Stoking the Hearthfire in Skyrim Without Being Stoked
by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)
Bethesda Softworks is famous for creating massive, immersive worlds that boast a myriad of relationships and interactions. The publisher is infamous for creating games that are often extremely buggy, sometimes forcing players to load a previous save from hours ago to do something that only impacts one other character in the game in a small way.
With the advent of DLC, publishers like Bethesda could offer gamers even more exposure to the intricate worlds created. Their first bit of DLC (and one of the first DLCs for Xbox 360 overall) was the notorious Horse Armor for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which was exactly as advertised. It was armor. For your horse.
Needless to say, they got their act together after that and released Shivering Isles, a massive expansion for the game that clocked in at 1 GB and set gamers back about $20. Gamers seemed to like that, which Bethesda capitalized on in subsequent DLC released for Fallout 3 and Fallout 3: New Vegas.
Which brings us to Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game was released to critical acclaim in November 2011, and since then, has seen two bits of DLC released. The first was Dawnguard at the beginning of the summer, giving gamers a chance to be a vampire. More specifically, a vampire lord. The most recent DLC released is named Hearthfire and, honestly, it’s a lot like Horse Armor.
The Elder Scrolls series has never really been about home life–getting married, having kids, building a house. That’s more in the realm of the Fable series. Elder Scrolls has always been about epic adventures where often the player is the hero tasked with saving the entire land from Big Bad X. Hearthfire gives gamers the chance to do the domestic thing though.
The DLC clocks in at a relatively light 75 MB, which again raises the age-old question (at least as old as since DLC has been released) of whether or not it was actually on the disc to begin with. That’s a debate for another day. It allows gamers the chance to buy a plot of land, build a house and then enjoy the fruits of your labors.
There are three towns where you can purchase a plot of land for 5,000 gold: Falkreath, Dawnstar and Morthal. Additionally, there are requisite quests you have to do beforehand to open up the dialogue option to buy, but generally they’re pretty insignificant and easy to knock out. They mostly involve helping the citizens of each keep or the Jarl him or herself.
Once you’ve got the land, you’re on your way! Only not quite. On site at the new plot you’ll find a Drafting Table, Chest, Carpenter’s Bench and Blacksmithing Anvil. These are the tools you’ll need to build out your new abode, starting with the drafting table and the blueprints for a Small House.
The Small House built…oh, wait, it’s likely not built. In order to build it, you need sawn lumber (which is in limited supply upon first starting), nails, hinges, fittings and locks. You’ll also need quarry stone and clay. The stone and clay are on site in deposits that are nearly impossible to find, but once found can be mined ad infinite for as much resource as you need.
The iron materials are a different story. In order to build all them, you need Iron Ingots, which you either have to have stockpiled from previous playthroughs or you have to buy from blacksmiths in certain towns. There’s a lot of back and forth to get the iron you need to create the materials.
Okay, you’ve finally got everything you need and you’re ready to go. You crank through the Small House and it’s all done in less than a minute. Essentially, you just keep mashing A to get through all the dialogue options and it’s done. You’re now ready for the next part, which is the Main Hall.
After another two step walk to the Drafting Table to add it to your todo list, you’re back at the Carpenter’s Table. You’ve gotten everything done until you can’t go any further. Stamina down? No. Enemy attack? None you can see.
Nope. You’re out of sawn logs.
This leads to a magical trip around Skyrim, trying to find mills who can sell you the logs. Thankfully, they’re delivered to your build site, so you don’t have to actually carry them back. And before you say they’re too big to carry, try the animation where your character—alone, mind you—grabs a log and throws it on the saw.
Back at the site, the Main Hall is added and now you can add wings. Wings include things such as a Library, Kitchen, Alchemy Tower, Storage Room, Armory, Bedrooms. Rooms like that. The only problem is that you have to choose what you want on the North, East and West Wings. This ends up being a problem when both the Kitchen and Bedroom are allotted to the East Wing for instance.
What will likely end up happening is that you finish the house with an Alchemy Tower, Armory and, say, Library. Your daily routine will consist of making potions, admiring collected weapons and armor and reading books. No sleep, no eating. Nowhere to raise your newly adopted children.
That’s the second part of Hearthfire: the ability to adopt. In order to adopt, you have to visit the orphanage in Riften where, after an intensive screening process that includes asking you what you do (I’m Dragonborn!) and proving you have a child’s bedroom at your house, you get to pick who you want to adopt.
That’s right. Adoption in Skyrim is like shopping for a dog. Each child has a sob story that you can listen to and then you tell the child of your choice you want to adopt them.
Living in Skyrim is hard enough for the people as is, but an orphanage is willing to give up a kid to someone who’s Dragonborn, first and foremost. They’re also likely the leader of the Dark Brotherhood, Master Thief, Harbinger of the Companions, Arch-Mage of Winterhold, vampire or werewolf, and either an Imperial or a Stormcloak. None of those raise any red flags in the parenting department?
While it is really satisfying to see your first house go up completely, it pales in comparison to the hollowness that contributed to it. I’m sure gamers would have complained if it took a player days in game time to build a house as opposed to minutes, but the entire process just feels cheapened. Yes, you can build your own house, but what about the other nine houses you’ve possibly already bought in the other keeps?
What incentive is there to uproot your in game “life” and move? If you got married, your spouse is already at the one house you spent most of your time going back to. For me, it’s Breezehome in Whiterun. Are you really going to go through the hassle of transferring everything over to one of the three new homes you have? Not really.
The achievements really hinder the enjoyment of Hearthfire and that’s what the expansion boils down to. You’re paying 400 MSP for 5 achievements, four of which involve building houses on all three plots of land and the fifth in adopting a child. There are no new quests here and nothing that blends the housebuilding into other storylines.
Bugs are there as well. On my first plot, I turned away from the Drafting Table to go mine some stone. In front of me, I see a bandit walking. He stops in front of my half-built house, sits down on the ground and then falls on his back. He died. Only I didn’t do anything.
There are some reports online that certain plots aren’t available in dialogue options, which is a constant problem with the game as a whole. You would think though that with such a small update there wouldn’t be nearly as many bugs as there are.
It’s certainly true that you don’t have to buy Hearthfire to enjoy the game as a whole. And, at only 400 MSP, it’s not the biggest ripoff on the XBL Marketplace. The fact is, though, that it feels like a half-hearted cash grab and counts as the second DLC for the game. It doesn’t really do anything to enhance your experience with the game.
What Hearthfire ends up being is a couple of hours of fetch quests until you have a house. A house that you have no attachment to and no desire to do anything with after you’ve built it. You find little joy in it. Well, except the joy you may find in watching the giants attack and kill your cow. That’s kind of fun.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars