It’s been nine months since the saviour of Skyrim was carted, hands bound, to the land of harsh cold and sharp dragon’s teeth; nine long months since those feelings of awe inspired by this undiscovered land ran into intrigue, and then transformed into a physiological dig, as we brushed away the layers that held every one of Skyrim’s secrets. Now, seven or so months after those saviours settled down, folded their cloaks, and shut their eyes for some much needed rest – in the relative safety of a freed Skyrim – the call for adventure has come again.
Dawnguard is that wake up call: there’s life left in Skyrim, and it’s come with pointed teeth and a thirst for blood. Only this time, it’s not dragons. It’s vampires.
Surprising, then, that the vampire-like hordes who would usually swarm at the scent of “more” Skyrim – Dawnguard being Bethesda’s move away from the smaller, quicker DLC releases that were their staple during this generation – view it with half-lidded eyes, as if that call just isn’t loud enough.
If nothing else, Dawnguard is a far more natural fit than any of Fallout’s DLC has been in the past, and it shows that Bethesda gets what people are looking for. There’s no loss of equipment or companions on your adventures with either the Dawnguard or the vampires, two factions eager to hand over all responsibility and indoctrinate you at the drop of a hat; no sequestering you in a walled-off land and asking you to make the usual leap of logic, feeling as though you’re stuck in a very small box.
Quests largely unfold over the already well-worn map, but there is still some funneling through new tunnels and magical boat rides to reach those quest hubs, and they exist as a minor niggle, especially when so much of Skyrim is a seamless stitching of content, location, and that inescapable sense of place.
That’s not to say Dawnguard doesn’t still feel jerry-rigged in the same way many of Bethesda’s games do, as if they’re only just managing to work within the bounds of an engine not entirely created for the frivolities of a vampire, which it highlights every time you attempt to walk through a doorway or struggle with a tiresome camera in your larger, more imposing, and oftentimes more fiddly form. The loss of first-person plays its part in those annoyances too, but in most other aspects the vampire’s abilities offer a new way to traverse Skyrim, whether it be short-range teleportation or reanimated corpses, added to by the wider array of perk-tree options available to the vampire — and the werewolf too.
Whether the role of vampire or vampire-hunter fits best is for you to decide, and as another piece of Skyrim, Dawnguard feels perhaps too familiar. The competing quest lines branch, and then weave back on each other often enough to invoke some deja-vu, but it’s when the path finally diverges for a few hours and twists the normal on its head is where Bethesda show their penchant for fresh ideas in a land that’s already so full on unique identity.
Ultimately however, Dawnguard is an expansion — or DLC? — that never matches the heights of those that have come before it. It lacks the expanse of a Bloodmoon, or the shift in aesthetic of a Shivering Isle, but Dawnguard manages to weave just enough extra detail in the already large cloth of Skyrim, whether it be in new weaponry, enemies, or castles to reside in, for it to be another wrinkle in the cloak of the adventurer.
Just how worn your cloak is will decide what you find when you finally awake to the call of continued adventure. A clean one — a new player — will see a Dawnguard that takes its place as another intricate quest line to distract yourself along the ever-distracting path that is Skyrim. Dusty, and covered in snow — someone who’s had their fill — and you’re unlikely to find much about Dawnguard alone to keep your attention as you mainline quests and follow every thread of content to its frayed end.
But then, Skyrim never was the place for people with places to go and people to see. It was a world made for stumbling on places and discovering people. Skyrim was, and is, a place for adventurers and explorers. Those who find interest in the mundane and surprise in the extraordinary. Who would rather walk than run; ride than fast travel. For those who stay up at night to watch the dual moons and watch the sun rise over the horizon for a breath of fresh, Skyrim morning air.
And for anyone who feels the same, Dawnguard might not be a reason to stay, on its own, but it’s an incentive to return. A reminder then, perhaps, that what we’re looking for might already be right before our hopefully now fully-opened eyes: an excuse to fall back in love, to mod up, gear up, start a fresh and set back out on that trail and find new details along the way.
That cloak could do with a little more snow yet…
- A far more integrated experience than any of Bethesda’s recent DLC
- Transforming into bats and teleporting across the map will never get old
- The perfect excuse to lose yourself in Skyrim again
- New areas can still feel disconnected from the game world
- Vampire controls and navigation can be fiddly and cumbersome
- The downside to better integration is the lack of genuinely new areas to explore