Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Hearthfire Review
I don't need to tell you that the latest Elder Scrolls open world RPG, Skyrim, is the king of the console RPG castle right now, and has been since it was released last year. You know that, or at least you know slobbering fans across the Internet have been singing that chorus for months now. Shielding yourself from the outpouring of fans' love and hype is neither probable nor possible. That's what happened to me; I dove into the massive world of Skyrim after months of not-so-gentle goading to "just try it." I did, and five months later I'm still playing regularly. The first bit of Skyrim DLC, Dawnguard, was (as I said in my review) DLC done right; it wove seamlessly into the existing game, offered some new and interesting quests and even made the transformation of your character into a vampire a much more appealing road to travel (I, for one, never understood why it was made such a bad choice in the first place). The second bit of DLC, Hearthfire, takes a completely different tone, offering Skyrim residents a chance to tackle the white-knuckled action of... building a house, raising a family and even employing a full time bard? What? Hearthfire, when compared to Dawnguard and the main game, is a bit underwhelming, but also makes available some options many would argue are essential to any open-world RPG. And I'm not sure those people are wrong.
There are two main points to what the Hearthfire expansion adds to the game - home building and the option to adopt and raise a child. We will talk home building first. For the low, low price of $5,000 gold, players who purchase this expansion will be given the ability to purchase land in one of, or all three of, the game's three main cities - Dawnstar, Falkreath or Morthal. From there, players will have the option to use blueprints to build their dwellings before decorating individual rooms and adding stuff that can actually help your levels, like a garden, kitchen or alchemy area. On paper, it sounds pretty cool, but in practice it feels more limited and linear than anything else in Skyrim. Only certain types of rooms can be bought and built, and decorating them doesn't offer much choice; they can be barren or set up in one single way, with no custom placing of items. Your choices are wood box or wood box with couch, essentially.
Once the home or homes are built (three maximum, remember, and all from pre-planned setups), things get a bit more interesting. Adding an in-game spouse or housecarl is kind of neat, and moving allies in makes your new dwelling a one-stop social shop. Players can also add in a trophy room and display carved off bits of slain monsters, which is fun but offers no real gameplay reward other than "Hey, look what I killed!" If you went landlord nuts in Skyrim's main game and own a ton of property already, only the limited options presented here set your new place(s) apart from any other prebuilt structure you already own. If you had plans on using Hearthfire to construct a skyscraping spire or recreating Castle Grayskull, forget it; you'll take your three new homes and shut up.
The ability to adopt a child offers a bit more in the way of fun. Traveling to the Riften orphanage and being interviewed as an adoption candidate is silly and entertaining, as is bringing home the new child and exploring the many and varied ways to be a negligent parent. More so than building a home, adoption adds a new wrinkle to Skyrim and makes the world feel more real; it can't be all dragonslaying all the time, right? You need some downtime with your wife/husband and child to balance out the hours spent trudging across frozen wasteland in search of the next enemy to slay or chest to raid. And though the lack of options can be stifling, there is something very rewarding about constructing a home, moving in a family and then being forced to defend it from bandits or monsters every once in a while. It isn't quite a mid-century spaghetti western, with wife and daughter hollering "Comanches!" as they take up rifles in the windows of a long cabin, but it's the closest thing to it in Skyrim.
Hearthfire, though relatively inexpensive, isn't a DLC I can recommend for everyone. More casual Skyrim players (if those exist) may not enjoy the low-key vibe of this new content, and even the most civic-minded player might find the lack of real options in construction too limited to be much fun. There are players out there who will find this new set of options to be the perfect fit in their vision of Skyrim, but more, like myself, will be frustrated by the inability to create torture chambers, fortresses carved into the side of volcanoes and/or an unholy army of the night comprised of adopted, neglected and, most importantly, underfed orphans.
Final Rating: 68%. Don't plan on going all Fagin on Skyrim from behind the walls of your castle.