The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dawnguard Review

Honestly speaking, the true quality of Skyrim resided in its quantity. The sheer vastness of Bethesda’s RPG meant that its fumbles were either easy to overlook or simply drowned out by the enormity of the game. Unfortunately, the first, meaningful piece of downloadable content does not retain this saving grace; Dawnguard does provide the player with a lot of fresh content but its more focused structure makes pre-existing issues, and new ones, all too noticeable. Standout moments, impressive locations, and interesting gameplay mechanics provide a decent enough reason to return to the frozen province; just don’t expect to fall in love all over again.

Upon loading up Skyrim, Dawnguard players are thrown headfirst into another war on the region’s turf. This time it’s not the usual Imperial versus Rebel struggle; instead, players are treated to the more established conflict of immortal bloodsuckers versus Skyrim's mere mortals. Very early on in the relatively lengthy campaign you are forced to pick a side in this conflict: join the vampires or fight with the Dawnguard. The Dawnguard are a legendary fort-dwelling legion of vampire hunters and the vampires are... well, they're vampires. Sadly, this large choice is not indicative of what is to come and has virtually no impact on how the DLC plays out. It’s a big decision to make so early on, but aligning yourself with either faction is the only real choice Dawnguard offers, and no matter what side you pick, you end up completing the same quests in the same area (the difference being who tells you to go there). In fact, this lack of choice permeates Dawnguard to its core; at too many points you are left feeling like you’re following a predetermined role rather than forging your own.

 

Vampires: now with 100% extra force choke!

 

Of course Skyrim has never been a game of choice in the conventional sense; quests usually play out one way and one way only. There are no moral decisions, and the small decisions you do make have no lingering effect on the story or your surroundings. But nothing really get’s in the way of the do-whatever-you-want philosophy which was so essential to the main game. This mentality and the way in which Skyrim presents its freedoms create a sheer brilliance. The amount of content on offer – and the variety of it – gives you a whole world of options, enabling you to carve out your own path. This is where Dawnguard falters, though; being just another straightforward quest line (one very much akin to the guild quests in the main game, complete with infinite inane side missions), there is only one route to take. Although the path is a good one, it still suffers from a lack of choice. Too often you are left with a single dialogue option – even in response to a yes or no question – and a single course of action. This is true on both sides of the quest line also, which are similar to the extent of having the same AI companion leading you through the same dungeons repeating near identical dialogue. Occasionally a character will make a reference to your chosen role, and the very beginning of each path does differ (the final mission also changes ever so slightly), but in reality, the only real distinction is on one side you become a vampire lord.

The introduction of the vampire lord is one of the most important additions the DLC brings, mostly due to its impact on the game as a whole rather than its limited role in the Dawnguard quest line. If you side with the vampires, you are rewarded with the gift of transforming into a hideous vampiric monster that can float around Skyrim sucking the life out of innocent villagers (or save your powers for quests if you’re boring). The vampire lord can be a riot; you gain an assortment of entertaining powers and your very own skill tree. This skill tree is decidedly different from the Skyrim standard; instead of awarding you a perk point for leveling up, you get one for reaching an ever-increasing threshold of life drained from enemies by your vampire powers. On top of this, the vampire lord brings a blissful lack of consequence to the table. The vampire can’t be jailed and your normal form cannot be accused of his crimes.

 

The new perk tree gives a great incentive for a few good rampages... As if you needed one.

 

This twisted form is not without its problems, however. Unsurprisingly, the original Skyrim content was not developed with a vampire lord in mind. What is surprising is that the same seems true of the Dawnguard quest line. While in vampire form, the player is blocked from many areas; you simply can’t fit through many gates and doors, and tight spaces are a no-go as well. These restrictions take away a lot of the fun and empowerment of being a vampire lord, and the slightly too long transformation makes these problems even more aggravating. In spite of this, the inclusion of the vampire lord is still a great feature and one that makes the vampire route especially enjoyable. The Dawnguard do bring an addition of their own to the party, namely the crossbow; though, in all honesty, this weapon isn’t truly faction specific. The Dawnguard will hand you the weapon before your initial choice. A crossbow is hardly a game changer, but it is a nice, original weapon to toy around with. Also, there are a few memorable dungeons that require some archery expertise to progress. Admittedly, these long ranged puzzles could be solved with a bow and arrow, but who would pick that option?

With all this new content comes an all too familiar issue with this type of RPG: a lot of bugs and glitches. Skyrim was noticeably broken on the PC, but the other releases had no major issues. The same cannot be said for Dawnguard. At the time of this review, only the 360 version is out, and while it is not completely broken, it is incredibly buggy. These glitches include broken waypoints, looping dialogue, and faulty scripting. They are usually fixed by reloading an older save but, combined with a freezing problem (the game seized up three times for me in 20 hours of play), can lead to a significant loss of lost progress.

 

Did I mention the DLC has glitches?

 

Bugs aside, the problem with Dawnguard is where it stands in regards to Skyrim. Coming out this far after release means that most players are done with the main game and will play the DLC on its own terms – where Dawnguard is weakest. Skyrim’s feebler points and quirks you forgave in the greater game are presented at face value rather than hidden behind a vast tapestry of high quality content. These problems are rare, but they are more apparent in Dawnguard. This piece of DLC works best when implemented into the core game as another route to take from the variety on offer. Dawnguard is still a very good cut of content: the new environments you visit look lovely, there are several memorable moments and encounters, and this DLC plays host to some of Skyrim’s best dungeons and interesting, albeit minor side missions. If you loved Skyrim, Dawnguard is certainly worth your time and money, but it might not be quite what you wanted.

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed)

Josh Kowbel's picture

No wonder the vampire lord can't be jailed. He wouldn't fit through the doorway. Also, I think the vampire lords bare much semblance to Markus's hybrid form in Underworld: Evolution, except for the scrawnier wings.

As per your recommendation Stephen, I'll pick this up on Steam when I buy the core game as well, seeing as I haven't spent more than five hours with Bethesda's latest RPG.

MarioDragon's picture

That surprises me, Shivering Isles was such a great expansion for Oblivion. I was hoping Dawnguard would be the same.

Josh Kowbel's picture

@MarioDragon:

But Shivering Isles provided two new, very distinct kingdoms to explore and a fresh batch of bows, swords, and axes to toy with your enemies. The core Oblivion game adopted a much more serious tone whereas Shivering Isles embraced the polar opposites of depression of mania in its writing to great effects.

Dawnguard just takes place in more or less the same areas as Skyrim, not counting the alternate Oblivion plane. I hope Bethesda tries something hysterically different for their next DLC outing.

John Tarr's picture

In fact, this lack of choice permeates Dawnguard to its core; at too many points you are left feeling like you’re following a predetermined role rather than forging your own.

Was this something that you felt your first time through the DLC, or only the second time through and started to pick up on Bethesda's tricks?

stephenage's picture

@John Tarr

The second time through for sure, though there are indicators on the first playthrough. The first time the lack of dialogue options can be a bit off putting in places, but you don't realise the true lack of choice until you play through it again.

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