The Beornings and Central Gondor Are Coming
Recently, we were invited by Turbine to check out Lord of the Rings Online's Update 15. In it, we were presented with a first look at the Beorning class and also the new big battle that centered around the off-camera lore story of the retaking of Pelargir, an important Gondorian port that Aragorn and the Grey Company needed to liberate in order to prevent a devastating attack upon Minas Tirith. Backed by the summoned army of the dead, the former Oathbreakers from the Stone of Erech, the would-be king of Gondor and Arnor needs the players' help in achieving his goals, else darkness will consume Middle-Earth. The developers announced that the Update is due to go live on November 5th.
Presenting the event was Digital Communications Director Leo Tan, with Executive Producer Aaron Campbell, Lead Designer Matt Zimmitti, Senior Content Designer Jeff 'MadeOfLions' Libby, Systems Designer Trevor 'Jinjaah' McEwan, and Senior Content Designer Ben Schneider. Their initial presentation was of the first new class the game has had since 2008, the Beornings. Beginning in the Vales of Anduin, the insular Beornings were discussed. Originally, the developers had intended to start the Beornings at level 50 and in terms of the distances traversed in the lore, that might make a great deal more sense for a Beorning to wander down the eastern side of the Misty Mountains and encounter the main questlines in Lothlorien and go from there.
However, after players made their wishes known, and after some internal discussion that resulted in Executive Producer Aaron Campbell admitting he was wrong on the initial decision, the Beornings were redesigned to start off at level 1 and level through all of the same content available to every other class after the starting instance. When players were given the first chance to play a Beorning on the test server Bullroarer, I livestreamed it and was startled that the initial instance had just a few quests to introduce a handful of characters and the conflict with the goblins, and the character was insta-leveled from 3 to 5 and dropped off abruptly in post-fire Archet to continue leveling with hobbits and other human characters.
One of the biggest concerns was quickly addressed, and that was how the Beorning would fit in to the rest of the game. We were told that the shortened starting instance was not the be-all and end-all of the Beorning lore available. Like the other classes, there would be class quests at levels 15, 30, 45, and 58, and they will get their own vision of Galadriel. Also like the other classes, Beornings have a three-way trait tree. The blue line called The Hide was the tanking line, with all the skills primarily relating to self-heals and damage absorption. The red line, named The Claw, was the DPS stance, with all the skills relating to massive damage. Finally, the yellow line was the support/healer line called The Roar, a bit of a hybrid that let the Beorning either do more crowd control or straight up heals depending upon which 'mark' he or she had set on a target. Leo Tan took great pleasure in unleashing one of the Roar traits, which generated a swarm of bees that attacked a foe. Executive Producer Aaron Campbell pointed out that one of their lore mandates was that bees had to be included somehow, and each of the trees had a unique buff to affect what the bees did.
All of the Beorning skills relate to a new resource called Wrath, and that determined whether a player could shift to bear form or not. On the test server, players discovered that the original setting for how quickly Wrath drained was too swift, so Turbine has already changed it so that it will drain more slowly and allow players to remain in bear form longer than originally designed. The developers said that they planned on doing more updates after the class goes live based on player feedback. That sort of gave me pause, considering the recent spate of layoffs at Turbine. Isn't the whole point of having a test server and releasing content there and asking players to test it before it goes live to ensure you don't have to do major updates after it launches? Was Turbine not getting enough decent feedback from the players who participated or weren't there enough players to provide suitable bug reports? These are questions that will await another day.
A couple of other questions cropped up during the presentation as well. Firstly, if Beorn himself was a character in The Hobbit, and Turbine's license didn't cover that novel, how could Beornings even be in the game? The answer was to go back to the lore itself. The license does cover the appendices, and the Beornings are mentioned at the Council of Elrond as collector of rather high tolls to cross their lands and that the Dwarves are not very fond of them. It was enough of an opening that when Turbine needed permission from Middle-Earth Enterprises, the late Saul Zaentz' company that manages rights to all the Tolkien properties, they didn't get overruled. In fact, MEE's representatives were described as being enthusiastic about the idea. It was also pointed out that because the Beornings are a class even though they're actually a subset of the human race, various bits of the epic questline dialogue was altered to keep verbiage from being awkward, such as when an NPC refers to a player by their class name.
Next, the developers took us on a quick tour of central Gondor, where in the lore's timeline, Sauron has unleashed the Dawnless Day. The color palate is very dark and grim, and the Dawnless Day means that many more of the dark forces under Sauron's sway can crawl out from their hiding holes and march openly during the daylight hours, so it's perhaps the most dangerous place that players will traverse so far in all the past seven years of the game's lore.
The big epic battle in the update will be the retaking of Pelargir. Unlike the Battle of Helm's Deep, this will be an offensive battle where the player will spearhead the motley army assembled by Aragorn made up of the sons of Elrond, the Grey Company, a legion of ghosts, and assorted locals who joined the fight in attacking the Corsairs who threaten to burn the city and raze Gondor's fleet. It's a three-part battle and the first section deals with getting the gates of the city open so that Aragorn's army can march in, with some similar controls and actions to the Helm's Deep battle. However, they will introduce a new mechanic of nemeses, high-end NPCs also called Epic Foes that are too powerful for your regular army NPCs to handle, and thus you as the hero should be confronting them. A new monster type of half-troll is also utilized for this battle.
At launch of Update 15, a solo and duo version of the battle will be available, with a 6-person Fellowship variant due shortly thereafter. They also said that loot will change, having listened to feedback from players who did the Helm's Deep epic battle. Instead of getting random jewellery drops, players will earn Stars of Merit that they can barter for the exact jewellery they were wanting. Players will also earn Victory Boxes for completing certain objectives. Prompted by Aaron Campbell, the developers mentioned that Pelargir will be available after the battle with some clean-up quests, but players will get to witness the pivotal moment when Aragorn and his glowing army of the dead will overwhelm the Corsairs.
After the content reveals, Aaron Campbell was asked about the development and release cycle, how early in the year he had intended on quarterly updates and whether Update 14 and then 14.2 both counted as significant enough for this purpose. Campbell said that the intention is still in place, and that they nearly made the goal this year. He added that next year, we would see two large set pieces in the form of Osgiliath and Minas Tirith, and that they wanted to take their time and make them larger updates to give them the scale required per the lore. A second question came up about expansions, and whether Lord of the Rings Online would return to the expansion format, and the answer was a definitive no. They felt that doing the regular large updates fulfilled their needs as a studio to get the story out there, to bring out content with a bit of flexibility and an eye to ensure that the studio employees aren't overburdened, but hedged slightly and added that they weren't going to close that door entirely.
So there you have it, Update 15 for Lord of the Rings Online. The march to Mordor continues on an epic scale.
Jean Prior / Jean Prior is a video dame who specializes in spending time in MMOs as melee DPS characters. She first started playing MMOs during vanilla WoW because she needed to write the lyrics to a song parody and needed to, er, research... and just never left. She hosts a comedy music radio show every Friday night and can be reached on Twitter @druidsfire.