11 PREVIEW: Skyrim: Dawnguard DLC

If Skyrim hasn’t already sucked out 200 or so hours of your life (or even if it has), you’ll have the opportunity to give up more in DLC. This most recent entry into the Elder Scrolls franchise will certainly be remembered as one of the biggest releases of 2011. So of course, some DLC is warmly welcome, and Dawnguard includes a nice balance of some new environments, new gameplay, and new narrative elements. This is much more than the bolt-on vampirism of Oblivion.

Perhaps the narrative roots of Dawnguard are based in Nightwatch: it’s basically your familiar vampire thing, with the Volkilar vampire lord Harkon’s plot to end “the tyranny of the sun”. Ranged against these dark forces are the Dawnguard, an alliance of vampire-hunters. In the spirit of The Elder Scrolls franchise, the player can choose which side to fight for, and this will shape a whole lot of gameplay and narrative elements.

Some players may remember the lycanthropy in Skyrim, and Dawnguard allows similar transformations. If you choose the Dark Side (ah, clichés just fit) you will be able to transform into a Vampire Lord, with a new demonic form which is more grotesque than elegant: more Coppola than Stephanie Meyer. Thank god you don’t sparkle in the sunlight. Sprinting allows you to float over the ground, and you have a new skill tree which includes transforming into a cloud of bats, summoning a gargoyle, and deploying a vampiric chokehold, Darth Vader-like. A new raft of perks will be available for the vampire form, but intriguingly, werewolves will also have access to a full perk tree, so Dawnguard will also add new elements to familiar gameplay.

[img_big]center,9563,2012-06-18/VampiricGrip.jpg,”I find your lack of faith disturbing”[/img_big]

If, on the other hand, you decide to join the Dawnguard and forgo the pleasures of nighttime blood-sucking, it’s not all milk and cookies. You’ll be treated to crossbows to supplement your ranged attacks, and you can “hire” armoured trolls, who act as temporary followers. The crossbows are, as you’d expect, slower but more powerful with a chance to stagger targets, and they feel different enough to seem like a genuine addition to gameplay. Most importantly, Bethesda have introduced horseback fighting with both melee and ranged weapons, which will introduce a whole new style of battle. A new fiery blue horse looks spectacular and may offer new powers, although Marston’s Horse of the Apocalypse might be a bit much to ask for. There are hints that the Elder Scrolls will allow alteration of the standard game map, overlaying innovative environments onto spaces we know well already. We will also have access to new armour and weapons, as well as enemies (including a new class of dragon).

All this takes place in environments which build on but differ from Skyrim’s snowy wastes that we know and love. Fort Dawnguard is the base for the vampire-hunters, and will probably be loated somewhere in the south of Skyrim, possibly in The Rift. Castle Volkihar is the den of the vampires, giving special bonuses and blood potions. The E3 demo allowed us to visit the Soul Cairn, a spirit realm populated by drifting and moaning souls. This will evoke some nostalgia for those who nurture postcards from Oblivion, and the environmental design provides good contrast to the world of Skyrim, with low light, lots of deep greys, and otherworldly portals. There was some opportunity to delve into the storyline behind Dawnguard, and the playthrough touched on themes of trust, betrayal and the quest for power. We also got a sense of moral choices in the game and how they lead to clear consequences in terms of both narrative and gameplay.

Unfortunately this location was poorly placed for this event: it is vast and open, which really only allowed a proper exploration of the Vampire Lord’s means of locomotion. There were not enough enemies to explore the full range of gameplay choices, and the enemies that were present were not varied enough to provide much variety or challenge. Having said this, a ten-minute timeslot at E3 is nowhere near sufficient for fully exploring even a thin slice of the Skyrim world, let alone a substantial first instalment of DLC.

[img_big]center,9563,2012-06-18/CastleVolkihar.jpg,Castle Volkihar: Warm and Inviting[/img_big]

Personally I was underwhelmed by the werewolf thread of Skyrim, and I found that the reduced gameplay options made it get old pretty quickly. Thankfully it was optional and the rest of the game was fine without it, and the same applies here. I will be keen to play Dawnguard for the non-Vampire Lord elements, the crossbow and horseback fighting, the new environments, and the new narrative thread. We can expect 10 to 20 hours of gameplay, which should make the 1600 point/$20 price point well worthwhile. With the Elder Scrolls MMO on the way we’ll have plenty of new Tamriel to explore.

Most of us mere mortals will need to wait until June 26 to sample this particular night life; if, on the other hand, you play on PC, you might have to wait, perhaps indefinitely.

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