Vampires may be sort of hot right now in the popular imagination, but vampires have always been a big deal in the world of Elder Scrolls. It’s no surprise then that the first big DLC pack for Bethesda’s Skyrim would feature the blood-sucking creatures of the night. And while the vampire gameplay and new campaign are reason enough for fans to dive back in to Tamriel, there are a few other surprises, and not all of them good, to be found in Dawnguard.

Vampires are a big deal in Dawnguard, which you learn immediately upon loading up the DLC. I was instantly jumped by a handful of vampires as soon as I entered Whiterun and learned of a new order that was hunting down vampires. Of course, having been attacked by a vampire, I was faced with the realization that I, myself, was becoming a vampire and had to choose between seeking a cure or joining their ranks.

The vampires in Dawnguard are quite powerful. In addition to feeding on and enthralling NPCs, vampires can make use of loads of spectacular powers, from teleporting to reanimating corpses to detecting nearby creatures. There’s even a special vampire lord form that lets you float above the ground and drain the life from anyone stupid enough to get in your way. While the powers are nice, what really makes the vampires fun to play is the choice you have to make between raw power and versatility. The longer a vampire goes without feeding, the weaker their body becomes. But to compensate for that, the weaker a vampire becomes, the more types of powers he can use. You might gain the ability to paralyze enemies, or drop everything else into slow motion while you continue to move and act as normal.

When you take a look at what’s being offered on the Dawnguard side, there’s really no choice. They get the crossbow, sure, which can be upgraded with all kinds of fun enchantments, but it’s not quite the same sort of difference you get with the vampire powers. The game itself seems to acknowledge this because, at regular intervals, the story seems to keep offering you the choice to become a vampire.

The other new toy is the demon horse, Arvak. This skeletal horse burns with a blue fire, which ought to be enough to send most regular enemies running for cover. Of course, once they see how ineffective you are when fighting from horseback, maybe they’ll just stop and laugh instead. Rather than wheeling about on the battlefield, horses in Skyrim tend to turn in large, lazy circles that make them feel more like speedboats than warhorses. I could probably forgive that, but what I can’t fathom is why it’s impossible for spellcasters to cast magic on horseback. Even the bound weapons disappear as soon as you hop into the saddle. I’m particularly disappointed by this last oversight, as I really wanted to engage in a little drive-by flaming on my demon horse.

At least the horse, which you can summon at will, is useful for getting to and from content. Dawnguard really makes use of the entire map, taking players from one coast to the other in the space of a few minutes. You’ll revisit old locations, discover lots of out of the way caves and dungeons you never knew existed and, even more exciting, take a trip into an alternate sort of dimension that shows you what happens when people get put into soul gems. While this last level is conceptually very intriguing, along the lines of the Fade in Dragon Age, it too large for the amount of content it wants to support, which means even more aimless wandering as you try to discover whether or not there’s even anything worth finding.

I’ve seen some claims the pack takes about ten hours to finish, but that needs to be heavily qualified. The game can take ten hours, provided you’ve already unlocked fast travel to all the locations you’re likely to visit. One minute you’ll be searching out a cave near Riften and the next you’ll be swimming towards an isolated island all the way across the map in Solitude. The less time you have to spend walking back and forth to new towns, the quicker you’ll get through Dawnguard. When you consider that some of the map markers are just plain off, it could take considerably longer. Never have I appreciated the true value of the Clairvoyance spell so much. I should also mention that there’s a lengthy mission included in the Dawnguard expansion that duplicates one of the more enjoyable Winterhold missions. If you’ve already done it, you’re off the hook, but you will have to come up with a few thousand gold to buy back the thing you handed in when you first completed the quest.

In keeping with everything Skyrim stands for, Dawnguard has its own share of problems. I, for one, would gladly pay $5 for DLC that allows me to push my companions aside when they’re blocking the only exit out of a room. Other problems include bugged quests and vendors, inaccurate destination markers on the main map, and some general lapses in logic. Why Lydia doesn’t run screaming in terror the first time she sees you in your vampire form is a total mystery to me.

While some of these issues are part of what makes an Elder Scrolls game feel like an Elder Scrolls game, fans are likely to be disappointed at the lack of distinction in the choice between vampires and the Dawnguard. Whether you decide to fully embrace your vampire destiny, or else take up arms against a sea of blood-suckers, the story beats and quests are far too similar. The NPCs, goals and locations don’t really change. All that matters is whether the vampire powers are being used by or against you. It was especially disappointing for me because I chose the vampires because I thought it made a better choice for the review. But after conferring with Paul Goodman, who played through on the Dawnguard side for the sake of comparison, it appears that we spent all of our time doing the exact same thing with the exact same people.

There are obviously loads of other details we don’t want to spoil in the review, because half the fun is in discovering them for yourself. Whether it’s the unexpected ally you gain in the Soul Cairn, or the ways feeding on sleeping NPCs can go so horribly wrong, there are plenty of fun moments to unearth in this expansion.

Bottom Line: The vampire powers are a nice game changer and the overall story is engaging. The game still suffers from the typical Elder Scrolls quirkiness, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing depending on your point of view.

Recommendation: Vampires aside, Skyrim is already loaded down with enough content to last for months, so $20 for 20 more hours is probably only a good decision for people who already know they can’t get enough of Bethesda’s rich roleplaying game.

[rating=3.5]

Game: The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim: Dawnguard
Genre: RPG
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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