Join the ranks of the Vampire Lords… or destroy them
Bethesda Softworks has released the first, highly anticipated batch of downloadable content for the juggernaut that is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (now available on 360; soon to be released for PS3 and PC). The add-on brings new storylines, new side-quests, new skill trees, new areas to explore, new weapons, new characters, new beasties, and new mounts, but at a rather hefty $20 price tag, the question is: is it worth it? Frankly, that’s not an easy question to answer, as it largely depends on how big a fan you are of Skyrim in the first place.
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat, since it seems to be the comparison many people are intent on making: this isn’t The Shivering Isles. The insistence on making this comparison is rather unfair, given that Sheogorath’s epic tale was the final piece of DLC for Oblivion, not the first, and wasn’t released until a year and a half after the original game. Dawnguard isn’t going to give you a vast new region to explore, or a massive new storyline. Then again, it’s not trying to be The Shivering Isles… in terms of new content it’s much more in line with Knights of the Nine, and quite a bit heftier than Mehrune’s Razor. So, now that you have a more realistic idea of what to expect, let’s talk about what it does have to offer…
The main draw is, of course, the story, which puts the player in the middle of a pending war between a new (or, rather, ancient) race of super-powerful vampires, and the newly re-formed Dawnguard, a militia bent on destroying all vampires everywhere. As with Skyrim’s battle between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials, you’re free to choose which side of the fray you want to align yourself with. The different factions each have their own stories, though there’s a lot of overlap between the two so it doesn’t really double the value. Side with the Dawnguard, and you’ll gain access to crossbows, and be able to hire armored trolls to fight at your side. Opt to ally yourself with the vampires, and you will be turned and gain the abilities of a powerful Vampire Lord. Of the two paths, the vampire story is arguably the more interesting, but neither is really a bad choice.
In addition to the main story, there are also numerous new side-quests. Many of these are ongoing recyclable elements like those you’d get from the Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood, but there are a few that stand out. One gains you the ability to summon a flaming spectral horse, and another that allows you to choose one of three unique relics (a staff, a shield or a crown), which are each imbued with some pretty powerful properties. There’s also a quest to track down pages of a lost manuscript for a ghostly Jiub, which is a great nod to those who remember Morrowind, but ultimately the reward for this quest is arguably not worth the time and effort.
In addition to the story elements, there are a number of other extras. You can gain three new shouts, one that allows you to summon an undead dragon, one that rips the soul from your enemies (making them your minion), and one that drains health, magicka and stamina from your opponents. You also acquire the ability to craft your own arrows, which ensures that you’ll never again run out of the precious, rare Daedric shafts, and the new Dragonbone weapons look awesome and pack quite a punch… assuming you have the smithing skill necessary to forge them. Crossbows are very powerful, but slow to reload, and (oddly) are only available in either steel or dwarven varieties. Though very similar in most respects to bows, they do bring exploding elemental bolts to the party, which allow you to damage multiple foes from a distance without worrying about depleting your magicka. There are also a few other unique weapons to discover on your journey, but I’ll let you find them on your own.
You also gain access to two new skill trees, one if you’re a werewolf, the other if you opt to become a Vampire Lord. These skills are gained by feeding, and are not tied to your character’s level progression in any way. While these are fairly neat, there are some issues, particularly when it comes to the Vampire Lord form.
To start, the life-drain spell your Vampire Lord has is quite inconsistent, particularly early on. Initially, it took three direct hits to kill a mudcrab… it also took three direct hits to kill a cave bear. As if that weren’t odd enough, moments later I encountered another cave bear, but this one took seven direct hits to kill. Forsworn Ravagers would go down with a few shots, but Briarhearts took virtually no damage. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, and it was a bit frustrating, though as I grew more powerful it became far less of an issue.
The bigger problem with the werewolf and the Vampire Lord character models is that many areas in caves and tunnels were too small to allow passage. Again, this seemed inconsistent… find two apparently identical tunnels, and you could traverse one but not the other. Some doors you can go through, others you can’t. This wasn’t so bad with the Vampire Lord, even though it was more frequent, since you can change at will, but was particularly maddening with the werewolf, since its ability to transform is only accessible once per day.
The last significant new element Dawnguard brings to the table is the addition of a couple of new types of dragon; Revered and Legendary. As you might expect, these are significantly more powerful than even the Ancient dragons, and in addition to the usual breath attacks they are equipped with devastating and debilitating shouts. Of course, there’s a good chance you won’t be seeing either of these monstrosities… Revered dragons won’t start appearing until you’re at least 70th level (I didn’t encounter one until level 74), and the Legendary varieties don’t make an appearance until you hit level 78. When I started my Dawnguard playthrough, I was a mere 64th level character, so I literally had to devote hours and hours of time to leveling my character in order to bring you a full and complete description of the experience.
One last bit I feel obligated to mention is an odd bug I encountered. Now, I don’t know how prevalent this issue is, or even whether it’s directly related to the DLC, but I feel I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t share it. At one point while I was wandering through the wilderness the screen suddenly flared red, and I was greeted with the message “Feeding makes you less vulnerable to sunlight, but lessens your vampiric powers.”
Now before you go thinking that I had contracted Sanguinare Vampiris and just not realized it, let me be clear: I had NOT. Suddenly, however, I was blighted with all the negatives of vampirism, with none of the perks (and I’m not referring to the Vampire Lord perks, but those afforded by normal vampirism). Loading previous saves had no effect. I was in a strange midrealm, neither cursed or… not cursed. Sunlight would harm me, but I couldn’t feed. Characters who would avoid vampires would readily interact with me, and I could not undergo the quest to cure vampirism. It was strange and annoying, and the only thing I could think to do was to be officially turned into a vampire, then go through the vampire cure quest (which, by the way, is pathetically easy compared to the elaborate equivalent in Oblivion). Fortunately, that solved the problem, and it’s not something I encountered again.
Overall, Dawnguard brings quite a bit to the table, though much of what it offers are subtle enhancements to the main game. Things like new weapon crafting being included, rather than sold separately (*cough* horse armor *cough*) is a wise decision, but also tends to blur what you actually get in terms of content. It doesn’t revolutionize the game, but it does add some fun new elements. If you can’t get enough Skyrim, it’s probably worth your time (and money)… but if you never bothered finishing the Companion quests, this probably won’t add enough spice to make it worth your while.
Oh, and you can now swing your sword while you’re riding a horse. So… there’s that.
Tested on 360