I had very high expectations for Skyrim: Dawnguard.
How could I not? Creator Bethesda touted it as the type of DLC that would feel like an expansion pack, a nice chunk of crazy new content for RPG fans to dig their dragon-weary paws into. And of course, Skyrim was one of last year's best video games. I spent some 80 hours exploring and inhabiting its massive, secret-filled world.
So when I popped in Dawnguard, I expected it to wow me. I expected amazing new environments, crazy new plot lines, whole new cities to see and slaughter. I expected to be utterly blown away.
That didn't happen.
Here's what you should know about Dawnguard, which Bethesda released earlier this week for Xbox 360 (and will release later for PC and PlayStation 3): It adds two divergent faction lines to the game. One has you allying with a castle full of vampires; the other has you hunting down and killing those vampires. Both stories task you with acquiring a MacGuffin or three, which means you'll have to run around the world map through locations both new and old, mashing your trigger buttons and sniffing through caves on your quest to Save The World Again.
Dawnguard also fills Skyrim with a handful of other quests, tasks, and random scenarios. As a vampire, I found myself constantly accosted by the eponymous vamp-slaying Dawnguard, who would suddenly pop up in every city I visited, tracking me down like I had an iPhone. This protagonist-detecting ESP seems limited to the computer. While playing as a Dawnguard, you are instead just chased by psychic vampires (some of whom will apparently kill random NPCs everywhere you go).
Because of this DLC's nature, I should admit that I definitely haven't seen everything it has to offer. Although I finished the vampire side of Dawnguard's main story and saw a few of its new sidequests, I did not scour every location in the game in search of new content, and therefore it's very possible that I missed some awesome features. But what I did experience—and what your average new player will experience—was nothing short of underwhelming.
The new quests are underwhelming: other than a few cool new concepts—like murdering a civilian while wearing Dawnguard armor so everybody thinks the Dawnguard did it—you've seen everything here before. Go here; find this; kill him; get that. There's nothing here as unabashedly awesome as, say, a certain quest at the end of the original game's Dark Brotherhood plot line.
The new areas are underwhelming: one, Soul Cairn, is just a soul-stuffed clone of Skyrim's Blackreach. It's big, purple, and completely empty. To finish its quests, you'll have to spend a lot of time walking through vast stretches of sheer nothingness. You'll have to fight a mini-boss, walk ten minutes through nothingness, fight another mini-boss, walk another ten minutes through nothingness, and so forth. This is not particularly fun, interesting, or emotionally engaging. Neither is the part where somebody asks you to hunt down ten pieces of paper and you just groan, wondering if you've accidentally stumbled into an MMORPG.
The new vampire powers are underwhelming: you can't use potions or spells while in Vampire Mode, and worst of all, you're stuck in third-person perspective. Teleporting around as a swarm of bats and draining enemies' life is cool, but completely impractical for regular use. To use items, open chests, and get through some doors, you'll have to switch back to human form, which means you'll have to sit through a long, laggy animation sequence before you can do anything. This is very irritating.
Even the bugs are underwhelming: other than this ridiculous moment toward the beginning of the game, Dawnguard's many bugs and glitches couldn't even get me to crack a smile. Particularly unfunny was the part where my follower suddenly disappeared and I had to replay an hour of progress because I couldn't activate the next quest trigger.
The sheer lack of creativity here makes it almost hard to believe that the same team worked on both Skyrim and Dawnguard. Keen-eyed Bethesda fans might notice that some of the game's new features draw from the Skyrim game jam that Todd Howard discussed at DICE earlier this year, and indeed, interesting mechanics like water currents, dark dungeons, and skeletal mounts are all in there. But they're all minor moments. The game jam itself was far more interesting than any of Dawnguard's new content.
If I had to summarize Dawnguard in two words, it would be this: more Skyrim. For many people, that's enough—and if you're in that boat, you should most definitely get your hands on this DLC. But if you wanted something special, something unique, something that could give you that feeling of giddiness you got the first time you entered Bethesda's hulking role-playing game and started exploring its caves and cities, then you might want to look elsewhere. Or at least wait for Skyrim: Game of the Year Edition.