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The Secret War

This review was written for Gaming Nexus.

Fortunately for us all, Bethesda has a habit of continually releasing downloadable content for games that don't exactly need it.  While the new content for Fallout 3 and Oblivion did nothing to drastically alter the games, it gave fanatics more of what they loved in the first place. Skyrim's first DLC Dawnguard is no exception to this motif.

 Eight months after the base game's release, and players are still returning to the northern expanses of Tamriel to discover the surfeit of secrets the region has to offer. For those who feel like they have actually made a dent in the game, their quest list just got considerably longer. The expansion's playtime is about twenty hours, with more for those dedicated to seeing everything the download has to offer.

 Dawnguard offers explorers a binary quest line much like the Civil War conflict between the Stormcloaks and Imperial Legion. Choosing between the titular Dawnguard vampire hunters and the vampires themselves unlocks a host of new plotlines and abilities. The first time my Argonian transformed into the hulking Vampire Lord, a chill ran through me as I had to rethink everything I knew about combat in Skyrim. Gangs of bandits succumbed to my health drain ability, while their comrades' corpses rose to assist me. A choke power reminiscent of Darth Vader's made quick work of solitary foes before they were tossed carelessly out of my way.

 A full perk tree allows new abilities to flesh out the vampire experience, while those who have reaped the rewards of the Companions quests will be pleased to see the same for their werewolf characters. The Dawnguard offers its members armored trolls for hire, and the new crossbow is given to players almost immediately for both sides.

 After my initial skirmishes as a vampire lord, I grew fairly tired of my alternate form. My imposing figure made it impossible to fit through the majority of doorways in the claustrophobic dungeons beneath Skyrim, and the transformation process cost me health in the midst of heated battles. Furthermore, many switches couldn't be activated in vampire form. I found myself preferring the magic and combat abilities my character was already skilled with, due mostly in part to the arduous process of reverting back and forth between vampire lord and dragon slayer. The new vampire form is simply a distraction from the characters players have invested so much time in.

 The mood of both quest lines delves into the macabre on more than one occasion. A vampire base that looks as if it was pulled straight out of a Castlevania game lends itself well to the overall tone, and reanimated skeletons are commonplace in combat. Although it is rather boring, an alternate plane of existence fits well into the narrative of Dawnguard. In fact, the plot drives the gameplay forward for the duration of the DLC. The hunters and vampires both have their own unique missions with characters propelling the player into the next quest. Notable moments include a tense battle on a frozen lake, an attack on a massive castle, and a dive into the depths of a Skooma drug ring's den.

 Elder Scrolls lore enthusiasts will not be disappointed over the course of the new content, as the histories of ancient races and powerful artifacts alike are explored in detail.  The new characters present in the addition provide valuable insight into the events, some of which hearken back to Oblivion. It was rewarding to meet a certain character that bridged the gap between series installments so effortlessly.  

 The chief criticism of Skyrim remains relevant in the game's first DLC. Several quests required me to reload a previous save when a character didn't trigger the start of a quest properly, and at one point I actually fell through the floor and the abyss underneath until I paused to load. The bugs aren't as common as they were in the original game before it was patched, but they still remain an annoyance for those who don't save often.

 In the end, Dawnguard doesn't add vast new stretches of wilderness to explore or new game mechanics; it merely builds on what made Skyrim so great to begin with. The main quest will captivate those who have exhausted the majority of storylines in the base game, but players will inevitably be drawn into exploration once again. Dawnguard is almost guaranteed to elicit more than twenty hours from your schedule, so stay away if you have any real priorities at the moment.







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