Dawnguard, whilst being an excellent piece of downloadable content that brought a lot of extra content to the world of Skyrim, was no Shivering Isles or Bloodmoon. Dragonborn is more comparable to those previous grand expansions, and even emulates Bloodmoon by bringing the Dragonborn hero to the Morrowind island of Solstheim! The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dragonborn brings a tonne of content to Skyrim, and greatly improves the Skyrim experience in virtually every way.
The Dragonborn quest line starts with an assassination attempt on your life by a group of crazed cultists who are trying to resurrect their saviour at your expense. Said saviour is a much more powerful Dragonborn, known as Miraak, who has been trapped in hell by Hermaeus Mora and wants back out. Your travels immediately take you to the Morrowind island of Solstheim and the daedric realm of Apocrypha, which is a Lovecraftian nightmare populated by squid men, black seas, and angry tentacles that are all trying to kill you. Getting to Solstheim is easy - all you have to do is visit one of the sailors in Windhelm and he'll ferry you to the island of Solstheim. As soon as you get off the boat, it's clear that you're not in Skyrim anymore. Morrowind's dunme architecture and landscapes are much more organic than the medieval fantasy that made up Skyrim, and it shows. Sweeping round buildings, crystalline clfffs, and towns made of giant mushrooms is commonplace in Morrowind, and it really gives the island of Solstheim an appropriately foreign feel that helps make this feel different yet similar. Even the sky's nighttime borealis is grungier and grosser in Solstheim than it is in Skyrim.
Enemies have changed greatly in Solstheim compared to Skyrim. Some are a real pain, like the hulking draugr. The ash spawn are able to throw fireballs and have immense physical attack and are made up of an anthropomorphic ball of resurrected ash. Reavers and pirates replace the more common bandits and forsworn. Betentacled beasts known as Netch are also out to get you. There are also modifications on existing enemies, like the albino or flame-borne arachnids that are much creepier looking than they sound and are surprisingly deadly if you're not careful. Everything about Solstheim feels foreign and scary, and it works remarkably well, given the theme of the expansion. However, none of the enemies are creepier or more effective than the cultists themselves.
It turns out that the cult that tried to kill you has been setting up shop in Solstheim and are erecting temples and monuments to the inevitable return of their leader, Miraak. Miraak has been trapped in Apocrypha for a very long time, so you have to find various black books to transport you to the realm so you can acquire new dragonborn powers and abilities, culminating in an epic showdown between the two of you. As it turns out, dragon shouting isn't the only thing the dragonborn can do, as the prizes at the end of the black book puzzles unlock a bunch of new abilities and perks that make you even more valuable and deadly. I never really thought that the puzzles in Skyrim were all that impressive, but the combination of level design and originality makes the puzzles in Dragonborn feel fresh and interesting.
One of the new perks will take your Unrelenting Force shout disintegrate enemies, while another will allow you to summon a draemora butler to carry stuff for you at any time. As well as extra perks, there are also some brand new shouts - one powers up all of your stats to make you a super dragonborn for a period of time, while another forces dragons to bend to your will, allowing you to hop on and ride them! Sadly, even though the dragon riding mechanic was arguably one of the most anticipated features of this DLC, I'll warn you to temper your excitement. The controls are barely functional and the combat is terribly awkward, not to mention the fact that you can't go up and go down at will; the dragon basically does whatever it wants while you're on it.
Every aspect of the main quest line revolves around the theme of growing stronger and combating the forces that control fate. Every single one of the half dozen or so quests and each of the black books you unlock will lead to an upgrade or new perk. That said, the main quest only lasts about 5 hours or so, making it the shortest quest line in the game. On the surface this makes it a little disappointing when you compare it to the lengthy Dawnguard story, but Dragonborn makes up for its short quest line by giving you access to tonnes of extra content. Since the expansion takes place on Solstheim, which has its own culture, history, and cities, there are enough side quests and people to interact with to keep you busy for over a dozen hours, should you wish to. One quest line in particular is even longer than the Miraak and Hermaeus Mora plot and really gives the land a sense of depth and heart by expanding on the dunmer presence in Solstheim. This is more like what you'd expect from a $20 Skyrim expansion pack: a reasonably good main quest and lots of fleshed out bonus content to really keep you busy. Only a small portion of the radiant quests really feel like filler - almost every quest is substantial.
There are also new crafting materials and recipes, more alchemy ingredients, new items, and new weapon and armor types. Dragonborn is a great expansion to an already great game, but it really functions better as an improvement on the overall experience rather than as its own self-contained game, since it's about the size of one of the nine holds (or perhaps slightly bigger). Playing this at the end of your Skyrim experience almost seems like a waste; if you were to start a new playthrough the bonuses offered through Dragonborn would ensure that every minute in Skyrim (and now Solstheim) would make you feel like an unstoppable badass, and in the end, isn't that why we play games?
Special thanks goes out to my brother Sam, who helped me understand the significance of many of the locales and events in Dragonborn. I'd never played Morrowind before, so this was all truly new and foreign to me.
This review is absed on an Xbox 360 version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dragonborn.