the sense of wonder that pervades the Elder Scrolls games. The vistas are spectacular; just standing idly by as the waves lap against the shore feels like an accomplishment. A moment of rest for the warrior-thief-mage-assassin-vampire-mercenary-homeowner-hero who never sleeps.

My favorite new feature comes from one of the aforementioned black books of dark magic. After reading the book, you’re allowed to pick from between one of three new abilities. One of these is the ability to summon a demonic butler. A butler! You can call him from whatever brimstone Downton Abbey he calls home, and he’ll carry some of your stuff so you don’t get weighed down by all the gear you falsely claimed not to want just a paragraph ago. At last, a perk worthy of being a Dragonborn.

Skyrim: Dragonborn
Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $20
Rating: M

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166 Responses to “Respect Your Elders”

  1. “…bordering on H.P. Lovecraft copyright infringement…”
    Jokes on you Toal, the copyright has expired on all Lovecraft literature, moving his work into the public domain, meaning my action-platformer, Cthulu Jumpers: Adventures in the Deep Dark, is still set for release in 2013.

  2. Andy Tuttle says:

    When is it coming to PS3? Probably never; sad face.

  3. Moonside_Malcontent says:

    Sure, you might defeat the older Dragonborn, but it’s after the fight that it gets really awkward.  He starts to cry, softly, wondering where the years have gone, how he could’ve gotten so old.  You want to put your arm around him, but it’d be weird.  What else can you offer him?  There’s no Thuum that shouts away the heartbreak of nostalgia turned bitter.  Better to just pack him off to Dovahkiin Acres Retirement Community in Windhelm.  He’ll accuse the Dunmer nurses of stealing his flawless garnets and say some unpleasant shit about how the Khajiit have all the money in the world now, but they’ll just smile and nod, smile and nod.

  4. HobbesMkii says:

    I’ve been playing Fallout: New Vegas for a while over the past couple of months, and I played Fallout 3 and Oblivion relentlessly, and I kind of heavily dislike their “most DLC whisks you away to a separate place.” I realize that this is more likely to be an engine limitation than anything else, but having that layer of separation between the DLC and the vanilla maps really erodes my desire to move between them regularly (when they’re not actively preventing me from leaving until I finish the DLC’s main questline). What I like about the main maps is the freedom to go, after receiving a quest, “meh. Screw that noise. I’ll go chase butterflies!” and then do that, but discover some dungeon that leads me in a backdoor for another quest and then go off and complete that newly discovered quest.

    • I’ve always felt that the best DLC is seamlessly integrated into the main game itself. Bioware games generally understand that. Playing the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 (which includes much of the DLC for free) it wasn’t always immediately obvious which missions were originally DLC.

      • HobbesMkii says:

        Back when DLC packs were called expansions and cost 50-75% of the vanilla game, it was rare that anything ever felt less than seamlessly integrated (except in those instances where it felt brand-new). Nowadays it’s a total crapshoot. I think the worst are the Pre-purchase bonuses where, in blatant disregard of in-game logic, you get a little notification in the first hour that there’s a chest with a bunch of stuff in it for you. 

  5. Effigy_Power says:

    I like the idea of expanding the map, as long as it doesn’t feel tacked on. Solstheim of course will look quite a lot like Skyrim just with a bunch of ‘shroomy stuff. But then Shivering Isles worked really well, was for the most part better than Oblivion even.
    I am looking forward for it, even though I can’t possibly think of any way Skyrim can infuse a bit of challenge into itself after I shredded draco-satan with 4 arrows. If they managed to do that, I’d be a bit more excited for it.

    • Moonside_Malcontent says:

       Agreed.  I’ll definitely be picking this up, and I’m excited for it.  But taking down the final boss with three or four potion-imbued slashes of my twin ebony longswords felt a touch anti-climactic.

      • Fluka says:

        Well, there’s (spoilers) THIS jerk, now, apparently? 

        Gonna get this, but damn it, it’s too late to get on PC for Mr. Fluka for Christmas.  Though…DLC for Christmas seems…slightly sad.

  6. stakkalee says:

    So here’s the most important question @AndrewToal:disqus – how’s the dragonriding mechanic?  Worth the price of admission?  Does it add anything to the game or is it simply a glorified cutscene?

    • Effigy_Power says:

      That’s a good question. If it’s too slow, it’ll be a mode of transportation nobody uses, if it’s too fast, it’ll feel like scenic teleportation. Also, is there dragon mounted combat and can we tell lizard-beast to blow some fire on our foes?

      • HobbesMkii says:

        Did anyone else find Skyrim’s horses useless except for occasionally kicking the crap out of dragons?

        • stakkalee says:

          I’m a lot more liberal with the fast-travel than some other players, so the only benefit I found to having a horse was early in the game, where I’d loot an entire bandit hideout, waddle to the cave entrance, hop on my horse and fast-travel to Whiterun to sell all that crap, but once I got to a point where I had some REAL walking-around money (and hence had less of a need to sell those Elven and Orcish armors) I never rode a horse again.  Now if the item isn’t 30:1 value-to-weight ratio I leave it on the ground like the trash it is.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          @stakkalee:disqus Horses let you fast travel while over-encumbered? I can’t believe I never figured that out.

        • Drew Toal says:

          Useless as in awesome? My old paint Shadowmere (sp?) defends me to the undeath.

        • lokimotive says:

          I haven’t played Skyrim yet, but I just want to say that Shadowmere was the best character in the entirety of Oblivion. I loved that horse.

      • Drew Toal says:

        There is, and you can, but the controls are atrocious. I mostly now just use the Bend Will shout to get dragons to quit hasslin’ me bro.

    • Bakken Hood says:

      I’d like to hear about that too.  Given that a dragon at normal flying speed can cross Skyrim east to west in less than a minute (source: some dude on the internet who mucked around with the numbers in the construction set), it seems like it would have to be a glorified cutscene.  But hey, I’m happy to be proven wrong.

    • Drew Toal says:

      Dragonriding is terrible. If you’re getting it for that, don’t.

      • Effigy_Power says:

        Nothing like having your already low expectations dashed by a man from the industry wearing a mustache.
        Next thing he’ll tell us is that our steam-train bonds are bombing and United Pacific Cod-Liver Oil Exports is floundering.

        Drew makes me think of the 18hundreds. I don’t know why.

  7. Ghosafat says:

    I want to play the latest Elder Scrolls, but I feel like I should beat the last two games first, maybe because I’m obsessive.  I’ve owned Morrowind for like a decade, but have never been able to get through it even after multiple attempts over the years.  There’s too many distracting things to do in these games, and usually around 24 hours of playtime I get frustrated that I spent so much time mostly clicking around menus!