When Skyrim first came out, Bethesda had lofty promises for the game's downloadable content. Skyrim's DLC will feel like expansion packs, the developers assured us.
Reality has told a different story. Skyrim's first DLC, Dawnguard, was a disappointing add-on filled with boring, samey quests. The second DLC, Hearthfire, was basically Barbie's Playhouse with dragons.
Third time's a charm. I've spent a few hours with Skyrim's latest piece of DLC, Dragonborn, and what I've played so far certainly feels like an expansion pack. It could also turn out to be Skyrim's best DLC yet.
Skyrim's newest DLC—out today for Xbox 360, and early next year for PC and PS3 (yes, PS3!)—takes you to the island of Solstheim, which you may remember from one of Morrowind's expansion packs, Bloodmoon. Solstheim is full of problems, quests, cities, dungeons, and all sorts of other things to explore and fight your way through. It's also rather unusual.
See, the first thing you'll notice, once you take a boat to Raven's Rock and start poking your way through Solstheim, is that it actually feels like a new experience. There's a new map. There are strange new areas and enemies—a city of nature-worshiping Skaal is protected by a powerful wind barrier; an underground tomb's dark elf corpses turn into hideous (and deadly) Ash Spawn; little goblins called Rieklings infest watchtowers and castles all across the land. It's all very bizarre and interesting.
Entering Solstheim, for me, was sort of like starting up Skyrim from the beginning, with no knowledge of what was in store. Even though I haven't even seen everything that the original game's massive world has to offer, there's still something really exciting about dropping into a new map that's full of potential. In other words, it feels like an expansion pack.
The second thing you'll notice about Dragonborn, if you're like me and recently spent a ton of time with Dishonored, is that you will miss the Blink spell a great deal. That shit should be in everything.
But I digress. Perhaps the most common complaint about Skyrim, generally considered an excellent game, is that its world was not as magical, not as creative, not as unique as the world of Morrowind before it. Solstheim has some solutions to that problem. Yes, you'll still be battling through some dark dungeons filled with the same old traps and levers—hope you like fighting Draugr!—but there's more to see and explore. There are giant mushroom homes furnished with magical air elevators, sickening demon squid Lurkers that shoot blasts of shadowy ink at your face, strange gems that command you to bring them to nearby mountains. You know, the usual.
The main quest is fascinating, too. I won't spoil the details, but it revolves around a dude named Miraak—who may or may not be the first ever Dragonborn—and the spell he's cast upon the people of Solstheim to subconsciously turn them into his slaves. Your goal is to stop him.
"But wait," you might be saying. "It wouldn't be Skyrim without countless bugs and glitches everywhere you turn. Does Dragonborn have any of those?"
Of course! When you first load up your copy of Skyrim with Dragonborn installed, you'll be accosted by a group of cult members who want to kill you. This happened to me in Windhelm. Except they weren't very good at showing that they wanted to kill me: once our dialogue had ended, they walked around in a circle for a few seconds before finally going hostile and pulling out their fireballs.
And of course there are the goblins floating in mid-air in the middle of fights, the janky animation during one particular moment when you're switched to a third-person point of view, and all of the other little bugs that make Skyrim Skyrim.
But still, so far I'm very pleased with this piece of DLC. It might have taken a year for Skyrim to get its first real expansion pack, but this seems to be the one we've all been waiting for.
I'll have more on Dragonborn here on Kotaku as I continue to play the game today. Expect a full review soon.