A few blue moons ago, Bethesda announced that they were moving on to a new adventure, leaving The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim behind to work on other projects. This disappointed me, as I felt that the game had at least another add-on in it. It's not that I think the game is in any way incomplete, it just feels like they could have done more with its life cycle. I wouldn't have even minded if they supported Skyrim with little downloadable titbits like a weapon back or a unique set of armour. Unfortunately, I was left wanting more... and not in a good way.
Hearthfire was the add-on for which I was most excited, and it certainly did deliver in some aspects. I actually wrote a review for this one, so some of the points mentioned there will overlap with this critique. Overall, I felt a little disappointed as I created multiple homesteads, and realised that I was filling out a checklist and not creating my own custom home base.
As I said in my review, Hearthfire isn't so much about "what do you want to create" as it is "how far do you want to take it". The extent of the branching paths is you get one of three options exclusive to each respective wing. This is the only thing that this add-on does in the way of extending the content, as it encourages players to build multiple homesteads (preferably with different characters), but even this felt more limited than it had to be. This add-on could have provided a canvas for the player to express themselves, but everywhere you turn, there's another limitation.
Even a little bit of variation would have made Hearthfire ten times better. Choosing where to place furniture, even if it’s from a pre-determined list of spots, would have gone a long way. For example: why can’t we decide which animal head goes where? These are largely interchangeable, so why not? The trophy room lets you do this to some extent, so I felt that furniture placement to some small degree could have enhanced the experience a lot.
Why can only certain rooms be constructed in certain wings? Why not just let us choose whatever three we want the most out of the nine, and build them in whatever direction (north, east and west) we choose? This feels like another needless restriction that hinders my creativity. Why is it impossible to have an armoury and a kitchen in the same household? These small fixes would have gone a long way to give a stronger sense of agency to the player.
There are a lot of other little touches that could have made Hearthfire a more personalised piece of content. For example, why can't we name our homesteads? As far as I am aware, the name of each individual plot is never mentioned in voiced dialogue, so why not let us name them? In addition, I would have loved it if I could name my animals. Sadly, my dream of naming my three chickens Solid, Liquid, and Solidus will never come true.
Other restrictions abound with the add-ons other features. There seems to be a needless restriction on who gets to be a steward or not, which is disappointing. I was hoping for a convenient hub where I could gain access to most of my favourite followers. Instead, the stewards available are arbitrarily cherry-picked. Why can't Derpeethus or Erandur become my steward? Those are two followers I trust, and I don't see why not. In fact, just about all the followers could have been stewards, so it seems odd that the selection of available ones is so limited. The same also goes for the bards. How about this: instead of getting one unique bard per homestead, let us choose from one of the three. If there's one in particular we like, we can just choose that one and mix and match them with different homesteads.
Unlike the Oblivion plugins, every house has the same architecture, and ends up looking roughly the same inside and out once fully constructed and furnished. I was hoping for some more unique and interesting options, but as it stands, there isn't much of a difference between the different plots of land, save for the geography. The lack of branching paths undermines any sense of replay value for this add-on, as there's little reason to build another home when it's going to end up looking the same as every other homestead.
Finally, you can't talk about an Elder Scrolls game without mentioning it's myriad of bugs. Just like the rest of the game, Hearthfire is buggy. The option to make Erik my Steward didn't show up on one playthrough (he did on a different playthrough). Another annoying glitch occurs more consistently. Whenever I go to the workbench, the game keeps re-highlighting constructed items, causing some confusion as to what's been constructed and what hasn't, and robbing me of my building materials.
I think The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is better off with this add-on attached, I just regret that it wasn't as good as it could have been. This is something I feel had a lot of potential that wasn't fully realised, much like the rest of the game. Still, the option to build your own homestead is still appealing, and gives some more incentive to explore. Hearthifre provides us with more objectives to tackle, giving our adventures in the expansive world of Skyrim even more purpose. Despite it's shortcomings, I still feel this is a great value; you can certainly do lot worse for five bucks.
