When I initially played the previous downloadable content for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, nothing seemed amiss. The handful of new areas and pieces of loot littered around the familiar landscape were what I had come to expect from DLC. But now that I've played the "Dragonborn" expansion, the others simply pale in comparison. It's more ambitious, more thematically relevant, and a perfect example of Bethesda's promise to take its time with fully-featured content.
Many of those advantages can be traced to one quality. The island of Solstheim is the star of Dragonborn, a massive new area complete with its own set of nooks and crannies, sidequests, and characters. As if that weren't enough, the DLC also adds an otherworldly environment as well, but I hesitate to go into detail about it. Dragonborn slowly lifts the veil off of this area, and it's better discovered than explained.
While Dawnguard told a decent story about the ongoing war between the vampires and their sworn enemies, it didn't feel like my story. It was a side quest. It didn't fit the themes that had been built in the main quest line. Skyrim empowered the player as a walking deity, the Dovahkiin. Venturing off to settle a vampire feud had as much to do with that as the Thieves Guild or Winterhold quests. It fit the world, but it was utterly removable. Hearthfire took a step back with even less plot, unless your dream was to serve as Daddy Warbucks to Skyrim's orphan Annie.
Dragonborn doesn't suffer from this problem. As the name implies, this story is very much about the line of Dovahkiin, and the corroding influence of power and knowledge. A prior Dragonborn is reaching out from the nether to reassert himself over lesser beings, and as the current title holder it falls on you to stop him. But doing so requires a few compromises, and dipping a toe into the same corrupted well that he's drawn from.
The arc of the story feels like a natural extension or even a sequel to the main quest in Skyrim, but it isn't wrapped up in a neat little package at the end. The expansion leaves some story hooks remaining, which I can only hope means that Bethesda has more in mind along these lines. Some of the moral quandaries are never fully plumbed, but the game seems to hint that they will be.
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The main quest takes place almost entirely in Solstheim, and the critical path serves as a lengthy tour of the island. Resolving the primary struggle will net a fair amount of loot and powers that will serve well back in Skyrim as well. Suffice to say, you'll be a much more powerful Dragonborn by the end of it, and more connected to the titular dragons to boot. And like Skyrim itself, Solstheim is absolutely packed with new areas to discover and explore, well beyond the main quest line.
Simply put, Dragonborn lives up to Bethesda's lofty promises of larger expansions, and makes Skyrim's other content look weak by comparison. Whatever the developer has planned for the future, it should attempt this one's scope. Now that I've sunk my teeth into this hearty meal, it would be hard going back to a simple snack.
Field Reports provide our first-hand experience with the latest games and expansion packs. Dragonborn was played on a retail Xbox 360 copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, with a DLC code provided by the publisher. It is coming to the PC and PlayStation 3 next year.