After a couple of months spent kneeling at the altar of Microsoft exclusivity, Skyrim's first expansion Dawnguard has made its expensive way to the admirably-supported PC version. It brings vampires and it brings vampire hunters - but will it bring the game-changing of Bloodmoon or the deflation of Shivering Isles? Gaze into my proud undead eyes, human cattle, and allow me to seduce you into reading on.
Bethesda's RPGs have always had something of a Jenga quality to them - teetering towers of ideas, features, environments, loot and AI behaviours that could collapse at any moment but always just about stays standing, often impressively so. In Skyrim, this wobbling structure looked less precarious than it has in the past, but some of those little wooden oblongs still look rather worn. With over half a year to work on first major expansion Dawnguard, and in the wake of Skyrim becoming Bethesda's most successful game to date, I'd been hoping - confident, even - that this might be chance to address some of the persistent complaints and to make fundamental additions to the formula rather than simply balance more blocks on top that shuddering tower. Sadly not. Dawnguard seems to have been developed in a vacuum, as it seems bewilderingly oblivious to what the modding community have done, what critics and gamers alike complained about and even to the nature and allure of vampires, which it is so heavily focused on.
I am somewhat perplexed as to many of the design decisions made in Dawnguard - were they a result of limited resources, of Bethesda's A-team having already moved on to the next project, or simply of faltering imaginations? Not my place to speculate perhaps, but the result is, if not an actual failure, a drawn-out disappointment, and very much at odds with earlier claims made regarding Skyrim expansions being game-changers rather than just more of the same content.
The $20 expansion pack seems to involve crudely forcing a whole load of new things into gaps they don't entirely fit into, rather than truly redoing or rethinking anything, and as a result its new features and abilities often come across as awkward and rough. I'd say they seem like mods, but given that some of the spectacular stuff the modding community has come up with over the last few months is superior to much of Dawnguard, that wouldn't be an entirely accurate statement. Mods make Skyrim a better game. Dawnguard, for the most part, simply makes Skyrim a bigger game. Mods are free. Dawnguard is $20. Allow yourself to guided by maths on this one. Maths has the answers. Maths understands. Maths loves you. Maths knows that yet more endless bloody Falmer dens are not what you wanted.
As a clutch of content, Dawnguard is primarily an extra guild/faction campaign, comparable in both size and narrative structure to the Thieves, Companions, Dark Brotherhood et al. That said, it has two opposing paths - either joining the vampires or the vampire-hunters, the titular Dawnguard, so if you've got a second Skyrim character there's in theory double the content. Though from what I'd read both stories wind up on the same path anyway. I've played through the Vampire campaign, and rather than a dark odyssey it was a forgettable trudge. So much filler, so much dragging it out, so much tiresomely and repeatedly trekking across the land to find thing X and bring it to person Y, so many bloody Falmer dens. It was boring. It was content, for content's sake. So much time, money, manpower, anticipation for something so ordinary.
Dawnguard's tedium is not for wont of ideas - they're there in abundance. The problem is purely one of execution, but it's not for me to say whether that's due to the limitations of Skyrim and the geriatric Gamebryo engine and roleplaying rules underneath it or a human failing. I visited new areas of Skyrim, I found lost, mystical glades, I explored the world beyond worlds that provides the source of Necromancers' power, I roamed through a secret Vampire stronghold, I visited with members of one of Tamriel's great lost races. I even had a nose around some botanical gardens. Some of the new settings looked jolly good, though that's at least as much to do with the slew of graphical mods I'm running as anything else, but many were simply more of the same and, in the case of the two most in theory epic new locales, were so over-sized and empty of interactions as to quickly undermine their impressive appearance.
One thing I should point out, while being careful not to drop any spoiler-bombs, is that Dawnguard will doubtless prove vital for Elder Scrolls lore-heads. It provides direct encounters with and large chunks of backstory on key players in this fictional universe's meta-narrative, and I've no doubt Wikia editors have had a field day with the info-goodies it offers. For me it was a case of fact over feeling, with the latter-day Bethesda games' traditional flat, flaky voice performances robbing major moments and what should have been tragic characters of emotional resonance.
The storylines, abstractly, are strong and nuanced ones which address TES' bigger picture rather than get bogged down in further dragon-bothering, but in practice I did not care for the fates of these people. It's the same old problem, but arguably larger than in Skyrim due to the important nature and sad fates of some of these new characters. Is it that Bethesda simply don't agree with the ongoing criticism of the acting in their games, that they don't think it's important, or that it's not possible to objective about their babies? It's not simply a matter of voice, either - the aforementioned encounter with a survivor of a lost race, on paper an exciting, moving moment, involved wandering up to a character standing all but rooted to the spot in a cave, wobbling their head as they drily trotted out lore and quest objectives. What gravitas! What gravitas? For added effect, the game decided to have the character turn their back to me for the duration of my initial conversation with them.
