My Skyrim character is pretty powerful. I’ve managed to level up sufficiently so that the destructive magic on my left hand shoots fire that can dispatch reasonably hardened enemies in a second or two. In my right hand, I like to wield an enchanted, short-handled axe or one-handed sword.
Dawnguard is Skyrim’s first expansion and it offers Dragonborn heroes of Skyrim the chance to hunt vampires with a bunch of do-gooding officious crusaders or become a powerful vampire lord allied to a coven intent on destroying the sun. Either side should be exciting, presenting opportunities for new experiences and added powers. Unfortunately, neither branch of the DLC’s narrative truly delivers more than most of Skyrim’s long term residents will already have built for themselves.
The eponymous band of vampire slayers are tucked away, through a valley, in a large fort and led by one of the much-relied-upon character types for Bethesda’s action RPGs – the paranoid nut who turned out to be right.
The vampire cult is accessed after the expansion’s opening mission which tasks you with investigating a suspected vampirical excavation site. They live on a remote island stronghold and are led by the head of an old vampire dynasty who quickly offers you the chance to drink of him and have eternal life.
So, you pick sides, basically. Become a vampire or hunt the vampires. One side bestows upon you a sense of righteousness, some anti-vampire armour, a big dumb tank of a companion option and a crossbow which you could also grab in the opening mission. The other side turns you into a leathery winged specter of death that can reanimate the dead, move with exceptional speed, drain the life from your foes and turn into a flock of bats.
You’ll probably want to take chief vamp up on his offer, then.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as good as it sounds. You’ll get a power, accessed through the menus with your magic and shouts. It allows you to transform into an animalistic, green skinned, sharp-clawed vampire lord. There’s a hindrance to this transformation in that the process takes a few seconds to complete and deforms your field of vision briefly. It’s not something that’s advisable mid-combat so you’ll end up having to make the decision as to which form you’ll take before each combat situation arises.
Perhaps I’ve grown a little too arrogant or comfortable with the way I play Skyrim but when I stood in front of a monstrous pale green, blood-sucking immortal with the choice between immortality and power or exile and a future as prey, my first instinct was that I’m a badass Nordic son of Skyrim and it’s not sensible to threaten me. I don’t really care if you offer to give me a couple of extra powers, I thought. I could probably clear this whole castle in a few minutes and take the contents of your chests back to Riften for sale. But I played along and took the vampire powers.
While in your altered state, you’ve got sharp and powerful claws for melee attacks and two different powers – one for each hand. You can absorb an enemy’s life force and you can reanimate corpses to fight on your behalf. Neither is particularly spectacular in practice but it does offer a little bit of variation to most player’s usual approach. You’ll also be able to move faster and, if the situation demands it, you can hit a button to transform into a flock of bats and rush away at previously impossible speeds. This is, of course, offset by suffering the ill-effects of sunlight that usually translate to a bit of a health hit and no regeneration if you’re up and around during daylight hours.
There’s another, less obvious hindrance to becoming a vampire lord. It turns out that powerful supernatural vampires can only view proceedings in the third person. While transformed, you lose the ability to look upon the world through my favoured viewpoint in the first person. This might not be a big deal to some but I’ve always found the third person view in Skyrim to be clunky to control and awkward to aim. This makes the new powers tricky to use as they need to be carefully targeted at enemies.
There are a couple of new and interesting enemy types to encounter, like the gargoyles, but they don’t crop up too often so that the bulk of combat is against the regular cast of nefarious bandits, savages, beasts and monsters that many of us have already spent upwards of 50 hours locked in mortal combat with. Obviously, vampires and their death hounds appear fairly often and there’s a new class of dragon that’s fantastic but generally, it’s more of the same Skyrim – although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it just isn’t quite different enough though.
At around 15 hours, there is a healthy chunk of extra game here but, once you’ve spent ten minutes adjusting to your new powers, novel and unique game experiences are largely absent. There are some new locations and the game takes a big stylistic swerve at around the halfway mark of the shared plot line (which is viewed from the two opposing viewpoints depending on the choice you made). In the end though, it all boils down to fetch quests, item collection and dungeon clearing.
That’s fine of course, it’s what the rest of Skyrim generally gets by on. But it would be nice to be offered something a little more imaginative from an expansion which had the potential to make bigger changes to how we played the game. Perhaps Skyrim itself is so huge and offers such variation that it becomes difficult to offer anything new in an expansion. While there are some enjoyable moments and some truly brilliant set pieces in Dawnguard, it doesn’t quite hit those beats with enough precision or regularity to warrant a glowing recommendation for those who are already well invested in Skyrim’s world and the character they’ve built themselves.
For relatively young adventurers, it will probably feel much more exciting and the new powers and weaponry will be a big advantage. But those players will already have another 50 hours or more of the game ahead of them, is it really tempting for them to embark on an expansion that adds another 15 hours?
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