Dawnguard review: Our verdict on Skyrim's first DLC
28th Jun 2012 | 13:49
It's taken Bethesda 8 months to release the first piece of DLC for Skyrim. It fills the already expansive world map with new locations, quests, weapons, armour, and characters - and even throws in a few new gameplay features.
Why did it take so long, though? Having to fix the PS3 version's game-breaking slowdown bug may have contributed, or maybe they just wanted to wait and release something big and worthwhile, rather than another set of horse armour. Whatever the reason, it was worth the wait. Dawnguard is a seriously impressive chunk of new content.
It gives you two choices: join the Dawnguard, a band of vampire hunters, or become a vampire yourself. Each faction has their own castle, special powers, and unique gear - but share a lot of common quests and locations. You'll be following pretty much the same story regardless of who you choose, but from a slightly different perspective.
It focuses on an ancient and powerful vampire called Lord Harkon, and his attempts to destroy the sun and plunge Tamriel into eternal darkness. As a vampire you'll join his coven and help him; as a member of the Dawnguard you have to stop his villainous plot.
There are advantages to joining either side, but the best rewards are reserved for those with vampiric tendencies. As a bloodsucker you get a ridiculous bonuses including immunity to poison and disease, and resistance to fire and frost. The downside is that if you go outside in daylight, your health, stamina, and magicka are severely reduced, and don't regenerate.
Dawnguard also grants you a new power: the ability to transform into a mighty Vampire Lord. This demonic form gives you an obscenely powerful life-draining primary spell, and the power to raise the dead. It also has its own perk tree, with 11 additional powers you can unlock by feasting on enemies.
But although becoming a Vampire Lord grants you some really unique powers, it's also irritatingly clumsy to control. The forced third-person camera is a nightmare in tight spaces, and when you're surrounded by enemies it's difficult to keep track of them.
Of course, there are some perks to joining the Dawnguard too - but nothing quite as dramatic. Not only do you get access to an array of special armour and weapons with bonuses against vampires, but you can hire a giant armoured troll to join you in battle for 500 gold. He's a dumb but powerful ally, and charges around the battlefield with a giant club. You can give him simple commands, and buy a new one from Fort Dawnguard if he dies.
But, honestly, being a vampire is more fun. Not just because the Vampire Lord form brings some welcome variety to Skyrim's combat, but the characters too. There's a dark sense of humour running through the vampire storyline, but the Dawnguard are, in comparison, a bit serious and po-faced. You'll have to decide whether you want to be a righteous do-gooder, or devilish garlic dodger. In terms of story enjoyment, we'd have to recommend the latter.
If you've played Skyrim to death, Dawnguard may be a little underwhelming. The new dungeons, although well designed, are mostly made up of existing assets. The quests, although well written, don't feel vastly different from those in the main game. It's just more Skyrim - for better or worse.
There are some standout moments, though. One quest sees you visiting an illegal drug den and sampling the local Skooma. In another you awaken a vampire from a thousand year slumber and recruit her as a companion. The new legendary dragons are an impressive sight too, especially the one you fight in the Soul Cairn - who you can later recruit as an ally.
The crossbow is a new addition, and it's brilliant - especially if you like playing as a stealthy character. It's the preferred weapon of the Dawnguard, but vampires can use it too. It makes a satisfying mechanical creak as you load it, then unleashes its bolt silently at immense speeds and burrows gruesomely into an enemy's head. It's faster and more powerful than most bows, especially if you craft some enchanted bolts for it.
They've thrown in some new enemies too. Vampires are almost always accompanied by death hounds: rabid, fiery-eyed dogs that chew your health away with their razor sharp teeth. Immense gothic gargoyles will come to life and pummel you with their stone fists. The Soul Cairn is full of evil Daedric spirits. There are plenty of interesting targets for your shiny new crossbow.
Did Skyrim really need more content? There are people in the CVG office who've played the game for over 100 hours, yet haven't even touched the Dark Brotherhood or Civil War questlines. But for those of you who've bled the game dry, Dawnguard is a compelling reason to come back.
We're glad Bethesda chose to take their time and release something consierable in size, rather than drip feed us content. The asking price is fairly steep (1600MSP on Xbox 360, £14 on PS3), but we did manage to squeeze over 20 hours out of it.
While Oblivion's Shivering Isles DLC was a memorable departure from the main game, Dawnguard plays it relatively safe. The quality of the quests is on par with the rest of Skyrim, but it might not be enough to suck you back in if you've already exhausted every quest the regular game has to offer.