Review: Being a Vampire Bites in 'Dawnguard'

Skyrim's first chunk of much-anticipated DLC arrives, and after the eight or so hours of playing it and reaching the end of the new story missions within, I'm left disappointed. It's not that I didn't enjoy the new crossbow, which is a fine weapon, and in the vampire quest line I chose to follow (you can be with them or against them and I was in the "with" camp) was no more nor any less pulpy dark fantasy than the rest of the Skyrim campaign. Sure, mounted combat was more of a curiosity than something that I'd like to use regularly, and playing in the new Vampire Lord form is more often than not a broken experience, but that's not what put me off Dawnguard.

The problem was that I felt like I wasn't playing the Skyrim that I was used to: the one where I hike from points A to B (usually with a companion along) and nearly obsessively pick up side quests and detours along the way. The thing that's typically the most harrying for me, the need to veer off the path and see what else there is to do, is largely absent from the silent halls, winding caves, and mostly empty netherworld of Dawnguard. Along with performance issues that ranged from mildly annoying to outright game-breaking, my time as a vampire in Skyrim left me wanting more, but not in the way Bethesda intended.

Things got off to an inauspicious start when I loaded up my game for the first time in a couple of months, was attacked by a dragon in a village, and promptly approached by a member of the vampire-hunting group the Dawnguard. A couple of accidental button presses later, and I had no idea where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do next. I don't recall how I ultimately found the Dawnguard stronghold (I think the new quest populated my list of active quests), but once there I enlisted and got my orders: find out what the vampires were so intent on digging up in a cave to the north.

What the vamps were looking for was Serana, a pureblood vampire woman who's integral to the Dawnguard storyline. It's no spoiler to reveal that you take her home to dad, Harkon, an imperious vampire lord, who offers you the chance to also become an uber vampire as thanks for saving his daughter. So of course, I say yes, because "vampire lord," right? From there, you're sent on a series of fetch quests involving a trio of Elder Scrolls and a bow shrouded in mystery (this plot point is effectively spoiled in the trailer).

And this isn't all that much different from the structure of most quests in Skyrim, save Harkon's will have you wandering around in caves and mostly barren underground complexes where going off the beaten path doesn't reveal more adventure, more characters and potential quests, just more loot and enemies. And after a while it becomes a slog. The main quest line and the mystery of the bow and how Serana fits into it aren't all that compelling. None of the new vampire characters introduced go too far outside of the "imperious immortal" mold, so there's not much to get excited about on that front.

The new major combat option—the vampire lord form—is, not to put too fine a point on it, terrible. The transformation (which requires about four to five precious seconds during combat) kicks your view out to third person, where you can either swipe at enemies using your ungainly melee attacks or use your projectile spells which are harder still to target. Being a vampire means that prolonged exposure to the sun will stop your health, magicka, and stamina from regenerating unless you drain an enemy of their blood, so you might want to think about waiting until night to do most of your questing. Weirdly, you can't access your supplies in the vampire lord form (the B button pulls up the vampire skill tree, meaning that if you want to dump points into the vampire path when leveling up, it's level up > transform to vampire > navigate to vampire tree > use points).

On the technical side, I'd experienced two crashes while heading north. I have no idea what caused them, but a quick Google search of "Dawnguard" + "crash" yielded a few hits. Additionally, your new traveling companion Serana will not shut up—I don't mean that she's chatty, I mean that she'll get stuck cycling through the same lines.

It's not all bad: some of the new environments are downright breathtaking in their vastness (there's an expansive underground city that has so much implied story about it, and I will be going back in there to kill some things), and the journey to the Cairn is a cool deviation (before it wears out its welcome somewhat). Crossbows are a fine addition to the game's arsenal, along with an end-of-campaign bow that has a very cool secondary effect with specially-equipped arrows. Plus, two of the boss battles really kept me on my toes and involved making me deviate from the typical attack/run pattern that I've relied on for a while now.

Picking up the Dawnguard DLC will likely come down to this for you: how much do you love the combat of Skyrim? That's mostly what it is and that's mostly what you'll be doing. It's not bad by any measure, but it's also way too focused for the kind of adventuring I've enjoyed doing in Skyrim.

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