I've never played Morrowind, but when people rave about it—usually in sentences punctuated with faux outrage and admonishments like "How have you never played Morrowind???"—they like to play up its creative, bizarre world, a place where gods interact with mortals on a regular basis and wizards live in houses carved out of overgrown mushrooms.
Skyrim's new downloadable content, Dragonborn, takes you back to that strange land. The result is the game's best piece of DLC to date, a self-contained adventure that feels like a legitimate—and legitimately good—expansion pack.
If you're anything like me, you were probably disappointed by Skyrim's last two DLC packs, Dawnguard and Hearthfire. While Hearthfire was just a housemaking add-on, Dawnguard sold itself as a full-fledged piece of DLC—DLC that I found rather underwhelming.
Dragonborn, on the other hand, delivers on Bethesda's promises. Plunging you into Solstheim, an island located northeast of Skyrim and right on the edge of Morrowind, Dragonborn gives you a whole bunch of new stuff to play with: there's a new map, new types of weapons and armor, new dragon shouts, new cities, new enemies, and all sorts of new quests, from the mundane (find out where a wizard's assistant ran off to) to the insane (pick up a gem that turns out to contain the spirit of a goddess, who asks you to escort her to her temple and clear out the evil within).
You can also ride dragons, although that isn't nearly as cool as it seems.
More importantly, Dragonborn re-evokes that feeling of excitement, that rush of untapped whimsy that massive open-world games like Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas are so good at offering. A new map brings with it new places. New dungeons. New quests to discover and rewards to unearth. It's an explorer's wet dream.
Sadly, with a game like Skyrim—and consequently, with its Dragonborn DLC—the potential is often more exciting than the results. Unlock a particularly tough door, for example, and your only reward might be a couple wheels of cheese and a chest with some worthless armor. You might find that an enticing-looking fortress holds nothing but a bunch of generic bandits. Quests might end abruptly and unceremoniously.
The main quest's conclusion is similarly underwhelming, but in that as in all of Dragonborn, what matters is the journey, not the reward. It's the little moments of joy when you find a new location, or when you're exploring a corner of the map that nobody else would even bother exploring, only to find a hidden treasure or easter egg that you know the designers threw in just for you.
There are a few different types of dungeons to explore in Dragonborn, some better than others. While some temples and catacombs are just like every other Skyrim dungeon you've ever fought through, complete with draugr and blade traps, there are also plenty of great ancient Dwemer ruins to delve into. Some of these ruins have their own sets of puzzles—never quite Zelda depth, but they come close.
A large chunk of the main quest also takes place in a daedric realm—a plane run by one of Skyrim's many gods—that I won't describe too much, to avoid spoilers. It's pretty trippy, though, and one of my favorite parts of Dragonborn was maneuvering my way through the swirl of foul black goo and gruesome fog that makes up that bizarre world. And I haven't even mentioned the Cthulu-esque squid demons. Squid demons!
You visit this realm, by the way, as part of the main storyline, which is like all video game storylines in that you have to save the world from a terrifying evil thing. This time, the thing is Miraak, an enigmatic being that seems to want to kill you for one reason or another. Oddly enough, as you ask around Solstheim for more information, nobody seems to know who he is. Yet the name sounds peculiarly familiar to everyone. Riddles atop riddles.
This main quest—which is on par with Skyrim's best questlines in terms of quality and variety—took me roughly six hours to beat completely. There's plenty more to see and do on top of that, though. It is still Skyrim.
And since this is still Skyrim, you are probably wondering if Dragonborn is full of bugs. It is indeed. Random little glitches have become a trademark of the most recent Elder Scrolls (and Bethesda games in general) and Dragonborn follows suit. My game even locked up and froze completely once or twice. Royal pain in the ass.
But. Bugs aside, Dragonborn is a great piece of DLC. Worth playing, worth exploring, worth leaping into like you're starting Skyrim all over again. Because there's nothing quite like opening up a new map and imagining all of the adventures you're about to find there. It's a feeling that can't be beat.