As the first wedge of downloadable content for the frankly gargantuan Skyrim, Dawnguard certainly faces a bit of a struggle. I'd wager most players of Bethesda's all-conquering epic still have plenty of objectives remaining in their quest log, so asking them to spend 1600MSP on a new chunk of the game, one that takes place across many pre-existing areas, might not immediately make it sound like a must-have proposition.
Maybe that's why the big attraction of Dawnguard is the ability to gang up with a troop of vampires, quickly learning the ability to transform into a Vampire Lord yourself. Unlike the frustrating and gently debilitating Sanguinare Vampiris disease you can contract in the main game, siding with the nosferatu in Dawnguard allows you to transform into a towering monster with just under a dozen dark new abilities to play with.
It's not as fun as it sounds. The third-person Vampire Lord form is the biggest disappointment about Dawnguard, and while you can transform back and forth at will you'll quickly realise that the world is simply not made for such massive stature. You can't pass though small doors (there's a surprising abundance of small doors in Skyrim, I have discovered), open chests or pick up loot, and you'll routinely find yourself bumping into scenery and getting snagged on tiny items. Also, vampires can't read maps. I have no idea why.
The easiest way to accommodate this flaw would be to allow you to transform between your two forms instantaneously, but this is sadly not the case. You can change at will, but the process comes with a lengthy unskippable animation that becomes a massive chore from the second time you use it.
While becoming a Vampire Lord gives you plenty of entertaining new moves, including a floating attack state that lets you, say, chuck life-sucking bombs with your right hand and reanimate the dead with your left, I found that it was only a couple of hours before I generally avoided using the form entirely. Which is a real shame because you unlock even more goodies as you suck the life out of enemies to level up your vampirism, such as transforming into mist, summoning gargoyles and pulling your enemies before choking the life out of them. It's just a shame that something with so much promise feels so much like hard work.
Opt-out of the nosferatu and you're left with a similarly distressing alternative: enlisting into the vampire-hunting Dawnguard faction, gaining access to some new werewolf abilities and the option to hire armoured trolls as temporary pets. Plus loads of crossbows. Much of Dawnguard's questline is the same regardless of what faction you're with, and whatever route you take you're looking at about 10 hours until you see off the main chunk missions.
As you might expect from a quest of that length, there are highs and lows. The game's desire to chuck you into a faction and rocket you up the ranks feels even more hurried than the main game, and one particularly egregious quest has Bethesda rip a page out of the Tingle school of game design, inviting characters to schlep around a massive expanse filling up a magical bucket of water. It's a meaningless padded section; its frustration compounded by the fact the nature of the unique character issuing this quest should have been triggering something magnificent. Instead this grand reveal is muted and muddled, sandwiched somewhere immemorial within a nested series of fetch quests.
The same criticisms could often be levelled at the main game, but Dawnguard's high price tag will automatically make you into a more discerning judge of content. If judged purely on hours invested, though, Skyrim's first chunk of DLC excels - I've quite happily sunk just under 13 hours into it so far, finishing off the main quest and ferreting around for some of the extra bonuses. There's also the matter of a bonus side-mission revolving around an ancient forge and some obscure ancient books to locate and flog off.
Whatever faction you side with, you'll get a whizzy new castle to call home (though my Dovahkiin owns so much Skyrim real estate now he could comfortably consider sub-letting to students), a trio of new shouts, a skeletal horse, plenty of decent new weaponry and my new favourite companion. You'll also get Auriel's Bow, a weapon so pleasant to use it made me regret that my character has roughly zero points in archery, and the ability to forge new, powerful Dragonborne weaponry, all of which might help you out if you bump into the new Legendary dragon when out and about.
There's plenty to do, then, but none of what Dawnguard has to offer feels like exceptional, must-have content. As pleasant as it is to go back and rediscover some of Skyrim's fringe locations, the lack of any substantial new areas to rummage around also feels disappointing. Dawnguard, for better or worse, is very much Skyrim playing to the same tune in many of the same locations.
There's nothing particularly wrong with that, of course; Skyrim is still a beautiful sight to behold, and I'm happy to jump back into its enchanting world of snow-dusted mountain peaks and slightly wonky facial animations for a few hours of new loot and cursory gameplay additions. Dawnguard is considerably better than most of Bethesda's recent Fallout 3 DLC, but you'll be sorely disappointed if you go in expecting to find Skyrim's version of Bloodmoon or The Shivering Isles.
Version Tested: Xbox 360