REVIEW: Dawnguard (The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim DLC)


“Dawnguard provides the world of Skyrim with enough new-found flair to exhilarate exploring its snow-covered lands once more.”
dawnguard box art
Developer: us Bethesda
Publisher: us Bethesda
Release Dates: June 26, 2012 (X360); August 2, 2012 (PC)
Platforms: PC (this review), X360
Genre: Open-World Role-Playing Game

This is a review of the Dawnguard DLC. For our opinion on the base game, read our Skyrim review.

When Skyrim, the fifth instalment in the Elder Scrolls series, was released in the fall of 2011, it was destined to provide action-RPG enthusiasts with many months of entertainment. One of the most content-rich games of the last few years, Skyrim kept many of us busy well into the year 2012. Impressive as it may have been for a game to keep its audience hooked for such a long stretch of time without having to resort to a competitive online component of any form, even the biggest enthusiasts came to a point where the world of Skyrim had grown too familiar, causing the sense of adventure to slowly wane. Though PC gamers, by then, already had countless mods to resort to, it was inevitable for Bethesda to eventually expand the game’s content: a game that does not rely on yearly instalments, subscription models or multiplayer content requires a different approach if it is to retain interest from seasoned players, let alone keep attracting new fans.

What does Bethesda have in store for us this time?

What does Bethesda have in store for us this time?

The Dawnguard plug-in saw the light about eight months after the release of the main game, and offered a brand-new questline, as well as a handful of new items, dungeons, locations and features. Attempting to rekindle the appetite for adventure that had since faded in players that had already seen it all, Dawnguard touches upon a theme that has not only been an integral part of many previous Elder Scrolls titles, but has also risen to considerable popularity in entertainment as a whole over the past few years. After having already been confronted with dragons, giants and werewolves in the base game, the latest threat to roam the tundras of Skyrim is an ancient clan of vampires.

The disadvantages associated with being a vampire clearly outweigh the benefits.

Soon after installing the expansion, you will start hearing rumours of an order of vampire hunters, the Dawnguard, that has taken up residence in a castle near the town of Riften. They are looking for recruits, and who better than an experienced, battle-hardened adventurer such as yourself to eradicate the emerging vampire threat? Early on in the Dawnguard campaign, however, you will get the choice to either stick to your new occupation as vampire hunter, or come over to the dark side and obtain the ability to transform into a powerful vampire lord. Naturally, either choice has its benefits and downsides, though it must be said that, for those players who are not willing to drastically alter their gameplay style, staying with the Dawnguard is the more logical choice. While the vampire lord transformation grants you some powerful spells and attacks, the disadvantages associated with being a vampire clearly outweigh the benefits. Vampires are vulnerable to fire and sunlight, and will have to feed on bodies regularly in order to keep a low profile, as unsated bloodlust will make their vampiric features more apparent to the general public.

Being a vampire lord is not as amazing as it looks.

Being a vampire lord is not as amazing as it looks.

Sadly, the gameplay in vampire lord form has some serious limitations. Much like the werewolves from the main game, vampire lords have restricted interaction with their environment. They cannot pick up items, nor initiate conversation, and occasionally some portals will not be high enough for them to pass through. The latter is even true for some of the areas that were introduced in Dawnguard, which is a strong indication that the vampire lord gameplay was not a primary focus in development of this expansion. Actual combat as a vampire lord can be very effective due increased health, magicka and stamina, as well as the ability to drain the life out of opponents. Improvements and new abilities can be unlocked through a separate vampire lord perk tree, and are gained by biting vampire lawdNPCs or killing creatures or NPCs by draining their life. Conversely, any racial and item bonuses your character may have had, hold no effect in vampire lord form, meaning that high-level players, especially if they have not yet unlocked most of the perks, may actually be more vulnerable as a vampire lord than they are normally.

The old saying that bad boys have all the fun is not necessarily true for Dawnguard.

As a result of the obstacles you face as a vampire, the old saying that bad boys have all the fun is not necessarily true for Dawnguard. Siding with the vampire hunters does not have any noteworthy disadvantages, and it even introduces you to a whole range of new items that are arguably more useful than the vampire lord transformation. Most prominently, Dawnguard members have access to various types of crossbows, which, when fully upgraded, are more powerful than even the strongest of bows. Archers need not worry about running out of ammunition, either, as Dawnguard members have the ability to craft their own bolts and arrows. In addition to new weaponry, Dawnguard also introduces various new armour models, both light and heavy, that draw upon a more late-mediaeval theme, as opposed to the early-mediaeval/Viking-era gear that dominates the base game’s armoury. While the new armour sets are strong, they aren’t as effective as some of the late-game attire. However, the fresh design and the different colours make for a very appealing aesthetic, so even high-level players might find themselves wrapped up in Dawnguard armour. Luckily, several new features unrelated to the Dawnguard questline, such as the ability to craft Dragonbone weapons and the possibility to change the appearance of your main character, are available to both factions.

The gloomy Soul Cairn is one of the new areas the player can explore.

The gloomy Soul Cairn is one of the new areas the player can explore.

As can be expected, choosing sides also has an effect on the structure of the questline. Though the majority of the missions are more or less the same regardless from whether you join the Dawnguard or the vampires, either faction has some missions exclusive to their side of the story. In this respect, the vampire questline is slightly more interesting, as it sees you infiltrate a suspicious skooma den in the middle of the wilderness, whereas the Dawnguard equivalent is a fairly familiar recruitment quest. Regardless of faction, though, the Dawnguard story has produced some of the best missions available in Skyrim thus far, guiding us through murky castles, across out-stretched ice plains and even into the Soul Cairn, a gloomy plain of Oblivion that is inhabited by undead beings, some more benevolent than others.

Dawnguard is a must-have for any serious Skyrim player.

Within the overarching plot, which deals with preventing vampire lord Harkon from blocking out the sun, is interwoven a family drama involving said Harkon, his wife Valerica and their daughter Serana. Serana will accompany you throughout most of the questline whether you’re a vampire or a vampire hunter. Her fleshed-out dialogue, personal attachment to the story and valuable help in combat make for a dynamic that is radically different from most of the other questlines in the Elder Scrolls series. As you bond with her throughout the quests, you will automatically take more interest in the personal story behind the archetypal ‘saving the world’ plot. This bonding is a welcome change from the rest of Skyrim, or the Elder Scrolls games in general, where you were often treated as an outcast, a feeling that, at least for me, always resulted in a lack of personal interest in the plot, no matter how high the stakes were.

Not being a vampire does not mean you can't be a badass.

Not being a vampire does not deprive you of being a badass.

Captivating as the story may be, though, it is hard to resist making the observation that the questline is over too soon. Part of this sentiment is caused by the fact that we have, frankly, been spoiled by the amount of content that Skyrim offered. But despite some new items and locations, Dawnguard does not have enough content to fulfil Bethesda’s promise of an ‘expansion pack’ feel. It is a solid add-on, but in the end, it doesn’t hold enough weight to stand on its own legs, something which does tend to be true for actual expansion packs, such as Shivering Isles (Oblivion) and Bloodmoon (Morrowind). The disappointing vampire lord gameplay and the general lack of advantages to joining the vampire clan further confirm that this DLC did not quite reach its full potential.Serananana Still, Dawnguard is a must-have for any serious Skyrim player. Not only does the DLC offer a fresh questline that sees the player explore various new areas, but it also adds a ton of new features that, in themselves, may not have too big an impact, but together provide the world of Skyrim with enough new-found flair to exhilarate exploring its snow-covered lands once more.

Draugen, 6th of Morning Star, 5E11.