Dawnguard, the first download add-on for Bethesda's world-conquering Skyrim, is a curious thing. Unlike the blockbuster ambitions of BioWare, Bethesda RPGs are more about place than plot. They're about roaming, poking around and seeing what happens, and the various quest lines are there to tug you in the direction of new places.
That's why Bethesda downloadable content usually introduces some new, separate area to explore, away from the main map. Dawnguard, in contrast, squeezes its handful of new locations into the tiny spaces not already occupied in Tamriel. That means that a lot of its impact relies on the story, and that's not the game's strongest suit.
You're tipped off about the Dawnguard in the usual gossipy ambient - a snatch of conversation, a hint from a talkative guard - and then you're off to the eastern edge of the map to sign up with this long-dormant band of vampire slayers. From there you investigate the activities of a local bloodsucker clan, and the larger story begins to unfurl. Soon enough you're given the chance to pick a side - sticking with the Dawnguard to keep Skyrim safe or succumbing to the promise of life as a Vampire Lord.
Trouble is, while Bethesda's thin story strands are all that's needed when stumbling across a new quest in the wild, the spotlight of DLC is less forgiving. Maybe that's why it seems bizarre how readily you're accepted into either faction and how quickly you're trusted with the future of entire races. It's expedient from a gameplay point of view, but even compared to the rapid promotions on offer from the thieves and assassins, this feels like an epic tale told on fast forward.
The big perk, of course, is that chance to join up with the vampires. Unlike the irritating infection you could pick up from roaming bloodsuckers in the game at launch, this is an altogether more impressive transformation. Accept the change and you can transform from human to Vampire Lord at will. In your new guise, you're several feet taller, far stronger and blessed (or cursed) with some intriguing attack options.
On the ground, you can swipe and chomp at enemies with ferocious swings. Hover in the air and you can raise the dead with your left hand while draining life force with your right. You can also teleport in a swirl of bats. The more kills you rack up, the more vampire perks you get to unlock: summon a gargoyle, turn into mist, grab foes with telekinesis and choke them. All good, clean fun.
Unfortunately, what sounds cool in theory stumbles in practice. The world of Skyrim clearly wasn't designed with hulking monsters in mind, and navigating interiors in your new form is a pain. You're also strangely restricted in what you can do as a vampire. You can open doors, but not chests. You can't pick up items or use the map. Often, you'll find you simply won't fit through an opening or passageway.
Changing back and forth to accommodate this foible is, sadly, a real chore. There's a lag of several seconds before the transformation begins and even then it takes up to 10 seconds of unskippable animation before you're back in full control. You can still take damage during this time, and if you're chasing those perks it's annoying to see your sidekick mopping up the kills while you wait for the change.
As clumsy as the vampire stuff is, it's still preferable to the alternative. Playing the quests from the human side feels very generic, as you follow the orders of yet another of Skyrim's secret warrior clans, earning their respect and leapfrogging up their ranks. A lot of the quests overlap but the addition of crossbows and armoured troll pets feels like a consolation prize when compared to the concept, if not the execution, of being a vampire. The addition of werewolf perks sweetens the deal somewhat, but it's clear Bethesda expects most people to opt for the dark side on this one.
You're looking at around eight to 10 hours of gameplay to complete the main Dawnguard storyline, but the reality of it is still slightly insubstantial. Too many of the missions feel like padding, with lots of fetch-questing and "find X number of Y" objectives, and the story gets stretched even thinner as a result.
At one point, you're told to seek out five "wayshrines", collecting a jug of water at each. You do this because a snow elf asked you to kill his evil brother so he'll help you get an enchanted bow that somebody else has asked you to get so somebody else can fulfil a prophecy. The details become a blur, so your motivation becomes detached and more about the constant meta-game of avatar improvement than any meaningful desire to help these characters progress. You're chasing map markers rather than advancing the story.
That's really no different to many of the quests already in the game. It's just that being asked to pay 1600 Microsoft Points for the experience shines an unforgiving light on this sort of construction.
A decent but bloated side quest isn't all you get, of course. Whichever side you choose, completion of the Dawnguard story will net you a cool new castle to call home, a new shout, a fun companion and enough good weaponry to send you out into the world looking for trouble all over again.
There's also a reasonably substantial optional quest concerning an ancient Dwemer forge, but that only triggers if you're in the habit of reading every book you come across or wandering the boundaries of the map at random. Additionally, high-level players cann look out for legendary dragons spawning at random to test their skills against.
Exhausting all of Dawnguard's goodies took the best part of a day, and it certainly didn't seem like time wasted. Mostly, however, this expansion feels like an excuse to get back into the game as it already existed - and for Bethesda to smuggle in some gameplay updates - rather than a coherent addition with anything new to say.
It's a strange one, then. Apart from the (sadly) expected Bethesda hiccups - erratic quest markers, odd spawn glitches - there's nothing really wrong with Dawnguard. At the same time, there's nothing here that demands 1600 Microsoft Points' worth of attention. If all you want is a solid side quest and some good loot, this will scratch that itch. If you were hoping for something more epic and ambitious, keep waiting.
7 / 10