Game Review: Skyrim – Dawnguard

Mark Butler delivers his verdict on the eagerly-anticipated expansion for Bethesda’s epic RPG, available to download now for Xbox360.

Considering that the fifth entry in The Elder Scrolls series is one of the most vast, expansive, content-rich experiences in perhaps the entire history of the gaming medium, the question that immediately springs to mind upon considering Dawnguard is obvious: does the seasoned Skyrim player really need more quests to tackle, dungeons to plunder, and skills to master?

Priced at a hefty 1600 Microsoft Points, this DLC offers both an entirely new quest-line and a fairly copious amount of cool features. New to the party are crossbows, powerful Dragonbone weapons and the long sought-after boon of mounted combat – not to mention Vampire and Werewolf perks and skill-trees. There are also new monsters to slay, fresh dragon shouts to acquire, and additional challenges and enemies to sink your teeth into. Sometimes literally.

That said, it doesn’t introduce a separate, self-contained map to explore. All new locations are instead accommodated within the existing landscape that has become so familiar to hardcore players over the past eight months. Although these locations  offer up a fair dollop of intrigue, the lack of a distinct open-world area with its own backdrop, wildlife, and populace, has to go down as something of a disappointment.

You kick off this DLC’s exploits upon overhearing talk of a recruitment drive by the mysterious ‘Dawnguard’, and journey to their citadel in the south-east corner of the map. An hour or so later, after a pretty satisfying slice of dungeon-crawling, the real meat of the drama makes itself known. The ancient, powerful vampire Lord Harkon is mounting a dastardly scheme to usher in a new era of prosperity for his shadowy bloodsucker clan. And as you might expect, you have the choice of whether to join his ranks – or oppose him.

Becoming a monstrous, winged Vampire Lord is your reward should you elect to side with Harkon, and in theory it’s by far the cooler option. Able to transform back and forth at will, you can glide silently over obstacles and rend foes apart with your bare hands. You can drain life from enemies with a sweep of your right claw; and resurrect them with a shrug of your left. You can even transfigurate into a swarm of bats to teleport across large, open spaces; and that’s just for starters. As your powers grow and your abilities muster even more potential, you begin to feel like the ultimate badass – until that embarrassing moment when you get trapped in a storeroom because your wings won’t fit through the door. Oh.

In practice, the Vampire Lord form is actually incredibly awkward to use – handling like a drunk, ugly river-barge -  and because you can’t loot bodies or open chests when you’re in full-on monster mode, you frequently find yourself swapping between the human and beast forms just so you can pick up your well-earned spoils in each room or chamber. It’s fair to say that transforming back and forth can begin to grate, and you may find that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Alternatively, you can side with the Dawnguard and indulge your own Buffy or Blade fantasy by becoming a full-on vampire hunter, which is not exactly a bad option. With crossbow in hand you can go all Van Helsing on your opponents, armored troll companions are available for hire, and because you can’t be both a werewolf and a vampire simultaneously, those who enjoy a bit of lupine carnage might well decide that some Underworld-style scrapping is called for.

The main story-line of Dawnguard will take you around eight or nine hours to complete, assuming you’ve unlocked enough of the map to fast-travel within touching distance of key locations. Otherwise, it may take considerably longer than that.

Similar in feel, tone and style to one of the pre-existing ‘faction quests’, it spins a solid but not exactly gripping narrative, taking in the usual array of kill, fetch and investigate missions along the way. It’s clear that attempts have been made to avoid the same-old procession of dusty dungeons and glyph-based puzzles we all know too well, as there is a certain degree of variety in the environments. A visit to a spectral realm at one point – all shadowy towers and columns of purple light – is a particular highlight.

Some of the new characters are great – particularly tragic yet wryly humorous vampire companion Serana – yet the story never really feels particularly dramatic or engrossing, and at times the introduction of unexpected figures, who inevitably prolong your quest with yet another task of some sort to fulfill, just seems like unnecessary padding.

Those looking for additional treats will no doubt find a certain amount of satisfaction in garnering new armour, weapons and bonuses such as a spectral horse that can be summoned at will (if you complete the required side-quest), but the question of whether this additional content is worth the asking price is not an easy one to answer.

Dawnguard’s central saga is well worth getting stuck into if you’re a committed Skyrim fanatic who’s exhausted everything the main game has to offer. And there is a generous smattering of fresh features here. But given the disappointing lack of a whole new landscape to explore, and the significant  price attached to this add-on, it’s certainly not the must-buy that many were expecting.

FMV Rating: ***

 

Dawnguard will be released for PC and PlayStation 3 at some point in the coming months.

 



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