Skyrim - Dragonborn review: Miraak-ulous

The first thing I did in Solstheim was kill a cop.

I didn't want to. I was trying to steal a key to a jail cell. I didn't know what was in the cell--I just knew I wouldn't be able to open it otherwise. I guess I'm a bad thief, as the Dunmer guard immediately pulled his sword. My housecarl and I made quick work of him.

I took the key, searched the cell and found a hidden passage. There was also a bed. I hadn't slept in over a year, literally, since whenever I last played Skyrim, so I took a nap before searching that hidden passage. Bad idea: I woke up in a daze, far away from the cell, on the outskirts of the town I was visiting, dutifully hammering on a giant monolith called the Earth Stone. Something, or someone, had transported me in my sleep. The Earth Stone had been taken over by the cult of Miraak, the ancient Dragonborn turned false God who wanted me dead. I probably shouldn't have killed that cop.

Dragonborn, the third round of DLC for Skyrim, brings Solstheim into the HD era. This icy patch of land was first introduced in the Bloodmoon DLC for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. If you've played that you might remember the tribal Nord settlement of Skaal Village or the tiny Riekling race and their Bristleback boar steeds. If Skyrim is Scandinavia, then Solstheim is Greenland with dragons and snow goblins.

Your journey to Solstheim starts with two masked cultists trying to kill you in the streets of a Skyrim city. (Any city will do-these cultists know how to find you.) They talk about the original Dragonborn, some joker named Miraak, and then die quickly under your boot. A note on one of their bodies refers you to Windhelm, where a confused boat captain can be persuaded into giving you a ride to the Solstheim city of Raven Rock. After about three minutes of detective work (give or take an unnecessary cop-killing or two) you'll learn about the Temple of Miraak and the weird mind control that has drawn some of Solstheim's best and brightest into toiling endlessly on shrines to Miraak while extolling his might in unenthused, zombie-ish monotones. That's Miraak's schtick: Part history, part myth, this ancient Dragonborn warrior king is planning a return to Solstheim, bending the people's will in preparation. His first step: Take over the All-Maker stones. Step two: Kill the new Dragonborn. That's you, if you didn't remember.

Undermining Miraak's plan requires some repetitive questing. There are six of those All-Maker stones throughout Solstheim. You'll know you're at the right place if you find a dozen plebes hammering away on giant rocks while mumbling about how awesome that Miraak guy is. Hit the stone with the new Bend Will dragon shout, defeat the shambling, Lovecraftian horrors that appear, and then move on to the next stone.

Those monsters are called Lurkers, and they're basically dark-skinned giants who spit tentacles for powerful melee and range attacks. They kind of look like Blackheart from the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting games. Freeing stones from Miraak's influence grows increasingly harder, as more Lurkers pop up each time. Another new enemy type, the Seeker, resembles a shorter Lurker who floats, has tentacles on its face, and can clone itself and cast powerful spells. Remember mind flayers from Dungeons & Dragons? Then you're already familiar with Dragonborn's Seekers. Lurkers and Seekers both come in three varieties, each deadlier than the last.

It's too easy to accidentally kill NPCs in the battle after cleansing a stone, as Miraak's former thralls will join in against the monsters and regularly get in your way. There was one stone in particular that I retried several times because either my loyal companion (Lydia, always and forever) or an NPC named Ulves who serves a somewhat useful role later on kept wandering in front of my firebolts or axe swings. Stuttering is also a regular annoyance at the onset of these battles, with occasional brief pauses at inopportune moments, as if the game is wheezing under the weight of so many characters on screen at once.

There are other quests, with new settlements to discover and NPCs to interrogate. There are Black Books to decipher, the same dark treatises that perverted the arrogant Miraak from a hero into a would-be God. Each book briefly transports you to Apocrypha, the Daedric realm that Miraak currently hangs out in. These trippy excursions stand out visually from the rest of Skyrim, with craggy outcroppings and giant cathedrals floating in pea-green space, with bridges hanging in mid-air and small cyclones of eldritch tomes circling the hallways. If you can survive the onslaught of Seekers and Lurkers in Apocrypha you'll learn powerful new abilities from each Black Book. Over the course of Dragonborn you'll also learn all three words of the Bend Will shout, which lets you control all manner of man and beast, eventually even taming dragons that you can ride like flying horses. Dragonborn offers a hefty chunk of content.

Narratively, Dragonborn has a relatively tight focus. Quests will rope you in to the same dungeon crawling, temple marauding, dragon stalking, NPC talking drama you expect from an Elder Scrolls game, but every major mission is a clear-cut step on the path towards messing up Miraak's business once and for all. And that business is some of Skyrim's more effective storytelling: Miraak, an ancient Dragonborn who fell prey to the evil magic of the Black Books and was exiled to the mystic nether-world of Apocrypha, detects the rise of a new Dragonborn and tries to return to Skyrim to absorb your power, or something. It's more ancient evil mumbo jumbo, but Miraak cuts an imposing figure with his horned mask, dragon steed and psychedelic pocket dimension. He's instantly one of Skyrim's most memorable foes, and taking him down is a (very difficult) delight.

But hey, this is Skyrim. The story is secondary. Dragonbon's quests might be "go there, do that, then do it again", but there's ample room for pointless tomfoolery in this massive fantasy world. Again, I didn't have to steal that cell key. I just wanted to see what was in there. That lead to a dead cop and permanent damage to my reputation in Raven Rock, but it also to the discovery of an underground lair with hidden treasure and more than a few deadly bad guys. That sheer open-endedness will entertain you for hours even if you ignore the quests. And in that regard, Dragonborn is the best of Skyrim's DLC so far, offering a significantly more substantial update than Dawnguard or Hearthfire. It's more than reason enough to return to Skyrim.

This review is based on an Xbox Live download provided by Bethesda. Skyrim: Dragonborn is available on Xbox Live for 1600 MS Points ($20). Dragonborn is scheduled for release on PC and PS3 in 2013.

Note: Joystiq does not provide star ratings for downloadable content reviews with the understanding that the quality of the core game's experience is unchanged from the retail release to DLC add-ons; see: Skyrim review.