"This is Morrowind, not Skyrim," said a stern-faced Dunmer named Adril Arano as he greeted my ship at the Solstheim docks. And just like that, I felt a flood of 2002-ish nostalgia despite the fact that this is actually Skyrim. More precisely, it's Dragonborn, the new (to the PC) DLC pack that expands Bethesda's already sprawling sandbox opus beyond its Nord roots.
I'm guessing that a fair few of you have played at least a portion of the game by this point, and the rest of you are probably wondering why it's being written about on an MMO site. Well, that's not a short answer, but as I'm in the habit of looking at non-MMOs that might appeal to MMO players in this column, it would be woefully incomplete without a few deep dives into The Elder Scrolls.
While Skyrim is certainly a single-player experience, you can fire up the instant messenger or voice chat app of your choice and geek out to the same alone-together RPG experience espoused by most of today's MMOs. Actually, it's not quite the same experience, it's better because you're actually the hero of Skyrim as opposed to one of 3,000 pretenders.
You do lose PvP and the MMO group dungeon experience in Skyrim, but frankly the former is no loss at all in my book. While I occasionally miss the latter, I have no problem trading it in for the series' massive, moddable open world that lets me do what I want, where I want, when I want, with very few gates and even fewer rails.
You want to craft, explore, or collect achievements? It's all there. You want housing that you build and decorate yourself? Sure thing (although to be fair, it's not on the level of the domestic systems in MMOs like Star Wars Galaxies or EverQuest II). You want a huge variety of quests, fully voiced NPCs, and an epic story? Few games, MMO or otherwise, do that stuff better than The Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim is no exception.
At any rate, Dragonborn adds a new explorable land mass to the base game, and in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, you can wander around and discover it on your own by talking to the boat captain at the Windhelm docks or by being attacked by a random group of cultists who end up giving you the DLC pack's main quest. The point here is that there are no giant MMO exclamation points or floaty gold trails to ruin your sense of belonging.
As for the content itself, Dragonborn is superior to its Dawnguard predecessor in just about every respect (Hearthfire was completely focused on player housing and a different animal entirely). There's upwards of 20 hours of content here, most of it in the form of dozens of side quests and of course the main line that brings you face to face with another Dragonborn known as Miraak. I powered through the latter in about eight hours, and at the time I felt as if I'd barely scratched the surface, seeing as there were dozens of locations left to explore, not to mention a seemingly endless stream of side quests.
You can also build a Hearthfire-powered homestead in Solstheim, and I plan to tame a few more dragons for both fun and profit. If you're an itemization freak, you can probably stretch the DLC even further, as there are tons of new armor pieces, weapons, items, and crafting options as well as ample opportunities to level your avatar.
Combat seems pretty well-balanced. I half-expected my high-level Mary Sue to cut effortlessly through hordes of enemies, but Dragonborn's NPCs are having none of that. The boar-riding Rieklings are a challenge, particularly when they come at you in packs, swarming and stampeding and generally making a mess of your spiffy new carved armor.
In terms of atmospherics, you'll be treated to a pleasing blend of new and old Elder Scrolls, as Solstheim is the same Solstheim featured in Morrowind'sBloodmoon expansion. Giant mushrooms and Dunmer abound, and there's even a lingering silt strider whose handler has a sad story or two to tell. Early in the campaign I ran across a cranky wizard living in a shroom tower who opined that I was too young to remember the Nerevarine, to which I could only smile, nod, and think to myself, dude, you have no idea.
As far as disappointments go, I'm hard-pressed to come up with more than a couple of nitpicks. Bethesda's well-earned reputation for buggy releases hasn't reared its head in my playthrough as of yet, so maybe the lengthy delay of Dragonborn's PC client was worth it. My initial load-in to the expansion area did take a ridiculously long time, though; it was so long, in fact, that I literally got up to get a cup of coffee and came back to the same slow-panning load screen five minutes later. Other than that little hiccup, though, my Solstheim vacation has been smoother than silk.
I will say that the DLC's dragon-riding mechanics leave something to be desired. They're on rails, which means I won't be haunting the skies of Tamriel quite as much I expected following the DLC's initial announcement.
I don't know whether Bethesda thinks that free-roam flight will break the progression experience or it simply wasn't a priority, but either way I'm content to wait for a corrective mod since there's so much to do in the meantime.
Ultimately, paying $19.99 for the chance to rekindle some Morrowind-flavored memories while playing through 20-plus hours of pro fantasy content is a complete no-brainer. If you're a bit burned out on MMOs but still itching for a gritty, highly immersive fantasy world to explore for weeks on end, you can't do much better than Dragonborn on the PC.
Burned out on MMOs? That's OK; there are tons of other titles out there featuring MMOish open worlds, progression, RPG mechanics, or a combination of all three. Massively's MMO Burnout turns a critical eye toward everything from AAA blockbusters to obscure indie gems, not to mention a healthy dose of the best mods.