By Leif Johnson
Dawnguard takes the vampire genre and expands on it, without the sparkles or phoney Louisiana accents littered throughout contemporary depictions of pop culture’s favorite bloodsuckers. No, true to Elder Scrolls tradition (which long predates johnny-come-latelys like Twilight and True Blood), these are vile, monstrous sorts that care much less about dating gothy high schoolers and more about using ancient magic to blot out the sun. For almost 12 hours, you’ll fight them or become one of them. You’ll have a front row seat for watching and participating in vampiric family squabbles. Not only that, but you’ll also spend much of your time hanging out with the hottest and most likeable female character in the game.
In fact, Serana (as she’s known), kind of makes the expansion a must-buy in her own right. It’s hard to talk about her without unleashing a ton of spoilers, but let’s just say that almost every other NPC seems as human as a Minecraft sprite when compared to her. Not only is the best looking woman in Skyrim, but her voice actress seems more skilled than those used elsewhere. When you visit a town, she’ll busy herself with tinkering on a workbench. When you arrive at your house, she’ll have a drink and give you a look that makes you feel guilty for wasting her time. Her pathing is a little off and she’ll sometimes go yards out of the way to catch up with you, but in battle she’s a far more formidable ally than most of your existing choices.
The good news is that Serana will hang out with you no matter which path you take. You can ally yourself with a ragtag group of vampire hunters known as the Dawnguard or the vampires themselves, but the only real perk of joining the good guys is getting the chance to use crossbows. The vampires, on the other hand, offer the chance to become a vampire lord–a frightful monstrosity that can fly for short periods of time and raise armies of undead in one hand and drain blood with the other. There’s even a separate set of perks for being a vampire lord that you earn by sucking the life force out of your foes, including an ability that lets you fling your enemies (and their silly crossbows, too) across the room. With options like that, even Captain America or Superman might be tempted to become a vampire.
BEING A VAMPIRE LORD IS ROUGH
Being a Vampire Lord is rough, though, and not just because of those pesky solar allergies–it also becomes clear that Skyrim’s architects didn’t exactly have Vampire Lords in mind when they were designing buildings. Almost without fail, you’ll have to switch back into human form if you want to get through a doorway, and for some reason, you’ll have to step out of form if you want to do something simple like opening a chest. At times, I found myself wishing these actions would leave my enemies paralyzed by laughter from watching such an absurd sight.
Lore buffs will find a lot to enjoy here, particularly since the one of the largest sections of Dawnguard’s narrative deal with the otherworldly realm where souls go after they’ve been captured in the series’ soul gems. The sequence drags on for a little too long, but there’s a nice payoff in that you gain a mount that you can summon at will almost anywhere in the game (including a few indoor locations). You’ll also find a lot more background information on the Falmer, the eyeless wretches that skulk beneath Skyrim’s snowy wastes, and earn some new shouts, pick up some impressive new weapons, and even earn some new werewolf perks if you decide to stick with the vampire hunters.
There’s also plenty of eye candy. It’s a shame that some of the journey is spent visiting locations we’ve already seen before, but the new spots manage to add an extra degree of majesty to Skyrim’s already impressive landscapes. Truth be told, they sometimes push the limits of immersion. The two castles for each faction are monstrous things that many of Skyrim’s existing towns in size, for instance, and while they’re pretty to look at, their girth seems out of place with the world around it. Skyrim’s world wowed us so much at release precisely because it focused on the muddy villages and modest keeps that typified real Viking settlements; the sprawling excesses of the new buildings, on the other hand, seem more like something out of traditional fantasy environments such as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Thankfully, you’re never in these new settings for long.
If you take your time, you’ll get as much as 12 hours of playtime out of Dawnguard–in other words, about as much playtime as you’ll get from finishing one of the many other storylines already in the launch version of the game. If this were another game, that’d probably be enough to justify its $19.99 price, but it’s something of a stretch for a game that already came with hundreds of hours of gameplay bundled in a convenient $60.00 package. Still, Dawnguard marks a welcome return to Skyrim for those of us who completed every single one of its quests since last year, and its few flaws aren’t enough to damage the whole. All in all, it’s a good reason to return to Tamriel.
Oh, and in case you were wondering — no, you can’t marry Serana. The best ones always seem unavailable, don’t they?