Before I started writing this review, I had intended to write two entries in the Dawnguard Diaries, detailing both the vampire side of things, and the Dawnguard side of things. As it turns out, both sides are pretty much the same, aside from a few obvious differences which I’ll get into during the course of this review.
That isn’t to say Skyrim’s first DLC is bad – far from it, in fact. But it’s hard to get over that nagging sense in the back of my mind that there could have been more new things, especially considering that this DLC took 8 months to produce.
On the surface, Dawnguard contains two entirely separate campaigns. You can choose to play on the side of the Dawnguard, an ancient order of vampire slayers, or on the side of the vampires themselves. It tells a story of a growing vampire menace in Skyrim, led by the mysterious vampire lord, Harkon. Harkon’s caught wind of the sort of prophecy only a vampire could love – one that foretells of a way to darken the sun, allowing vampires to roam the land at all hours.
Unfortunately, no matter which side you choose to play for, your goal is ultimately the same – stop Harkon from carrying out that prophecy. Even if you choose to play on the vampire side, you must still strive to defeat Harkon. It would have at least been nice to be given an option at the end of the vampire campaign – to kill Harkon, or to kill him and carry out the prophecy for yourself. No such luck. As far as I can tell, there is no big payout at the end of the story no matter which side you play for.
That having been said, the vampire choice is easily the more entertaining of the two. Fighting for the vampires grants you the Vampire Lord transformation and a host of new abilities. It works a little bit like the werewolf form – which has seen its own enhancements – though it is noticeably improved in a number of ways. For one thing, transforming into a vampire lord doesn’t mean you’ll need to re-equip all of your gear when you turn back to normal. Also unlike the werewolf transformation, vampire lord form can be activated at any time, not merely once per day, and can be deactivated on command.
As a vampire lord, you gain the ability to drain life, raise the dead, see in the dark, summon gargoyles, and turn into a swarm of bats for rapid, short distance teleportation, among other powers. You’re given access to a whole new perk tree, and you level up the vampire lord by using your life drain attack or getting up close and personal to suck someone’s blood.
Becoming a vampire lord is not without its drawbacks, however – vampirism comes with a few conditions that it is in your best interest to meet. You’ll need to feed on sleeping victims (or the vampire cattle at Castle Volkihar) to keep yourself from looking too vampiric. Feeding also reduces the amount of damage you take from the sun, but it weakens your vampiric powers as well. It’s certainly not unmanageable, but it can be a hassle. The other drawback is that the forced third person camera can be uncooperative while you’re in vampire lord form, especially in close quarters situations (of which there are many throughout the campaign).
The werewolf form has also seen some upgrades, but the end result is actually pretty disappointing. For starters, werewolves are not included in the storyline at all. Getting upgraded vampire abilities makes sense because Lord Harkon actually gives them to you himself, whereas if you’re playing as a werewolf, you just kind of…have them all of a sudden. It feels like a huge missed opportunity to have some Underworld-style vampire vs. werewolf action going on in the story.
To make matters worse, the werewolf still suffers the limitation of only being able to transform once every 24 hours, and you’ll still need to re-equip all your gear when you transform back to normal. It’s also considerably more difficult to level up the werewolf perks than it is to level vampire perks. At least in the vampire’s case, the life drain effect works on pretty much every living creature. Werewolves, on the other hand, only gain perk progress by feeding on dead humans. The problem with that in Dawnguard’s case, however, is that you mostly fight vampires, skeletons, and Falmer – none of which can be fed upon in werewolf form.
As with any expansion pack, there are a number of new areas to explore in Dawnguard. Unfortunately, most of them use existing landscape and dungeon palettes, so while their layouts are new, they still end up feeling like familiar territory. The notable exception here is the Soul Cairn, with its great, purple expanse, life-draining crystals, ghostly horses, and bizarre architecture dotting the landscape. It would have been nice to have a better map of the area, but in any case, the Soul Cairn is easily the most memorable portion of Dawnguard’s story. It’s just a shame there weren’t more unique looking locations added to the game.
Good news on the smithing front, however. You can now use dragon bones to make the same array of weapons as any other metal – battleaxes, swords, maces, etc – all made from dragon bone. Even so, Daedric weapons remain the stronger choice, except when it comes to arrows. The inability to forge arrows was a pretty glaring omission from the base game, so it’s nice to be able to make them yourself now.
Crossbows are another new addition to Dawnguard, and their usefulness will likely vary from player to player. Their slower reload time and the fact that they’re limited to steel construction meant that I preferred to stick with my Daedric bow instead. Give me a Daedric crossbow, and we’ve got a whole new ballgame.
Regardless of the all the negative things I’ve talked about here, Dawnguard is still a pretty decent value at 1600 MS Points ($20). Its campaign is lengthy, clocking in around 15 hours on the first playthrough, which could be easily extended if you pursue the new side quests as well. It fits somewhere between Oblivion’s Shivering Isles expansion, and any of the Fallout 3 expansions, in terms of overall scope. It just needed a bit more…newness. Hopefully future DLC will feature more variety and won’t take so long to produce.
Dawnguard was released on June 26th, 2012 for Xbox 360, and will be available for PS3 and PC later this month.