Published on July 4th, 2012 | by Cameron Woolsey
Skyrim: Dawnguard Review
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC at a later date
Release Date: June 26, 2012
MSRP: $20 (1600 MS Points)
Review Notes: A game token was received for review purposes.
It’s been more than seven months since Skyrim, the fifth incarnation of Bethesda’s famous Elder Scrolls series, swooped into our lives swallowing hours upon hours of our precious time (also claiming a perfect score from us). We explored the game’s vast, untamed wilderness, trenched through dozens of dark and foreboding caves, and traversed long dust-coated hallways of ancient ruins. Yet even if you can claim to be the ultimate Skyrim warrior, perhaps boasting to have experienced nearly everything the game has to offer, no doubt you have felt that there are still a few more secrets hidden away in the frost-tipped mountains of the Nordic homeland.
Enter Dawnguard, Skyrim‘s first downloadable content pack. This new set of missions offers a bit of a change of tone to the game’s usual Norse atmosphere. Dawnguard delves into the supernatural by focusing on one of the darkest cultures of the Elder Scrolls franchise: The vampires.
One of the constant themes with Skyrim is that the player is tasked to join sides with one of two warring factions. Dawnguard continues that tradition by allowing you to join with the vampires, who have grown tired of hiding from the tyrannical sun, or the Dawnguard, warriors of the light who believe that the human race will be fine without extra neck holes.
To initiate the line of quests you must be at least level 10. You will be approached by a Dawnguard recruiter who will ask for your aid to quell the increasing number of vampire attacks. Fort Dawnguard, your destination if you choose to join, is nestled in a small hidden valley in the mountains near Riften. Once I arrived, I realized that these poor saps were in greater need than I thought. Their numbers were thin, and their warriors ranked from grumpy orc, grumpy orc number two and a farm boy whose primary weapons were cowardice and “pa’s ax.”
The rabble is led by Isran, a Redguard so uptight I felt that he probably killed more vampires using the stick up his ass than the warhammer strapped to his back. His seething hatred for vampires would be inspiring, if it wasn’t so terrifying.
Dawnguard returns the classic crossbow to the armory, a weapon which has been absent since being featured in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The crossbow fires steel bolts, and is fairly powerful but slow to reload. It’s made of steel, so if your blacksmith skill is high enough to upgrade it, the crossbow becomes a formidable long-range weapon. If you join with the Dawnguard, you are given the chance to run some side quests that will have you searching for ammo upgrades in Dwemer ruins and bandit holes. The upgrades add an elemental explosion to the bolts that can be either bought or crafted at a forge.
Other features that comes with the pack are mounted combat, which works far better than I had imagined, new armor such as light and heavy Dawnguard uniforms and vampire armor and new upgradeable perks for the werewolf which includes Bestial Strength, Animal Vigor and Savage Feeding. On top of that, the town of Riften now houses a woman who can change your character’s appearance from your face to hair.
The campaign introduces new enemies into the fray. The Death Hounds are hideous dogs with black fir, red eyes and teeth like kitchen knives. Going against them is no fun, but if you choose to join the vampires you can actually bring one along as a pet. That is, if you like being tailed by something that looks like a cross between Cujo and an alien from “The Thing.” The game also features enormous gargoyles which will burst out of statues to attack you.
The goals of each faction are rather simple: If you join up with the vampires you are tasked with finding a weapon powerful enough to darken the skies. As a Dawnguard lackey, your job is to stop the vampires by turning the weapon against them. The main missions are technically the same no matter which master you choose to serve, but each are different in how they operate. The Dawnguard’s goals consist of finding new and powerful recruits and increasing the strength of their weapon stock. With the vampires, you are thrust into games of power and politics as noble vampires fight for the favor of their leader, Lord Harkin, who oversees the entire undead operation in their base, Castle Volkihar off the northwest coast of Skyrim.
Joining either side grants faction-specific perks. If you choose to side with the Dawnguard, besides gaining access to powerful crossbow bolt upgrades, you can also have an armored troll come and fight by your side. However, your reward is much more dramatic if you join the ranks of the blood suckers, who initiate you as a powerful vampire lord.
As the vampire lord you are the most powerful of the undead legion. Once initiated, the camera shifts to third person and you transform into a hulking, gray beast with what appear to be wings. You start off with two spells, one in each hand. On the right is a powerful life-draining spell which can kill most enemies in one or two hits, while the left is a spell to raise the dead. Spell casting is activated by hitting the crouch button, which causes you to float a few inches off the ground and even allow you to hover over water. You are also given a special power which turns you into a swarm of bats, boosting you a small distance forward — this works over small gaps, too. If you run out of magicka you can return the ground below and use your claws.
The vampire lord has an upgradeable perk menu which fills up by killing enemies in your transformed state. Through the menu you can learn new spells, summon a gargoyle or add perks such as increased health and magicka while transformed. The top perk, activated during combat, will surround your character in a swarm of bats that slowly damage nearby enemies.
