Building your own home out in the boonies has been something that I’ve wanted since TES: Oblivion. That’s why I was pretty stoked to see just that in Bethesda’s Games Jam video. Annoying music notwithstanding, the video showed off some cool additions. Several of them have already been implemented in updates (mounted combat, Kinect support) and DLC (vampire lord, lycanthropy perks). Hearthfire’s home building adds yet another.

While I am aware of the situation with Skyrim DLC on the PS3 and the concerns it and the release of Hearthfire have raised, I will opt to forgo that discussion and talk about the DLC within its own merits.

I’m not going to bother you with exhaustive detail… the various wikis are continually updating with anything you could possibly need to know. For the low-down, just check out the official blurb:

“With this official add-on to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can purchase land and build your own home from the ground up – from a simple one-room cottage to a sprawling compound complete with an armory, alchemy laboratory, stable, garden, and more. Use all-new tools like the drafting table and carpenter’s workbench to transform quarried stone, clay, and sawn logs into structures and furnishings. Even transform your house into a home by adopting children.”

Can I build my house out of dragon bones? ‘Cause I’ve got a lot of those…

If it hasn’t already been made clear, this add-on gives the Dragonborn the opportunity to purchase land to build a home and adopt children. Hearthfire begins with a courier delivering a letter about child adoption. Subsequently talking to the woman at the Honorhall Orphanage in Riften will prompt you to state your occupation. You can choose from ‘Dragonborn’, ‘Thief’, ‘Assassin’, or ‘Adventurer’ (mages need not apply). Of course, choosing thief or assassin will make her question your seriousness. If she’s satisfied with your lifestyle choices, you’ll then be informed that you must own a home that is equipped for a child before you can adopt.

That’s where the land comes in. There’s no clear indication that there’s land for sale, aside from a letter from one of the jarls that doesn’t always get delivered. You can stake your claim in Hjaalmarch (Morthal), Falkreath, and The Pale (Dawnstar) and start building. Aside from an initial investment of 5,000 gold, you might need to be thane in that hold or at least do a few quests for the jarl — the requirements aren’t always clear.

Once you’ve purchased your land, you can begin constructing your house using the new drafting board and carpenter’s bench. Enough materials to build the first stage are provided in a chest at the work area. Further building materials will have to be purchased, like lumber from lumber mills, or mined, like stone and clay. Interior items can either crafted one-by-one or purchased as a package.

At first, I was expecting Hearthfire to be geared solely towards players with excess cash to spend on a fancy new home. Make no mistake, the process takes lots of time and money. However, the first portion of the home-building creates a small house that is perfectly livable, provided you add the appropriate furnishings, for a price comparable to Whiterun’s Breezehome.

All we need now is a kickin’ 80’s montage.

Should you find yourself with some excess gold, the starter home can be converted into an entrance hall once the main hall is built. It doesn’t end there. Apart from the main hall being fairly massive, with two stories and a full-size cellar to boot, you can add up to three additional wings to the house. Each wing gives you a choice between three specialized rooms, ranging from a greenhouse to a trophy room. Even without all of the additions, the sheer amount of storage that you can add through furnishings puts every other purchasable home to shame. A fully furnished house is a hoarder’s wet dream. Did I mention that one of the additions can be a storage room filled entirely with chests and containers? Not to worry, though, choosing that storage room over the alchemy tower won’t leave you without a way to mix potions. All of the crafting equipment is available in the main hall or cellar, as well. It can become a bit redundant, but at least it doesn’t force you to sacrifice functionality.

Unfortunately, your choice of additional wings is pretty much the extent to which you can customize the house. Furnishings are all pre-arranged, and the decor is non-negotiable apart from any objects that you place on shelves and in display cases. All three properties produce structurally identical houses, so the selection is based on your preference of location and scenery. The inability to preview additions or undo them, should you have a change of heart, is quite disappointing. But honestly, it’s just as well, since I’m too busy using my new-found storage space to organize my stuff by color and weight.

I’ll be honest, the prospect of adoption and family life doesn’t seem to fit with any of my characters, nor did it pique my interest as much as the rest of Hearthfire. But Bethesda put some thought into that with the addition of new orphans to some of the cities, running around barefoot, begging for gold. They’ll even tell you all about their parents… who are dead. Thanks for the guilt trip, Bethesda!

You too can sponsor a child in need for just Septims a day!

The interactions available for your children can be pretty varied and amusing, including playing hide and seek (which they are terrible at) and giving them gifts (you can give them a dagger, if you’re feeling irresponsible). But no, you can’t make them do manual labor (aside from chores), kill them, or take them as followers. But I’m sure PC player will have mods for all that and more once they get their hands on this add-on.

Adoption isn’t just for the landowning gentry, oh no! Most, if not all, of the existing homes now offer an upgrade allowing for adoption. This comes at the expense of one of your rooms, of course. But what’s the loss of your alchemy room when you could hear the pitter-patter of little feet around your collection of dragon bones and deadly weapons?

The new housecarls for each of the holds are way better. For starters, they don’t just sit in your bedroom all day, and watching you sleep at night (I’m talking to you, Lydia). They’ll even go outside from time to time to survey the land and generally look more useful than their city-dwelling counterparts. Just about any follower, including the new housecarls, can be asked to become steward of the estate. On top of being able to buy things for your new home, they do the all-important job of sitting in all of your chairs and saying random things whenever you walk by.

He can get you anything you need… except for a good skooma dealer.

There are plenty of other interesting things to do and experience besides building and adoption. There are new cooking recipes and a few home ownership and parenting situations to deal with that I haven’t really gotten into in my short time playing. I’ll say this: giants don’t make great neighbors, and it’s not because they play their music too loud.

On the performance front, Hearthfire isn’t perfect, nor is it buggy to the point of being unplayable (and that’s sort of a compliment for Bethesda). While not game-breaking, bugs like the player not receiving the letter notifying them that they can purchase land or the requirements for purchasing land and adoption can make it a bit confusing to get started. I also noticed frequent (but temporary) freezes, as well as a considerable increase in load times. Bethesda will certainly need to put out a patch to sort out these few  issues.

The knee-jerk reaction by some mouthbreathers on the internet to compare this DLC to “horsearmor lol” is woefully unjustified. Hearthfire provides plenty of non-essential goodies to a game already full of content and is worth dropping five bucks on. Besides, just about anything Bethesda could have released would have been more useful than “horse armor.”