PC and PS3 users still waiting for Skyrim's newest downloadable content, Hearthfire


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Do you like to do chores? Do you like to collect lumber and feed the chickens? Is real-life hide-and-seek just not cutting it? Would you rather organize shelves in Skyrim than clean your real room? If any of these pedestrian activities weren’t thrilling enough in real life, check out Hearthfire, the second downloadable content package for Bethesda’s Skyrim.

Hearthfire dropped on Sept. 4 only on Xbox 360, while PC and PS3 users must wait for a release date to be announced. Hearthfire allows a player to gather construction materials, build his own home, adopt children and do chores; unsurprisingly, it was tepidly received by critics and gamers alike.

In honor of the undisclosed wait for PC users, I’d like to take a few moments to consider how the pricey add-on will fit into an already booming PC-modification community. If you don’t know how to defragment your hard drive, this probably sounds like geek-squad-level jargon, but don’t fear, I promise my article will get through the basics without eclipsing nerd threat-level medium.

In case anyone missed the Skyrim commercial interrupting your prime-time sports with a Viking-type warrior battling a dragon last fall, Skyrim is an immersive, open-world game that permits players to discover a world in any order, volume, or depth they desire. Skyrim’s greatest allure is that the player’s experience is entirely driven by the direction the player chooses; its expansive world includes sweeping forests, misty mountains, populated cities, civil wars, magic colleges, meddling gods, assassin guilds, realistic wildlife, and fictional creatures such as dragons.

While the preceding list may sound like we’ve already jumped into the deep end, the reality of the Skyrim experience is that the player may desire to master only a few specializations and find them wanting in depth.

However, once the eye-pleasing world is put under the magnifying glass, some parts appear a bit shoddy.

For example, mastering the ability to shoot lightning from my hands made me feel like the Emperor from Star Wars, but I felt a little cheated when the master lightning was indistinguishable from the beginner lightning. I started to find blurry graphics, chunky water, limited sword animations, generic enemies, and formulaic dialogue everywhere I looked.

Why can I craft my own bow but only buy the arrows? I could feel the first sentences of a politely worded hate letter for Bethesda forming in my head when I stumbled upon the PC-modification community where I could download any change I wanted.

Unlike console games such as the Xbox and PlayStation which are offered as-is, the modification community is an online group founded upon the principle that any game player should be permitted to modify the game to her or his playing preferences. It’s fairly easy to understand why this is something any gamer desires — there is a finite amount of time and resources that a game developer can use to design a game, but given the right tools, players can continue to supplement the game forever.

In some cases the modifications are functional fixes Bethesda (probably) should have done before the release, such as fixing glitches, adding customization options for crafting items, and improving the inventory interface.

Other times, the modifications are flourishes to the original flavor (aptly dubbed “vanilla” for plainness) of Skyrim and spice up the game with more colorful flora, diverse fauna, detailed clothing, and organic animal movements.

Personally, I’m a sucker for the freshly designed armors and aesthetically positioned player homes, and I may have even drooled a little when I found a modification for vibrantly colored dragons to supplement the original dark green.

As an ethic, the modification community attempts to preserve the integrity of the game’s setting, but this doesn’t always happen. It’s possible to encounter modifications that will give you a light saber and a flying spaceship, but they don’t constitute the bulk of what’s available.

The existence of the modification community complicates Bethesda’s relationship with charging for downloadable content. Many of the functions included in the Hearthfire downloadable content, such as constructing a home or adopting children, already exist on the Internet in rudimentary forms and can be downloaded for free.

Obviously, Bethesda’s downloadable content will pack the punch of paid professionals, so it’s unlikely it will ever be rendered irrelevant by amateur designers.

Bethesda responded to online demand for custom player housing with Hearthfire by providing the ability to buy land and construct a house by hand. Its responsiveness to feedback is greatly appreciated, but I fear the adjustment is only going to get players halfway to happiness.

It seems likely Bethesda will shackle the new features with strict limitations on how large the land and houses can be, as well as where. I’ll remain optimistic about the capabilities of the Hearthfire downloadable content until I actually encounter any barriers when it’s released on PC, but even if barriers exist in substantial quantity, I’m confident it will only be a few weeks before a modification surfaces allowing me to build suburbs or skyscrapers.

While the scope of the content is more modest than Dawnguard, the previous downloadable content, Hearthfire will still be hotly anticipated by the PC gamers despite many of its features being already available for free at www.skyrim.nexusmods.com.

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