Editor's Note: This review is based on my first six hours in Solstheim.
If you've ever played 'Skyrim' for any length of time, it should come as no surprise to you that I spent two hours playing the game before I even started my six-hour trek through the early stages of the Dragonborn DLC. Booting up my old save file and setting out for adventure with my Khajit Assassin, I immediately became consumed with a few unfinished tasks. Namely, a stat-boosting round of Alchemy and a simple delivery quest that ballooned into an epic Dwemer ruin crawl.
So, before I even got to Solstheim, I was getting a taste of that ol' Skyrim magic. And I liked it.
Getting to Solstheim is a matter of chance (kind of). There is a group of enemies known as 'Cultists' that begin searching for you once you install the Dragonborn DLC. Where they find you is more or less up to you. If you're eager to get going to Solstheim right away then I recommend staying outside, maybe taking your horse for a ride and doing the aimless exploration that gives Skyrim so much charm. Once they find you, the Cultists attack you almost immediately, and one of them carries the clue that gets you on a boat to Solstheim.
And man, Solstheim is a great place to go to.
Unlike Dawnguard that only featured some castles and lairs and a few smaller maps, the Dragonborn DLC is a fully-realized world. There's a sort of breathless excitement that runs through you when you open up a brand-new world map that is completely blank. It transports you to that magical November day last year when you were just a captive on a prison wagon who was about to be executed before a dragon showed up.
Immediately, I could tell the Dragonborn DLC was far superior to the Dawnguard and Hearthfire offerings. For me, Dawnguard felt uninspired. (Vampires and werewolves? What is this, Twilight?) And Hearthfire wasn't so much a DLC as it was a $5 360 mod. Neither added much in terms of content and story.
The Dragonborn DLC changes all that.
As soon as I get off the boat in Raven Rock I immediately start picking all the Scathecraw I can find. I'm a big fan of the alchemy skill, so discovering new plants is exciting. (This is a great resource for all you would-be alchemists out there.) The Dragonborn DLC sprinkles new ingredients like scathecraw across the landscape, and they act like curiosity breadcrumbs that send me on a trail over the river and through the woods of Solstheim, to Draugr-infested lairs we go.
After I sated my urge for herbs, I decided to talk to some of the NPCs around Raven Rock and look for adventures. Granted, the main quest picks up immediately with everyone absent-mindedly trying to recall who Miraal is, but the fun of a Skyrim DLC isn't in the waypoint-A to waypoint-B main quest. It's in moments like my run-in with Glover Mallory, local blacksmith and Thieves' guild member.
I play a Khajiit Assassin and love having a stealthy, sticky-fingered Skyrim experience. And it just so happens that the very first NPC I engage with is Glover Mallory, brother of Thieves' Guild lieutenant Devin Mallory and my first side-quest giver. He's got two jobs for me, actually, and I set off on foot.
Which brings me to one of my only significant complaint about the Dragonborn DLC so far: no horses. This absolutely sucks, especially if you've completed enough Dark Brotherhood quests to gain access to the Batmobile of Horses, Shadowmere. I thought that maybe, MAYBE this was going to mean that dragons would replace horses as the other mode of transportation, but as this YouTube video clearly shows ridable dragons aren't necessarily drivable dragons:
Transportation issues aside, The Dragonborn DLC still feels fresh and new and exploring the mountains and ash fields of Solstheim is as good as Skyrim gets. The DLC makes you feel like it's a brand-new game, and you'll probably have a noob moment or two like accidentally falling to your death or forgetting to save after crucial stuff (or both).
I won't divulge much in terms of spoilers or quest points because that'd be cheating you of the experience of discovering all these things on your own. My only other real beef with the Dragonborn DLC is the Ghost of Skyrim Bugs Past. After having been burned by a quest bug because I cleared a location in Skyrim before starting a quest (along with like four other bugs I won't go into, including one that leaves my character shooting steam out of his body) I was hesitant to explore locations in Solstheim. For example, I found and killed three hagravens in a cave before I realized each had a name. I scoured the cave for some sort of quest-y item (journal entry, family heirloom, hero's corpse, etc) but found nothing. I can only hope that the Dragonborn DLC doesn't have as many hiccups as the main game. But Skyrim being Skyrim, bugs are sort of expected. Once again, save often.
Props to Bethesda for staying true to the architecture and creature types found in the Grandfather of Skyrim, Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, which took place (in part) in the same region. Big mushroom towers with air lifts and ash-covered Dunmer camps are a nice treat for long-term fans of the franchise, and a definite break from the stark, cold buildings and dungeons of Skyrim.
Plus, the Dragonborn DLC offers plenty of "new" stuff. Rieklings, a fixture in the Morrowind game, are back. And the new Lurkers bear a suspicious resemblance to Bloodmoon's Grahl. Stahlrim items, also found in the Morrowind: Bloodmoon expansion, make a return. Chitin and Bonemold armor are back too.
I guess you could argue that Bethesda didn't necessarily create a whole new world so much as reprogrammed one for the Dragonborn DLC. I don't think this was a cheap or lazy move, however, but rather an effort to stay true to the universe of the Elder Scrolls, of which Skyrim is just one world. (And as a fan of Morrowind I am pretty stoked to see these things again.)
The Dragonborn DLC also finally gives fans SPEARS! YAY SPEARS! Those fatcat programmers at Bethesda listened to all of the forum gripes and complaints about the lack of spears in Skyrim and has finally, finally, FINALLY added them to the game. YAYYYY!
What's that? They're just like ARROWS? I feel like Bethesda maybe got a little offended by all the people telling them they don't know how to run their game and decided to stick it to 'em a little bit. Spears are just arrows, ridable dragons are basically just turrets but, despite those letdowns, the Dragonborn DLC is as good as any DLC I've played for any game and BY FAR the best one released for Skyrim to date.
If my next six hours are half as fun as my first six, then Skyrim's Dragonborn DLC was $20 well spent.