Skyrim's Dawnguard DLC review: Disappointment before sunrise

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Skyrim's Dawnguard DLC review: Disappointment before sunrise
In Skyrim's "Dawnguard" DLC, I became a vampire. I feasted on the blood of the living. I propelled myself forward at super vampire speed with my leathery grey vampire lord wings. I sapped the energy of my enemies with one boney claw while raising the dead to fight for me with the other, growing my powers ever stronger. I even turned into a swarm of bats and flitted across a room.

It's not as fun as it sounds.%Gallery-157878%It's telling that I played through most of Skyrim's fang-ridden DLC using my regular character, rather than transforming into the vampire lord ... creature available in Dawnguard. Playing as the vamp isn't enjoyable at all. He's locked to a third-person view, and the camera seems unable to get over the hulking beast's shoulders. When "shooting" one of his two powers (sap energy or raise the dead), I found it nearly impossible to hit my targets consistently.

Using his two claws for melee worked even less effectively, and transforming between the creature and my normal self caused the game to shudder. The screen often froze or glitched out in a way that worried me. I only mention this because the time it takes to transform, combined with the possible bugs, makes transforming in the middle of combat problematic at best, effectively forcing me to use the vamp's limited selection of powers, or not use him at all.

The content kicks off innocuously enough. After meeting the vampire hunters that give the DLC its name, a series of jumbled events (aren't they all?) led me to a choice: continue to hunt the vampires that are regrouping in secret, or choose to become one. In terms of gameplay, this means a crossbow for hunters or the ability to transform into a freakin' vampire lord (the dude below). You also get a crossbow either way right from the jump.

Skyrim's Dawnguard DLC review Looking for blood in all the wrong places
The vampire lord suffers the same weaknesses as a normal vampire, so the sun isn't your buddy. The effects vary depending on how recently you've fed, but usually this means an occasional health hit and/or lacking stamina. Overall, the effects matter little (why not take a quick nap in the middle of the woods until night?), and they can be removed altogether eventually, should you decide that being a vampire lord just isn't for you.

Post-transformation, I set out with fellow vampire Serana into ... some caves. There we encountered skeletons, some vampires, falmers and Dawnguard hunters. The caves (or tombs, or crypts, or whatever) were more than vaguely reminiscent of the lengthy time I'd already spent with Skyrim. Worse, that lasted for the first five or six hours of the content, though I admittedly snuck through many areas and quietly removed enemies with my crossbow, voluntarily prolonging the experience.

That tactic only worked at random, however, as enemy levels were all over the place. Sometimes my vampire lord red-ball-of-attack only chipped away a small bit of damage, while other times it took out skeleton #4,584 in one hit.

Skyrim's Dawnguard DLC review Looking for blood in all the wrong places
Around hour seven, things picked up ... or at least I thought they did at the time. I entered the Purple Rain level (the "Soul Cairn," if you want be official about it), and things looked really different. But like so many things in Skyrim, looks can be deceiving. I soon realized I was trudging around yet another giant arena killing "this many" of "this thing" before I was able to proceed. Not long after that, Dawnguard asked that I do the same once more.

Yes, there are gargoyles now. They're something new to kill, and they're kind of neat, but I didn't encounter many. The usual cast of cave-dwelling miscreants that I've come to expect from Skyrim were all there, but only rarely did I fight something genuinely different (giant mosquitoes pop up later on).

I enjoy Skyrim's combat quite a bit, but not enough to carry another 16 hours of gameplay. It made up the majority of my many, many hours with the original game, and it just barely sustained my time with Dawnguard. But the new content - what little there is of it - isn't offering anything in the way of entertainment, and the vampire stuff is distinctly worse than any of the original combat. If I couldn't revert back to human form, I couldn't suggest you try this content at all. Even as a fan of Skyrim, it's not an easy recommendation.

This review is based on final code provided by Bethesda. Skyrim: Dawnguard is available on Xbox Live for 1600 MS Points ($20).

Note: Joystiq does not provide star ratings for downloadable content reviews with the understanding that the quality of the core game's experience is unchanged from the retail release to DLC add-ons;
see: Skyrim review.
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