Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Skyrim: Dawnguard review

    My last review for August will be of Bethesda's new DLC, Dawnguard. This is an expansion for Skyrim, adding two new factions to the game and a whole new questline for your characters. In addition, the game adds a Perk Tree for Werewolves and Vampire Lords, making your characters vastly more powerful if they're willing to become monsters. In order to talk about some of the appeal for the DLC, there will be mild spoilers so proceed at your own risk.

    The premise for Dawnguard is a group of ultra-powerful vampires have started making attacks all over Skyrim. The player character is then recruited by a member of the Dawnguard, a group of vampire hunters, to go deal with the threat. Over the course of your adventures, you'll have the opportunity to switch sides and join the vampires or stick with the Dawnguard in order to wipe out the undead menace.

    There's already some problems with this premise. The first is why would your character join the Dawnguard if he's naturally a bad person and later inclined to become a friend to the vampires? There's no way, at least as far as I can tell, for you to join the vampires unless you start as a member of the Dawnguard. The problem actually gets worse in a way that verges on spoiler territory where you will also be forced to ally with a vampire even if you stick with the Dawnguard, hampering roleplaying as a anti-vampire zealot if your character is so inclined.

    I'm all for understanding that roleplaying can and will always be limited in video games. After all, there's no way to account for every possible choice. Still, this is something that hurts the narrative as allying with vampires and being devoted to their annihilation are two very logical extremes for most characters to lean toward. The game, instead, assumes your character will be somewhat ambivalent to both sides and persuadable.

    I'm not sure what to make of that.

    Assuming one can get over that particular hurdle, the DLC has much to offer. The main questline is as large as any of the other Guild quests in the game, taking you on a lengthy series of dungeon crawls and adventures that include a journey to a new section of a place not seen since Oblivion. The DLC has no less than three epic boss battles, two of which exceeded the final confrontation of the main game in enjoyment factor.

    Seriously, any game which can more or less replicate the final level of Castlevania where you are against Dracula's bat-form is one I have nothing but praise for. I played the Dawnguard version of the questline and kept expecting Lord Harkon, the main baddie, to shout, "What is a man but a miserable little pile of secrets!" The confrontation was epic and intense, leading to a climax I quite enjoyed.

    The locations introduced in this DLC include some truly beautiful locals. It's a tossup between the two Faction headquarters, Fort Dawnguard and Castle Volkihar but I have to say I lean towards the former. Fort Dawnguard is a huge castle, easily dwarfing any of the others in the game, giving the PC access to most everything he might need from shops to Arcane enchantment in one easy area. I admit, I do wonder why the Legion or Stormcloaks haven't occupied this massive fortress versus all the ruins they inhabit but it was a small issue of lore compared to admiring its beauty.

Isn't Fort Dawnguard lovely this time of year?
    Gameplay-wise, the biggest addition is the crossbow. It kind of goes without saying amongst Skyrim fans the standard bow sucks. It's big, awkward, obscures your vision and doesn't deal much damage. Archery is almost, universally, ignored in favor of magic or swordsmanship. The crossbow has the potential for changing that, being accurate and powerful while also possessing the potential to be upgraded. I think fans will definitely love the addition of the crossbow and I hope it makes it into the main game of whatever next Elder Scrolls title is released.

    Character-wise, I have no complaints about those introduced. The ones on the Dawnguard side are entertaining, if not terribly in-depth with Lord Harkon being delightfully over-the-top as a villain. Seriously, the guy chooses the scenery like there's no tomorrow.

     The Dawnguard, itself, is composed of quirky characters like a mad tinkerer, a schizophrenic priest of Arkay who my or may not have regular conversations with his god (who I swear is doing a Tim Curry impression), and a blacksmith who thinks they should put armor on trolls while keeping them as pets.

     Even the leader of the Dawnguard is a hoot, constantly harassing his subordinates with how they need to be more extreme while acting ridiculously liberal towards monsters compared to most vampire hunters of fiction.

    I suspect most players, however, will remember Serana best. Serana is an available vampire Follower for both Dawnguard and Vampire player characters. At the risk of showing my fanboyism, I'm fairly sure she's deliberately modeled on Kate Beckinsale. Don't believe me? Judge for yourself.

Combine Van Helsing's girl with Underworld's Selene and you get her. Oh and make her a vampire teenager.
    Serana is a subversion of virtually every female vampire stereotype in the history of fiction. Contrary to being sultry or a seductress, she's a meek and good-natured girl who acts a lot like my female friends in high school. She just happens to also be an incredibly powerful necromancer who can fill the area with animate corpses and ice blasts.

    She's a very well-designed character whose comments are usually funny and has an entertaining conversation tree where she more or less explains how her life sucks due to her cruddy parents. Really, she's like the vampire version of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow Rosenburg. Only, she looks like adult Kate Beckinsale. Really, I can't think of a character better designed to appeal to fanboys. Amusingly, she's also unmarriagable, something I know which has caused all manner of fanboy outrage.

    It's okay, my Dragonborn and her can hook up in a few centuries.

    The additions Dawnguard makes for vampires are incredible, though including a option of becoming a man-bat monster capable of tearing through most enemies without difficulty. You'll be attacked in towns if you go into them wearing this demonic form but I don't think people expected anything less. Vampirism has always been more curse than blessing in the Elder Scrolls series so it's nice to see some serious perks to it.

    There's one final flaw I should mention to gamers who are intent on picking this up. As soon as you begin the main quest, the towns of Skyrim start suffering vampire attacks. Until you deal with the main quest, these attacks will occur on a regular basis. The vampires won't just attack you but the locals, frequently killing characters you may or may not have come to like such as the female blacksmith in Whiterun.

    Even if you're quick on the draw, you may not be able to prevent this from occurring. Some towns have been almost completely wiped out in playthroughs due to players missing the vampires were slaughtering the inhabitants.

     In conclusion, Dawnguard is a flawed but enjoyable DLC. It's not as awesome as The Shivering Isles or Point Lookout but it has an epic quest and many entertaining new locations. I heartily recommend it to fans of the game but caution people to purchase it for later games as opposed to new ones, given the difficulty spike.

    Also, watch for vampire attacks.



  1. I am not sure that she would be as useful as The Companions now that the companion leveling bug has been fixed. A leveled up and armored up Farkas can kill a dragon by himself.

    1. Eh, I think she's mostly there to be entertaining in her comments and an additional pretty visual. Still, it's difficult to say whether I prefer her, Lydia, Mjoll, or Aela. Or, as I call them, the Dragonborn's Angels.