On a scale of Horse Armour to Shivering Isles, I give Hearthfire a Battlehorn Castle.
Surprisingly not coming out in October like every other undead-themed add-on recently, Dawnguard may actually be favourite out of the three, due to its more straight-up character-driven approach. It is still far from perfect however.
The first thing I liked about this add-on was the additional weapons and armour. In particular, I think he crossbow is an excellent addition, and is very satisfying to use. Naturally, it's perfect for vampire hunting, the very nature of which necessitates fighting at a distance. The new Vampire Lord ability is more or less has the same benefits as becoming a Werewolf, but it's a good addition regardless.
This add-on had some pretty lovely environments, but they aren't nearly on par with anything in the Shivering Isles. Dayspring Canyon, Ancestor Glade, and Forgotten Vale were pretty, but not exactly anything new. Sadly, the stupid animation for gathering bark kind of ruined the second one for me. Of course, the animation quality is all over the place in this game, but there are some noticeable improvements here, especially with Harkon and Serana.
Speaking of Serana, she was my favourite part about this DLC. In fact, she may be the best character in the entire game. After a stylish introduction, she immediately enticed me. Serana is fun, funny, interesting, and empathetic. Not only is she one of the few characters about whom I wanted to learn more, she’s one of the few followers that actually feels like an independent ally instead of a mindless drone. One thing I really like how Serana will interact with the environment instead of just standing around. Another small detail I liked was how she'll put on a hood when the sun is out. In fact, she seems more aware of her surroundings than anyone else in the game. Please Bethesda, more of this in the next game... with all the followers.
I really liked the more character-focused approach of this DLC. Isran is characterised as a stubborn albeit determined warrior, Harkon is obsessed and ruthless, Agmaer is as brave but green, Seranna is independent and idealistic, and so on. I especially appreciated the ability to characterise your character in conversation with Serana, if only a little. We should have seen more of this in the main game.
The main quest managed to hold my attention the whole way through, and actually feeds you some interesting lore titbits along the way. At first, I didn’t really appreciate the random detour with the “Touching the Sky” quest. It felt like the Pilgrimage quest from Knights of the Nine, only that a bit more sense thematically. Here, it just feels like unnecessary padding. At first glance, it felt like misdirection. However, the reveal at the end of it did a nice job of tying it back into the major conflict of the add-on. The fight with Vyrthur was pretty fun, so I can't really complain. And hey, along the way, we had some interesting interactions with Gelebor whilst uncovering some Snow Elf lore. I’d say that’s a win-win in my book.
The climax was pretty good, relatively speaking. If you joined the Dawnguard, you get to actually invade Volkihar Keep. Either way, it ends with an epic(ish) showdown with the vampric madman himself, Harkon. Much like acertain other game, the faction you choose ultimately ends with you fighting the same people, which is a shame.
There were a few mishaps that bugged me, though. First off, how can “Ulfic is the true high king” be a dialogue option when speaking with Serana for the first time if I've already completed the Imperial quest line? These are the kinds of oversights that made the civil war quest line so dull in the first place. I really didn’t like how Falion had absolutely no dialogue after I became a vampire lord. You see, in my previous misadventures, I contracted vampirism from Morvath. Eventually, I had it cured. Sadly, all of the conversation options were greyed-out when I was directed to Falion, and we ended up going through the motions of a quest we’d completed before, with no mention of it whatsoever. Oh Skyrim. Your lack of attention-to-detail never fails to amaze me.
Taken as a whole however, I walked away a lot more satisfied than most quest lines in Skyrim, though that isn't saying much. Whilst I will openly embrace any vampire anything that isn't... sparkly, Dawnguard seems pretty cut-and-dry, though enjoyable nonetheless.
On a scale of Horse Armour to Shivering Isles, I give it a Dead Money.
Dragonborn was the biggest add-on, and the one from which I expected the most. Like Skyrim, it offered a lot, but a large amount of it was disappointingly more of the same: shallow and disappointing.
