More than a year on from release, enormous roleplaying game Skyrim doesn't seem in any danger of going away. It's achieved this despite having so far lacked any truly meaty expansions or DLC - the add-ons so far have been on the piecemeal and awkward side. Dragonborn, however, promises to be the real deal. Within this fat (and also expensive) expansion is a large new area to explore, new powers, a new arch-enemy and a return to one of The Elder Scrolls' most beloved settings.
Any long-term Elder Scrolls fan will scoff and then hark on about Morrowind if they hear someone opine about how much they love Skyrim. The third in the series was both the weirdest and the most open, and there's a general sentiment that freedom and creativity has been sacrificed in favour of gloss in subsequent games. Dragonborn revisits Solstheim, a sizeable island in the province of Morrowind, and while it retains the snow and rocky mountains of Skyrim, it also offers far stranger fare.
Towns built within the shells of long-dead giant crustaceans, a volcano forever belching smoke off in the horizon, clusters of tower block-sized mushrooms... It's more unhinged and fantastical than Skyrim's Scandinavia-inspired environments are, and it makes a big, welcome difference.
Dragonborn is also home to a healthy clutch of side-quests, unlike its rather limp predecessor Dawnguard. This means it's at its best when you're bimbling around exploring, talking to people and wandering into sinister caves at random - as opposed to just blindly following a core storyline. Dragonborn has an overarching campaign too, but like vanilla Skyrim this is something you might fall in and out of because you're being happily distracted by whatever you stumble into on your travels.
Its main campaign is a mixed bag. On the hand it offers some amazing and inventive locales - most notably an other-worldly realm of malevolent books and Lovecraftian monsters - but on the other its central promise, your facing off against a rival 'Dragonborn', turns out to be a wash-out. After a big build-up and constant threat that you're up against a menace this world has never seen the likes of, you're expecting a titanic fight against a guy who can ride dragons and batter you with the fearsome Shouts you too have command of. Only he turns out to be just another dude with lots of health and a few spells, to be defeated by smacking him with a sword a few times. Oh well.
Similar disappoint comes from Dragonborn's headline feature, your getting to ride and control the mighty dragons which fly the skies of Skyrim. Once you gain the power to do this, you find that you can barely control dragons after all: they basically fly in circles by themselves, and can launch awkward, weirdly ineffectual attacks on enemies on the ground if you request it. That's about it. It's awkward and underwhelming, a far cry from the power trip it could have been. No doubt the mod community will do amazing things with the PC version of Dragonborn, but it's a shame to have to rely on that.
Nonetheless, Dragonborn is a mighty expansion, simply because it offers more of what Skyrim did best, but in a new, weirder setting. Often it seems as though the game's artists are being allowed to cut loose, resulting in something refreshingly oddball, and spectacular with it.
Unusually for latter-day Elder Scrolls, there are also some memorable and engaging characters, people it's a pleasure to chat to rather than have to fight the urge to skip through their bland conversation. The dragon stuff might be a let-down, but that aside Dragonborn's an essential expansion for Skyrim.