There are some drawbacks to being a vampire lord, however. Following most myths that surround vampires, you are weak in the sunlight. You won’t burst into flames if you walk out of a cave, mind, nor will you glitter and attract emotionally dead teenagers, but your ability to regain health, stamina and magicka will be affected. Feeding on live human prey will reduce the sun’s affect on you, however doing so will decrease your vampiric powers. To expand on that last part, the longer you stave your hunger the more powerful you will become, but your vulnerability while in the sun will only increase.
Floating over the ground also makes it a little hard to go along narrow paths and bridges, but luckily you can go back and forth between forms at the press of a button.
Besides the two castle forts, you are given a couple new areas to explore during your quest. The most impressive has to be the Soul Cairn, a new realm within Oblivion, where the souls of those used in enchantments are banished for eternity. At first I was awestruck by the macabre environment of the Soul Cairn, with its black and blue skies and deathly ambiance. But that mystique quickly wore off once I delved in and realized how bewildering it was to try and travel about the place. Without any obvious landmarks, it’s easy to get lost in the cairn.
The cairn offers several small fetching quests, but due to its size and complexity, I found myself about as hopelessly astray as the other wandering souls. In my heedless wandering, I often swore under my breath as I wondered, “where are those hidden pages?” or, “was that shop to the south, or southwest?” and, “where the hell is that damn horse head?” and so on. Naturally, it’s a straight path to the goal of the story quest, but completing side missions here will take some time and patience.
A couple good things do come out of the Soul Cairn, one of which happens when you come face to face with the undead dragon Durnehviir. Once defeated, the dragon becomes humbled by your battle prowess and teaches you a shout that summons him into the living world to fight by your side. The dragon, whose shout resurrects undead warriors, teaches you the Soul Tear dragon shout, which rips the souls from your enemies, turning them into your slaves.
The second is the ability to summon the undead horse Arvak — once you’re able to find his skull in the cairn. Arvak is a skeletal horse that burns with a blue flame and can be magically summoned in both the cairn and in the living world. He doesn’t run faster than the typical Skyrim horse, but you will certainly look much more imposing mounted on a flaming undead horse, let me tell you.
The story of Dawnguard puts you on the path of finding an ancient weapon, its whereabouts are known among two Elder Scrolls, the franchise’s namesake and compendium of ancient secrets. One is found early by rescuing Serana, a female vampire and daughter to Lord Harkin. Serana becomes your companion through the story, and provides some deep insight to a mysterious prophecy as well as her troubled past and relationship to her estranged father.
I found Serana to be a great travel companion during my 10-hour run through the Dawnguard campaign. As a vampire and a mage, she’s very powerful and has the ability to drain life as well as raise the dead. Serana can also transform you into a vampire lord at the end of the campaign if you joined with the Dawnguard. But, sorry hopeful romantics, Serana isn’t marriageable.
Those of you who kept up on the history behind the land of Skyrim and its people by talking to dozens of characters and reading the books should be happy to hear that Dawnguard delves a little into the Snow Elves, or Falmer, and answers some questions behind their disappearance and transformation into the deformed creatures that roam the mountains. The pack also offers an exciting reveal that I won’t spoil, but it should bring some joy for fans of Skyrim lore.
The downside to the Falmer portion of the story is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the mystery behind their change. The game answers offers a few answers, but in turn creates even more questions. Just as things started getting more interesting, the game will refocus your attention back to the main story, almost saying, “OK you got to see that, now go back to the vampires,” regardless of how much you want to continue learning about the Falmer and what happens next for the dwindling race. Perhaps future content packs may shed more light.
I was disappointed with the final moments of the Dawnguard campaign. In my mind’s eye I envisioned an epic clash between the forces of light and dark under a blackened sun, but sadly this was not the case. No, after procuring the long-sought weapon, the game quickly pushes you into a final fight which is nothing more than assaulting Castle Volkihar. If you follow the path of the vampire, however, you will be given the title of master vampire and the keep will become your new home.
Though Dawnguard has plenty to offer, I was let down by the campaign. Besides being annoyed with the Soul Cairn, I felt that the game rushed too quickly to the final showdown. The way Dawnguard was paced, I had hoped for a little more than rushing the enemy base and killing the the leader to complete the campaign, something I felt was too habitual of Skyrim‘s other quests. It was just too straight forward and I was rarely given the hint that my quest for the weapon drew much serious attention from the opposition, as I was mostly just occasionally attacked by weak enemies that offered no real threat.
I suppose I expected to go much more in-depth with the vampires and learn more about them, their history and their views of the world through their eyes. I remember how much I enjoyed the mythology behind the werewolves and standing against or alongside them with the Bloodmoon expansion pack for The Elder Scrolls III, and had hoped that Dawnguard would provide a similar feel, but sadly this isn’t the case.
Dawnguard is far from bad, however, and offers a good excuse to get back into Skyrim if you have been taking a break like I have. Regardless of the weak campaign, the return of the crossbow, new weapons and armor, enemies, dragon shouts, a new follower and mounted combat are all great additions to a game that already has so much to offer.
+ Vampire lord is a powerful new form
+ The crossbow returns!
+ New dragon shouts
+ Serana is an excellent new follower
+ 10+ hours of extra gameplay
– Weak campaign
– Soul Cairn
+/- Would have liked to learn more about the Snow Elves