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So Hearthfire isn't The Sims. When you build your house you won't be placing individual walls and using your best feng shui skills to set out the furniture. It's a pretty much completely automated process, but it does allow you to leave your mark on Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's frosty landscape like never before.
The DLC weighs in at a paltry 75MB, so there are a lot of reused assets. All the 'bits' that will comprise your new home are from elsewhere in the world. But it doesn't feel like a cynical, horse armour-style rip-off, and at only 400 MSP on Xbox 360 - the only format it's available on for the foreseeable future - it won't break the bank.
But it might break the Dovahkiin's bank. The first thing you have to do is buy a plot of land. To do so, you'll have to first curry favour with one of Skyrim's Jarls. We went for Siddgeir of Falkreath, who wanted us to fetch him some Black-Briar Mead from Riften, then clear out a cave of bandits. Chances are you've already done these quests on your save.
Once Siddgeir trusts us, we hear a new line of dialogue. He says we're now allowed to purchase property in Falkreath, and that we should talk to his steward. Previously, this dialogue would only appear in cities with pre-built houses you could buy. We talk to Nenya, the steward, and she offers us a tidy little plot of land for 5,000 gold. A quest marker flashes up leading us to a new icon on the map, 'Lakeview Manor'. The land is just down the road from Riverwood, although there's no manor to be found - yet. It's up to us to build it.
It does feel pretty cool manipulating the landscape, previously only the preserve of PC gamers...
The land is empty, except for a chest, an anvil, a workbench, and a schematics table. The chest contains a decent amount of starting materials. Enough, in fact, to build the majority of our first house. At this stage we only have one schematic available: 'small wooden house'. At the workbench we use the stone provided in the chest to build the house's foundations, which is as simple as selecting them from a menu and selecting 'build'. Suddenly, the house's foundations appear on our plot of land. It does feel pretty cool manipulating the landscape; previously something only PC gamers, with the help of mods, would get to experience.
The next step is the frame. But the game doesn't provide the materials for this, and we need some timber. As Riverwood is nearby, we travel there and talk to Gerdur, owner of the lumber mill. Annoyingly, there's no dialogue option to buy wood, so we travel to another mill in Morthal. Same again. Maybe we have to chop it ourselves? We try one more mill, just outside of Solitude, and we're in luck. An orc called Kharag gro-Shurkul sells us some timber for only 200 gold. We head back to our land and build our house's frame. It's taking shape nicely.
Next we build the walls, the roof, the doors, and a lock. All of these materials were provided in our starter chest. There are clay and stone deposits on your land that never run out and can be mined infinitely, so you never really have to worry about having stuff to build with. The anvil was used to turn iron ingots into nails - a common ingredient required by most things you craft - and other things, like the mechanical parts for our lock. Now the hollow shell has turned into a modest, but cosy, house, and there's a short loading screen when we open the door.
It's totally bare inside, obviously. Building the house itself is only the beginning. You're going to have to source the rest of the materials yourself to build things like beds, cabinets, hearths, and sconces to light up the exterior. But remember, this is only the starter house. As you expand your property, it'll get much bigger. Your first house will become the entrance hall for a much grander one, and you'll get to add things like alchemy labs, trophy rooms, and libraries to store all the books you've collected on your journey. Because the plot of land creates a new fast travel point on the map, having your own self-contained base of operations is very useful.
There are three plots of land in all: one in Falkreath, one in Morthal, and one in Dawnstar. All three cost the same, and the only difference is the location; your house will always be in the same style no matter where you build it. You're also able to adopt children once your house is furnished. Constance Michel at the Riften orphanage (where Dark Brotherhood characters will have executed Grelod the Kind) will give you the chance to take one of the kids there back to your new home. You can adopt two at a time, and they get their own room.
It feels more like a novelty than a fully-fledged chunk of content...
If you want the biggest house possible with all the perks, like having your own personal bard, or steward to fetch materials for you, you're going to have to spend a lot of coin. Hearthfire will appeal the most to Skyrim role-players. If you play the game purely for adventure and excitement, you'll probably be disappointed. It feels more like a novelty than a fully-fledged chunk of new content, like Dawnguard. But it's a great experience for console Skyrim gamers who've previously been unable to make their mark on the world, or have their own unique house.
The process of building your home is entertaining, and there's a feeling of pride in seeing your creation - albeit one whose design is entirely dictated by the game - wedged into Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's beautiful countryside. Our only gripe is that there isn't much of a sense of customisation. We'd have liked to place furniture ourselves, or even the house in the landscape. But for a relatively cheap price, Hearthfire is a novel, and ambitious, slice of DLC. Just don't expect another 20 hour epic like Dawnguard, or any new loot to stuff in your pantaloons.