Dawnguard, the new vampire-centric downloadable content for Bethesda’s Skyrim, has been out for nearly a month. If you haven’t already been caught up in all of the pre-release buzz, you may be wondering whether it’s worth forking out right now for extra Skyrim content; after all, the game is already so cram-packed full of quests, characters and places to explore, it would take a serious investment of time to see it all.
So what does Dawnguard bring to the table? Well, unlike Morrowind’s Bloodmoon, or Oblivion’s Shivering Isles, the Dawnguard DLC doesn’t introduce a completely new region, but instead fits its new locations in to the existing map. The two new main areas represent the headquarters for each side of Dawnguard’s new opposing factions: the vampires themselves, and the vampire hunters, also known as the Dawnguard.
The new storyline and related quests are opened up to the player from level 10, where, in true Elder Scrolls fashion, gossiping guards are the heralds of this new menace. The player is invited to travel to Fort Dawnguard, in the far eastern reaches of Skyrim, near the city of Riften.
Once players arrive at Fort Dawnguard, they meet up with Isran, a hard-nosed vampire-hater who is trying to re-establish the order of the Dawnguard, who were once known for their own vampire hunting prowess. The group fell apart under mysterious circumstances, and the fort lay in ruins until Isran came along. He invites you to join up with the vamp hunters, and sends you off on your first quest – to investigate the movements of the local vampires. They appear to be hunting for something in some old ruins; but just what exactly are they up to?
And so you set off into the ruins, which hold several new surprises for Isran and his crew. Even though the game’s been out for a little while I’ll try not to spoil too much; to fast forward a bit, it’s not long before you cross paths with a lithesome pale beauty named Serana, who has found herself a bit, shall we say, lost, and needs your help to get home.
Home turns out to be (sorry, there’s no way around this one) Vamp HQ, a.k.a. Castle Volkinar, where human “cattle” are kept in a living larder and the vampires, resplendant in rich clothes and elegant names, are initially outraged at your presence. Lord Harkon, Sarana’s father, is so glad to see his little girl, offers you the rather intriguing reward of turning you into a vampire.
Obviously your choice at this point of the game determines whether you progress through the rest of the game supporting either the Dawnguard or the vampires, however regardless of what you choose, you’ll be drawn into a bizarre and intriguing story that has you digging into the past in order to understand the current vampire threat.
During my playthrough I went with the less-popular option (if the internet reports are to be believed) of actually refusing to be turned into a vampire, and sticking with my Dawnguard bros. Hoping I hadn’t just signed my own death warrant (after all, a castle full of vampires had just seen my face) I headed back to the Fort, to give Isran the bad news.
Fort Dawnguard, after the initial couple of quests have been completed, winds up pretty well equipped, with all the comforts of home (including forge, pen with armoured trolls, torture equipment, cooking pot, etc.), and your first tasks are to do with further recruiting those who can help the cause. (It turns out that Isran needs you to do the bulk of this recruiting because he’s managed to get himself into everyone’s bad books over the years.)
Also early on, you are given a basic version of the Dawnguard special: the crossbow, a slow loading ranged weapon that still packs a real punch. Later, if you complete a series of side quests, the crossbow is able to be upgraded, and even created via the smithing forge.
In balancing up the two factions, it seems that the crossbow, armoured troll companions, and some pretty good Dawnguard armour are basically the extent of the Dawnguard benefits, and in many ways it’s difficult for these to stack up against the skills and perks of playing as a vampire. Vamp characters not only get the ability to morph into the Vampire Lord form (similar to Skyrim’s werewolf ‘ability’), but this also gets its own perk tree in the skills menu. Other powers that open up to vampire characters include the ability to move quickly from place to place as a swarm of bats, the ability to resurrect souls, as well as some good offensive spells.
There are some drawbacks however, with the main issues being the long time it takes to morph (with an accompanying ten-second cut scene, during which characters are still able to take damage), and the unwieldiness of the Vampire Lord’s larger form (after all, most of the passages and doorways in the game are created for a human to navigate).
A lot of the complaints about the Dawnguard DLC seem to centre around the relatively uninspired design of the vampires themselves, however my main frustrations with the new content lie with several of the quests in the story progression. A large set-piece has you traversing an area called the Soul Cairn, a massive other-planar world where souls that were once captured in soul gems go to live when the power has been released. It’s stunning to look at, with a broken-down landscape of eternal twilight, crumbling buildings and dangers galore, however the area is so huge, and so open that it can feel an age to trudge from place to place, and the bulk of the time spent in the region is indeed just taken up with walking around.
Conversely, in one of the last quests, which centres around retrieving a fabled bow that can either harness or blot out the sunlight depending on who’s using it, the quest is so drawn out (the player has to fill a ewer at five different waypoints scattered across a snowy landscape that has portals to other weird and wonderful places), and the navigation so confusing (map markers with misleading placement; and a massive amount of time spent in a huge ice cave with twisting passages going off in all directions) that in the end, in the spirit of getting through the quest in time to complete my review, I had to resort to finding a YouTube video that showed the way through. It just wasn’t an enjoyable experience.
Still, unlike some complaints that the Dawnguard release brings nothing good aside from “just more Skyrim”, I’d have to argue that there are still some excellent benefits from the DLC that extend long past the point in which you finish the Dawnguard storyline. Several great new companions (including Serana herself, who is a dab hand at the old necromantic skills, is easy on the eyes, and who is more than happy to convert you into a vampire later on, even if you wound up siding with the Dawnguard), interesting new weapons, a new home base (either castle, depending on who you side with), plus some very cool new summoning options, shouts, and new dragons to fight. In addition to all of this, there is some interesting new lore to be learned about the Falmer, those nasty disfigured elves prone to living underground, and their once-noble origins.
For all its pros and cons, I’m still not able to say with absolute certainty that Dawnguard is a “must-have” title for Skyrim fans. Re-loading my old save games in order to look at the new content only served to reinforce just how much there was still to look at, just from the base game. Then again, it’s been months since I last sat down with this absolute classic of a game; if it takes a bit of DLC to rekindle my enthusiasm for this wild and wondrous title, then regardless of the frustrations, it’s still a winner in my books.