Game Review: Dawnguard
OverviewGenre: Downloadable content, RPG
Pros:Plenty to do. Widens the limits of Skyrim in a pleasingly organic way.
Cons:Vampires are cool but useless.
If you’ve played Skyrim to death (numerous deaths, all in the mouths of big, fuck-off dragons), then the most welcome aspect of Dawnguard is how much more it packs, relatively quietly, into the game.
If there’s one thing Bethesda knows how to do, it’s DLC.
Oh, it wasn’t always the case. There was a time, long, long ago (bear in mind videogame history is condensed and every year of real time marks a whole gamer generation), when Bethesda had its gigantic wrist slapped by furious Oblivion fans who had been rewarded in their wait for add-ons for their beloved Cyrodiil with… a set of horse armour. Which was bugged. And fucking useless.
Keen to make amends, Bethesda has bombarded its fans with stunning extras ever since. Further DLC for Oblivion included The Shivering Isles, a whole new game in itself. More recently, the add-ons for Obsidian collaboration Fallout: New Vegas – four massive new adventures distinct in theme, concept, atmosphere and difficulty – raised the bar so high that it shot right through the damn rafters.
In short, Dawnguard has a lot to live up to.
And as an expansion for Skyrim, it succeeds, because expanding Skyrim is precisely what it does. If, like us, you’ve played Skyrim to death (numerous deaths, all in the mouths of big, fuck-off dragons), then the most immediately obvious and welcome aspect of Dawnguard is how much more it packs, relatively quietly, into the game. There are new areas to explore, new characters, new dragons, new shouts, new skill trees, new cosmetic surgery options (!) and new achievements. It’s like being given a death row reprieve – just when you were ready to consign Skyrim to the shelf, you’ve been granted a lifeline in Dovahkiin employment opportunities.
Perhaps the town guards will tell you that the Dawnguard, a powerful order of vampire hunters, is regrouping and looking for able warriors. Perhaps you’ll be approached by one of their number instead. Either or, you’ll be recruited and sent on a reconnaissance mission, where you’ll get more than a few surprises and end up having to make the biggest decision of your potentially immortal life.
To go into further details about Dawnguard’s plot would be to spoil it, and it’s so gently weaved through the existing fabric of Skyrim’s stories that it would be a real pity to give new players signposts. It’s not like The Shivering Isles, or the aforementioned Fallout: New Vegas expansions, in that you don’t have to leave the world you’ve become accustomed to in order to play it. This lends an oddly comforting, organic quality to the whole affair – quite the achievement when you’re battling vampires and/or chewing the necks off sleeping Jarls. Dawnguard’s plot is relatively straightforward, but there are enough new foes, fiends and incidental sidequests to fend off boredom.
That’s not to say it’s perfect, because when it comes to the Elder Scrolls, nothing ever is. We had to start the DLC load twice, because the first one bugged out on us – we were instructed by our quest log to find Fort Dawnguard without having been informed of its existence by any in-game character or event, something which took us out of the game so fast we may as well have been digitally hamstrung. Another time, we were anchored to the ground after feeding, forcing one of Skyrim’s many earlier save reloads. Has there ever been a series more reliant on its players’ ability to keep fourteen different saves on the go, in case the latest craps out just as the Dovahkiin is about to complete a mission/fast-travel across the map/chide that cranky Shadowmere/throw potatoes at a blacksmith?
There are other niggles too. Dawnguard’s possibilities are activated once your character reaches level 10, but for top-end Dovahkiin (ours is at level 52 and counting), the new vampire skills are nothing more than aesthetic wonders. Similar to the werewolf form sported by the Companions, it’s an interesting look but underwhelming in a practical sense and only suited to one style of play. In fact, it gives high-level Dovahkiin more vulnerabilities than strengths, so it basically coasts along on its cool factor, and creepily floating about the gaff is very cool indeed.
Whether Dawnguard is worth the coin is a personal decision: are you happy to fork over real world money for a widening of Skyrim’s limits? It depends on how loyal a citizen you are of Tamriel’s frostiest province. If you’ve reached the end of the main quest, if you’ve become Listener, Arch-Mage, Harbinger, property magnate and owner of the finest collection of Stones of Barenziah in the whole land, then Dawnguard’s intrigue, focus and bloodlust might be exactly what you need to rekindle your love affair with Skyrim.