Mod of the Week: Helgen Reborn, for Skyrim
Welcome back to the town of Helgen! Last seen at the beginning of Skyrim being curb-stomped into splinters by the Nordic God of Destruction, Helgen has since remained a shattered ruin filled with bandit jerks... until now. Helgen Reborn invites you to play a key role in transforming Helgen into a functioning town once more. You'll crisscross Skyrim on a sprawling adventure that includes recruiting a team of oddball soldiers, busting up a human-trafficking ring, fighting to the death in a gladiator pit, and moving into a new home with perhaps the coolest basement you've ever seen.
The mod begins in Whiterun where I meet a grubby fellow named Patsy, who actually looks quite a bit like Patsy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the first of several movie references in the mod). Patsy sends me to find Marcus, a former Imperial soldier, who sends me to find Val, his former comrade in arms, who is holed up in the remains of Helgen pretending to be part of a bandit crew. As Dragonborn, savior of Skyrim, prophesied and sung of in songs, I find it a little rude for these guys to assume I have nothing better to do with my time than play postman, carrying messages between them all day. (Actually, I do have nothing better to do with my time, but these guys don't know that.)
Eventually, the two former old chums reunite at Helgen and start making plans for the future. Val is looking for revenge against the people who killed his family, and Marcus wants to rebuild Helgen, a town he visited often in his youth and thus has fond feelsies for. I get straight to work for the both of them.
First up, Val needs me to spring one of his men, who is being held in a Thalmor prison. I come up with a great plan: kill all the Thalmor with an axe. But wait! Val has an even better plan: dress me up as an Imperial and send me in with a forged prison transfer order. YES! This is just like 90% of World War II movies, where someone G.I. has to dress up in a Nazi uniform to bluff his way into a compound behind enemy lines. Those plans always go well, right?
My Imperial uniform gets me in the door, but Val's plan hits a slight snag because my Orc, who mainly communicates with others via two-handed axe blows, has not really bothered putting skill points into Speechcraft at any point ever in his entire life. After just a few words with the Thalmor officers, they shrewdly decide this hulking brute in front of them is not actually part of an Imperial envoy transferring a prisoner to the embassy. The ruse fails, and I have to go with my original plan of AXE AXE AXE.
Having messily rescued Val's scout, I turn to Marcus and the issue of restoring Helgen. The first thing he needs are guards to protect the town from bandits and other threats while it's being rebuilt, and he gives me the choice of asking the Stormcloaks for help, or assembling a patchwork force of various loners and oddballs from all over Skyrim. Well, that's a hell of an easy choice. Finding a ragtag crew of misfits and shaping them into an effective team? That's an 80's movie just waiting for some montage music.
I scour the map, visiting taverns all over Skyrim to put together Helgen's new town watch. I recruit a shrimpy Nord who wants to prove himself, a somber Khajiit who is mourning the death of his dog, a dope named Kindrick whose only combat experience was once seeing (and steering clear of) a single mudcrab, an Argonian who... actually, I can't remember what his deal was. There's also a brother and sister who are not that interesting because they seem like they'd be excellent choices, and I'm more about the weirdos.
One by one, I take them out on minor quests to test their nerve and their steel, or at least to let them watch while I rush through caves ahead of them and kill everything as fast as I can. Eventually, they all prove their worth, or at least they don't die. Back in town, they all get matching uniforms and shields bearing the new, independent crest of Helgen. I gotta say, seeing my collection of misfits lined up in spiffy matching armor is a pretty cool moment.
Marcus, grateful for my help, gives me a tower in Helgen. From the outside, it doesn't look like much, but the inside is nicely furnished. There's a massive lower level with all the crafting and enchanting accoutrements, not to mention a sprawling area with mannequins for armor and display cases for weaponry. But that ain't NOTHIN'. The coolest feature of this new home, by far, is the spacious cavern under the tower. Patsy, it seems, has a talent for taxidermy. In related news, I kill a lot of monsters and take pieces of their corpses. Do you see what I'm getting at? Forget hanging up a couple axes on a rack or putting armor on a dummy: the cavern is where you can display your REAL trophies.
Aside from being able to stock your basement with stuffed, posed monsters like dragons, giants, and mammoths, there are other displays that appear based on your progress in Skyrim itself. For instance, I have a werewolf statue down there, because I became a werewolf during one of Skyrim's quests, and there are all sorts of other trophies and treasures in the cavern based on what I've accomplished. I think this is the coolest home I've seen in a Skyrim mod yet.
With my awesome new home (that I never want to leave), Helgen's spiffy new armed guards, and the town now noisy with the hustle and bustle of workers and new citizens, it would seem like your job here is done. But this is Skyrim, an odd and violent land, so issues with a late lumber delivery naturally wind up with me fighting to the death under the name "Skull Crusher" in a gladiator pit called Fight Cave while onlookers chant "Two warriors enter! One warrior leaves!" It's Skyrim, man. You never know where your day is going to take you.
Fight Cave is reminiscent of the Imperial City Arena in Oblivion. You work your way up in a series of bouts against tougher and tougher opponents, while gamblers watch and (sort of) cheer. Once you've become champion, which somehow solves the delay in the lumber delivery, you're back to helping Val with his deal, which turns out to be busting up a human-trafficking ring. Of course!
Despite the mod's guide urging you to SAVE SAVE SAVE YOUR GAME, I only had one crash, and one issue with a quest that required me to reload my most recent autosave. So, it's actually pretty darn stable, all things considered. Also, it's pretty great. There's a bunch of lore related to the mod in the form of books and conversations. There is an impressive amount of original voice work, and nearly all of it is very well done, with the exception for the guy who sounds like someone doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression (on the plus side, it's a very good impression).
Plus, when you're done, you'll get to witness Helgen being rebuilt into a real town with an inn, shops, and all sorts of original characters walking around. My guess is that this mod took me about five or six hours to play, and apart from one embarrassingly regrettable scene with a moaning prostitute (though at least it contains a reference to Blazing Saddles), is really well thought out and impressively put together.
Installation: You can easily download and install the mod using the Nexus Mod Manager (I didn't see it on Steam Workshop, unfortunately), though check the mod's FAQ for conflicts with other mods (there seem to be a lot). I didn't see instructions for a manual install, but there's just single .bsa file and a single .esp file in the download, so I'm guessing you just drop them in your Skyrim Data folder, and tick the Data Files checkbox when you launch the game.