In my Skyrim review, I pretty much only considered the base game content. But the game does include three paid DLC packs that are fairly hit-or-miss. Instead of making my original review longer and more complicated (it's already long enough), I'll lump all the DLC reviews into this one post.
As a reminder, I am playing the PS3 version of the game, so my review applies specifically to the console version. Many (if not all) of my complaints can probably be relieved on the PC by mods. Sadly, I do not have access to mods...
Table of contents
- Hearthfire adds more meaningless time-sinks
- Stupid vampires create genuine motivation in Dawnguard
- Dragonborn hides worthwhile rewards behind an unmotivated adventure and horde of glitches
Hearthfire adds more meaningless time-sinks
The first DLC for Skyrim promised to immerse the player in the life of your character more thoroughly than before by offering you the ability to purchase property in the countryside, custom build your own home, and raise a family. It's an incredibly disappointing expansion that adds even further tedium to the game.
Homesteading to factory specifications
First and foremost, you can't really "design your own home", as the game promises. Instead, you're really just chosing between about 27 different pre-made models. Each house has three possible wings that you can add, and each wing has three mutually-exclusive rooms that you can add.
You don't have very many customization options for your "custom" home, and many rooms are mutually-exclusive.
Want a library and a kitchen?
Too bad! They're both extensions to the same wing, and therefore are mutually-exclusive.
Decided you don't want to adopt children and want to put the library on the other wing where the children's bedroom would go?
Too bad! The library isn't allowed on that side of the house.
I could maybe understand something like the garden or greenhouse needing to be placed on a specific side of the house. A greenhouse, for example, would probably need to face the sun. Which means that it should go on the south side of the house, since Skyrim's latitude would mean the sun is always south. But no, it goes on the west wing, which means it will only get direct sunlight maybe half the day.
These complaints are a little bit alleviated by the fact that many facilities can be included in the main hall or outside. You can have beds, enchanting table, alchemy table, and even a grindstone all in the main hall. So the armory, alchemist tower, enchanter tower, and bedroom are all redundant. There's also the option to build a small garden for growing a handful of alchemy or cooking herbs, so the greenhouse is sort of redundant. Smithing equipment such as a smelter and workbench can be placed either outside or in the cellar (but I never use the cellar since it requires a loading screen to access).
The only add-on room that has completely unique functionality is the kitchen. Building a kitchen in one of your Hearthfire homes is the only way to acquire the baking oven that can be used to craft baked foods (such as the magicka-fortifying dumplings that I wanted for my mage character). I don't know why I can't just build a baking oven in the main hall, since there's already a cooking pot, fireplace, and dining table there. That would have allowed my lore-obsessed mage to build the library to store his legendary book collection and have the oven necessary to bake his nutritious and magickally-delicious dumplings. But he's going to have to settle for a library and alchemical magicka potions, and all that flour I've been collecting will be for naught.
The trophy room is the only truly
customizeable room in a homestead.
On top of that, all the furnishing and decorations are pre-set. You can customize them to some degree by opting to not build or buy decorations, but each room has a pre-set collection of furniture that can be placed in it, and the placement and quantity of the items is pre-determined. The only thing that really feels customizable is the trophy room, since you get to create trophies from items in your inventory. But there's only half a dozen trophies available, and you can't remove them or replace them with a better trophy as you progress in the game and kill bigger, badder monsters.
All this adds up to diminish the feeling that I'm building my house because I can't build it the way I want it. And once you realize which rooms are redundant, there's only a few options for "optimal" houses. The kitchen and trophy rooms are pretty much a given, which only leaves you the choice of whether to build the cellar, and whether you need the extra bedroom to adopt children.
I wasn't expecting a home-buildier on the level of a Sims game, but I at least expected to have some freedom to arrange the home how I wanted. I expected to have more choices for where to place rooms, to have at least several choices for furniture sets, options for decorations sets, a small selection of "wallpapers", and so on.