Enough! This complaint has been made so very many times before, after all. Let's talk about the wampyr. The major feature addition to Dawnguard is flying vampire lords, a new class of vampire open to you upon completing an early quest. Well, let's take out flying for starters, because a flapping wings animation doth not actual flight make. There's no gliding gracefully across the mountaintops, and no vertical ascent of any kind, though it does carry you across water, in fairness. Being a Vampire Lord initially seems like it can only the the best thing, as you turn into a hulking monster with wings on his back, the face of a particularly pissed-off dog and a clutch of big new spells such as turning into a cloud of bats, summoning a gargoyle defender and draining lifeforce.
Being a vampire sounds cool! Being a vampire is annoying. It's a monster mode rather than an addition to existing abilities and armour - you lose access to all world and character interactions other than the vampire's spells, which are all crazily dumped into the Favourite Abilities pop-up menu. The inventory, map, questlog and standard magic menu are deactivated, with the only screen you're able to bring up being a special new Perks menu, housing vamp abilities only. Transforming between modes is relatively slow and cumbersome, so checking something in your stash/log or looting bodies and chests if you're in a Lord form is a real chore. It seems like the quickest, dirtiest way to introduce a new set of abilities - just turn everything else off and shove this entirely different module in instead.
In other words, being a vampire lord is only of use in the midst of combat, as for the rest of the time it blocks crucial parts of the game entirely. I appreciate that conversation with NPCs isn't an option when I'm a creature so hated and feared, but I don't know how that encompasses not being to use a map, where my loot vanishes to or being incapable of picking anything up. So, I increasingly avoided transformation, that much did it get in the way of playing the bally game. It didn't help that my enLordened form was that much more of a weakling compared to my level 46 stealth-warrior with his dragonscale armour and ultra-enchanted weapons.
I stuck it out for a while to try and earn more perks, such as a temporarily invulnerable mist-state and a slow-motion mode, but the new powers didn't feel worth the combat disadvantage, while having my custom-built hero transform into a one with a prefab appearance and skillset weakened my connection to him. As a final insult, Vampire Lord is third-person view only, and the game doesn't remember that you were playing in first-person perspective prior to each transformation, so you'll constantly be switching camera mode.
Dawnguard also fails to do much interesting with the vampire concept. Perhaps I'm spoilt by Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines, but there's little in the way of trickery and subterfuge, of being the terror that stalks the night, of being the glamorous creature with a heart of ice. Either I'm a hovering dogman or I'm trying to find someone sleeping so I can drink their blood unseen. Dawnguard does toy with the horror of the situation, with its most memorable and only chilling scene being a banquet hall where whimpering human 'cattle' lie along the tablets and gruesome chunks of meat and ribcage litter the plates.
It's really onto something here: when I saw it I sprang to attention, believing it to be the herald of something sinister and amoral, the start of fascinating quests that would dictate the nature of my character rather than purely their abilities. But that was it, just that fixed, repeating scene, with Vampire NPCs' eating animations on a blatant loop and never actually coming into physical contact with their living meals. It was a visual reward for accepting vampirism, and nothing more.
That's the greatest let-down of Dawnguard, I think. There is no new means of roleplaying as a vampire here, with the quest chain almost immediately becoming an over-long, over-familiar search for a series of magic doohickeys rather than exploring what it means to be a bloodsucker. Even my new abilities were only called upon once, which was a scripted use of the faintly useless Vampire Seduction power that's simply Calm by another name. That, bar a climactic boss fight, it all wound up in two absurdly long trudges through the underground Falmer dens (comparable in uninspiring tedium to Dragon Age's Deep Roads area) we've seen so many times in vanilla Skyrim says it all, I think.
Then there are the same old problems - springing to mind are Lydia-style looped, infuriating speech samples from the new follower character and a smattering of bugs it seems impossible to imagine didn't come up during QA. I repeatedly got stuck in doorways and cramped tunnels while a vampire lord, and at one point had to enter a series of command lines into the console because an NPC I had to follow for one of the storyline-critical quests wouldn't move. Oh, Elder Scrolls - never change. No, wait, please change. Please.
Were this a positive write-up I'd probably be offering nitpicks by way of balance about now, so let me do the inverse. There are a few aspects of Skyrim which deserve honourable mentions, primarily because they have some benefit to the base game rather than just the underwhelming new campaign. I can't detail the greatest of these, due to the dread spoiler-beast, but it's a particularly entertaining new dragon shout. Also in there are some new spells which will please anyone who felt Skyrim gave Necromancy short thrift, and a couple of gosh-wow environments where the game removes the mountains and presents you with an enormous, sweeping space.
Dawnguard certainly doesn't leave any deep wounds in Skyrim, and there is something to be said for simply throwing a load more toys into its big old sandbox. I'm a big fan of Skyrim (though do retract my perhaps reckless earlier assertion that it's better than Morrowind, as it hasn't left enduring memories or pub anecdotes in the way TES3 did) and Dawnguard hasn't changed that. The trouble is that it's a series of great ideas let down by what seems like half-hearted execution and, of course, that price. Take 50% off that frankly scandalous $20/£14 tag and I wouldn't be half as cross with it. Instead, here's Skyrim's one true bloodsucker.