I don’t go to an Elder Scrolls game for vampires, nor do I go to them for home ownership; that’s why I didn’t buy Dawnguard or Hearthfire at the time. (Though, given the state of the rental/housing market these days, I can appreciate why others might enjoy murdering blood-sucking parasites and taking their property.) Meanwhile I am a sucker for a Morrowind callback, so of course I got Dragonborn.
But here we are with the Anniversary Edition and all those bits I missed are part of the package. I’ve so far got a lot of enjoyment out of Skyrim‘s Survival Mode, though the rest of the Creation Club content has been a bit of a mixed bag — but how does the other tentpole expansion pack hold up?
(I have been playing for weeks and simply not found anything of consequence that is obviously from Hearthfire, so I’m not sure if that means its integration is amazingly seamless or abysmally pointless.)
It starts with the obvious: town guards start mumbling about how “they” are reforming “the Dawnguard” at a fort somewhere near Riften. Sure, I think, I’ll file that away for later. I was trying to avoid touching Dawnguard until I was a bit better equipped; after all, I have enough memories of being ganked by Vampire Masters even at high levels in previous visits to Skyrim.
Except… Dawnguard is not confined to a bonus side region, the way Dragonborn‘s entire content suite is confined off to the side on Solstheim. (I mean, you can’t even buy Chitin Plates or Netch Leather on the mainland, so you can’t even craft the new armour sets without going over the water — but those armour sets are all low level enough that you really shouldn’t go over the water until after they’ve become obsolete. Ugh!) Dawnguard adds bonus locations and encounters to the main game. Like a… well, a mod? Woah.
So, yep, I stumbled into a few of them as I was just moseying around doing my thing. Eep!
The first inkling I got that something was amiss was when I was out at night and I saw a Vampire Fledgling and pals attacking some bandits. Curiously, this Vampire wasn’t hostile to me; she just acted a bit threatening and urged me to move on (which, needless to say, I did). It was only on starting Dawnguard proper that I realised it comes with a Choice of severe consequences: after the opening quest, you can choose to either become a Vampire or shun them and stick to your hunting guns. I hate vampires, so I stuck to being a hunter. No more ambivalence from roving children of the night; now they send regular death squads after me.
Not long after that first fleeting encounter, I tried to take shelter at a hut in the wilderness. It looked a bit suspicious, but with Survival Mode nipping at my heels, I really needed somewhere warm to kip for a bit. It turned out to be a Skooma den full of junkies… and obviously since I couldn’t resist poking around, I found it was run by vampires as a source of easy meat. (If a vampire drinks the blood of somebody drunk/high, do they also get the effects?)
Maybe when I was up in the mountains and saw “Bloodlet Keep” that name alone should have been enough to signal vampire-based expansion content, but once again, I needed shelter and was in the mood to clear out some bandits. Goodness me, no, I got some vampires and one of their signature pals — an ugly statue woke up as a Gargoyle. Thankfully it wasn’t too hard to kill and its death netted me some nice ore for smithing, but you know me, I’m always up for new creature types. Have I ever mentioned how I think Skyrim does not have enough creature variety? (The most glaring omission, of course, being the monstrous Grahl we saw on Solstheim in Morrowind‘s second expansion, Bloodmoon. Dawnguard does not add these, but it does bolster the ranks of… the falmer and their chaurus pets, for some reason. Maybe that will make sense when I get further.)
So after all those rude interruptions to my chasing of other rando bits of Creation Club content, I finally decided to mosey on down to that Fort to see what all the fuss was about.
This is where Survival Mode’s disablement of Fast Travel starts to bite. Fort Dawnguard is in the far south-east of Skyrim, and it’s behind a canyon into which you cannot take a horse. This makes it an absolute ball-ache to get to, as you return time and again to build up your vampire hunting credentials.
The quests don’t take you to many better locations. After the first quest takes you into a crypt in search of a “vampiric artefact”, the follow-up sends you to the far north-west. Yes, the furthest possible point from the home fort, and another place that’s an absolute ball-ache to get to, given the icy winds that scour the northern coast. This is Castle Volkihar, the seat of the vamps, so naturally the main quest takes you back here a few times too. After your first visit, you can hire a boat that’ll take you there, but you get dumped and have to take the long way home. Just pray your horse came along and didn’t decide to start walking back to the nearest stable.
But enough grumbling; Survival Mode was added long after the fact so I have to forgive its tangential wrinkles. The expansion simply wasn’t designed to be played this way. (Though I guess it’s something of an oversight from whoever designed Survival Mode, as the big expansion does pre-date the Creation Club bonus; they could perhaps have added some teleporters or something.)
For some peculiar reason, Dawnguard has seen fit to introduce crossbows as an alternative to normal bows. They seem to be broadly more powerful, with the only apparent cost that bolts are very hard to come by; they only occur naturally in the world in Dwemer ruins (Sphere Centurions drop their bolts). Otherwise, you have to learn how to craft them yourself. (This is nice though, I like having to learn through actual interaction rather than just spontaneously knowing stuff. There are some side quests to retrieve Dwemer schematics for enhanced crossbows — fuck yes!)
Mechanically, they are identical to bows; you still have to hold the button to draw and release to launch, even though a crossbow is pre-cocked and instantly ready to fire. It feels a little bit awkward, and even seems like a missed opportunity for differentiation from normal bows — make them always be aimed and take a single click to release like a more traditional FPS. If you’re desperate for iron-sights aiming, there’s still the Block button.
The final piece of Dawnguard that I have found to be an unexpected delight is the nice vampire called Serana. She comes along as a follower if you want (obviously I do, honour-bound to use all DLC content where available) and… curiously, a lot of her dialogue seems to lean into the BioWare style romance?! In my Skyrim, where you’re supposed to just wear an amulet and shack up with some rando off the street? There’s not all that much to it — just be a bit empathetic about her weird vampiric upbringing, ask her how she’s feeling at various points — but damn, it’s a lot more than I was expecting.
Presumably this means she’s going to die a horrible death, but one can dream. Because, yes, I’m not done with Dawnguard yet so there’s still time for it to go horribly wrong. Overall though, this pack ain’t so bad! (Except the Soul Cairn area, that was the fucking pits.)