Vampires have gotten a bad rap as of late. Whereas they once transformed into beasts and struck fear into the hearts of men with beautiful girlfriends, they have recently devolved into sparkly sex objects for teenagers (there’s even a paranormal romance section in most Barnes Noble stores these days). Long gone are the days of Nosferatu – or so we thought.
Dawnguard brings with it a return to the old vampires, the classical monsters who, well, weren’t very sexy at all unless they had you under some sort of spell. If you find yourself with an affinity to this variety of blood-sucking myth, you have the option to join them and become a powerful Vampire Lord – or, if you think they ought to rot in hell proper, you can enlist with the Dawnguard and ram a stake through their collective hearts.
For my first playthrough, I decided to go full out Dracula. It was time to show these Skyrim natives that vampires don’t drink… wine, or Black Briar Mead, for that matter. I made a new save and tottered around until level 10, when the Dawnguard questline becomes available to you, and then made my way off to Riften to hear the word from a guard. A quick rendezvous with the Dawnguard at their (very well-rendered) secret hideout ensued, after which I went a-vampire huntin’.
Wait, you say. You wanted to join the vampires, why are you hunting them?
Well, that’s just the nature of the beast. Dawnguard begins with an encounter with its self-named faction, after which you delve into a vampire hideout. Deep within the bowels of the dungeon, you encounter your first friendly vampire, Serana. Personally, I’m neutral towards her; while she’s a great companion in terms of combat, her dialogue often feels a bit forced and badly timed. For example, upon first meeting her, she doesn’t seem very surprised at all to be awoken; she delivers a line about how she was expecting someone else and remarks upon how the Empire didn’t exist when she was put under, but otherwise is remarkably quick to trust and not especially shell-shocked. Most of the voice acting and writing was otherwise decent.
To digress, I was still determined to become a Vampire Lord. Serana needed to find her family’s estate, so we made our way across the continent – a real trek – and eventually reached our destination. It’s at this point that the player really has a choice in the quest line. After the doorman reluctantly lets you inside, you are introduced to Serana’s family, all of whom are old and powerful vampires. The most powerful of them all is Harkon, a Vampire Lord who serves as the primogenitor to the race. In thanks for returning his estranged daughter to him (he seems less excited about her than the fact that she has an Elder Scroll), he offers you his blood, which will not only make you a vampire, but grant you the ability to transform into a vicious Vampire Lord as well – and that’s when the story really kicks off.
Should you accept the gift (or curse, depending upon your viewpoint), your character downs a blood smoothie and passes out. Should you refuse, you are stiffly escorted out of the vampire estate with the very obvious implication that you are now their prey.
Either choice results in an expansion filled with intrigue, hilarious physics errors, and copious amounts of violence. Although I had an absolute blast flying around committing murder as a Vampire Lord, aiding the Dawnguard in their quest to remove the festering wound of the undead from Skyrim was equally enjoyable.
As far as the meat of the expansion goes, not much was changed from the base game. Crossbows introduced a heavy-hitting option for players who enjoy ranged combat, but they sacrificed speed for power – a careful aim is required to use them.
Vampire Lords were the only real change in terms of combat. As a Vampire Lord, the player gains an entirely new perk tree with powerful abilities that accompany their new form. It’s fairly easy to get perk points for the new tree; vampire experience is different from regular experience in that you gain perks by consuming victims in your Vampire Lord body.
There are multiple ways to drain your enemies dry in Dawnguard. The most obvious is to utilize your Blood Drain spell while you are in “casting” mode (Vampire Lords have two modes – one for magic, and one for melee attack), but if you’re out of mana and forced to fight on the ground, you can often score a kill move where your character tears open the throats of your opponents, which counts as experience towards your vampire perk tree.
The perk tree itself is one of the best features of the expansion. Eleven new perks become available to you should you side with the vampires, with their bonuses ranging from better draining abilities to being able to cloak yourself in an AOE of bats that constantly re-generates your health if you’re within range of an enemy. It’s almost overpowered at times, but still great fun to play.
Overall, vampires are greatly improved by the expansion. Whereas they were, to be frank, pretty bland before, they now have their own faction, quests, and unique actions that go beyond interacting with a sleeping person. The Dawnguard faction is great for players who enjoy a more paladin-esque experience, and introduces its own weapon line – crossbows – which are great fun to use, even though they’re a little slow (they hit as hard as giants to make up for it).
The only unfortunate part is that, sometimes, controls as a Vampire Lord can be really awkward; since you’re much larger than a normal player character, you risk getting stuck in stairwells. Oftentimes, I’d have to transform back into a wood elf in order to get where I wanted to go. There’s also the downside of not being able to loot or activate half of the things in your environment, but luckily, a mod already exists to fix this. The transformation sequence has a tendency to take forever, as well, leaving you vulnerable to attack. Even so, you still get enough goodies with the new form to distract from these flaws – being powerful enough to kill most NPCs in a few casts of blood drain is a definite boon.
However, while the content is just as fun as the original game itself, Dawnguard is not without its flaws. I did not get a chance to play it on the XBOX 360, but the PC release is riddled with bugs. Many of mine were a result of the incredible amount of mods I have, but there remained a number of them that still existed even after a fresh save and the removal of said mods. When I became a Vampire Lord on my first playthrough, every member of Harkon’s court would become aggressive to me. I couldn’t turn in quests. I had to use numerous console codes just to get through the beginning quests, after which the vampires would no longer aggro me – but I still couldn’t turn in quests without using the setrace code on myself every time I talked to a vampire quest giver. I had many more bugs on the vampire side than with the Dawnguard, but errors still riddled the expansion regardless of which faction I chose.
Despite these issues, I would say Dawnguard for PC is worth the money. It’s a very good expansion to an excellent game, but its release may have been rushed, as is evidenced by the plethora of bugs. My best advice to PC gamers is to uninstall all non-graphical mods that you have, especially any that might interact with vampire scripts, and re-load them one by one to make sure none of them are interfering with the game.
The expansion may have its flaws in terms of bugs, but truth be told, finding gaps in the coding is half the fun of playing the Elder Scrolls series. Just pick up a bucket sometime and try it out for yourself.