The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and I didn't end our relationship on the greatest terms. After 120 hours of intermittent bliss Skyrim began to reduce its frame rate to single digits, increase its incessant load times to unbearable lengths, and crash my PlayStation 3 with alarming frequency. The game was broken. Sanctioned patches and unofficial fixes couldn't make things better and in early January I had to quit the game because it kept quitting on me.
As 2012 marched on and Microsoft's exclusivity window for Skyrim's downloadable content began to expire, I kept seeing reports that Bethesda was committed to fixing the technical relationship between Skyrim and its least popular platform. They reportedly weren't going to release Dragonborn (or Dawnguard) until they managed a stable, consumer-friendly build of the game. I was skeptical, but I had to appreciate Bethesda's earnest attempt to make it right. Imagine my reaction when I downloaded Skyrim's most recent patch, resumed my save, and discovered it crashed every time I touched water. There wasn't a word to express my level of disappointment; Skyrim still wasn't fixed, and it actually appeared to be worse.
This has little to do with Dragonborn's content but it has everything to do with Skyrim's user experience. PlayStation 3 Skyrim owners should be rightfully skeptical when Bethesda is selling additional content to a seemingly broken game. The reason this review exists and I've gone through this elongated anecdote is because, against all odds, both Skyrim and Dragonborn, on a technical level, soon worked perfectly. A member of Bethesda's community team suggested a fix involving deleting Skyrim's Game Data from all of my user accounts. After I did that and re-downloaded the latest patch, Skyrim behaved as good as new. I could even turn auto-saving back on without suffering any crashes or significant frame rate drops. I couldn't believe it; for the twelve or so hours I spent sorting through Dragonborn, it worked flawlessly.
Dragonborn, which debuted last December on Xbox360, was the second major piece of downloadable content for Skyrim. It debuted on PlayStation 3 (as did last summer's Dawnguard content) on February 12th. Unlike Dawnguard, which employed existing assets from Skyrim-proper, Dragonborn shuffles the player off to an entirely different region of Tamriel, the island of Solstheim in Morrowind. Divergent fauna and flora compliment Solstheim's gloomy, crimson aesthetic and everything from the broken down city Raven Rock and giant mushroom dwelling Tel Mithryn boasts unique assets. Solstheim's mountains default to informal snowy peaks, but on the whole most of the actual landmass feels fundamentally different from the base game. After literally hundreds of hours exploring every nook and cranny Skyrim had to offer, any change of scenery was welcomed with open arms.
Dragonborn's premise is equally attractive; after a startling revelation, the player learns he or she wasn't the first to be dragon born. Another, named Miraak, is trapped in Oblivion and subduing the inhabitants of Solstheim in order to plot his return. Solstheim, for its part, has become home to five different shrines maintaining by indoctrinate residents. The player character, too, can be transfixed by these majesty and effortlessly start to work on the shrines. Of course, you can snap out of it at any time - but such are the advantages of being dragonborn. In any case broadcasting Solstheim as an isolated territory slipping away from reality is great world building, and even without an abundance of people to talk to it feels fundamentally different from Skyrim's ominous tone.
Progression, on the other hand, feels a little too familiar. Despite its myriad of content, Dragonborn doesn't much change the status quo. You're still talking to locals, figuring out the location of a dungeon, and initiating quest chains until you've reached a resolution. This is Elder Scrolls 101, but usually its stale design is camouflaged with surreal, compulsory narrative and Dragonborn, in spite of its premise, never really cashes in on its potential. A dungeon involving fluctuation water levels, itself not a novel concept, is overly linear and devoid of any challenge. Apocrypha, the plane of Oblivion where you must hunt down Miraak, features some neat visual effects, but boils down to easy switches and straight paths. Miraak himself is a conceptually interesting antagonist (and it's equally awesome and surprising when he steals the souls of any dragons you may have slain in Solstheim) but his inevitable battle is hopelessly generic. Bethesda probably couldn't stray too far outside the lines with Dragonborn's content, but a pervasive feeling of sameness haunts Dragonborn's quest line.
The rewards you're able to pull out of Dragonborn make it worthwhile. Its selling point, the ability to ride and command dragons at your will, is undercooked - the dragon flies on rails and you're granted some vague control over what it attacks - but everything else is gravy. Black books found in Apocrypha allow you to modify some of your existing Shouts, and four brand new Shouts (including the dragon taming "Bend Will") are available. There are also new armor sets, a ton of new weapons, unique alchemy materials, and new spells for destruction, conjuration, and alteration. In nuts and bolts content Dragonborn is absolutely packed, and the usual plethora of side quests are sure to eat more of your time than Solstheim's narrative conceit. The hitch is you still have to be hungry for this content, a desire that may be tough muster for those who ended their terms with Skyrim amicably.
Dragonborn is a solid welcome back party for Skyrim's PlayStation 3 audience. For a system that once struggled to run the game competently, Dragonborn is practically a technical showpiece. The only hitch is that it requires sustained interest Skyrim, a desire that may be tough muster for those who ended their terms with the game amicably. If you're not in that crowd, or maybe you took an elongated break, it’s hard to think of a better invitation to dive back in.