Last year, Skyrim managed to not only continue the winning streak of incredible RPGs that is The Elder Scrolls series, it also set the bar extraordinarily high for the genre. The attention to detail is mesmerizing, the amount of time you can spend in its beautifully crafted world is literally infinite, and certain issues that had plagued previous games in the series--namely the combat and inventory--were both tweaked to near perfection. Obviously, the game's first expansion is going to be highly criticized, because the game it's expanding upon is incredible. Warning: I'll keep spoilers to a minimum, but some of the smaller reveals can't be helped.
For the unfamiliar, Dawnguard follows the growing tension between the Dawnguard, an ancient group of warriors, and the vampire, who they hunt. One of the bigger choices you'll be making over the expansion's 10-20 hour running time is which side you'll be on. Will you join the vampire hunters and use their crossbows and powers of light to vanquish your foes? Or will you join an ancient vampire coven, become a Vampire Lord and use your new abilities to squash those who oppose you?
As a horror fan, as well as a fan of monsters and, specifically, vampires, I chose the latter. A few hours in and I was gliding across the ground at high speed as a Vampire Lord. Unfortunately, I was stuck in the third person while in this form, but I looked cool enough for me to forgive it. I'd lift helpless soldiers into the air and toss them like they were nothing. I'd drain their life with my teeth or from a distance with the life force stealing projectiles I can fire from my hands. I'd summon gargoyles to do my bidding laugh at those who were stupid enough to come near me and watch as they were enveloped and weakened by the bats that swarmed me at all times. I was a total badass, that is, until I tried to interact with the world around me in a less destructive way.
When you're in your Vampire Lord form--you have to transform into it much like the werewolf--you can't loot corpses, open doors, pick up items, solve puzzles; you can't do anything. This wouldn't be as annoying if transforming between forms didn't require you to watch a lame 20-second scene where the screen blurs and you explode or revert into your new form. It makes some sense that you can't do these things as a werewolf, but the Vampire Lord form is still very human-like, so it's annoying that the only thing it can do is cause chaos, forcing you to do everything else in your natural form.
There are a few choice vampiric abilities, like the passive skill that swarms you with bats when enemies are nearby. The bats drain the life of those who get too close to your personal bubble and act as a fantastic warning system before something sneaks up on you. You unlock new powers that you can "equip" to your left hand--it's a little strange that you can't map an ability to both hands, but the right is exclusive to your life-stealing ability. Summoning gargoyles is good fun too, but that pretty much rounds out the best powers. The problem is you can only have one power equipped at once, and your best one is unlocked pretty early on.
One of the coolest additions this expansion offers is an ancient vampire named Serena, who you can have as your new companion. She's immensely powerful and acts more realistically than the other companions in the game. For example, if you're speaking with someone she'll wander off a bit to sit down or interact with the environment, like if you're working at the blacksmith she'll use one of the nearby apparatus' while she waits. Leading up to my time with Dawnguard, I exclusively used Lydia, so not hearing "I am sworn to carry your burdens" every time I traded with my follower was a welcome change.
Unfortunately, Serena has her own quirks. One of them being pretty much every time you walk close to her she'll say something like "what do you need?" over and over and over again until you walk away from her. If you side with the Dawnguard, I highly suggest leaving Serena at the base when you go off on the side quests. There's a glitch that existed before the expansion that locks your companion in the Broken Oar Grotto. This was annoying in the original game, but it can actually break the expansion. Usually, if your companion got stuck in the grotto you could go get another. In Dawnguard, if Serena gets stuck in there the entire expansion can't be completed.
Those who join the Dawnguard will gain access to some armored wolves and trolls you can get as followers. The armored trolls cost 500 gold and are mostly useless in combat, but they certainly look cool. You'll also get the most exciting new weapon: the crossbow. As you progress through the story you'll unlock more powerful crossbows, as well as special bolts that explode in fire and ice when they strike a foe. As an archer, this ended up being one of the most exciting additions in the expansion.
Outside of some new castles and dungeons, the biggest new location you'll be exploring is the Soul Cairn. It's Skyrim's equivalent to limbo, where to souls of the dead wander around aimlessly. It sounds like it could be a neat place, limited only by the imaginations of the artists working on the game. Sadly, the actual place is a mostly empty world with a purple sky. There isn't much to it--even the enemies, save for a few like the Mist Men and the Keepers. Most of the quests hidden inside it are of the "fetch this" variety, including an intensely lame (optional) quest where you have to scour the world for pages of a book. It's here where you can get the special ghostly mount that looks like a horse Death would've rode.
Even by Bethesda standards, Dawnguard is just riddled with bugs, many of them game-breaking. I came across audio issues, missing textures, missing NPCs, broken dungeons, and much more. This is a fun expansion, even if its content is a little disappointing, but I highly suggest waiting for a patch (or three) before you jump in.
This review is based on a digital copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dawnguard for the Xbox 360 provided by Bethesda Softworks.