Skyrim‘s latest DLC Dragonborn teases the chance to challenge an ancient rival, a return to Morrowind and, most tantalizing of all, the ability to tame and ride your very own dragon. While the whole process of dragon taming is severely underwhelming, what you’ll find on the island of Solstheim will be more than enough to hold your attention for a solid 20 to 30 hours of gameplay.

If you were hoping for a spiffy new dragon mount to swap out for that horse of yours, you’re going to be disappointed. Although you can bend them to your will and convince them to allow you to mount them, you can’t actually direct the dragon’s flight path except to fast travel from one location to another. Otherwise, it’ll just sort of circle around the area, giving you the option to toggle between nearby targets and command the dragon to attack them on your behalf. Once you dismount, the relationship begins to dissolve. The dragon will fly around in the air for a little while waiting for you to call it back down and then go back to whatever it was doing before, presumably sleeping on a mountaintop somewhere and waiting to ambush unwary travelers. Not only does this lack of creative input make the act of dragon riding itself boring, it seems to undermine the excitement of interacting with dragons in general.

Dragon riding aside, there’s still plenty of interesting stuff in this slice of Morrowind to rediscover while you search for the strange, new anti-Dovahkiin drawing you there. There’s a good deal of land and a decent variety of questlines to explore Solstheim. As you flit from one catastrophe to another – saving various locals in distress out of the goodness of your heart or perhaps extorting them for money when the opportunity arises – you come across a large range of new and old beasties. Liquid tentacles snake up from dark waters ready to swipe you into an early grave, lumpy Ash monsters claw their way out of the earth around you and Netches glide past ethereally like gigantic floating jellyfish. After a while the journey begins to feel like a waking nightmare, and unfortunately for the people of Solstheim, that isn’t very far off from the truth.

Things on Solstheim are really bad. Biblical plague levels of bad. Every time you turn around some fresh new hell seems to crop up, and you begin to wonder how anyone on the island has managed to survive this long. Some folks are depressed, some are angry, others are resigned, and almost everyone is in some degree of deep-seated denial. No matter how wickedly you’ve chosen to spend your time in Tamriel until now, you can’t help but pity the hopelessness of the Raven Rock townspeople’s situation. All this really motivates you to want to seek out the person responsible and dish out some justice, making it all the more enjoyable when you do just that.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Okay, it’s mostly doom and gloom, but here and there you’ll have a ray of sunshine to keep your spirits up. The Rieklings for example, a blue gnomish people that speak in broken English, have an amusing assortment of side quests for you to take up, including pet sitting and a small degree of drug trafficking.

You’ll acquire a couple interesting new shouts, too, like Dragon Aspect which gives you some pretty nasty looking flame armor and builds up your physical strength. Unfortunately, this ability can only be activated once per day which severely diminishes its usefulness. You also pick up some new conjured creatures to help you along your way. The Seeker is a particularly menacing one, a ghastly miniature Cthulhu that hurls potent draining spells, phases out of visibility and projects mirrored clones of itself.

As well as all the exciting new stuff you get to explore, you’ll also be able to return to some unfinished business as you enter Hermaeus Mora’s library of forbidden knowledge. If you do manage to pass the trials he sets before you, you’ll wind up with a few new abilities to choose from including an incredibly useful one that prevents companions from taking friendly fire damage. If you’ve ever had to explain to your would-be wife why a dead body suddenly spawned in the middle of your marriage ceremony, or even just to reload from a previous game save because you accidentally burned Aela to death with a fireball, then you’ll appreciate this perk. You can now hack away with your sword indiscriminately, knowing that only your foes will feel its sting.

While it’s true that dragon taming isn’t as personal and interactive as one might hope, the really entertaining part of this DLC is the thing Elder Scrolls has always done best: the storytelling. Even in the face of unspeakable horror and impossible odds, the inhabitants of Solstheim have chosen to stay and fight for their lives, evoking strong feelings of both pity and admiration, and making them feel totally worth saving. Adding to that the host of new abilities, spells and creatures to interact with and acquire, Dragonborn is well worth your time.

Bottom Line: Dragon taming doesn’t feel very engaging, but because of the story’s depth and the host of new items and abilities, Dragonborn is still a thoroughly charming experience.

Recommendation: If you’re already invested in Skyrim and want to play the next chapter in the Dovahkiin’s story, buy this DLC. Because of the end-game content, however, this expansion probably isn’t suitable for new or fledgling Skyrim players.

[rating=4]

What our review scores mean.

Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Genre: RPG
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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