Video Game Review: Return to ‘Skyrim’ with ‘Dragonborn’

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CHICAGO – During my younger and gainfully underemployed days, I would troll abandonware sites for free games, downloading obscure gems ad nauseum to the point where my under-powered Acer Aspire desktop PC’s four-gigabyte hard drive was brimming with some real classics (and a few stinkers). One of these was a little game called “Daggerfall,” which I downloaded on a particularly memorable Thanksgiving morning. After some jerry-rigging of an .ini file, I was off to the races — getting my first taste of the open-world questing that would soon become a mainstay of gaming’s proverbial turkey dinner. I didn’t like it very much. I bought it’s sequel “Morrowind,” believing the uptick in graphics and the franchise’s arrival on consoles would clinch the deal. Nope. I bought “Oblivion” the same day I purchased my first Xbox 360, traded it in, and bought it again about a year later. When it came to “Skyrim,” the song remained the same. For whatever reason, I couldn’t buy in. Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0
Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0

In life, with options comes indecision. In some games, this can be wonderful — “Grand Theft Auto”, “Far Cry 3”, and a bunch of other titles have brought much joy (and made oodles of money) out of giving gamers a near limitless list of distractions and activities in which to partake. “The Elder Scrolls” series has never been one of these titles for me. I dug the concepts, the ability to go anywhere and do anything, the incredible amount of content, but like a chocolate bunny bell, it rang hollow. Maybe it was the dead eyed NPCs, that even after 80 hours of content kept finding excuses to send me on samey quests involving samey combat and samey dungeons. And if you happen to know the definition of insanity, you could see why this sort of thing could drive a fella batty.

Photo credit: Bethesda

I’m also completely aware that the “Elder Scrolls” drives most gamers into frenzied, giddy passion. They invest in their character, the world they inhabit, and (somehow) the characters that live, fight, and die there. So I found one and forced her to play Skyrim with me.

Photo credit: Bethesda

Over the course of four nights we created a character, quested, leveled up, found new armor and weapons, engaged in the same quests I’d completed on my own about a year ago, and had a relative blast doing it. She yammered on about awesome moments involving Deadric demons and how giant frost trolls will kick your ass until you’re significantly leveled up, and named dragons (and dragon shouts) by name. Safe to say, she was a fan.

Which brings us to the most recent “Skyrim” DLC release, “Dragonborn” — tackled by both a cynic and a big fan. And we both pretty much agreed it was more of the same. “Dragonborn” transports you to the Dark Elf controlled Solstheim, where its citizens are being hypnotized and forced to work on giant Earth Stones. There’s a mystery to unravel and it’s up to you to figure out what the Cultist, and a mysterious character named Miraak are up to.

In a sense, it’s exciting to see new locations and architecture, and the new weapons and armor are certainly pleasing to the eye. But once you talk to your first NPC, you’ll realize there’s nothing particularly new here. Select your dialogue choice, they’ll babble on, tell you where to go, and then you’ll go there, kill some things, collect some items, rinse, and repeat. Eventually you can tame and ride dragons, but it’s sort of a cop out as you can’t actually control the path of the beast.

Photo credit: Bethesda

But if you’re a “Skyrim” fan, then, well, it’s more of the same! There’s new locations, tons of areas to explore, tons of quests, a bunch of new weapons and armor, and you can ride dragons! It’s pretty awesome. The difficulty is ramped up a touch, providing a bit more of a challenge for high-level characters, but “Skyrim”’s infamous level-scaling prevents the proceedings from being too much of a hassle if you’re past level 20 or so. If “Skyrim” is in your wheelhouse and you’ve seen and done it all, “Dragonborn” offers you (lots) more to do, and a fantastical new land to do it in.

But it won’t change minds. It didn’t change mine, and after four days of marathon “Skyrim” sessions with my friend, even she was a bit…underwhelmed by how it was essentially the same game with a change of color scheme. In a few days, surely she’d be eager to go and explore the land, explaining to me all about Solstheim and it’s secrets.

So, “Dragonborn” is more of the same. It’s not a game changer. But it’s made well and provides great value for fans of the franchise. So while it not be my cup of tea, it’s entirely possible that it’s yours.

“Dragonborn” was released as DLC for “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” on December 4, 2012. The version reviewed was for the Xbox 360. video game critic Paul Meekin

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