Meet Agmaer. No, I don’t know how you pronounce it either.
Agmaer looks like another of Skyrim’s many opportunistic, bellicose natives, right? But get this, not only is he genuinely afraid for his life (thus demonstrating more gumption than almost any other creature roaming the frigid plains of Tamriel) but, even more remarkably, Agmaer asks nothing material of the player. No desultory fetch quest, no bungling assassination mission or fatuous expedition into the perilous depths of Skyrim in search of a magical doodad lost millennia ago to the skeleton people of Pluto.
How refreshing! How delightful! How rewarding, having spent untold hours in the company of the self-serving indigenous Skyrimmer, to meet a man who would like nothing more than to revel in the hearty company of a fellow adventurer.
Trouble is, Agmaer’s a red herring. Within fifteen minutes Skyrim has done its utmost to snuff the aspiring vampire hunter out and leech what little personality Agmaer could call his own. Within fifteen minutes he’s just another rusty sword plodding about on a pair of stupid human legs, vowing unthinkingly to purge Skyrim of whatever flavour of the month no-good is threatening to nudge it over the precipice this time round.
That’s Agmaer’s story, but it serves as a befitting allegory for Dawnguard itself, the first of Skyrim’s planned expansions.
Let’s talk about story. Dawnguard’s goes a little like this: warmongering vampires threaten the very fabric of Skyrim and so it falls to a slender band of vampire hunters known as the Dawnguard to salvage the land and send the alabaster cannibals packing. That’s it, really. You choose who to side with – the vampires being the obvious choice – but the quests play out largely the same either way.
It’s not an engaging nor dramatic tale and like any of the larger quests found in Skyrim proper, it lacks the sense of scale or grandioso that you’d expect from an ordeal that involves wrestling the world back from the talons of oblivion. The rest of Skyrim goes about its routine as though the entire kingdom weren’t dangling above the proverbial shark pool. Indeed, you only learn of the Dawnguard through the whisperings of the guardsmen – it’s pretty low key stuff.
Not that this wasn’t the case in Skyrim, of course. But there you were able to spurn the narrative in favour of your own tales of gallantry out in the heady wilderness and it was a better game played like that. Here, the story is all you’ve got. Set in Skyrim, Dawnguard is robbed of the magic of adventuring – the game’s greatest feature.
It would be a stretch to suggest Dawnguard was any more than another guild quest-line, then, conforming to the same pattern established with the Companions, or one of the other less gripping guilds. You embark on a series of fetch quests, chasing waypoints through needlessly drawn out dungeons in a bid to recruit a couple of soldiers, recover Aurial’s Bow and ultimately fight a big old boss thing.
Aurial’s Bow is a natty little thing that, combined with a new variety of arrow, causes anything it meets to explode. You can also fire arrows into the sun, which kickstarts a nuclear fireworks display reminiscent of what happened when you fired Fallout: New Vegas’ wonderful Euclid’s C-Finder.
Curiously, it’s deep within the labyrinth caves that Dawnguard finally breaks away from the shackles of Skyrim itself. These gloomy grottos are as foreign as Dawnguard gets; thick with trinkets and new, native horrors – oversized beasties with drumming wings, new breeds of the cave-dwelling Falmar and bizarre permutations of bizarrer still flora. Meanwhile, the well-concealed bowels of the Dawnguard bulwark provide one of few rich and new environments (as well as a sizeable side-quest), well worth a trip through but unfathomably tucked away well out of sight.
Even the expansion’s USP is tame. You can transform into a vampire (or werewolf should you side with the Dawnguard) replete with its own 11-tier perk tree. On paper, these perks sound scintillating – a showy riff on Vader’s force choke, the ability to summon an angry gargoyle and life-sapping energy attacks, among others. In reality, though, they’re terminally dull. Even at full strength, my character was markedly weaker in vampire form than standard Nord build and shackled by his pithy supply of Magicka (not the game’s fault, admittedly).
Elsewhere, you can’t access the map or open treasure chests in vampire form (although you can flick switches) and you’ll get snagged in small crevices forcing a lengthy transformation back into normal form. There’s no sense that you’re wielding otherworldly power; the ancient vampires deemed so perilous to the safety of Skyrim come unstuck at the first sight of a low-ceiling and are hobbled by a raft of powers that offer little in the face of a well-placed crossbow bolt.
Serana, at least, is a welcome companion. The daughter of the vampire baddie, she’s easy on the ears, reticent and crucial to the story and her continued presence and chatter throughout the eight or so hours proves one of the expansion’s few true triumphs.
Dawnguard is a curious thing, though. Like Agmaer, it begins life thick with promise and potential yet never manages to do anything with it. For those who have marched through Skyrim armed with a fine-tooth comb there’s little incentive to traipse through the austere countryside a second or third time over. Yet it was precisely that sense of uncertainty and adventure that made Skyrim such an alluring confederate in the first place.
So to the weary warrior, what wonders await? A snappy crossbow? A handful of new AI partners to go blundering into those commonplace traps? For £14, it comes up short on meaningful content.
Dawnguard desperately needed a clean slate to rekindle the thrill of first adventuring through Skyrim. Without that it buckles too quickly, reneging on a familiar and dreary jig that at once shines light on Skyrim’s many foibles while eschewing its greatest accomplishments.
At the end of my adventure, Agmaer’s corpse lie crumpled and numb in a gully. It’s all a bit too metaphorical.