One of the most lamented expansions for a game has to be Oblivion’s Horse Armor DLC, and while it may sound strange to say it, Hearthfire will likely be remembered as Skyrim’s Horse Armor. Granted, there’s far more to Hearthfire than a largely aesthetic alteration to your steed, but given the scale of Skyrim’s previous DLC, Dawnguard, Hearthfire is at once entirely self-contained and lacking in any actual impact on your character or playthrough. If you like Minecraft, then Hearthfire will amuse you for a while, but soon its appeal fizzles out.
Following Hearthfire’s initial announcement, many drew comparisons with The Sims–yet not too long after you start to play the latest DLC for Skyrim, you realize that this simply isn’t the case. Sure, you can build yourself a home from the ground up (three in fact), but the location of these houses is always the same.
Similarly, Hearthfire gives you the option to choose which rooms to add (a trophy room or alchemy lab for instance), but you have no control over the position of furniture in those rooms. These chambers are always built on a specific side of the building, around an entrance hall and a main hall.
Hearthfire requires you to find the materials to build your house, but the materials you need are located close to the drafting table where you plan your home. You can have a follower become a steward who is responsible for buying supplies, so you don’t even have to chop wood or gather clay if you don’t want to. Once your house is built, you can hire a bard and buy a cow or a chicken, but really, once you’ve decorated your house, there’s not much more you can do with it.
Another addition to Hearthfire is the ability to adopt children. You’ll receive a letter from the Jarl of Riften – this is how Hearthfire begins – informing you of this, though in order to do so, you must have been named a thane of the hold. Once you’ve done that, you will be presented with four possible candidates for adoption (you can adopt two of them). Unlike the children in Fable, which sprout up randomly during your relationships with others and can be interacted with in many ways, children in Skyrim have a limited number of lines and actions.
Hjaalmarch, Falkreath, and The Pale are the three holds where you can buy plots for your home (each costing 5,000 gold). Yet there’s no indication that this is that case; there are no quests or map indicators to guide you. Players simply have to travel to these holds and talk to the stewards. Unlike the other holds, where houses are located in the cities, you do not have to be a thane to buy a plot.
Furthermore, Hearthfire also takes away any pride you might have gained from seeing yourself build a home for you and your family. If you have enough materials, you never need to leave the drafting board. You lay the foundation and the walls and the roof, but you have no control over where the struts go. All you’re doing is flipping through menus. Once you’re done at the drafting table, you’ll see your mansion completed behind you, but you haven’t built anything as such. You’ve simply pressed the ‘A’ button on your controller a lot.
You have no real way of stamping your identity on your home, nor do the houses match the DLC bases in Oblivion dedicated to a particular style of play, like the Thieve’s Den or the Wizard’s Tower. If you do fully flesh out your home with every upgrade and every piece of furniture, you’ll have a house far superior to any of the standard homes in Skyrim, but it doesn’t really feel like you’ve built it, and it doesn’t really feel like it’s yours.
Ultimately, one can only hope that if people remember Hearthfire at all, it will be as Skyrim’s Horse Armor. In other words, one can only hope there will be bigger and better DLC to come: DLC that will make a difference in your game and make you want to invest hours in quests and conversations. Hearthfire’s not a complete waste of time, as it does offer something for budding builders and those willing to settle down with a virtual family, but it’s no LEGO–it’s not even The Sims.
If you’re looking for some easy achievements, Hearthfire has them, but otherwise – unless you’re a very dedicated role player – you’ll likely be better off saving your Microsoft points for whatever Bethesda’s working on next.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Hearthfire by Bethesda Studios distributed by Bethesda Softworks.