Friday, June 29, 2012

Video Game Assessment: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Dawnguard

I thought Skyrim couldn't get any better. It was an excellent game. Yes, it had it's problems, and no, it wasn't always perfect, but for the most part it was beautiful and an incredibly interesting game. Dawnguard adds a great deal to the base game, really pushing both good storytelling and character, my two biggest gripes in the base game. Hell, when I can barely name any characters that have REAL personalities in the base game besides Cicero and the Emperor, it really is a pretty big problem. But Dawnguard really does its best to address those issues. It speaks of Bethesda's commitment to both the series and the people who love their games. When vampire lords, an incredibly well-written character, a good story, and some fantastic scenery are added into an already very good game, it goes from being, again, very good to being absolutely brilliant.

I can favorably compare this game to some of the best DLC and expansions I have ever played in modern games, like the DLC in Fallout: New Vegas, some of the Mass Effect 2 DLC, the Dragon Age: Origins expansion, and The Shivering Isles from Oblivion. This is seriously one of the most interesting DLCs/expansions I've played in a while, as well as one of the longest, but for 20$ I was really hoping for a good amount of gameplay. I wasn't disappointed. With two new dragon shouts, a whole new vampire plotline, tons of new locales, and some incredibly beautiful graphics, this game adds so much to what Skyrim is and represents. It becomes so much larger, so much more complex, and maybe a little bit tighter around its edges.

The new enemies introduced in the game, mostly Falmer, some dragons, and some new creatures add difficulty and intensity into a game that kind of becomes easy when you reach a certain level. I actually died a few times in the game, mostly when I played through as a Dawnguard rather than as a vampire. I found that the Vampire Lord plotline made Dovahkiin a little overpowered in general as well as making the expansion seem both smaller and less intense.

So, I've showed my hand already a little. You can choose two different factions as you explore Dawnguard. You can choose a faction of vampire hunters that come from the Vigilants of Stendarr called the Dawnguard, or you can can choose to ally yourself with vampires and become a Vampire Lord, which is both overpowered and pretty cool looking. Dawnguard also adds the ability to level up your progress as a vampire or a werewolf. These are improvements, vast improvements, to the overall game.

I like the new weapons that come out of it, some being incredibly strong, others having effects that are both strange and wonderful. I love the two huge locations that are added with the Forgotten Vale and the Soul Cairn. They are both beautiful and add a ton of new exploration options into an already huge game. I loved learning more about the Falmer, and I love both fortresses of the factions. The vampire castle is imposing and wonderful, while the Dawnguard fortress adds a feeling of being at a home base, something that none of the other faction areas within Skyrim proper really did for me. (What I mean by this is that the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary or the Thieves Guild for instance never felt like a home base. I had no reason to ever go into most of these places unless I wanted to chat with characters or get quests, whereas I have a ton of reasons to go into the Dawnguard fortress, like being able to easily enchant and improve weapons and armor, being able to have a nice place to both sleep and put stuff into storage, and staring at huskies in armor because they are incredibly cute.)

For all of the things I mentioned though, although they are all improvements, they are not the improvement I liked the most. The one I liked, nay, LOVED, the most was the character of Serana, her family, and the Dawnguard themselves. There is a huge improvement in the way characters are portrayed, making them feel both more real, and not like cardboard cutouts. It was my biggest gripe while I played the base Skyrim game, and its improvement fills me with both happiness and hope. Serana, a vampire companion for both factions, interacts with the environment. She sits down, talks, rests, looks around, and enjoys the scenery. Yes, there are some characters that say things like, "That sure is a cave. We should look in it." and "I am an adventurer." but there are really no characters that feel as fleshed out or as real as Serana. She's the first character I was actually proud to have as a companion, as well as the first one that I had any emotional interest in at all. I mean, seriously... Lydia was a lump of wood. I have no idea how people love her so much. Serana talks to you; she interacts. She has a heavy storyline and there's actual emotional intensity in both her voice and her actions. This tells me that there is some real writing talent at Bethesda just itching to write even more compelling and wonderful characters. I sincerely appreciate that. It was the one aspect of everything that I saw in the expansion that made me legitimately fall in love with the game.

I've always liked Bethesda games, but I've always had the gripe that they can't write characters to save their souls, and if they ever actually do they kill them off as quickly as possible. Hell, Oblivion is famous for doing that. Any character that you could possibly have any attachment to will die horribly soon after you meet them. I always hated that. It came out in Fallout 3 as well, except there were very few characters that were actually good in that game. See, now I can compare Skyrim's portrayal of characters to Fallout: New Vegas and won't feel like I have to hang my head in shame. They created a rich and wonderful character in Serana. Her parents are also complex characters albeit less focused on, and even a simple sidequest, the one involving Aetherium, has an incredibly strong character in Katria. So, all-in-all Skyrim's DLCs and expansion seem to have gotten off to a great start, focusing on some of the weaker elements of the baseline Skyrim  and really vastly improving things. I was so happy to see a realistic and well done female video game character that I basically want and need to see more of the same from Bethesda and the Skyrim crew. They outdid themselves with this one, and I can only hope that all of the others will truly be going in this same direction.

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