Dragonborn didn't instil me with any desire to explore. Raven Rock is the only interesting location, because it’s essentially just more Skyrim. That isn't a horrible thing, but Solstheim just blends in with Skyrim. I can’t tell one apart from the other. The culture, scenery, and people are all the same. More Nords culture in an icy wasteland? Half of Solstiem feels like an extension of Skyrim, and not it’s own independent entity. I was never enthused, because it all felt like more of the same. Some of the scenery was pretty enthralling, I’ll admit, like a forest of burnt trees with a giant mushroom looming overhead and an active volcano looming overhead, touching a pink and green sky. However, there wasn't nearly enough of this. Shivering Isles felt like a vacation from bland Cyrodiil. It had a unique twist, fantastic scenery, interesting and often times hilarious characters. Dragonborn in turn borrows a lot of environments from Skyrim, and most of its more fantastic elements are adaptations from Morrowind. Solsthiem felt like a more appropriate setting for an add-on when half of the base game didn't already take place in icy wastelands.
The parts that resemble Morrowind are amazing and interesting to explore, because they actually feel like a fantasy setting. Fantasy should evoke a feeling of wonder, like I’m exploring another world. The southern half of Solstheim gets this right, Tel Mithryn in particular. Nchardak looked spectacular, even if the inside of it did look largely the same to other ruins. Apocrypha is hellish and intriguing at first, but gets old after a couple of trips. It’s nowhere near as varied as Shivering Isles. Unlike Sheogorath’s magical and enchanting world, Solstheim lacks its own identity, sharing most of Skyrim’s geography and architecture.
Like I said, I had no real desire to explore the island, and as such, I didn't do a lot of the side quests. However, the ones I did complete provided interesting and often times amusing stories. These can range from doing dirty work for Rieklings to felling hordes of Ash Spawn summoned by a crazy legionnaire. Unearthed was an fun quest that develops over time. Ralis Sedarys is hilariously conniving, and his quest serves as a good cash dump for rich players who want to spend their hard-earned coin.
The main quest was somewhat intriguing, though this owes a lot to its somewhat interesting set-up. The story starts with an interesting mystery, and after diving into an all too familiar dungeon, we’re introduced to our intimidating villain flanked by two Cthullu monsters. One thing I really like about Miraak was how he steals your dragon souls. This is a great example of utilising gameplay to motivate the player further. By making the player actually feel some sort of loss, the game and its narrative really has a chance to connect with the player. To further engage the player, he even sends a dragon hitman to try and kill you after completing “The Path of Knowledge”. That was pretty hype.
The final boss was pretty fun for an Elder Scrolls fight, but sadly it froze the first time I played. In typical Skyrim fashion, it’s attempt at an interesting set-piece falls flat when Miraak’s tentacle is clipping through the side of his arm. At least it was good for a laugh.
The loot from Miraak was cool, but the quest line itself, like the rest of Skyrim, was unsatisfying and anticlimactic. It was a series of “go here kill those” quests with no really variety to them. It was a largely underwhelming finish that didn't do much to answer the player's questions, and at the end of the day, it sort of left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Compared to Shivering Isles, this add-on is passable. This felt like Bethesda’s attempt at combining Lonesome Road and Shivering Isles, without the appeal of either. The open world doesn't interest me, and the plot is tepid at best.
On a scale of Horse Armour to Shivering Isles, I give it an Operation Anchorage.
I wanted something that felt fresh. I'm not saying the content here is regurgitated; it just doesn't differentiate itself from Skyrim as much as it should. Maybe I'm being unfair, who knows? To me however, no add-on yet has surpassed Shivering Isles in sheer creativity. That was an add-on that enthralled me from start to finish. It is the high standard for everything an expansion pack should be, and it saddens me that we never got to see anything as epic as that perfect piece of downloadable content.
Whether you like them or hate them however, these are still worthwhile additions to the base game, which is saying a lot for a developer that was willing to charge us for horse armour a few years ago.