Sometimes I feel sorry for Bethesda, the team behind Skyrim must be working themselves to the bone. Between Skyrim: Dawnguard, Elder Scrolls Online and Dishonoured they have been churning out anticipated content across their existing IP while also finding time to create entirely new ones. But then, I reflect on how much money those three titles alone will rake in, and suddenly I don't feel so morose anymore.
All financial jealously aside, Bethesda are one of those studios who do try and make an effort. Shovel-ware aint their style - they have a reputation to maintain. So it was with interest that I sat down to play through Dawngaurd, the new DLC expansion for Skyrim.
Dawngaurd introduces two new playable factions into the Skyrim Universe, the Vampires and the Dawngaurd. Vampires were already present in Skyrim, but usually just for executing and sadistically harvesting for profitable materials (perhaps the next DLC will be Skyrim: Bathtubs of Ice). Here, the Vampires have been given much more emphasis - both in terms of gameplay and in terms of storyline. Pitched against them are the Dawngaurd, a heroic cult of genocidal Vampire haterz who stomp around Skyrim rooting out fangs. It's a classic Van Helsing mis en scene, but with a little more moral balance.
Each new playable faction has its own unique abilities. For example, the Dawngaurd have the ability to forge special new weapons such as crossbows, or call in new companions, such as armoured trolls. Not to be outdone the Vampires can morph into demon-esque creatures with powerful melee and spell attacks which, inexplicably, can only be played in 3rd person.
As is customary in these neo-gothic fantasies, vampires are weaker during the day but do get more powerful when lusting hungrily for the blood of the virginal and the innocent. Well, maybe not the virginal. Skyrim comes off as a rather rough and tumble place. It aint no Epic Mickey Children's Fun Time Playhouse. It's a den of smut, sweat and sin.
So far, it looks like both the Vampiric hordes and the zealous Dawngaurd are fairly evenly balanced. In addition Vampires can also choose to level up the new 'Demon Lord' skill tree, which unlocks special unique abilities. I'm guessing the Dawngaurd is the same (there was no mention of this in my play-through) but it'd only be fair to let them grind too.
My short hands on took me through the "Chasing Echoes" quest. This involved my vampire character running around after a young female vampire named Serana. We traveled to a realm of Oblivion named 'Soul Cairn', ruled by a daedric prince whose name I've forgotten. It's all in the existing Elder Scrolls lore, but this is the first time it's actually been playable. Late last year Skyrim got big props for being simply jaw droppingly gorgeous, and it looks like Dawnguard is keeping up the high standards. Soul Cairn is lit in deep bruised blue, complimented by rich lavender and purple hues. This glowing palate gushes down on bone-grey rubble, and dark, looming towers straight out of the pages of a Bram Stoker novel.
After making my way through this enamouring vista Serana arrived at a large temple and proceeded to have a blazing row with her mother, Valenica. I wasn't entirely sure what was going on - but it had something to do with an Elder Scroll, a bad-ass named Harkon, and Valencia being all "listen gurl, who dis man that you've let treat you no good". That man, of course, being me. Mesmerising stuff.
Perhaps my short playtime, or my complete ignorance of the quests beforehand was responsible for my ambivalence towards the plot. But don't worry, that’s not a problem players will face. Clocking in at around 20 hours, the Dawnguard content offers more than enough new depth for players to sink their fangs (or crossbow bolts) into. Moreover, Dawnguard has been seamelessly integrated right into the total Skyrim world. While the Dawnguard gameplay is its own experience, those wanting to integrate their new factions can, once they reach level 10 or above. Id recommend pairing your Dawnguard play-through with the Dark Brotherhood. First, because Assasins and Vampires go together like Nintendo and really awkward press conferences. And second, because the Dark Brotherhood are easily the coolest cats in Skyrim, and everyone wants to be cool.
Skyrim is the kind of game that paradoxically both doesn't and does need new DLC. For the casual RPG'er, there is easily enough in the parent title to keep you occupied. But the hardcore or the obsessive will always need more to do, and developers should endeavour to accommodate them. Skyrim: Dawnguard is shaping up to scratch that insatiable Elder Scrolls itch. While we will be staying up from dusk till dawn to get you more information (especially on how the Dawnguard characters will work out) it does look like Skyrim's new DLC will sink its teeth into you - for better, or for worse.
NZGamer.com appears at E3 2012 thanks to Orcon Broadband.
The Good: Extra content for the Skyrim universe
The Bad: We still need more info on the Dawnguard faction
The Ugly: Mother and daughter vampire domestics