When it comes to RPGs, Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series is a heavyweight. The games in the franchise have built up a tremendous amount of lore over the years, along with what amounts to a fully realized world. The franchise is also known for technical issues, though the strong gameplay has always overshadowed any technical missteps. Such is the case with Dawnguard, the first expansion pack to last fall's Skyrim.
Priced at 1,600 MSP on the Xbox 360 and $20 USD on the PC, Dawnguard isn't cheap, but the content it adds is well worth the cost, especially if you've exhausted the bulk of the main game.
Unlike the Shivering Isles expansion for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dawnguard doesn't drop the player into a segregated part of the world. Instead, the expansion fully integrates itself into the existing world of Skyrim, expanding on the existing environment. There are plenty of new locations to discover, though you'll also be wandering back and forth over some familiar territory.
Dawnguard's main story line delves into the conflict between a vampire faction and the Dawnguard, a newly reformed fighting force dedicated to eliminating vampires from the world. A prophecy from the Elder Scrolls foretold the discovery of Auriel's Bow. It is a weapon of immense power that holds the potential to blot out the sun forever, allowing vampires to roam Skyrim freely and without fear. Whether you choose to side with the vampire clan or fight alongside the Dawnguard forces, obtaining the bow is your ultimate objective.
No matter which side you choose, the main story line consists of 12 quests. The majority of these quests are functionally identical regardless of your aligned faction, which means the real consequence of your decision to side with one or the other lies in the side-quests and your character's alternate form.
Choosing to align with the vampires grants you the vampire lord alternate form, which is new to Skyrim. The vampire lord is a pure form of a vampire and comes complete with a separate skill tree and set of powers. The skill tree isn't tied to your character's level; instead, it tracks how many people you finish off by draining their life while you're a vampire lord. Kill enough, and you unlock a new perk specific to the vampire lord form.
Aligning with the Dawnguard makes it impractical to play as a vampire, though the option is available. As an alternative, the expansion upgrades the werewolf form and adds a werewolf-specific skill tree. If you've already experienced life as a lycanthrope in Skyrim, the new powers will be appreciated as they enhance key abilities.
Both forms are enjoyable to play, and speaking to the right characters in Dawnguard allows you to switch between the two, so picking one or the other is not an absolute decision. With that said, the vampire lord is easily the more enjoyable of the two. Physically, the vampire lord has a nicely balanced mix of ranged and melee attacks, and the perks add useful magical powers.
When in melee form, the vampire lord can use claws to savagely rip apart an opponent. In blood magic form, you float over the world (a useful advantage when it comes to pressure-sensitive traps) and drain life from your opponents at a distance. Other blood magic spells give you the ability to raise the dead, summon a gargoyle to fight by your side, paralyze an enemy or grab one with an invisible grip and then toss him into the air. It's very Darth Vader-esque.
Perhaps the most important of the vampire lord abilities is that NPCs will never fear you while you are in human form. This differs from the traditional vampire disease, which causes NPCs to attack on sight once the disease has progressed far enough. It makes playing as a vampire a viable character choice for the entirety of the main game, should you choose to start from scratch.
Although Bethesda recommends playing Dawnguard after you've reached level 10, it is possible to start the expansion quests immediately simply by seeking out the fort in the southeast corner of the map. The expansion difficulty scales well, and even a brand-new character should be equipped to handle it. Also of note is the way prerequisites are handled.
There are some quests in Dawnguard that require items from the primary Skyrim quest. If you've already completed the main game, then all of the Dawnguard quests will simply follow one after the next. If you haven't played the main game or are rolling a new character, the necessary objectives are seamlessly rolled into the experience. Someone who starts out with Dawnguard wouldn't be able to tell the difference between an expansion quest and fulfilling a primary game objective.
Despite using some existing locations in the world, Dawnguard doesn't skimp on the new areas. Castle Volkihar for the vampires and Fort Dawnguard are both fully realized environments, packed with detail and hidden secrets. The otherworldly Soul Cairn is a large environment, though the Forgotten Vale is easily the largest of the new locations. A massive valley tucked among the northwest mountains, the vale can only be accessed through a series of caves during the Dawnguard quests. Once it is discovered, you can fast-travel to it at any time. The vale provides a beautiful environment to explore as well as an impressive dragon battle if your character level is high enough.
Speaking of characters, the Dawnguard expansion introduces a host of new NPCs for you to interact with. One in particular, the vampire Serana, is noticeably more detailed than the others. She is a primary follower for the main quest line, but she has a better situational awareness than most NPCs. For example, if you happen to be waiting near a forge, she'll start working on her weapons. These animations are minor, yet but they breathe more life into the world.
Also notable among the new characters is Durnehviir, an undead dragon whom you must first fight and then later gain as a shout. By using Durnehviir's shout, you can call the dragon to fight by your side when needed. The shout has a long cooldown, but can be useful in a pinch.
From a technical perspective, Dawnguard isn't perfect. It shares many of the same glitches as Skyrim, with the occasional texture refusing to load or an oddity with an item. We did have one instance where a quest glitched badly enough to require a reload of a previous save. Thankfully, Skyrim's generous auto-save system meant very little actually had to be replayed. In short, if you've experienced any of the Elder Scrolls games before, you know what to expect in terms of bugs.
Ultimately, the decision to purchase Dawnguard or not comes down to whether it's worth the cost. If you enjoyed your time in Skyrim, the answer is an unequivocal yes. This is a true expansion pack that is loaded with content, not a lightweight DLC mission. Dawnguard adds more of what made Skyrim great, without feeling like it was tacked on at the last minute.
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