Trying to place decorations on shelves is also a nightmare considering Skyrim's "pick up item" controls. You always pick up an item from the bottom, which causes it to turn upside down. If I remember correctly, Oblivion would anchor the rotation of the object based on the location of the cursor when you pick up the item, and you could rotate the item with the PS3's sixaxis function. It was clumsy, but much better than what Skyrim offers. There's also a glitch in which items stay where you dropped them from your inventory. So after dropping an item, you have to leave the building and re-enter in order to be able to place the item and save its new location. Good luck setting that Statue of Dibella on that shelf next to the bed and get it facing the right way!
Trying to place decorations is like pulling teeth.
To make matters worse, the game requires you to spend the time to collect all the building materials you need and craft the individual rooms and furniture. This is, in effect, just a massive item-collection quest! If there were more customization options, then it might be worth it, and it would all come together to give the house a real sense of being "yours". But since the houses feel like just one of several stock houses, it all just feels like a monumental waste of time that isn't much different than any of the pre-made homes that you can buy in the various cities of the base game.
I was also disappointed that you couldn't just claim land as your own. You can only buy one of a handful of pre-determined properties on the map. Even in the base game of Skyrim, I had really wished that if I cleared out a keep or dungeon, or encountered an abandoned shack, that I would be able to just claim it as my own and use it to store loot, craft items, and so forth. It would be really cool to be able to rebuild a crumbling, abandoned fort and turn it into your own personal castle. Alas, Hearthfire still doesn't let you do this. But given Bethesda's programming habits, such a feature would have been extremely difficult to implement and probably more glitch-prone than it would be worth.
Furthermore, Hearthfire also adds salt to the wounds of the asinine shopping and inventory management mechanics. It does nothing to alleviate the frustrations associated with shuffling inventory around to different shops and containers. In fact, it only highlights and exacerbates these problems by giving you whole new storage containers in properties out in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest shopkeep. I went to the trouble of buying all that smithing equipment in my house. Why do I still have to collect all the ore and weapons and walk my slow, overburdened ass across the house to smith it all? Why can't it just aggregate all the containers in the house? Lastly, I can assign my steward to buy materials for me, but I can't command him or her to sell any of my collected loot or excess materials. Ugh...
Married ... with children
The other main addition of Hearthfire is to add new interactions to your spouse and allow the player to adopt children and a pet.
Due to the static nature of Skyrim's world and the fact that your spouse is often out questing with you, you can't have children of your own (this isn't Fable). But you can adopt up to two orphaned children from the game world - but only two: you can't run your own orphanage!
The children can be given gifts of toys, food, or clothing, which will give you a temporary "gift of charity" buff similar to the "lover's embrace" buff that you get by sleeping with your spouse, and there's a chance they might bring a stray animal home and ask to keep it as a pet. But there isn't really much else that you can do with children. You can't take them questing with you or assign them to do any kind of labor (like tend your garden or take care of animals); they're really just additional decorations for your house.
There's also some new cooking ingredients, foods, and the ability to create baked goods. There still isn't any sort of cooking skill that improves cooked foods as you make more, but many of the new foods have much better benefits are much more worthwhile to create depending on your character build.
If you're going to get married and create a family, it is best to do it early. This allows you to collect the items that you need to craft the house as you play the game, and the benefits of the various rewards for having a home and family make a much greater difference earlier in the game. Unfortunately, this puts the player in a bit of a catch-22, since creating a home is expensive and time consuming, and you have to complete several quests before homesteading, marriage, and adoption options even become available.
The DLC also introduces new glitches, particularly item-placement and container bugs. These can result in items not staying where you put them or disappearing from containers and being lost forever. Certain characters and quests can also become bugged. I ran into a couple bugs with my family and homestead over the course of a single game.
In one of my games, my spouse stopped giving me Homecooked Meals. This is potentially because I was desperate for cash in order to buy something, and I sold a bunch of stuff from my food inventory (that stuff is cheap, but it adds up) - including one of Lydia's homecooked meals. In another instance, one of my adopted children's inventory bugged out and removed his clothes. So he started running around the house in his underwear with his pet mudcrab, waving his wooden sword around (not a euphamism) until I bought him some new clothes. Lastly, a dragon attacked my homestead, and I killed it. Its body fell on the homestead property, and so now it never gets reset or deleted. Every time I load up the game, the dragon carcass appears on the side of my house, and I can't move it.
