The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is already a game that is bursting at the seams with content, lore and reasons to keep you coming back time and time again, even after you’ve valiantly vanquished three dozen dragons, brought a brutal civil war to a close and saved the world from horrific destruction. Eight months later and Bethesda have decided that they’re not content with already having a game that can give you hundreds of hours of play. Nope, they’ve made the very welcome decision to unload a hefty piece of downloadable content onto us, expanding the gigantic world of Skyrim to include vampires and, well, just vampires. Who needs anything else?
Just to note, this review is based solely on the Dawnguard half of the quest and not influenced by the events of the other. I look forward to playing the vampire half but I haven’t yet.
Dawnguard comes in at a pretty steep price for a piece of downloadable content at 1600 Microsoft points (around £14). However, what you’re getting for your money is not just a run-of-the-mill add-on that will be done, dusted and forgotten about after an hour. No, you’ll be getting a quest that splits into two different paths, each offering around ten hours of content with wide variations from the other, as well as brand new locations, weapons, characters and gameplay experiences, such as playing as a villainous vampire overlord. Dawnguard expands on the Skyrim experience significantly, and also provides one of the most interesting, if flawed, quests that you’ll be able to play in the game.
Vampires have come to Skyrim and they’re not there to cuddle the children or stroke the sheep. Their plan is to blot out the Sun permanently, which would allow them to freely roam the wilds without fear of having their energy and strength sapped. To contest their efforts are a society of vampire hunters aptly named The Dawnguard, who hate the fang-bearers with a burning passion and are determined to put an end to Lord Harkon’s (the big bad of the bad) plot to introduce twenty four hours of darkness per day. Do you fancy playing the role of Buffy for a while and slaughtering any and all vampires you come across, or would you rather join forces with the masters of the night? The choice is entirely yours, and it’s not a decision you’ll want to take lightly.
As mentioned previously, Dawnguard starts you off on a single path that doesn’t change however, or whenever, you play it. As it progresses, you come to a pivotal point where you choose which path you want to continue down. Such an experience is not uncommon in Skyrim, as you’re frequently given a choice as to how you wish to proceed (heck, the entire game is full of them), but although this choice in particular allows you to explore the vampire menace from either side of the spectrum, as well as promoting multiple playthroughs, it also contributes to Dawnguard being somewhat troublesome.
Playing as a vampire or a Dawnguard soldier has advantages and disadvantages over the other. You are going to want to play both sides of this DLC but the way in which you’re forced to go down one route or the other makes that difficult. I just today finished the Dawnguard path and I am eager to experience the other but I have two options: revert to an earlier save, before the choice described above, but lose over ten hours worth of experience, acquired weapons and items, or create an entirely new character and go down the other route. If you already have multiple characters created before going into Dawnguard, you’ll be fine, but for those of us who are still hanging on to the same character we created all those months ago, it’s an issue.
Usually, when a quest on Skyrim gives you options on how you wish to continue, the length and ramifications from going down that route aren’t that big. You’d probably get some different equipment, or a different character will die and vice versa. However, with Dawnguard, both routes have over ten hours of entirely different content and outcomes, with the other side being totally unobtainable once you’ve completed it. Ten hours is a hell of a long time, especially in Skyrim, and it’s a lot longer than most full games are. You could argue that Dawnguard is in itself a completely new game, but it’s one that’s split into two halves and as such, two characters are absolutely required in order to get the most out of what you’ve purchased.
Casting the problematic split-story aside, Dawnguard impresses with just how big it actually is, and that isn’t just including the story. New locations are added with the purchase of this add-on, including the Dawnguard headquarters and Volkihar Castle, the dominion of Lord Harkon. Both areas are surprisingly large and varied indoor environments, with the former also having an outdoor area that’s pretty expansive as well. Not only that, new dungeons and caves are introduced that are situated inside the already-existing world of Skyrim. Unfortunately, said dungeons re-use assets that have been used countless times for the existing dungeons, which makes them feel just like any other area you’ve experienced previously. The caves, however, are quite spectacular. One such example would be the huge, gorgeous and frankly beautiful Ancestral Glade, which you experience mid-way through the vampire hunter quest. The combination of foliage with a waterfall backdrop make for a visually stunning environment that feels not too unlike the impressive scenery we’ve seen before in Skyrim but majestic nevertheless.
The biggest and most impressive new environment introduced with Dawnguard comes in the form of the Soul Cairn – a huge prison-type environment that holds the souls of the dead, trapped there for eternity amidst an overwhelming use of purple to provide it with a unique vibe when compared to the rest of Skyrim. The area itself contains small tasks to undertake, as well as items to collect and a powerful dragon to conquer and then take on as an ally outside of the spectral prison. It’s extremely impressive how Bethesda have managed to carry over Skyrim’s astonishing beauty into an area that’s supposed to be as dead and depressing as possible. The Soul Cairn may be populated with dead, miserable souls who pity their entrapment and predicament, as well as frequent hostile visits from the undead, but visually, it’s remarkable.
As well as introducing new locations into the world, Dawnguard also gives you a series of new weapons to use, with the most noticeable new inclusion being the crossbow. Although it’s not recommended for use when you’re engaging in face-to-face combat with a bandit chief, it packs a pretty punch that will satisfy stealthy players, albeit with a slow reload time to contend with. Also, you can acquire and use one of these beauties whether you’re a vampire or not, as well as gain the ability to craft your own bolts and enchant it just like any other weapon. What’s not to like?
Possibly the best weapon that’s packed in with Dawnguard is Auriel’s Bow, which you can only obtain upon completion of the vampire hunter side of the quest (as far as I know). Not only does the bow pummel any undead enemies it touches but it can also be equipped with special arrows that, when fired at the sun, can either make fireballs rain down on surrounding foes or temporarily block the sun’s light, creating a threatening red haze in the sky that will remain until the sun goes down. Personally, I fought tooth and nail to stop the vampires from blotting out the sun but it doesn’t half feel wonderful to do it anyway.
Dawnguard succeeds in so many areas and fails in others but one of the biggest disappointments is that it’s so darned easy for higher level players. My character began the quest at level 41 and completed it at level 43, but the only enemy to ever give me any slight problem was Lord Harkon, and that battle only arrived at the culmination of the quest (a massively anti-climatic fight I may add). The lack of any true challenge makes the vampires feel like kids wearing plastic fangs on Halloween night, which is a problem when they’re supposed to be a massive threat to the world and its inhabitants. I don’t like too much of a challenge but too little is just as bad.
Putting all of the aforementioned problems aside, Skyrim’s first downloadable content package impresses with how much it truly offers, even if you need more than one character to find it. It’s not as substantial as Shivering Isles was all those years ago, but by offering a story that provides more than twenty hours worth of new content and experiences, as well as brand new environments to explore, Dawnguard attaches onto the Skyrim world and seamlessly blends in with the game.
Now, let’s get back to blotting out the Sun…