The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dawnguard Review
After spending a little over a month in Xbox-Exclusivity-Land, the first DLC addon for Bethesda's epic RPG, Skyrim, is finally out on PC. Dawnguard has the Dragonborn taking on a resurgent vampire menace when a powerful, centuries-old family of followers of Molag Bal - the Daedric Prince that brought vampirism to Tamriel - hatches a plot that could change the world. As Dragonborn, you can fight them as part of the Dawnguard or side with the vampires, but either way, you'll get into about five to ten hours of new adventures peppered throughout the existing continent of Skyrim.
First things first: Dawnguard costs twenty bucks, twice the price of every adventure DLC pack they've released for their games in the last three or four years. Considering how good those $10 DLCs were, I have to admit my expectations were high for this. At first, I was disappointed in finding out that the DLC doesn't add one large, solitary new landmass to explore, and instead has me trudging back through the old turf of Skyrim to dig into new dungeons and outdoor areas to complete my quest objectives. Eventually, I realized that this does actually lead to some rather large areas, including a trip to a fairly vast underworld of sorts, making this DLC pack just a little bigger than initial impressions would lead one to believe.
Unfortunately, while Dawnguard might seem like a must-have for any serious Elder Scrolls fan, I also found it hard not to be disappointed in what this DLC offers. New gear is in and the Crossbow weapon type has been added, but I found them weak compared to the weapons I already had from the original game, and wound up setting aside every single one of the new spells, dragon shouts, and armor because none of it seem to be nearly as good as what I already had. And then there's the ability to become a vampire: this is functionally the biggest new feature, as you can actually shapeshift into a brutish, new vampire lord form and get access to cool spells and abilities, but it's all very mismatched with the rather inflexible way that the original game does interface and such.
It's clear that when Skyrim itself was nearing completion, Bethesda Game Studios didn't put much thought into how things like changing forms and gaining new spells would work, as Dawnguard's vampire lord from feels almost like it's been hacked-in - like, say, how a user-made mod would implement changing forms. When you're a vampire lord, you can't check your map, loot dead bodies, or access any of your original character's abilities. What's worse is that if you've spent a good fifty-plus hours collecting and crafting loot in the main game, you're going to find this new form rather weak, since the perks and abilities that come with being a vampire just don't match the ones you've already got. Now, there are a few things that integrate into the main game nicely and are enjoyable both inside and outside Dawnguard, like the Dragonbone weapons you can now create, or the new set of werewolf perks that based on original Skyrim content than Dawnguard's own.
There are some really fun bits of small lore for Elder Scrolls veterans in here, but they're sat alongside some world-changing stuff (from a lore junkie's perspective, that is) that's dealt with very casually, as if lost races reborn and items made by the gods themselves - I'm talking about much bigger things than Daedric artifacts here - are just more conversations to click through, Fedex quest objectives, and tedium. And this is how the developers themselves manage to deal with these things! The most non-spoilery example I can find of this unfortunately still manages spoil one piece of Skyrim's original main quest involving the Dragonborn prophecy, so skip the next paragraph if you haven't beaten Skyrim yet.
At one point in the story, it's decided that the Elder Scroll the player used in the Skyrim main quest to find the Dragonrend shout is needed again. So I hop on over to the College of Winterhold to see about borrowing it back and was expecting some kind of resistance or refusal since, hey, it's a friggin' prophetic text written by the gods, right? What group of great thinkers would want to let that thing go? They have it locked up in a super-secret vault with magical barriers and locks all around, right? Nope! After one line of dialogue, I'm offered to buy it back for 4000 gold, a 100% markup from the 2000 I sold it to them for in the first place. And the thing is, I only let them have the damn thing in the first place because it seemed like the best place to keep it safe - it wasn't about the money. But getting it back, oh yeah, it's all about the cash. And not only do I get an option to haggle the dude down to 3000 gold - for an Elder Scroll, mind you, which apparently costs a fraction of the price I've bought houses for in Skyrim - but when I succeed at haggling him down, it just instantly plops into my inventory, like he's had it folded up in his back pocket since I sold it to the College. Yes, this is really how Dawnguard deals with the rarest of most rare artifacts, and while I'm not a fanatic about lore myself, this DLC pack's flippant, dismissive attitude towards its own legends makes it sure seem like it was made solely for teenagers who just want to smash vampire faces. Bethesda has been much, much better in the past about respecting their own lore without getting in the way of the action, so for me, seeing it play out like this is very disappointing.
The expansive new areas to discover look great, but they can be frustrating to explore, too. The player is led to two large, expansive areas during the course of this DLC, and the second one includes mini-dungeons and a large underground area that players will find themselves revisiting, but it becomes a bit confusing and the indicators on your compass that are supposed to point towards the next objective sometimes point to the wrong place in this stage of the quest. On top of this, despite there being a large outdoor section of the world just off of Skyrim's northwest edge, it's not actually shown properly on the map, so you might find yourself a bit lost in it. I did quite like the eventual confrontation in this part of the game, although it did lead to a rather stereotypical final battle and boss fight that made things a bit anticlimactic.
Is Dawnguard worth your money? Well, yes and no. Yes because there's some really interesting lore content for Elder Scrolls fans; no because the developers start throwing around priceless artifacts for literally less than the cost of four walls and a roof. Yes because you can become a vampire and gain special abilities as one; no because being a vampire is only really about combat, as you can't do any of the really interesting vampirish things in, say, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines. Yes because there's new loot, spells, and abilities; no because most of that new stuff isn't as good as what you likely already have.
Yes because it's more Skyrim, no because it's really only that: a bit more Skyrim. For twenty bucks, I was expecting more.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a PC download code provided by the publisher.