Update 15 - A Valiant Effort from a Reduced Studio
While Lord of the Rings Online hasn't been around quite as long as other AAA MMOs, it's still been around long enough for the short attention span of the internet to proclaim it 'forever'. Launched in April 2007, the game has taken the Lord of the Rings story all the way to Gondor, with players getting to help Aragorn take on the Corsairs of Umbar. Update 15 also brings Beornings to the table, the first new class added to the game since 2008.
While technically they're a specific people lore-wise, the Beornings' skillset is different enough to be a separate class. The immediate thing people will think is that it's LotRO's take on World of Warcraft's druid because bears and the three specs filling the various roles in the unholy trinity of gaming. However, it's not a druid and doesn't play remotely like one. The biggest difference between the two concepts is that unlike the WoW druid, you don't get to stay in bear form whenever you want. A Beorning's secondary bar is called Wrath and once that drains away either in or out of combat, you go back to being a human. Hard luck if you're one of the game's many roleplayers who might have been looking forward to RPing in bear form at any time.
The way Turbine has created skills for the class has led to a deep need to have an auto-updating quickslot bar like warsteeds have. Unfortunately, such an item doesn't exist for the Beornings. The reason it's so necessary is because each Beorning skill is flagged as 'man', 'bear', or 'both'. You don't need a bear form skill on your man form hotbar and vice versa, so without a shifting quickslot bar, the number of buttons to keep track of swiftly becomes unwieldy. The only thing that made it... wait for it... bearable for me was having a gaming keyboard with a left-hand keypad. For those players who don't have any gaming-specific hardware, they might have difficulty keeping up with all the skill hotkeys needed to play both forms to their best capabilities.
For my playtest, I chose the Red (DPS) line in the skill tree, and I found that on-level mobs tended to die so fast that I rarely bothered to shift to bear form. In fact, they died so quickly that if I did shift to bear form, I had no Wrath left over for bear skills anyway, so it felt like a very clunky mechanic unless someone is actually trying to Leeroy Jenkins it. However, I did rather like the use of bees in all three trait lines' work, and the graphic of them was pretty cool. I also took a boosted level 50 out for a spin to see if the mechanic was the same at higher levels, and I have to say that it's just as counterintuitive, but with more skills to find hotkeys for!
Now, turning to the lore and the story for Beornings, a fresh level 1 Beorning starts off in the Vales of Anduin near the Carrock and mechanically, the Beorning starting instance does what it needs to do: give your character a backstory and a set of starter gear. Still, the instance is far too brief, just talk to a couple of people you'll talk to again in your later class quests, fight a few flies and then a few goblins, then off you go to Archet as a level 5 character. There's hardly any time to learn even the vaguest nuance of how to manage one's bear form. In all, it was very limited and it began a story that felt more suitable for a single-player game. Players are also expected to overlook certain lore questions such as why go west and not south, and why Tolkien's nearest analogue to a vegetarian hippie with anger management issues was out killing bears and such. Some of it's an artifact of Turbine changing gears and not starting Beornings at level 50 like originally planned. Turbine also went back and edited a lot of quest dialogue to let a Beorning's experiences flow better, but it still seemed a bit odd to me that suddenly half the people I talked to in Archet, Combe, and Bree knew what a Beorning was on sight alone.
Like all the other classes, Beornings get class quests at various levels. The first one at level 15 presumes a player has played the game before and knows where things are in Bree-land. Since there's no quest item and indeed no actual quest in the log to track, you're out of luck if you accidentally delete the in-game mail that generates the quest. The text of the mail doesn't name the NPC a player has to seek out either. Certainly, a little detective work never hurt anybody, but it seemed odd for such a low-level quest not to be more explicit with its directions.
More story is added with Central Gondor opening up for play for high-level players. While it's always good to see places fleshed out that are only briefly named in the lore, much of the actual content was of the 'kill 10 Corsairs' variety, although there were a few good bits hidden in all the same stuff, different zone sort of behavior. Most of it of course was tied to the epic storyline, including one particular gem I won't spoil involving a river and a missing child.
Getting to Pelargir is simply another long ride through hostile territory and a metric ton of running back and forth if you're actually doing the non-epic quests for reputation tokens. An amusing feature, although I'll assume it's a bug, is the fact that if you kite Corsairs or Haradrim into any of the cities in Central Gondor, the city guards do nothing about them. The next time this happens, I'm totally going to stream it and have Yakety Sax playing in the background because it's hilarious watching a warsteed crashing into things (they do not stop on a dime) and trying to fight a Corsair in the middle of a city where the guards are pathing like it's a normal day.
Turning to the other major addition to the game, the Pelargir Epic Battle, we find ourselves traveling to Pelargir, which is open to players like normal regardless of whether they've completed the Epic Battle to free the city. I didn't find the update to the Epic Battle UI to be very intuitive, because it showed Pelargir as an inset map in the upper left and much of the verbiage still mentioned Helm's Deep rewards even after selecting the Pelargir battle. The map also didn't change to put Pelargir in the central position, which felt like a bit of a sloppy design choice.
The actual Epic Battle itself feels like the name implies, which is very good. On paper, it looks pretty solid, and the new Epic Foes are interesting, but the rewards you can eventually purchase with the drops from those guys turn it into a bit of a grindfest. Unfortunately, the Epic Battle itself can be buggy. I myself wound up sending a video to Turbine by request of Community Manager Andy Cataldo after playing through the piers section of the Epic Battle and getting confirmation that the battle was complete but still failing it. I saw the Army of the Dead roll over the Corsairs, all my guys were still alive, got no error messages, and it almost instantly failed upon beginning the final Brace Yourselves stage even though it actually prematurely said the entire battle was complete. QA and proper testing on Bullroarer should have caught stuff like that.