The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim excelled at providing a vast array of different environments to explore. The role-playing game's first downloadable add-on, Dawnguard, ups the ante. One of this mini-expansion's greatest joys is its new areas. You investigate a portion of the oblivion realm, which has an otherworldly beauty, and travel through a chilly glacial retreat replete with gorgeous waterfalls and frozen lakes. You traverse suspended walkways and fight pointy-eared falmer upon them, and get swept away by rushing waters too strong to struggle against. Dawnguard is lovely and atmospheric, and traveling these new regions is a pleasure.
The Dawnguard referred to in the title is a faction of vampire hunters out to expel the bloodsuckers from the land. Once the new quest line is initiated (by speaking to guards, or by the sudden appearance of a courier), you set off to speak with this ancient order. Soon, you must make a decision: side with the Dawnguard or ally with the vampires themselves. In either case, the main quest line sends you through most of the same areas with most of the same goals, though the details differ, and there are plenty of faction-specific side quests to take on. There is a nice slice of vampire family drama that provides intriguing and thoughtful context, though as is ever the case with Skyrim, Dawnguard is more about making your own adventure than getting swept up in a linear story.
Should you side with the vamps, you get one of the DLC's more intriguing features: the ability to morph into a vampire lord. In this form, you can hover over the ground and fling magic at enemies, which sucks life from them and grants it to you. You have other abilities in this form, too: a short-range teleport in which you zoom forward in a flutter of bats, the ability to magically grab your foes and fling them elsewhere, and so forth. There's also a full perk tree for vampire lords, and it doesn't take too much effort to tear through it and be treated to some of the vampire lord's finer skills. (One high-level perk has you permanently surrounded by a colony of bats.) You don't earn new perks by gaining levels. Rather, you earn them after defeating enough enemies by usurping their life energy.
In many ways, roving as a vampire lord is a treat. The form is visually striking (you cannot play as a vampire lord in first-person view), and the array of vicious attacks can make you feel deliciously evil. It's grotesque fun to fling a falmer around, or to raise a gargoyle from the dead and have him join the fray. It's also a joy to take wing and glide: it's faster than sprinting, and you get a nice stamina boost to keep you floating forward. But transforming has its downsides. Many areas, including the first ones you visit after earning the ability, have tight passageways that you can't fit through as a vampire lord. It's an odd disconnect between the level design and a new feature you'll want to play with as soon as you have it. As a result, you frequently morph between normal and lord forms, which can be an annoyance. It takes several seconds for the transformation to even begin after you hit the associated bumper, making you wonder if your button tap even worked. After that, there's still a long animation to wait through, during which the game stutters.
Stutters aren't the only glitches you might face. Your companion, or members of your faction, might turn on you for no reason. The only fix? Reload a saved game. Several waypoints are flat-out busted, slowdown is an occasional issue, and you might try to activate an object only to be told you're in combat. It's not always clear whether the troubles relate to Dawnguard or originate from the main game. Either way, don't expect respite from companion AI troubles and other foibles.
In spite of these annoyances, there are moments that greatly shine in the dozen or so hours it takes to complete Dawnguard as either faction. You do battle versus two gigantic foes on top of a precarious frozen lake. You converse with morose spirits and glimpse a spectral horse before it dissipates into the ether. A sycophant praises your every deed as though you were God himself, and later apologizes for his own victimhood. Certain tasks have you traversing large landscapes with too few battles to break up the pace. But the diversity of the landscapes might still draw you to their most attractive corners, seeking new sights--and the possibility of hidden treasure. (Sometimes, you may find such treasure, though it may very well be guarded by a lumbering frost giant.)
Like Skyrim proper, Dawnguard provides a good mix of conversation, combat, and exploration, and it integrates well with the main game. You learn new dragon shouts, solve puzzles, discover tomes that you might return to the College of Winterhold for a tidy sum, and so forth. If you are a werewolf (which means joining the Dawnguard and forgoing lording over others as a vampire), you too get a set of perks all to yourself, and there is all-new armor to don and weapons to use, like the new crossbows. You can even now do battle while mounted, which feels a bit loose and clumsy, but is a nice touch nonetheless, since you don't need to dismount every time a wolf chomps at your steed's legs.
It's too bad Dawnguard arrives with its own set of bugs, though it's not necessarily a surprising turn of events given the glitchy game it expands. The issues don't fully pull your focus from the add-on's main strengths, however. The new areas and quests make for an attractive and varied journey, and there are fun battles that punctuate an enjoyable and worthwhile addition to a wonderful game. Whether you prefer to avoid the darkness or embrace it, Dawnguard is a fine reason to return to Skyrim's wintry paradise.