For Althir, Wood Elf Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, master of the Riften Thieves’ Guild, and Nightingale of Nocturnal, things went pretty well. For Hálfdan, the Nord huntsman fresh out of Helgen, things went, well, pretty much exactly the same.
That’s both Dawnguard’s biggest problem and biggest success all depending on what you thought of Skyrim, both the game as a whole and the territory it takes place in. If you spent more than 200 hours in the homeland of the Nords like I did, chances are you’re pretty sick of the same old tundra. Alternatively, maybe you spent 200 hours in Skyrim and are slobbering for more, or maybe you played just 20 hours and wouldn’t mind looking around again. That difference is going to be the single biggest determining factor in trying to guess whether or not you’ll enjoy the first piece of DLC for Bethesda’s epic.
Dawnguard follows in the footsteps of the Knights of the Nine expansion for Oblivion, the previous entry in the Elder Scrolls series. That is to say, it adds a fairly long quest line, along with the accompanying new abilities and items, but not any new territory (or something wildly different) like The Shivering Isles DLC for Oblivion did. Players can decide to join the eponymous Dawnguard and hunt down the vampires of Castle Volkihar, or join the creatures of the night and gain the power of a Vampire Lord.
I joined the Dawnguard with my newly created character, Hálfdan, a Nord built around the skill trees of archery, heavy armor, two-handed, and restoration. Playing with the Dawnguard doesn’t offer any radical gameplay changes, mostly just the boring addition of the crossbow weapon and the ability to hire armored trolls as followers, which is not nearly as fun as it sounds. The questline for these hunters is essentially just the connected string of cave-diving you’ve come to know from the main game, only with more vampires.
To experience the vampiric side of things, I signed up for blood-sucking with my already pretty evil Wood Elf, Althir, and a skill set of archery, alchemy, sneak, and illusion. The biggest difference here was the ability to turn into the Vampire Lord; having all the fearsome abilities of a Vampire Lord was much more fun than crossbowing children of the night, at least for about 15-minutes. Even after fully leveling through the new perk tree, the additional abilities only spice things up for the amount of time it takes to get familiar with them. Remember playing the demo for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed? Remember throwing stormtroopers around and how fun that was for about half an hour? Playing as a Vampire Lord is a lot like that, only with the addition of Skyrim’s wonky third person camera, inexcusable freezing between form shifts, and the ridiculous inability to fit through certain doors and hallways while in Lord form.
If you were hoping to find relief in experiencing new and wonderful lands, be prepared for disappointment. Dawnguard is caves, castles, ice caves, ice plains and more caves. There is the addition of the Soul Cairn, a new realm of Oblivion, but not only are the reasons to venture there outside of the questline essentially nil, it almost looks like a cave with some splashes of purple.
Much more disappointing than that is that whether vampire or vampire hunter, you will visit these locations in exactly the same way. The main quest line might diverge a little, mostly from who gives you the quest, but is almost part for part exactly the same. The worst part of this is in the ending. Whether you play as the Dawnguard or as a vampire, the ending is almost literally the exact same thing, you have to stop vampire Lord Harkon from fulfilling the prophecy that promises to “end the tyranny of the sun.” Are you a vampire through and through, filled with evil in your heart like my Althir? Well too bad, you’re still going to have to do exactly the same thing as I did with good guy Hálfdan and stop Harkon. Even sillier than all that, is that afterwards, Dawnguard or vampire, you can fulfill that same freaking prophecy, and it barely even does anything! You shoot an arrow dipped in vampire blood from Auriel’s Bow at the sun, then it gets sort of dark for awhile and maybe (maybe) the guards will comment. That’s it. Aside from the main quest, the two factions have some new repeatable quests, which are fun, if you like fast travelling somewhere, killing someone, then fast travelling back.
The one saving grace in all of this is your companion throughout the expansion, Serana, the vampire daughter of Lord Harkon and key to that useless prophecy. More than any other NPC in the expansion or even the game proper, Serana feels like a real person is playing a character. She has more dialogue choices and responses than any other character, and also allows responses from your own hero that can add a little bit of roleplaying back story. Serana is impeccably voice acted by Laura Bailey, who voiced Vera Keyes and Christine Royce in the Dead Money expansion for that other Bethesda joint, Fallout: New Vegas. Unfortunately, Serana still doesn’t come close to any of the followers from that game, and she can’t make the story compelling all on her own.
The final decision on whether or not Dawnguard is for you depends on how much you liked the main game. If you couldn’t get enough of the adventures of Dovakhiin and just want more — even if it’s the same thing — you’ll probably be satisfied with the expansion. If you got burnt out exploring the coldest part of Tamriel, then you won’t find a refreshing pint of mead to reinvigorate you inside Dawnguard.
This review is based on a copy of the DLC purchased by the reviewer.