Someone to come home to.
The funny thing is, I can't really decide if these sorts of bugs are truly negative, or if they might actually be positive experiences in my game. Obviously, it is annoying that one of the core benefits of marriage in the game (the homecooked meal) is no longer available to me. But on the other hand, I actually sort of see these bugs as adding a small degree of personality to the game world, my homestead, and my family. I like to imagine that Lydia discovered that I had sold the meal that she worked so hard to prepare for me, and - being somewhat vindictive - concluded that I must not like her cooking and that "he can cook his own damned food from now on." I even like to imagine that there might even have been a fight over it at some point after I assigned my character to sleep. And now I get to spend the rest of the game knowing that I upset my wife and can't live it down.
Sure, it's a bug, but these little quirks of the home and family characters do make the family feel just the slightest bit more real.
Despite my amusement with this particular collection of glitches, I still feel like Hearthfire is a big waste of time. It doesn't really do anything [deliberately] to personalize the game any more, and it just adds more tedium and whole new frustrations and glitches. If this is the kind of content you want the game to include, then I would recommend playing Fable instead. Or The Sims.
Hearthfire in a nutshell:
- Add a little bit of personal touch to the game
- Cooking feels more useful
HEARTHFIRE OVERALL SCORE: 3/10
- Customization is limited; houses feel like stock houses
- The desire to customize your house exacerbates existing item-placement glitches
- Adds new glitches, such as disappearing items and characters, and broken quests
- No new quests except the monumental time sink of "crafting" your home
Stupid vampires create genuine motivation in Dawnguard
Sometimes over the course of the game, I really wished I hadn't installed Dawnguard. This expansion fleshes out the role of vampires in Skyrim and adds a whole new quest line involving a vampire-hunting group called "Dawnguard". After installing the expansion, vampires will show up more frequently in random encounters, and they'll even attack cities and settlements until you resolve the expansion's new questline. This actually adds a certain degree of threat and motivation for the player to resolve these quests, since it's actually possible for the vampires to kill townsfolk and NPCs. This is something that the base game lacked, and which I strongly criticized it for in my review.
After installing Dawnguard, vampires will attack towns and settlements [LEFT] and appear randomly in the overworld [RIGHT] (even during broad daylight), which puts pressure on the player to resolve the Dawnguard questline.
Not sparkly, but still not vampires
So if this expansion actually addresses one of my complaints with the base game, then why do I sometimes feel like I wish I hadn't installed it? Am I a hypocrite? No. I just don't like how vampires are represented in Skyrim in general.
They vary from insanely weak and trivial to deal with, to being nigh invincible. They don't follow any of the standard rules regarding vampires: they show up in the middle of the day with no apparent ill effects, and they don't need to bite you in order to infect you with vampirism. Instead, they accomplish this with a ranged magic attack. This attack drains your HP and replenishes theirs while also inflicting you with the first stage of vampirism. This infection is trivially easy to cure, as any standard "cure disease" potion will work. But if you wait too long, the disease will evolve to its second stage, which is much harder to cure.
The problem is that being a vampire doesn't make all that much of a difference unless you go for all-out vampire lord. The benefits of normal vampirism are modest, and the drawbacks are just minor inconveniences (that can be mostly overcome with enchantments). Making the vampirism disease much more difficult to contract - maybe by requiring that the vampires perform a difficult grappling attack that can be blocked or evaded, or by requiring a vampire to feast on you while you sleep - and more strictly enforcing the typical rules of being a vampire would have made it much more interesting. But again, Bethesda plays it safe because they don't want to scare players away by forcing them to deal with the consequences of their actions (or inactions).
Feeding is incentivized by granting perks, but isn't a necessity.
And if you do decide to become a vampire lord, then you will be able to start unlocking perks in one of the expansion's two new perk trees (the second being an additional perk tree for warewolves). These perks differ from the main skill trees in that you don't have to use your valuable level points towards skills in the trees. Instead, you earn skill points in novel ways. Vampires earn points by feeding on the blood of victims (again, why isn't this the way to become a vampire?), and warewolves earn points by consuming flesh.
