Skyrim DLC – The Journey So Far
There’s so much to do in the land of Skyrim, from defeating dragons and saving the world from destruction, to joining the Dark Brotherhood and offing folk for a living, exploring in vast caverns for treasure and beasties to kill, and even attempting lurid sex acts on your house companions. Fus Ro Dah-ing poor hapless bandits off the highest cliff in the land, simply for the lols, is also fun as well.. However, when all that is done, when you’ve truly sapped everything there is to be experienced in Bethesda’s huge title, what else is there to do? That’s where DLC comes in.
Over the last twelve months, a series of downloadable add-ons have been released for Skyrim, ranging from vampires to dragon riding and even house building. Their purpose was to expand on an already vast and sprawling experience that despite being the aforementioned things, still had a limit on what you could do and how much you could enjoy doing it. With the third of those add-ons having been released back in December, and the possibility for more in the near future, I’ll take a look at what Skyrim’s current DLCs did right, what they failed to do and what hopes I have from any future content Bethesda decides to grace us with.
The expansion of the Skyrim experience began back in June of last year with the release of Dawnguard. Priced somewhat steeply at 1600 Microsoft points, it brought back the concept of vampirism and expanded upon it, offering a lengthy quest that split into two parts depending on which side you chose and the much-touted ability to transform into a creature of the night.
Dawnguard, for the most part, was a moderate success. It offered a substantially long new quest that has a degree of replayability due to its branching progression, a series of new locations to explore during said quest, the previously mentioned new vampire ability, and also new weapons in the form of the Crossbow and Auriel’s Bow – a weapon that, given the right arrow type, can switch the game from day to night when fired at the sky. It was labelled an expansion pack and while that wasn’t always deserved, additions like these went a long way to fulfilling that label.
Skyrim’s first DLC expansion had a lot riding on its back. Not only was it the first offering to a widely popular title but also because the anticipation for new content for Skyrim was at an all-time high. An expansion pack that offered vampires, weapons, new locations and quests would’ve worked regardless of when it was released but Dawnguard benefited from having no predecessor to live up to, but that’s one of the few things it had going for it, unfortunately.
Dawnguard wasn’t a bad piece of DLC. I enjoyed most of the main quest, the new weapons were varied and unique additions to the arsenal and I appreciated the way the story split depending on which side you chose to fight for (even if I have yet to experience the other side!), but was it great? No, because while it succeeded in many areas, it disappointed in equally as many and while the ideas were good on paper, the execution was somewhat lacking.
One of Dawnguard’s principal faults was how its main quest didn’t really feel that interesting, at least to me. It started off with promise – and c’mon, vampires are always welcome – but it rapidly became a chore, fighting the vampires felt no different to sparring with regular enemies and the ending was abrupt and underwhelming. It may have had vampires as one of its main selling points but even that couldn’t rescue it from the murky waters it found itself in.
Also, despite the ability to become a vampire being a crucial element of the expansion pack, the end result was very disappointing. Not only did the transformation process last so long it hurt, but playing as a vampire was clumsy, awkward and gave little advantage over simply fighting sword-on-sword. As I said before, on paper it must’ve sounded like a wonderful idea and no doubt it could’ve been, but how it was ultimately implemented simply did not match the hype beforehand, and single-handedly contributed to Dawnguard not being as substantial as it had the potential to be.
On top of those faults, Dawnguard’s lack of new locations was also a strong disappointment. Yes, there were some new environments to explore but they were mostly just caves or extended homestead-type buildings. A big new map to explore (not necessarily Shivering Isles big but a decent size) would’ve helped to make the quest feel less like just another average Skyrim quest and more of something expansion worthy. Without it, Dawnguard felt like it was missing something and that something was not easily ignored.
On the whole, Skyrim’s first piece of DLC could’ve been better. The biggest things it was promising failed to have as much of an impact as they could’ve had and what was labelled as an expansion pack didn’t necessarily feel like such without significant new areas to explore. It was, however, utterly sublime when compared to the second DLC offering for Skyrim.
Released later in the year, Skyrim’s second DLC outing came in the form of Hearthfire. There were no huge areas to explore, twisting quests, new arsenal additions or putrid beasts to conquer. Hearthfire only offered the player the ability to build a house from scratch and populate it with their respective families and treasured possessions. It sounded fantastic; just what Skyrim was missing. But ideas that sound good don’t always translate well, as was the case here.
Skyrim had always catered to the players who prefer to live out their character’s lives doing mundane, everyday things, like collecting herbs, chopping wood or getting married (wives. Pssh). But while those things were present, the ability to build a home from scratch, using scavenged materials and your own bare hands, was sorely lacking. Hearthfire tried to provide an antidote to that particular problem and while in some small areas it succeeded, most of what it attempted to do just didn’t work.
For a start, being able to build a home anywhere in the land, providing it was suitable and available, would’ve been terrific. Perhaps it might’ve been a tad too ambitious to expect that but anything would’ve been better than being restricted to three, rather unimpressive areas chosen by the game. Hearthfire looked to be offering freedom; instead it was merely a disguise for its restrictive nature.
While I don’t consider myself to be a role-playing type of person when playing Skyrim, I could still appreciate the way you could do the aforementioned mundane activities and still find it enjoyable and grounded in reality. It was because of this that the process of building a house from the foundations using tools and parts you’d collected appealed greatly. Unfortunately, despite my numerous attempts to find some semblance of fun in the process, constructing a house was less fun than being strapped to a chair with your eyes held open by matchsticks while being forced to watch Nicki Minaj videos on an infinite loop.
