My first and final thoughts on Dawnguard are identical: why vampires? I suppose a zombie-themed DLC would have been more obvious, but Dawnguard brings no new revelations to Tamriel. Indeed, vampires already inhabited Skyrim before June 26th, and at least one quest concerned their elimination. Nevertheless, Elder Scrolls fanatics desire more content, in any form and at any cost, and Dawnguard delivers about eight hours of mandatory questing and an optional three or four besides. Unfortunately, there are fewer reasons to replay Dawnguard than one might wish.
The new quest begins with a rumor that takes the player to a weathered stronghold in the far east. The Dawnguard has risen from obscurity to end the recent vampire infestation maligning Skyrim like a ship full of tainted rats. The vampires vastly outnumber their righteous hunters, however, and so the Dawnguard seeks brave recruits. Eventually, the Dragonborn must make a choice between serving the forces of day and those of night as prophecy looms.
Dawnguard’s plot involves a compassionate vampire companion, a prophecy, a mad vampire lord, and not one, but three Elder Scrolls. While the story takes you to a few wondrous sites of magical and natural beauty, the narrative lacks intrigue and the absurd number of Elder artifacts floating around only serves to cheapen their power. In keeping with the franchise tradition, the main quest is padded with chores, and I was aghast at how often I had to play fetch like a gullible dog. Furthermore, Dawnguard brings no novelty or sophistication to the vampire mythos. Even in Skyrim, vampires haunt gothic, gargoyle-studded castles and their hunters are armed with powerful crossbows.
Dawnguard’s greatest fault, however, lies in its illusion of profound choice. Standing before the vampire lord in his imposing keep, I had to choose between a life of purity and one of dark sins. I would then follow either the Dawnguard or the lord before me. This was a difficult decision, but I knew I could load up a save and choose the other path later. When I set out on a second playthrough, however, I found a nearly identical questline. Aside from some optional content, the quest follows the same path and culminates in the same anticlimactic conclusion whether the player sides with the Dawnguard or the vampires. So do yourself a favor and leave your mortal blood behind.
Dawnguard adds a completely new supernatural form akin to the werewolf: the vampire lord. Although mutually exclusive states of being, the two classic supernatural forms now have perks, obtainable not by normal means, but by using the innate abilities of each. That is, eating from corpses as a werewolf or draining humans of lifeblood as a vampire lord with magic or the classic macabre embrace. The vampire lord boasts the more complex and complete set of rules, gaining more abilities when hungry like lesser brethren, but also having more abilities in general. He can nearly teleport short distances as a cloud of bats, raise dead, drain life, summon gargoyles, and even travel two different ways. Walking allows him to make powerful melee attacks, but floating affords him even more potent necromantic magic.
Unfortunately, the wings by which he floats get in the way. Just after obtaining my new form, I embarked on a quest that required either diplomacy or force. This is not really a choice, as the only way to accomplish such a task is to charge in wielding occult powers and scatter the mortals before your might. My overzealous rampage came to a sudden halt, however, when my character couldn’t fit through a corridor because of his ungainly wings. I had to laugh. Still, the vampire lord ought to bring hours of havoc-wreaking fun to many players, and this stands as Dawnguard’s greatest legacy.
Other additions include an assortment of enemies, dragon shouts, equipment, and other gameplay alterations. New enemies include animate gargoyles, grave-cold canines, and higher level dragons. While most of the new enemies don’t come equipped with new strategies, one of the final quests includes an amazingly unpredictable segment that rivals anything in the core game for sheer awesomeness. The new dragonbone weapons are allegedly the most powerful, but my legendary dragonbone warhammer (merely a femur jammed into a hilt) couldn’t outdo my legendary daedric warhammer. Crossbows, archetypical vampire hunter gear, provide slow, but powerful shots. Mounted combat, my favorite addition, has limited applications – no magic in the saddle – but it fills a gap in the core game’s mechanics.
As Skyrim’s child, Dawnguard carries all its parent’s merits and follies. Gorgeous vistas, uneven quests, endless exploration, and boring characters. Dawnguard will change no minds as to the strength or weakness of Skyrim and neither will it appeal to any but those who have racked up 100 hours or more on the core game. Vampires are a waning trend, and Dawnguard offers little in the way of extraordinary content. Still, this is better than those nigh-infinite radiant quests, and Skyrim lovers will be too busy draining life to think: why vampires?