I really like that you don't have to spend you level points on these vampire and warewolf perks, since it doesn't feel like a punishment (in that developing your vampire powers doesn't nerf your other core skills). They also provide some incentive to actually behave like the evil creature that you are, even though it's still mostly voluntary. The game just doesn't punish the character enough for not feeding, so you don't have to if you don't want to take the risks.
The Dawnguard DLC also modified NPC attitudes towards vampires. In the base game, there was an effective feedback loop in which being shunned or attacked by townies while in the higher stages of vampirism would force the player to have to feed in order to regress the vampirism back to the lower stages, or else be constantly harassed by everyone you meet. Dawnguard removed this automatic hostility, which takes away a lot of the motivation to feed as a necessity. The only real reason that you have to feed now is to gain Vampire Lord perks - which, obviously, only apply if you went for full Vampire Lord status. If you're just a regular vampire, then all feeding does is reduce some of the penalties (which can be negated through buffs and enchantments anyway), and it actually makes you less powerful.
Around level 30, I started seeing Deathhounds and overhearing stories of vampire attacks.
This provides plenty of buffer to play the base content before motivating the player to play the DLC.
While the Dawnguard quests become available very early in the game (level 10), I don't think I noticed any ambient vampire attacks until I got to around level 30. So it wasn't until this point that the game started putting any pressure on me to do the content. This really helps to set a soft "recommended" level for the content and gives players time to explore the base game and main quest before being dragged into the DLC questlines. Aside from the limitations set by the base game's weak depiction of vampires, Dawnguard has an all-around well-thought-out design.
Serana is a well-developed companion.
Characters and quests are actually good!
Annoyances with the depiction of vampires in the game aside, the actual quests, locations, and characters added in this expansion are actually pretty cool, and I liked them a lot. Serana is a wonderful and powerful companion NPC who actually has a surprising amount of dynamism and personality in her character and behavior. The new crossbow weapons are also pretty cool! And the new quests have some really good set pieces that show a little bit of artistic flair and creativity that was lacking from the majority of the base game's quests and dungeons.
The main questline for Dawnguard isn't bad either. Some of the recruiting quests that you do if you join the Dawnguard, and the time spent in the Soul Cairn, felt a bit like filler material, but meeting Serana and accompanying her to Volkihar were engaging and entertaining quests. The questline for joining the Volkihar clan is also interesting, with all its secret allegiances and backstabbing. It exposes a seedy underside of Skyrim that you don't see in the game - possibly even seedier than the Thieve's Guild and Dark Brotherhood quest. There's even some social commentary about gang violence and drug abuse organically weaved into the questline to give the Volihar clan narrative a lot more thematic substance than most of the base game's quests.
One of my favorite additions in this DLC, however, has nothing to do with the vampire quests. It's actually a side quest involving Dwemer ruins. This quest has some fun new challenges including an actual puzzle! I know, it's like the only real puzzle in all of Skyrim! It was easy as pie, but at least it required a second's thought and the tiniest bit of creativity and intuition by the player. On top of that, the player is required to actually read through a journal in order to piece together clues as to where to go next and what to do. It actually felt like a long adventure and forced me to figure things out for myself, instead of just following objective markers through copy-pasted dungeons in a very long version of Simon Says.
Dawnguard includes a really nice quest that adds genuine (but still simple) puzzles that the player must solve.
Dawnguard in a nutshell:
- Actually provides a sense of threat that motivates the player to resolve quests
- Fun new quests with creative new challenges
- New NPCs are interesting, multi-faceted characters (with new voice actors!)
- Adds vampire and warewolf skill trees (with novel development mechanics) that don't hinder normal skill development
- Crossbows are a strong weapon for ranged characters
DAWNGUARD OVERALL SCORE: 9/10
- Doesn't fix base game's poor depiction of vampires
- Annoying random encounters
Dragonborn hides worthwhile rewards behind an unmotivated adventure and horde of glitches
The final expansion for Skyrim allows the player to travel to a small island in Morrowind called Solstheim. The ash falling from the still-erupting Red Mountain creates some new visuals in the terrain, and there's some new plants, enemies, and wildlife. The new characters have some new voice actors who speak in some new regional accents. So Solstheim does differentiate itself from the base game environment and feels like a new place.
