By Bevan McCrory
As a game studio, Bethesda Softworks is known for and can be defined by three traits: their tendency to make huge, open world role-playing games that players can quite literally get lost in, the tendency of their games being buggy as all hell in compensating for that size, and their love of nickel and diming gamers for downloadable extras. Sometimes those downloadable extras are extremely useful, and even necessary in order to fully experience the game. In the case of the new downloadable content for their most recent game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Hearthfire borrows aspects from games like The Sims and Minecraft and adds them to Skyrim in a way that is best described as elegant shoehorning. Introducing a whole lot of features that, although interesting, you really wouldn’t have realize the absence of otherwise.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is Bethesda’s latest game in a long line of masterfully crafted action-adventure RPGs (or Role Playing Games for those of you who aren’t of the nerdfully inclined). After the incredible success of their previous games such as The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, as well as Fallouts 3 and New Vegas, gaming audiences had extremely high expectations for Skyrim. Luckily, Skyrim did not disappoint, and on the first day we were blessed with a game that fulfilled two of Bethesda’s three pillars of game production: A huge, masterfully crafted open world RPG that lets you fully explore your own world, and that is buggy as all hell.
Months after the game’s release however, gamers were left in a forlorn state, wondering where the extra junk was to spend our, or in some cases, our parent’s money on. Luckily, less than a year later we were gifted with the first official add-on for Skyrim, Dawnguard. An add-on that has so few faults that I don’t need to write a fun review for it and should be purchased by any avid gamer. Now, only a month and a half after Dawnguard’s release, Bethesda has released Hearthfire and I finally have something questionable to review.
In Hearthfire you, the Player, are given the ability to purchase a plot of land in the Holds (or territories) of Skyrim that did not yet have houses for you to buy. Your new plot of land is empty save for a pile of wood, a workbench, anvil, drafting table, and a chest with a few piles of stone, clay, and iron. Also included in your home builders starter kit is a home construction manual, an item that quickly proves superfluous the moment the game starts up with a side quest telling you exactly how to build your new home. The moment you use the drafting table you are taken by the hand through in-game prompts and led on your new exciting journey in home construction. The starter chest has enough materials to build a tiny little cottage and the foundation of your first new home’s great hall.
After that short period of charity though, you are charged with going forth into the world to harvest your own materials, Minecraft style! Yeah, going on an adventure to find clay veins and stone quarries in order to build your home! I wonder where they-oh wait, they’re right here, by my workbench, five steps away. Well that sucks, at least I get to travel the world and find the other building materials! Nope, they are just sold at vendors in your local town, or at lumber mills scattered across the map. In fact, the only building materials you may be hurting for are animal skins in order to decorate your home, but even then you only have to take a tiny stroll across Skyrim in order to run into an angry bear or a slightly less angry goat. But hey, at least you get to build a unique house that is completely different from your friends’ homes! Or you might, if your friends choose a different layout from the small number of choices that exist.
Each home is required to have an entryway (formerly your small cottage) and a Great Hall. After you build your great hall, you can add another wing to the North, West, and East sides of the hall, though sadly each wing only has 3 different construction options, and these options remain the same in every single home you build, so you will likely see some redundancy in home layouts. On the bright side, if you’re a huge RPG nerd, like me, these slight misfires won’t bother you; because you will be too busy playing house and pretending your fake adopted children are actually excited to see you when you come home.
Yes, Skyrim adds a great layer of innovation by adding a flawed version of something that Fable 2 had done perfectly 3 years prior. Previously, Skyrim had already allowed players to marry another in-game adult, but the Hearthfire DLC adds the ability to adopt, and only adopt, up to two children. I point out the adoption aspect partially because it is important to note the new added feature, but mostly in order to point out Bethesda’s squeamishness when it comes to the portrayal of adult relationships, or lack thereof. Bethesda has a long history of abstaining completely from even the hinting of sexual relationships in its videogames about killing and dismembering other human beings to the point that it’s getting ridiculous.
In an attempt to not play to the lowest common denominator, Bethesda crafts worlds inhabited by children in adult bodies who rarely talk about adult emotions. In an ideal world, I would be able to start a family with my in-game spouse, either biologically or otherwise, but Bethesda forces me to adopt from a small handful of pre-rendered children. Even Fable 2, a three year old game that focused on fart jokes and your pet dog, managed to tastefully handle the concept of player created children in a way that was mature and inoffensive. Honestly, this is my biggest gripe with Hearthfire, and it’s one that most people would over look….it might just be me, but I expect a company that markets its products to adults to treat me as an adult.
Hearthfire is a tricky little piece of content. Bethesda’s DLC for previous games has been pretty hit or miss in the past, such as either the fan-freaking-tastic Broken Steel add-on for Fallout 3 or the infamously tacky horse armor of Oblivion. Despite the fact that I spent most of this review bashing on Hearthfire, I can’t help but lose myself in house construction every time I flip on the game in my Xbox 360. I would like to say I recommend this expansion, but with a warning: It takes a person with a really good imagination and a love of role-playing to enjoy this DLC. If you play the game only for the action or the achievements, you will not enjoy Hearthfire. If you, like me, create an elaborate and convoluted back story for every character you create in Skyrim, go download and play Hearthfire as soon as possible (assuming that you have an Xbox 360). There are plenty of worse ways to spend $4.99.