It's always frustrating to see so many modern developers turning DLC into a way of milking their games rather than expanding the world or giving players something new and substantial; they charge disgustingly high prices for a few maps or actually cut things out of the retail release just so they can resell it and make more money, sometimes even putting that content on the disc but charging customers good money to unlock it. When the market is saturated with questionable business practices like that, it's good to see that Bethesda remembers how to make an expansion pack worth your time and money by giving players a quest line and a bunch of little additions that makes it worth its $20 price tag.
Skyrim's first DLC focuses on the aptly named Dawnguard: a legion of vampire hunters who must rise and reform to stop the growing vampire menace. To begin the DLC, simply make it to level 10 and talk to any town's guard, or wait for a messenger to contact you, informing you that the vampire menace is getting worse and the Dawnguard are looking for recruits. This was a pleasant surprise because I was worried you'd need to have a completed game save to enjoy the DLC, but it's implemented as easily as any of the other faction quest lines that come packaged with Skyrim out of the box.
Early in the quest line, you're given an option to fight for the Dawnguard against the vampire menace or accept the gift of a vampire lord and fight against the oppression of the sun. Like the civil war quests, the majority of the quest line changes vastly depending on what faction you're supporting, though many of the locations are similar. No matter what side you chose, you will visit both Castle Dawnguard and Castle Volkihar as well as the Soul Cairn, all new locations exclusive to Dawnguard. I don't want to give away any more than that as far as the story is concerned, but I am convinced that this quest line is both the longest available as well as the most interesting. The plot is epic, the characters are engaging, and a bit of light is shed on the histories of the Snow Elves and Dwemer of ages past. How long the main quest of Dawnguard will take you to complete depends on how often you quick travel or how quickly you rush through it. I'm sure some could easily do it in 8-10 hours, but it took me between 12 and 15 hours just to go through the game as a member of the Dawnguard, not including how long it takes to repeat it all on the opposing side.
In addition to the 12-15 hours it takes to get through the main quest, a game length most retail releases can only hope to match in the first place, Dawnguard continues its radiant quest mechanic that gives you virtually unlimited things to do no matter what faction you chose. You spend much of your time exploring various ruins to get upgrades to your crossbow or killing various vampires or vampire hunters. Dawnguard also comes packaged with a bunch of new enemies, including hell hounds, gargoyles, armoured trolls, matured chaurus known as shellbugs, and an even more powerful dragon class known as a legendary dragon, a foe so formidable that simply beating one gives you a trophy! As an added bonus, you can even keep armoured trolls as companions to help you.
That's not all there is to this expansion, either. There are also a tonne of new features added to the rest of the game that liven up the experience even outside of the vampire/Dawnguard war. Early on, you acquire a crossbow, which is a vampire hunting weapon given to you by the Dawnguard. This weapon is tied to your archery stat, but I didn't care for it; while it was much more powerful than a bow, it also has a much more annoying reload mechanic that can leave you exposed in the heat of battle. Luckily, bows have been slightly upgraded as well because you now have the ability to make your own arrows and bolts. With a piece of firewood and a piece of ore, you can make any sort of arrow or bolt that your smithing tree allows you to, which is great news for archers. Not only can you make arrows, but there are dragon bone weapons, new jewellery, and an entirely new category to smith in.
One of the most significant additions, however, is the addition of two entirely new perk trees that are separate from the other 18: The Vampire Lord constellation and the Werewolf constellation. You gain experience in one of these trees (you can only choose one) by using their respective power and draining life energy from bypassers, whether you’re a vampire lord sucking blood or a werewolf feeding. The level-ups go directly to these trees and have no effect on your overall level or experience, which is admittedly a bit disappointing. I felt the werewolf tree wasn't all that fun, but the glory of being able to morph into a hideous beast and disperse into a cloud of bats as a vampire lord is almost enough to make me stray from the path of good and side with the vampires.
While some aspects of Dawnguard don't quite live up to the legacy of Oblivion's Shivering Isles expansion, which added massive new locations, it's hard not to recommend Dawnguard to fans of Skyrim. Not only is the quest line offered easily the longest in the game, it's also one of the most engaging, and there's plenty of side content as well. Once you factor in that you can replay Dawnguard on the other side of the conflict from the one you chose the first time around, as well as the radiant quests, you're looking at a solid 30 hours of content for your $20. If you like Skyrim and are looking for an excuse to return, this is as good a time as any.