With The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim proving to be the biggest game of last year that didn't involve either repeatedly shooting non-Americans in the head or kicking a pretend football around, expectations were sky-high for its first major download content add-on. Dawnguard, which now has a PC version to join its earlier Xbox release, sounds like just the ticket on paper, but drops any number of fantasy roleplaying balls in practice.
Dawnguard adds a new sub-campaign to the those already available in Skyrim, this time concerning vampires and the titular cartel who hunt them. While there's - as always in Elder Scrolls games - no neccessity to follow the storyline, if you want access to the new toys in Dawnguard you will need to play some of its missions. Wherever you're up to in Skyrim-core, a new quest objective will flash up offering you the chance to vist the Dawnguard, and shortly after that you're presented with the choice as to whether to join these armoured, crossbow-wielding puritans in their fight against the undead, or to side with a conveniently likeable lady vampire in the pursuit of dark powers and a prophecy that might free vamps from 'the tyranny of the sun.'
Sounds great. Sounds sinister, nuanced and morality-challenging. Alas, the six-ish hour vampire questline throws out any exploration of what it means to be a bloodsucking creature of the night in favour of defaulting an unispiring string of Skyrim's tried, tested and tired fetch quests. Blood-drinking is simply a resource to manage, like mana and health, with effects on your bonus vampire powers and weakness to sunlight rather than truly affecting your status in the world or moral decision-making.
There's a hint that Dawnguard's going to drag you into the darker aspects of it, with your initial encounter with the vampire faction involving a mansion filled with human 'cattle' lying across dinner tables and sneering, bone-white nobles relishing their living meals, but that side of things grinds to a halt after that. You're made , if you so choose, into a Vampire Lord, which is a sort of dog-bat hybrid that hovers instead of walks and can access a raft of new powers - such as summoning gargoyles or briefly transforming into a cloud of bats or mist.
It's a great concept, but unfortunately it's acheived by turning off half the existing game, and replacing the interface with a miserably limited alternative in which you can't access your inventory, activate anything or talk to anyone. So looting chests or fallen enemies requires labariously transforming back to your standard form, as does simply wanting to check something in your inventory. Modders have already resolved this on PC, which is hugely welcome, but it remains a mystery why this design decision was taken in the first place. It feels like a cheap, nasty shortcut, which is at odds with Dawnguard's high price (you can already find the far larger base game for less than this expansion costs). On top of that, if you're a high-level character in Skyrim already, you'll find that the vamp lord is a whole lot punier despite the new powers - so it's hard to find a reason to play as one, outside of simple curiosity.
With the campaign something of a soulless, repetitive trudge despite a couple of impressively huge new environments, arguably the main reason to pick up Dawnguard becomes its contribution to the Elder Scrolls' long-running, elaborate lore. Major players in the ongoing fiction show up, some big mysteries are elaborated upon and there's a chance to meet members of supposedly long-lost races. It's going to be hard for TES fiends to avoid Dawnguard, though sadly even the most important and even moving moments are depicted by a guy standing on the spot waving his arms around and muttering exposition in a near-monotone.
It's hard not to feel that Dawnguard is perfunctory despite its substantial size. It seems oblivous to criticisms of Skyrim, and squeezed into any available crannies rather than truly expanding the scope and scale of the game. Hopefully better add-ons are yet to come - or, at the very least, this has a few quid sliced off the currently scandalous price.