There’s an awful lot of Skyrim. Most estimates peg it as 200+ hours of designed ‘content’ to experience, on top of which procedurally generated quests could keep you busy for a few hundred more. If you’ve ploughed literally a month of your life into Skyrim and just want a second helping, Bethesda has your fix. It’s called Dawnguard.
The Dawnguard DLC is heavily vampire flavoured. In fact, for the (not insignificant, I suspect) overlap of people who love both The Elder Scrolls games and the bloodsucking undead, Dawnguard is probably the bestest thing ever. ‘But weren’t there already vampires in Skyrim?’ you may ask. Yes, but not as many as there are here! And not with such cool powers, that, should you choose, you can have for yourself by becoming a vamp.
The title for the DLC comes from a recently reformed ancient society of vampire hunters that go by the same name.They literally guard the dawn, see. However, the real attraction for many will be the potential to turn to the dark side and become a vampire lord. Becoming a vampire in the original Skyrim was a bit problematic, because pretty much every NPC would attack on sight. They’ve changed this so if you’re a good little bloodsucker, you won’t get into too much trouble. They’ve also tweaked some of the stats to make it more plausible to play as a full vampire and, most significantly, added the Vampire Lord perk tree. This runs parallel to your established leveling, and can be accessed when you use the Vampire Lord transformation – unleashing your ‘true form’ as a winged monstrosity. For those excited about the winged part, I’m afraid it’s a little limited – you can float across water but not fly anywhere properly.
If anything, they’ve not focused enough on making it cool to be a vampire hunter. You can hire an armoured troll to take into battle with you, and the expansion adds a pretty cool crossbow weapon – but this can also be used if you have vampiric blood. If nothing else, Bethesda knows which faction will be more appealing to the audience.
There’s a main story line to Dawnguard, and it plays out much the same whether you take an early offer to join the undead or not. Upon signing up for the club, the Dawnguard send you to retrieve a certain magical macguffin. Along the way, you rescue an ancient vampire girl called Serena who has been imprisoned in The Elder Scrolls equivalent of carbonite. She promptly teams up with the player then together, being vampire or not, embark on the central mission. This revolves around defeating Serena’s father, Lord Harkon, a loony vampire lord who’s trying to fulfill an ancient prophecy to destroy the sun and bring eternal night on the world.
This quest will take about ten hours, with some mission and story variations depending on whether you fear the sun or not. Serena’s interesting character – an unrepentant vampire who nevertheless seems to struggle with the sundering of her family – is caught in the ancient conflict between her father and mother. Many of the highlights come from the quieter, more reflective moments of puzzle solving or exploration that are included in between battles. These are mainly simple treasure hunts – e.g. find all the ingredients for a magic ritual within her mother’s laboratory – but they vary the pacing of the game and bring the vampire family drama to the fore.
You’ll be visiting many new locations, the most interesting of which is the Harkon family castle, a suitably creepy gothic pile on an island north of Skyrim. The long-abandoned Dawnguard headquarters has a plainer design, but is still impressive. There are also plenty of caves, forested areas and dungeons, but they can become a bit bland and repetitive eventually, making them feel like padding. There’s also a quick jaunt to an ethereal plane, but like most ethereal plane levels it’s not that fun to explore because, being ethereal, it doesn’t feel as solid and alive as the rest of the world does. There are new kinds of vampire to fight, and a gargoyle monster, but in terms of its bestiary Dawnguard is more about remixing than addition. You’ll fight broadly similar foes whether you’re vampire or hunter, including an awful lot of Falmer late in the quest. Surely every Skyrim veteran must be bored of them by now?
Your choice of faction has more impact on the side-quests you unlock, either from the Dawnguard or the vampire clan. The side-quests add another five-ten hours (for both sides) onto the game. There are also lots of additional secrets, including new shouts, a new mount, and more. For the real crafting enthusiast, there are new dragon weapons to smith, helping you use up all those valuable dragon remains cluttering up your inventory. To see everything or nearly everything offeredwould add thirty plus hours to the base game.
Is It Worth Your Money?
Dawnguard ticks all the boxes for a Skyrim DLC, but at about half the cost of the original game, it lies on the pricey side of reasonable. Despite the ample length, there’s not much that’s strikingly different from what you’ll have already encountered on the frosty plains of Skyrim,causing some of the weaker sections to feel like padding.
So here’s the acid test – ask yourself this: have you really done everything in Skyrim; do you need to add another forty hours to a two hundred hour game; or do you really, really like vampires? If so, consider a Dawnguard purchase – otherwise, it might be wiser to wait for the inevitable Game of The Year Edition.