Game Review - 'The Elder Scrolls V: Dawnguard'.

4 stars for 'Dawnguard'

After a furstratingly long wait, the first piece of down-loadable content for Skyrim has finally been released – at least for those playing on Xbox 360. Because, of course, Microsoft's exclusivity deal with Bethesda, where they get first rights to the first couple of pieces of DLC for the game, takes effect now that Dawnguard is ready for release.

Personally, I'm not sure I really understand the value of Microsoft's exclusivity deal with Bethesda. I mean, I know what Bethesda get out of the deal – I'm sure Microsoft paid a fair amount to make it worth their while to go along with it. But, I can't really see what Microsoft actually expect to get out of it. I don't see anyone who doesn't already have a copy of Skyrim on Xbox 360 rushing out to buy one just for the privilege of being out to get Dawnguard a month early. And, I certainly don't see anyone buying a new console. The only people who really benefit from this are those players who already have both an Xbox 360 console, and a copy of the game. And, there's a good chance that most of those people would have bought the content over Xbox Live, anyway. Also, sure, I got to play Dawnguard a month, or so, before anyone using another platform – but, I also know that Microsoft didn't actually make a deal that got me the DLC a month early. Not really, anyway. If it wasn't for Microsoft's exclusivity deal with Bethesda, then Dawnguard probably would have been released on all platforms by now, and not just one. Microsoft didn't get me the DLC a month early, they delayed its release for everyone else. And, personally, I'd really rather they didn't.

Anyway, on to the content itself. The purpose of Dawnguard is relatively straightforward – to take a game that is already filled to bursting with content, and add some more. Dawnguard adds two new factions to the game, and a side plot similar in application to the factions already present (The Companions and the College of Winterhold, etc.). It's a new, and mostly self-contained, story – one that concerns the escalating conflict between a newly re-established order of vampire hunters, and an ancient and particularly powerful vampire bloodline. As well as an ancient prophecy that may free all vampires from the Tyranny of the Sun. And, overall, it makes for an entertaining addition to the game.

The opening moments of Dawnguard were somewhat problematic, though – especially for the sort of player who enjoys creating a character and actually 'role-playing' their way through these sorts of games. It seems that the only way to begin the new quest-line is to make contact with the Dawnguard itself – and, when you do, the very first quest you are given will lead to you meeting a mysterious woman who openly admits to being a vampire and who wants you to escort her to her family's castle (which just so happens to be full of vampires). The thing is, though, that you are not given a choice about this – the woman in question is marked as plot critical (meaning she can't be killed. I know, I tried), and taking her to 'Spooky Vampire Castle' is the only way to continue the story. One the one hand, the need to introduce both new factions to the player is understandable – the player needs to meet both before they can be expected to choose, afterall. On the other, though, the way it is done here feels heavy-handed and artificial. If, for example, you have already decided to fully adopt the anti-vampire policies of the Dawnguard, then taking a vampire back to her vampire family isn't exactly going to be something you want to do – but, you will have to, if you want the story to continue. Alternatively, if you are playing a character who already happens to be a vampire, then it might be a bit of a struggle to justify walking through the front door of the home base of a group dedicated to destroying your kind – yet, that seems to be the only way to get things started. Some players may not be overly bothered by any of this – but, it frustrated me.

Fortunately, though, this is really the only problem I had with Dawnguard. Once you get beyond these initial hurdles, and the story is allowed to progress, things begin to improve dramatically. The Dawnguard, for their part, make for an entertaining selection of suitably crazy vampire hunters. You have the hard-arse fanatic leader, who reminded me more than a little of Blade; a priest who may be crazy, may be faking it, or may actually be on a first name basis with his god; and, a hunter who has somehow found a way to train trolls. The vampires, on the other hand, have all the over the top evil and overt creepiness you could possibly want – and, unsurprisingly, immortal creatures turn out to have plenty of time on their hands for all sorts of political power-plays and backstabbing. Also, the previously mentioned vampire, Serana, turns out to be a surprisingly endearing and well developed character, with an important role to play in the story (which made me feel a little better about not being able to kill her when we first met)

The new locations are all of the level of quality you would expect from Skyrim – including two sprawling castles, one belonging to the Dawnguard and the other ruled by Lord Harkon and his court of vampires, a surprise journey to another of the many separate realms of Oblivion, and the caves and valleys holding the ruins of a long-lost civilisation. There are some expected additions to the game-play itself, as well. Being a significantly more powerful and pure blood-line of vampires than any we have met up until now, it only makes sense that the vampires who serve Lord Harkon would have some additional powers to play around with. This is represented by the ability to shift into the new Vampire Lord form – a transformation that comes with the natural ability to drain life from their enemies. And, which also includes a new talent tree of vampire-related powers to access while in that form. The Dawnguard, for their part, are mostly limited to their signature crossbows – though, you also have the option of purchasing your very own heavily armoured troll, if you wish. Pointing out that the new powers offered by the Vampire Lord form creates a bit of an imbalance between the two new factions doesn't really seem to be a fair criticism, though. Sure, the Vampire Lord form might be more fun to play around with than the crossbows, or even the armoured trolls – but, arguably, that's exactly how it should be. It's a conflict an ancient and powerful vampire blood-line, and the barely organised group of mortal men and women who hunt them. It just makes sense that the vampires would get the more interesting abilities.

Of course, it's not all about vampire and the collection of crazy bastards who hunt them. One thing that will become clear early on is that Bethesda have also taken the opportunity to slip some more general content into their game. The ability to forge dragon bone weapons, for example, has been added to the crafting options, for those with the skill to make them – filling in a notable absence in the process. Also, while the new talent tree for the Vampire Lord form are clearly linked to the theme of the DLC, there is also a similar selection of new talents for werewolf characters. Players of particularly high level characters may also be interested to know that two new, and more powerful, classes of dragon have been added beyond the 'ancient' dragons while were previously the most powerful you could expect to encounter – now, you will have 'revered' and 'legendary' dragons to contend with. Also, for the observant players, a particularly entertaining new sidequest, unrelated to to anything concerning vampires, will send you off on an epic journey to locate a long lost Dwemer forge.

Now, whether right or wrong, one thing that has become clear is that the number of hours of game-play offered by a new piece of DLC is a very important concern for many players. So, while I can't give an entirely accurate account of the length of my own experience (I kept getting distracted by quests from the original game that I'd somehow missed), I can say that Bethesda's promise of ten to twenty hours of game-play feels about right.

© 2012 Dallas Matier

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