Vampires and vampire hunters; a generation of kids born in the 90’s will likely associate these two things with a one Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Does Dawnguard go down the sparkly vampire route or do the bloodsuckers get redemption in Bethesda’s new DLC for the juggernaut that is Skyrim?
I have never been able to hide the fact that I think DLC is mostly inflated rubbish that could have been stuck on the disc to begin with instead of taking more money out of my already worn wallet. Too short, pointless (im looking at you Oblivion Horse armour) or just so obviously a tack on for the few gamers who want just that bit more play time; Dawnguard is none of these things. Instead it is an admirable piece of content that fits tidily into the Skyrim mythos and has a sprawling story that leads you into caves, castles and a completely different realm, though not without hiccups along the way.
The quest itself starts when you talk to a guard. Any guard. Now anyone who has played Skyrim a reasonable amount of time will know that guards stop saying anything remotely useful after about an hour of gaming ,sticking with arrow in the knee jokes and shouting ‘wait I know you’ to attempt to start Skyrim’s own version of social networking. Why there is no clear way to start the quest, as there was in Shivering Isles, seems a bit retarded. This niggle aside, you head straight to Fort Dawnguard and enlist yourself as a new vampire hunter to take out the menace that is the bloodsuckers that infest Skyrim.
After the 1st quest you are free to continue slaying the not quite dead or join them in their quest bring vampires and the rest of the population on an equal footing by creating permanent darkness . It sounds convoluted but is handled incredibly well with the vampire side containing family feuds, constant infighting and lots and lots of death. The Dawnguard side however seems dull in comparison with the armour you are given looking pretty pathetic and the characters nowhere near as endearing; I ended up caring far more about Serena, your main companion as a vampire, than the leader of the Dawnguard who had lost 2 wives that filled up 5 seconds of his entire backstory.
The new additions to Skyrim come in the form of a few weapons and the Vampire Lord and Werewolf skill trees. The choice to become a vampire plays out naturally within the quest and allows you to transform into a hulking creature with the abilities to drain health using magic or simply claw at your opponents. The more kills you get as the Vampire Lord leads to better upgrades and further skills on the skill tree, much the same as normal levelling. Unlike the Werewolf, the Vampire Lord feels incredibly powerful and the way the skill tree works makes it seem more natural to fight with vampirism as well as the bog standard sword and shield. It makes the story balanced , the vampires you meet are supposed to be the most powerful within the whole of Tamriel and thus sharing their blood should make you stronger.It effectively avoids the trap of completely nerfing the player when the surrounding characters are evidently more powerful than you. Abilities include raising the dead, summoning gargoyles and doing one better than Batman by actually disappearing into a crowd of bats; fairly useless but pretty darn satisfying at the same time.As always there are niggles. The transformation into the Vampire Lord means that the ablity to talk to people or gather loot is taken away from you and, with the transformation taking anything up to 15 seconds back and forth, it sometimes feels that its more effort than it’s worth. Furthermore, and quite early on in the quest, I decided to try out my new powers on a skooma den yet I was defeated by the mighty.. doorway they put at the front of it. The Vampire Lord avatar is too big for enclosed spaces and it seems strange that an amount of clipping, or at least wariness of how big the monster you become is, would not have been taken into account. The amount of effort and placement put in the vampire side of things makes the Dawnguard side feel like a bigger let down, with a Expendables style team recruiting session the only highlight. The Werewolf skill tree also feels like a shoe in ,especially as you are given the option to completely get rid of your lycanthropy for vampirism within 20 minutes of the quest. The much vaunted crossbow used by the Dawnguard is slow and sluggish, and is unlikely to tear you away from your standard bow/magic/sword that is bigger than you are.
These flaws however are incredibly small in comparison to the wealth of positives. The new locations are amazingly realised and give further gothic glean to the whole vampire vs everyone else theme; the castle where the vampires inhabit looks like it was lifted straight out of Bram Stokers Dracula. The new characters, on the whole , are fleshed out enough to care about their motives and do not fall down the Ulfric Stormcloak trap of being a whiny pain in the arse. Its nice to see a piece of media that displays vampires as strong and domineering but still relatable, with the vampire cause centering on a personable female vampire you save early on, even more engaging for it. Contrary to my long held belief about shoddy DLC length, Dawnguard kicks in around the 15-20 hour mark for both sides of the story, which is more than enough to distract you from saving the world for a bit.
The final verdict? If you love Skyrim buy Dawnguard. Its more of the same epic story telling, dungeon raiding and amazing adventuring but with new locales, a diversion from dragon slaying, and a whole host of new powers to inflict on the innocent population of Tamriel. If you have saved Skyrim from the threat of dragons, rebuilt the Thieves Guild and murdered your way up to the top of the Dark Brotherhood and think your adventures in Tamriel are done for the time being you are very very wrong. Skyrim wants you back and vampires just got interesting again.