The island is pretty small. You can walk across it in just a few minutes. There are some dungeons that add verticality to the map, and some of these dungeons also have some new visual designs that at least help limit the feeling of tedious repetition when going through dungeons. Unfortunately, the main quest's dungeons still look and play very similarly to the myriad copy-pasted dungeons in the base game's map.
The volcano and billowing smoke acts as an ubiquitous landmark that makes navigating the overworld easy.
I had considerable issues with the expansion content's difficulty balancing. I first started this questline with a level 20 character, and the first couple quests weren't that difficult. But after completing the first quest in the mine and spending some time to explore the map and do side quests, I suffered multiple deaths to very overpowered enemies. The ash spawn were very difficult for me to deal with, especially in groups of three or more. The reiklings were pretty easy to deal with, but the mounted reiklings were able to single-handedly kill both my companion and my character. Similarly, the Reavers weren't much more difficult than the Foresworn of the base game, but their leaders seemed nigh invincible.
Is there a recommended level for this content? It was unlocked after visiting the Grey Beards in High Hrothgar in the main questline for the base game, which is a very early quest. So it adds to the game's frequent problem of not giving the player much - or any - idea of how hard a particular quest or location is going to be until you're already chest-deep in it.
Difficulty balancing is a problem in Dragonborn. Most enemies are easy, but some are just ridiculously strong.
The main Dragonborn quest, on the other hand, is not that difficult. I had no problem getting through the dungeons and boss encounters with my low-level character, and my higher-level characters breezed through the questline.
Is there a reason for me to be here?
The Dragonborn DLC also doesn't have the same effect on the core game experience that Dawnguard does. There's no pressing need to ever go to Solstheim. It does kind of make up for this shortcoming by offering some very nice rewards though. Of course, you won't know what any of these rewards are until you complete the relevant quests, so they can't really provide any incentive to start the quests to begin with.
Even moreso than with the main questline of the base game, I often thought to myself while wandering Solstheim: "Why am I here, again?". Perhaps this was especially apparent since I first played the content with my low-level Thieve's Guild initiate. All the quests seemed so altruistic that I had a hard time buying into the idea of my self-serving rogue wanting anything to do with it all. I just advanced it because I wanted to play the content. I guess I could have just robbed everyone blind while they were preoccupied with hypnotically building shrines around the standing stones...
Frea is a fine NPC follower with some personality, but don't give her any of your very valuable loot or weapons.
There's a handful of new NPC followers that you can find in Solstheim. None of them are mandatory like Serena is in Dawnguard - except for Frea tagging along briefly for one quest. She wasn't nearly as helpful to have around as Serena though, and I had little interest in keeping her with me. She also seemed to have fairly low carrying capacity, so wasn't particularly helpful as a pack mule either. She did have some unique banter with some of the other NPC characters that you meet in quests though. She also thoroughly pissed me off by leaving without warning after I completed a quest, making it impossible for me to retrieve a very valuable weapon that I had given to her while she was a follower. I couldn't pickpocket her, and she's apparently marked as unkillable. Fortunately, I was able to re-recruit her after the quest was over and take my weapon back.
Silt Striders, Cthulhu cultists, and dragon riders
Dragonborn is a very good expansion in terms of developing lore. Solstheim is located in Morrowind and much of its wildlife and architecture is inspired by that game. We also learn a lot of follow-up information about the region following the events of the Morrowind game. Long-time fans of the series should get some nostalgic enjoyment by uncovering all this information and exploring these familiar-looking locations.
Are we in Morrowind now?
The primary quest also provides more scenic variety by requiring the player to visit the planes of Apocrypha, which reminded me slightly of the Oblivion Gates of Oblivion, but with more Lovecraftian influences. The enemies in these areas were exceedingly difficult to fight because they floated around and were hard to hit, but I quickly realized that I didn't actually have to fight them. The quests became trivially easy once I realized that I could just run past all the enemies and hit the buttons that unlocked the door to the next area. But at least these areas offered some interesting, abstract scenery and architecture to look at.
