Being a near-transparent shade of white, I can relate to a vampire’s wariness of the sun. Willfully ignorant of the concept of sunblock reapplication, a single weekend at the Jersey Shore renders my skin a splotchy, painful hue of stupid. This hard-won empathy didn’t make the curse of vampirism any more fun to experience in the action role-playing game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In that game, while you sleep, a vampire might steal into the inn and forcefully recruit you into his putrid ranks. Sure, it sounds cool, but then you can’t walk around during daylight hours without quickly being drained of life. And what do you get in return? Night vision, and a bunch of people constantly telling you that you look like shit. It’s the video game version of a terrible hangover. Hardly worth it.
In Oblivion’s successor, Skyrim, you play the role of the Dragonborn, a prophesied mortal hero with the soul of a dragon. In addition to the usual might and magic, you’re also equipped with the ability to “shout” in the supernaturally powerful dragon-speak. The main quest requires you to defeat the evil dragon Alduin, but many players have lost hundreds of hours just wandering around the vast, mountainous reaches. This land, unlike Oblivion’s golden empire, is an ideal setting for the bloodsucking undead. The Skyrim countryside is bleak and cold, and there isn’t a whole lot of sunshine to speak of. There are plenty of Imperial soldiers, simple farmers, and frost trolls on which to prey, and innumerable crevices and fjords in which to hide when John Law Stormcloak brings the heat.
In Dawnguard, Skyrim’s first major downloadable expansion, vampiring finally gets its much-needed upgrade, and the Dragonborn has new missions to undertake. Post-download, everything about Skyrim looks the same, but you’ll quickly hear passersby talking about something called the Dawnguard. A few well-placed questions will lead you to their base, a fort down near a known thieves’ den.
At the Dawnguard citadel, a musty old keep, clearly past its prime, you are faced with a not-so-tough choice. The Dawnguard are an order of vampire hunters, and their management, impressed with your willingness to hunt vamps, gives you a crossbow. Yep, just a regular old crossbow. That should work pretty well against legions of immortal demons sent straight from the bowels of hell. Now, normally I’d still be happy to lend the prestige and sword arm of the Dragonborn to this ragtag, down-on-its-luck phalanx, but for reviewing purposes, I felt obligated to choose the other option. The path of evil.
Becoming a vampire lord follows the usual formula: guy meets girl, guy rescues girl, girl introduces guy to grateful vampire-lord/king father, guy impresses father with his dour Nordic bearing, guy agrees to forsake the uncertainties of mortality for the ability to change into a flock of bats at will, father tells guy his maniacal plan to block out the sun forever. All it needs is a few Stephen Sondheim tunes plus some Thriller-esque dance routines, and this story’s ready for Broadway.
Joining the bad guys means partaking in the vampire king Harkon’s plan for neutralizing the sun, making the world safe for the UV-sensitive. Even though you’re new to the gang, he likes the cut of your jib and sends you out to gather the pieces he needs for the vampocalypse. This includes filling a chalice from a blood-fountain, finding a Moth priest, and engaging in a variety of other silly necessities that require your murderous talents. The Dawnguard will try to stop you, but those crossbows might as well be slingshots.
As a newly-christened vampire lord, players can acquire the ability to transform into a flying, roided-out Max Schreck—a being who can raise undead minions and drain the very life essence from its enemies. Some of the powers that accompany your new line of work are sweet—“Vampiric grip” is Skyrim’s version of a Darth Vader force choke. In vampire-lord form, you can’t really sneak around dungeons like you might have in your Dark Brotherhood ninja days. Your new, larger physique is quickly put to the test as you try to squeeze through dungeon entryways and fumble to open treasure chests with your far-from-dexterous vampire talons.
Whichever path you choose, though, Dawnguard will add to your ever-expanding list of group affiliations. My main complaint about the guild quests in Skyrim is that you don’t have to renounce one gang to join another. The Dragonborn can be all things to all people, and there is apparently no conflict in your being a fighter, wizard, thief, assassin, werewolf, blacksmith, real estate mogul, and/or all-purpose entrepreneur. You’re not forced to make choices in that respect, which makes your character feel generic. Just add vampire lord or vampire hunter to the list, I guess.
There isn’t much in the way of new lands to explore, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Skyrim is practically a Pangea unto itself already, with plenty of relatively pristine settings for new quests. Dawnguard isn’t, in any meaningful way, a sequel or a second act. I’m grateful for that. After spending the requisite hundred-plus hours Skyrim demands, wandering the tundra, killing dragons, and selling pillaged swag, I’m not quite ready to re-engage in the full, life-sucking experience. Dawnguard has a definite timeframe and visible exit. Some might see this as a detriment. I see it as an act of mercy on the developers’ part—reason enough to revisit some old Skyrim haunts, pick up some new gear, and kill some things, but limited enough to let me soon walk away again.