Dawnguard is the first downloadable expansion for Bethesda’s much beloved, if sometimes frustrating, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As if you needed more to do in what may be the most immersive and expansive console experience ever, Dawnguard adds areas, characters, followers, quests, items, skills, and, oh yeah, vampires. A lot of vampires.
When Skyrim released and questions about DLC, Bethesda was quick to assure us that any DLC for Skyrim would be more the scale of their own fantastic Shivering Isles, and far less their much-maligned Horse Armor. Luckily for fans of The Elder Scrolls, Bethesda has succeeded not only in producing a fantastic DLC expansion for Skyrim, but in releasing the single most excellent piece of DLC/add-on content for any game ever.
Now that the bold claims are out of the way, let’s take a moment and consider them. I mean, aside from the aforementioned Shivering Isles, the competition for “Best DLC Ever” is probably between BioShock 2′s Minerva’s Den and Mass Effect 2′s Lair of the Shadow Broker. Both of these, while excellent, failed to accomplish what Dawnguard has done here. Those were each self-contained adventures that just sort of… happened. Side stories that weren’t necessary to the main plot, and typically felt more like diversions than additions. This is not the case with Dawnguard. The new quest line becomes available somewhere around level 10. Don’t worry, you don’t even have to hunt for it. At some point (probably the least convenient point possible) you will fast travel to a town and be ambushed by a group of hostile vampires. Survive the battle and you will meet a member of the newly reformed Dawnguard, a group dedicated to the eradication of vampires. He will send you to their fort, aptly named Fort Dawnguard, where your vampiric adventure begins.
Now, I’ll not give specifics or write spoilers here, but rest assured, the Dawnguard quest, whether you choose to become the Vampire Lord or destroy him, will intertwine with the main quest in some very interesting ways. If we think about Skyrim and its various systems that are constantly at work, Dawnguard simply adds another layer. Constantly worried about dragons circling your head? Well make sure you keep an eye on the ground as well, because you might just walk into a pack of vampires, gargoyles, & hellhounds or Dawnguard Scouts who just may have an Armored Troll in tow, all depending on the choices you have made in the Dawnguard quest.
It also bears mentioning that Dawnguard is huge. While most areas already existed in the game, expect to spend close to 30 hours on ONE SIDE of the vampire conflict by the time you complete the DLC’s main quest and side missions. Should you decide to give it another go from the opposite perspective, you will cruise through a bit faster but probably still hit the 20 hour mark. If that isn’t worth your $20, I don’t know what is. I’ve paid $60 for shorter games with worse writing and less interesting characters. I promise, Dawnguard at $20 is a bargain.
As if that wasn’t enough, the newly added crossbow is really a welcome addition. My character, a thief/assassin, was already an archery specialist, and all archery perks apply directly to the crossbow, so I was one shotting just about every enemy I came across with ease. The relative lack of available bolts is the only thing that kept me going back to my conventional bow. Other items, including Dawnguard and Vampire armor sets and some palette swapped weapon variants, are nice, but don’t add much given that their stats are equivalent to equipment already present in Skyrim. Still, a new look can’t hurt, and the cape on the Vampire Royal Armor is pretty sweet.
We’ve covered the quest, the story, and the items. All that leaves are the skills, and here may be the one area where Bethesda missed out. Dawnguard adds 2 new skill trees, one for Werewolves and one for Vampire Lords. These allow you to further empower your supernatural form. Unfortunately, using your supernatural form isn’t really any more fun than it was before. I’m a thief who spends most of his time trying NOT to be noticed, something about turning into a giant winged vampire beast just doesn’t feel right, and the powers themselves are pretty hit and miss. The highlight of this for me, however, has to be the power that allows a Vampire Lord to dissolve into a flurry of bats and reappear elsewhere. That one pretty much never gets old.
All told, Dawnguard is really fantastic. Any owner of Skyrim should seriously consider giving it a download, and I feel nothing but sympathy towards my PS3 faithful friends who still have no idea when they might get to play this fantastic addition to an already fantastic game. I could, and will, gush for hours about Dawnguard, just not here. I’m already building my case for a ‘DLC of the Year’ article to close out the year alongside Game of the Year, and I think I’ve got my front-runner right here.