While Hearthfire was a different kind of add-on than what people were expecting or hoping for, one of its chief problems, at least in my eyes, was that it wasn’t what people were expecting. Bethesda DLC is typically synonymous with big new areas, hours of new material and rafts of new features to warrant the term ‘expansion pack’. Hearthfire was none of that and while it was hardly of the same calibre as the infamous Horse Armor from Oblivion, it still felt like something that should’ve been in the game already rather than later on down the line, and not as DLC for a game as widely appreciated as Skyrim.
While what Hearthfire offered was mostly just disappointing and nowhere near as impactful as it could’ve been, it wasn’t all terrible. For a start, it never pretended to be an expansion pack, or to contain hours of new quests and new weapon additions. Because of that it was priced at a very modest and reasonable 400 Microsoft points that accurately reflected what it was offering, even if it was flawed.
Essentially, the only type of player who could really find some purpose for Hearthfire was the role-player. Everybody else would’ve skipped the laborious construction process and opted to just buy one of the many houses already available for less money and effort. It could’ve been a success and it could’ve added something to Skyrim that truly made a difference, but instead it was just an addition that was purely cosmetic and simply not worth the wait, to be frank.
To rectify the sour taste left by Hearthfire, Skyrim’s third slab of add-on arrived at the beginning of December with Dragonborn. Again priced at 1600 Microsoft points, it featured the Dovahkiin going up against the first Dragonborn in a large new area set off the coast of Morrowind, along with several new enemy types, weapons, abilities and quests to complete. This was the DLC Skyrim needed; this is the DLC it needs again in the future.
Easily one of Dragonborn’s biggest achievements, and certainly the most notable one, is the new land in which you play on. Featuring a volcano in the distance, lands covered in ash and even giant mushrooms, Solstheim felt totally different to the typical snow-topped mountains of Skyrim and it benefitted because of it. Because no matter how big Skyrim is, you still crave something new after a while and up until Dragonborn, there was little ‘new’ to be experienced.
On top of a terrific new playground to explore, Dragonborn also featured a main story vastly superior to that of its most comparable counterpart – Dawnguard. Engaging in battle with the first Dragonborn was played out well and as a villain he played his part with the necessary amount of threat the likes of the vampires in Dawnguard failed to provide. The main quest wasn’t as long as I would’ve liked it to have been, but it was still moderately enjoyable.
While Dawnguard suffered from feeling like just another bog-standard quest, Dragonborn was the complete opposite. The segments of the quest that took place in Solstheim were generally done well, and even with some elements of puzzle solving that weren’t so frustratingly simple. However, the true highlights came from the parts of the quest that took place inside the ‘Apocrypha’.
The aforementioned Apocrypha is home to bending corridors, floating book pages, poisonous waters and even giant tentacles that try to slap you to death. And it just worked. Not only were the moments spent there utterly exciting but there are simply no other areas in Skyrim that felt even remotely close to what the Apocrypha entailed. I mean, where else had you likely to be mauled by tentacles coming out of the ground?
Giant tentacles aside, Dragonborn also gained brownie points in how it felt like a love letter to the Morrowind fans. From the lore and feel of Solstheim to the familiar landmarks and atmosphere of Morrowind, Dragonborn felt like it was almost trying to reward the long-term fans of the series and it was easy to notice. I personally never experienced Morrowind for myself all those years ago but I know of it and how widely adored it was, and still is, and for Bethesda to give their loyal players something to appease them is one of the finest things about Dragonborn.
Despite Dragonborn being a great, substantial piece of DLC for Skyrim, it also had its low points. For instance, the main quest basically only entails a few dungeons, some of the side quests you can partake in are very tedious and uninspiring and the dragon riding – one of the most hyped new features of Dragonborn and one widely requested by players – was massively disappointing, with awkward controls and no ability to actually control the dragon’s movements. As with Dawnguard, several of Dragonborn’s biggest problems were related to its most hyped inclusions that ultimately dragged the experience down a little.
The most recent Elder Scrolls title prior to Skyrim, namely Oblivion, enjoyed a very strong post-release DLC calendar. Granted, it had its low moments with the disastrous horse armor, for example, but expansions like Shivering Isles – one of the finest DLC packs I’ve ever experienced – ultimately gave the game a terrific shelf-life. All these years later, has Skyrim enjoyed success on a scale equal to that? No, and that’s such a shame.
Dragonborn is easily the strongest DLC offering of the three currently available because it’s the only one that truly feels like an expansion pack. The others either feel a tad pointless – Hearthfire – or just full of ideas but none of them that great – Dawnguard. But even with Dragonborn’s superiority, I still feel that Bethesda haven’t truly harnessed the potential they have with Skyrim and the places they could take it, such as explaining why the Dwemer suddenly ceased to be.
If there are to be any future add-ons for Skyrim, and I sincerely hope there will be, more content along the lines of Dragonborn would be a welcome idea. I would hope that they would leave the potentially big new features, such as dragon riding, out of the equation as it’s clear the resulting implementation of them isn’t quite up to scratch, and it degrades the experience. While I would love to see content matching the sheer size and scale of Shivering Isles, I’m also realistic and understand that something like that doesn’t come around that often. But Skyrim doesn’t need its own Shivering Isles. It needs something big enough and interesting enough to differentiate from the default game. Dragonborn was a step in the right direction, and hopefully not the only step.