DLC is a polarising phenomenon to say the least, but do you know who I feel sorry for? The developers. Particularly in a game like Skyrim. Imainge you’ve just crafted a world – crafted a world! – down to the fungus growing on the tree stump just over the bridge from Riverwood, and finally the game ships to great fanfare. Then the big bosses look in on your humble cubicle and say “Nice job on creating a hundredweight of dungeons with individual character. Now, get busy doing a bunch more for the DLC”.
Exhausting work. The incredible levels of imagination displayed by the developers in creating the core game is profoundly impressive, and for them to do it all over again is an amazing thing.
But is that really all there is to it? GD’er Divayth, in his own Dawnguard review, pointed out that, if you break it down to a dollar-per-game-hour equation, this DLC is nowhere near as good value as vanilla Skyrim. And that’s true. There are two storylines here, which segue into the main game at whatever point you happen to be when the DLC is installed, and you can only play through one of them in a given game as they’re opposed to one another.
Along with these two storylines come the expected new dungeons, items, and powers. In fact, the ability to transform into a huge blue vampire lord and rend your foes with poisoned talons while they’re assaulted by clouds of bats is certainly a major selling point. But if you’ll permit me a moment to enthuse:
For me, the thing that makes Skyrim stand out as the best game I’ve ever played is the level design. There are plenty of RPGs where dungeons are nothing more than a series of rooms connected by passages with no rhyme or reason. In Skyrim everything seems to be placed for a reason and it’s always fascinating to see what’s around the next corner. Dawnguard continues this proud tradition admirably, with levels ranging between fast-paced and linear to gloomy, dreary open-world maps that stretch seemingly forever in all directions.
The tale of vampires versus those who would hunt them, and the internal politics on both sides of that conflict is engaging and well-told, and the ‘shadow war’ concept works well as a DLC – it’s easy to accept that your character has simply not noticed it until the time that you installed the new content. There is a ton of new lore, as well, for those Skyrimmers who love to spend their time with their noses stuck in the in-game books.
New items and spells are well-balanced, if not desperately game-changing in their approach. In fact, the ability to turn into a vampire lord is the only thing that’s going to change your approach to the way you play Skyrim to any real extent. Not that that is anything to sniff at – most Bethesda DLC hasn’t taken this route in the past.
But if wampyres aren’t really your fawourite thyng, would Dawnguard be worth your money? Well, that all depends on what you do with Skyrim. The ability to craft dragonbone weapons is new with the DLC, although you’ll need to be rocking a straight 100 in your smithing skill to make use of this feature. If you’re a modder, however, there’s a lot of new stuff here to mess about with. New meshes, textures, armour and weapons, creatures… for a jaded modder who has drank his fill of the original Skyrim assets, this is a treasure-trove of new stuff to play with. Be warned, though – for one thing, a little tweaking of files is required to get everything working properly, and releasing mods that use Dawnguard files but will run on vanilla Skyrim could cause some legal, licencey-type problems. While we’re on the subject of mods, it’s worth hanging around on forums and stuff if you use a lot of mods – naturally, they won’t all play nicely with Dawnguard. I personally had some trouble using the vampire’s seduction power to feed on the living (presumably due to some mod or other that I was running) and therefore had to use the console to skip past a particular scene.
It’s tough to really say what, if anything, I would have changed about Dawnguard. The story is good, if not desperately original in its ‘vampires versus hunters’ foundation. The level design, use of sound and characterisation is as good as we’ve come to expect, and the extra gewgaws and knickknacks that serve as the icing on the vampiric cake are present and correct. It’s not… well, you see the problem is only that Skyrim was so good. It’s just not jaw-dropping in comparison to the core game. It feels ‘about right’, which is to say ‘more Skyrim’. I suppose, I would have liked to have seen more opportunities for you to make use of the vampiric abilities outside of the main storyline – odd encounters that would encourage you to play with your suite of abilities, should you have chosen that path – but this is really stretching.
My wife came into the room while I was playing Dawnguard, just in time to see my gruesome transformation into a vampire lord, and as I took to the air, she asked "Are you playing as that wingéd creature?" So far, this is the first game I've ever played that has made my non-gamer wife use a word like 'wingéd'. For that reason alone, I have no hesitation in recommending Dawnguard.