The Elder Scrolls Online: Dragonhold Review — It’s Time to Go On (Another) Dragon Hunt
Team up with a new cast of furry buds, join an ancient order, and slay some dragons in the latest DLC pack for Elder Scrolls Online.
The current state of The Elder Scrolls Online conjures a mishmash of mixed feelings from me. I’ve spent nearly 600 hours inside of Zenimax Online Studios’ massively-multiplayer interpretation of the Elder Scrolls universe over the course of three years now, beginning just after the One Tamriel update released in late 2016. I’ve now built a character that can cut through everything ESO throws at me like a hot knife through butter, and suffice to say, while I love the world and its ongoing collection of new lore and locales, new Elder Scrolls Online expansions really just fail to excite me these days.
It’s not that I don’t like the game or its seemingly endless wealth of things to do and discover. It’s just that, some fantastic quest and character writing aside, clearing a new zone always eventually boils down to the same formula.
The Elder Scrolls Online formula goes as such: You follow quest markers to the next point of interest, you click through linear dialogues with reasonably well-acted NPCs who explain how they ran afoul of yet another pack of bandits, cultists, or ne’er do wells, and then you enter conveniently circular dungeons or designated quest hubs where you fight waves of generic enemies alongside other wandering players.
Sometimes you look for clues, sometimes you solve very simple puzzles, and sometimes you get yourself mixed up with yet another group of ragtag heroes bent on thwarting the latest Tamriel-scale crisis, which, conveniently, only truly exists as a threat in the very specific story arc for the very specific zone you’re currently playing in.
The formula remains largely the same with Dragonhold, the latest DLC release which introduces the new zone of Southern Elsweyr alongside other improvements from Update 24. Given that it doesn’t stray from the formula that I’ve already said is slowing my roll, I still couldn’t help but delight in some of the best elements that set this expansion apart from the others.
The story here is pretty simple. Beset by plague, fires, general lawlessness, and now dragons, the land of Southern Elsweyr (known as Pellitine to the locals) faces a brand new threat from a cult of bad guys that wants to raise up one Really Big Bad Dragon to help them take over the world. Your old pal Sai Sahan, one of the main supporting characters you may remember from the original main story questline, has returned (with a suave new red scarf) to inform you that he’s got a lead on some pretty sweet dragon-killing gear. If that isn’t good news enough, he’ll even let you join his secret ancestral order, the Dragonguard, if you’re willing to help him recruit a crack team of dragon slayers from the scruffy ranks of the local Khajiit (a race of bipedal cats native to the land of Elsweyr, for those unfamiliar to the Elder Scrolls series).
I didn’t think the writing was as dark, dank, or urgent here as it has been in previous episodes. Instead, the cast is full of colorful characters like the boisterous ship captain Za’ji, or the minuscule clan leader Tiladi, who largely delivers backstory through comic relief and cat puns. This undertone is appropriate, given that other player characters might run into and out of your view at any time, ruining the drama.
Rather than tell a story about the end of all that is good and holy, Elder Scrolls Online: Dragonhold does its darndest to give you an upbeat dragon hunt-themed adventure set in a fresh locale. Its highest notes—both in the open world and in the main storyline—see you traversing the verdant landscape in search of powerful dragons (marked on your minimap) that drop valuable loot. That said, if this implementation of dragons didn’t excite you when they were first introduced to the game in the Elsweyr expansion earlier this year, they probably won’t excite you in Dragonhold either.
More on the zone of Southern Elsweyr itself, though. Pellitine is, by far, one of the most visually pleasing zones in the history of Elder Scrolls Online. Set in a sprawling jungle surrounding the capital city of Senchal, it uses verticality and scale to make itself seem far more dynamic and lively than one would expect in an MMO. The contrast between distant cliffs and waterfalls painted onto the horizon, dense foliage spread in all directions, and dragons flying overhead makes the region of Southern Elsweyr immediately memorable. It’s unfortunate, however, that the game still has trouble maintaining consistent framerates on medium-high settings on my gaming PC, which contains a GTX 1070, i7 6700K, and 16 gigs of RAM.
The introduction of a grappling hook crossbow and moveable puzzle blocks (that you can push onto panels to open doors in certain segments) is a clear nod to The Legend of Zelda series. These two gameplay elements are used sparingly enough in the main questline to where you won’t get sick of seeing them, and I’d say that they’re hardly used for full effect. I would have loved seeing more sequences that force you to solve environmental problems with your own wits rather than combating through waves of carbon-copy opponents, and the very short parts of the expansion where these are teased make them into compelling alternatives to standard gameplay loops.
Boasting a clean eight or so hours of fresh content, Zenimax has kept its offerings pretty concise and accessible here. There are exactly two delves (tiny soloable dungeons with at least one boss and a Skyshard waiting inside), two world bosses (open-world challenges that are meant for groups of players to tackle), and six mainline story quests. There are also a plethora of hidden side quests, which I was pleased to discover offer permanently unlockable outfit pieces and reward boxes rather than some random throwaway junk equipment, or meager gold coins, as is customary within the rest of the game.
Elder Scrolls Online: Dragonhold, while moving the needle a bit in terms of zone design, is ultimately more of the same. If you were burnt out on the game’s core progression systems and combat before, you won’t find anything revolutionary here to change your mind. But if you’re already a fan, Dragonhold is a worthy addition to the ever-growing stockpile of content that Zenimax has been baking into Elder Scrolls Online ever since it initially released its One Tamriel update. Granted, if you’re one of the few who’ve never tried it before, now is as good a time as any.