Not having to actually fight the majority of the creatures in Apocrypha also contributed to the confusion of the game's difficulty curve. I got the feeling that I wasn't supposed to fight these creatures directly. It was easy enough to run past them to push the buttons that take you to the next area, so that's exactly what I did unless I had a convenient opportunity to get a couple of stealth shots in with my bow. So when I got to the final chapter of the Apocrypha questline in which I had to tame the villain's dragon, I repeatedly died to the dragon's overpowered breath attack. This made me wonder if maybe I was supposed to be fighting those other creatures after all, and the fact that they were so hard was an indication that I was under-leveled. But the other quests outside of Apocrypha (like the Dwemer ruins quest) were all easy aside from the occasional confrontation with a mounted reikling.
Black Books teleport you to a Lovecraft world.
I really hated the quest that required you to explore a submerged Dwemer ruin. I generally don't like the Dwemer ruin quests to begin with (except the one in Dawnguard), and this one was particularly bad due to all the water. Put simply, the A.I. completely falls apart when it has to navigate in water. No one can fight when swimming, but NPCs and enemies maintain their combat stance, and often get stuck just swimming circles around each other. If you're lucky, you can snipe them from out of the water to end the conflict, but sometimes they end up sinking underwater and you can't shoot them. The only recourse I could find was to reload and try again. The NPC mage that followed me on this quest also had an annoying habit of using powerful magic spells that flung the enemies off of platforms and into the water where it was very hard to find them to loot their corpses. And it certainly didn't help my mood that I encountered a game-breaking bug in which that NPC absolutely would not unlock the front door for me to continue the quest. Another reload was required.
So how is the actual dragon-riding?
Well, it's pretty un-impressive. The game doesn't even bother to give you an actual tutorial on how to ride the dragons, and instead just refers you to the in-game manual (which requires you to exit back out to the main menu on the console version). So you literally take control and have no idea what to do. You don't have direct control of the dragon, and instead you give it vague "commands" that it figures out the best way to accomplish. I'm OK with this in principle. It reinforces the idea that the dragons are intelligent and autonomous - even though they behave like mindless, un-coordinated killing machines in almost all encounters.
Locking on enemy targets is handled by pressing Triangle, and ordering the dragon to actually attack that target is done by clicking L3. This is the exact opposite of how I usually expect target lock controls to work. Waiting for the dragon to circle around an attack your enemy takes time, and it's usually quicker to just kill the enemies yourself. Dragon-riding does have the advantage of allowing you to fast travel even if enemies are nearby, but you can't travel to walled cities. Fast-travelling with a dragon is pointless though, since it just goes to a load screen like regular fast-travelling, instead of just having the dragon fly the distance (with the consoles' long loading times, just flying probably would have been quicker). The dragons also fly away once dismounted (assuming something doesn't cause them to become hostile), so you can't keep one as a permanent pet and let it fly around above your Hearthfire homestead.
Stairs are for chumps!
I have one more, final, minor gripe. The early pre-release promotional material for this DLC showed screenshots of Rieklings throwing their little spears. This got me (and others) excited that the expansion would include new pole-arm weapons such as spears and halberds. After all, Dawnguard added the new weapon class of crossbows, so it wasn't unprecedented that the new expansion would also add a new weapon class. Unfortunately, only the Rieklings can use their spears as actual spears. If the player picks any up, they act only as uselessly-short-range ammunition for bows. So disappointing...
Dragonborn in a nutshell:
- New weapons, shouts, ingredients, and magic add plenty of reward for completion.
- Exotic environments and creatures add more variety to the game's art palette.
- More new voice actors with different regional accents.
DRAGONBORN OVERALL SCORE: 6/10
- Lack of reason or incentive to initiate the new quests means worthwhile rewards may remain unclaimed.
- Oddly erratic difficulty curve.
- Dragon riding is impractical and utterly disappointing.
- Multiple quests seemed bugged and could not be advanced.
- Was really hoping that pole-arms such as spears and halberds would be added.