Release Date: August 2nd, 2012 (PC)
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Retail: $20 (Steam, Xbox Live)
Platform: PC, Xbox 360
It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to Skyrim. When I last left my Imperial serial killer, I was the Speaker for the Dark Brotherhood, slayer of Alduin, and favored among every single Daedra. The novelty of insta-killing people with a single sneak attack had worn off and I was working on improving my magic. My occasional returns to Tamriel have been vastly improved by the tireless efforts of the modding community (do yourself a favor and install Moonpath to Elsweyr). This reminds me, don’t even try to start Dawnguard with the unofficial patch at this point. They may update it soon but as of now it causes an instant crash.
Of course when Dawnguard dropped for the PC, I was actually pretty excited. You see, Bethesda may have a troubled history with DLC (The Pitt, Horse Armor, Mothership Zeta, the various houses in Oblivion) but every once in a while they make something really worth playing (Broken Steel and Shivering Isles- though it’s not technically DLC) but shortly after Skyrim was released they came out with this video. I apologize on behalf of Bethesda Softworks for the ‘Arrow to the Knee’ jokes that follow.
Oh Todd Howard. You aren’t fooling anyone. Of course these are going to be released as DLC. In fact, save for a few of the more outlandish (or awesome) concepts proposed, almost everything in that video is a part of Dawnguard. There are new dungeons that utilize flowing water and darkness really well, the player can become a vampire lord through the main quest, both vampires and werewolves now have a perk tree, there are fat ice giants, there’s a new skeletal horse mount, there are waygates that can be used for fast-travel, there are exploding bolts that can be fired with the new crossbows, and kill cams for magic and ranged attacks along with mounted combat have already been added to the game through free patches. What’s even more exciting is that many of these actually hold interesting implications for the overall gameplay.
In vanilla Skyrim, being a werewolf or vampire was almost more of a chore than a new playstyle. Werewolves were denied the rest bonus in exchange for a means to excel at combat while not gaining any extra experience. Using beast form was more of a coward’s way out than an actual addition to the game. Vampires had it even worse with being denied the ability partake in combat effectively during the daylight hours. Sure their abilities were okay, but they didn’t extend past a few simple spells or passive buffs that could easily be replicated through magic or alchemy. And who could forget all those times where you forgot to feed and now everyone in town is hostile. With the new perk trees, you’re no longer taking a break from character progression but rather advancing a secondary set of skills. Though these perk trees are not nearly as involved as I would like, they’re definitely an improvement over the base Skyrim.
The new dungeons are also rather impressive. I had to turn off several graphics mods in order to really appreciate them since the mod designers obviously couldn’t have predicted the lighting conditions. Bethesda has clearly taken a hint from the overwhelmingly positive reception of Blackreach and filled most of the dungeons with glowing fungi. It was a cool effect when we first saw it in Skyrim, especially after trudging around in the snow for so long, but the magic of it is lost when it’s used so often. The new outdoor areas also show a good level of polish. Numerous waterfalls lined with icicles and natural looking river valleys dot the areas and it’s easy to tell that a lot of work went into them. Aside from the dungeons and locals made specifically for the main quest, there is a totally new set of dungeons tied to a quest chain that centers around a mysterious Aetherium Forge.
Where Dawnguard falls remarkably short is in the story department. At least in that sense it lives up to Skyrim. We are again treated to a story that seems to have far too little in the way of consequences. Sure, I just killed Alduin, who it turns out isn’t even the god of time himself returning to devour the world. There are still dragons though! Sure I just killed the emperor. Don’t expect to hear about it from anyone not tied directly to the quest. You get the picture. The bar for Dawnguard isn’t set very high and boy does it strive for mediocrity. From the very outset my Imperial vampire has to talk to a guard (or be approached in public) in order to even hear about the reformation of the old clan of vampire hunters. Then I’m asked to walk right into their fortress and carry out a mission for them. Sure I can justify that by saying I’m simply looking for more of my kind, but this could’ve easily been avoided by having a vampire NPC approach you and direct you to the opposing faction. So we’re off to a rocky start for the vampires, but things get a bit more believable from there. In an ancient crypt you find a vampire who’s been asleep for centuries named Serana. She’s your average mid-20′s sexy vampire who’s full of sarcastic quips, but it just so happens that the entire plot of Dawnguard revolves around her. Interestingly enough, she’s carrying an Elder Scroll. After taking her back to her father’s castle you then find out about a vampire plot to block out the sun using the aforementioned scroll along with two others. Just like the glowing mushrooms, the impact of the eponymous Elder Scrolls is diminished when you just throw them around like this. Oblivion only had one Elder Scroll and it’s power was so profound and reality altering that the player knew pretty quickly that they aren’t to be trifled with. Even stealing the scroll itself was part of the most elaborate heists in all of videogames. I’m not going to give anything else away about Dawnguard’s plot, but let me just say that the lack of a truly ‘evil’ ending is pretty upsetting.
So the vampire campaign leaves a bit to be desired. That’s understandable considering that Bethesda tends to favor the heroes in their recent games. The problem is that the campaign for the members of the Dawnguard is exactly the same. You go to the ancient crypt, rescue Serana, and deliver her and the Elder Scroll to her father. Let me repeat that so you understand it: having just joined an order of vampire hunters, the Dovahkiin frees a vampire who’s older than the Empire itself and then delivers her along with one of the most powerful artifacts in existence to a castle full of vampires. What the hell Bethesda? I know your stories are generally pretty linear but this is just lazy. Sure Serana brings back the scroll and says that she doesn’t really like her dad that much, but even the other characters aren’t buying this crap. The only reason she seems to be around is that she makes for good fan fiction. She’s rather obviously some writer’s baby and so she had to be the center of attention for the DLC, but she’s just plain unlikable. The voice of a 2o-something American girl with a thing for sarcasm simply doesn’t suit an ancient vampire. She also doesn’t seem to be very knowledgeable about almost anything. As someone interested in the lore of the series, this seemed like a golden opportunity to give some perspective on the sprawling history of Tamriel. Put simply, the story of Dawnguard hinges on Serana, and her lackluster performance drags the whole thing down.
Overall, Dawnguard is worth your time though. While the story leaves quite a bit to be desired, the new gameplay mechanics really help to spice up the less refined elements of Skyrim. Bethesda did a service to fans by delivering many of the features from their game jam video, but the glue that holds them together is so unappealing that I would say wait until a price drop. The good things in Dawnguard are worth your time, just not $20.