I sat down with the developers at Turbine this past week to get a tour of Update 15 and ask my usual barrage of questions like, "You promised quarterly updates for 2014, but by my count we're going to end up with only three. What's up with that?" Executive Producer Aaron Campbell said that while this was true, he thinks Turbine did a great job getting out regular updates and has some "really big set pieces" for next year. It sounds as though Turbine's distancing itself from a quarterly schedule to a more flexible plan that allows for maximum polish and quality.
But next year will take care of itself, so I hunkered down to focus on the last big update of 2014. What will Update 15 add to LotRO and who at Turbine thought it was a good idea to put the power of honey creation and bee attacks in the hands of players?
Getting a new class into LotRO is tougher than in other MMOs, since lore limitations and appropriateness has to be heavily considered. Fortunately for Turbine, the Beorning (both the race and class) got the thumbs-up from Middle-earth Enterprises and had support in the form of several passages from the Lord of the Rings novels.
While Bilbo met Beorn in the Hobbit, his skin-changing descendants were mentioned in the subsequent trilogy. They're not just another Man race but a more wild folk with ties to the Rohirrim and to an animalistic past. For players, this means that we'll get our first true shape-shifting class in the game, one that can swap in and out of bear form to perform super-charged attacks.
Turbine had its work cut out for it with the Beorning. Not only did the devs have to create a new functional class and its related traits and skill, but the artists went back to the drawing board for the models (which are "beefier" than the other human models), and the writers had to whip up new class-specific quests including the introduction.
Several times during the tour, the developers mentioned a "wait and see and adjust" approach with the Beorning. For instance, the class is going to launch with only 51 trait points instead of 53; the last couple are being reserved for adjustments after seeing what concerns and needs the community has with the Beorning. I also asked whether the team is considering doing reworks to the other races' models after creating this new one and whether Beornings (the race) will ever get access to other classes, and I got much of the same "we'll see what we'll see" response from the devs.
After playing the Beorning, I was concerned at how quickly the class' wrath (its energy mechanic) drained while I was in bear form. The devs told me that they have already tweaked this to drain more slowly in a recent build and that legendary items and the Hide trait line will also help in keeping a player in full bear mode during combat if so desired.
While some players will undoubtedly be power-leveling bears come Update 15, many more will be embarking on the next leg of their journey across Middle-earth. Now that the corsair threat to the country has been revealed in Update 14, the players will be racing across the new landmass of Central Gondor to reach the port town of Pelargir and warn the fleet about the imminent invasion.
As you can see above, Central Gondor is made up of three distinct regions: the forested Ringló Vale, the coastline of Dor-en-Ernil, and the five rivers of Lower Lebennin. As players rouse the populace to ready their defenses, everyone will notice the terrible advent of the Dawnless Day on which Mordor sends out billows of smoke and fumes to block out the sun as Sauron begins his offensive. What this means is that everything's going to get a lot more gloomy than normal.
The quests, zones, and epic storyline will all culminate in a new epic battle in Pelargir. For LotRO's second epic battle, Turbine wanted players to take the offensive in a fight against corsairs sweeping through the city. Pelargir will launch with just a single/duo version, but shortly afterward the team expects to patch in a six-player group version for an increased challenge.
The team claims that it took all of the feedback from the Helm's Deep epic battle (which was not very well received) to make a much improved experience. The journey through Pelargir will offer breathtaking vistas, exciting action, and a new type of "paragon" enemy with a green halo that will single the player hero out to fight.
One big adjustment that the devs made to this battle (and is going back to do to Helm's Deep as well) is the rewards. No longer will players be grinding out jewelry. Now barter tokens will drop and allow players to buy the gear that they want. In addition, Turbine's going to be tossing fun prize boxes into players' inventories for completing main and secondary objectives.
The Pelargir epic battle takes place over three story-drenched stages, starting with the race to open up the city's gates to Aragorn, a fight across the city, and the big finale against fleeing corsairs. Players may even encounter a brand-new monster type to the game: the Half-Troll. This sword-wielding brute stands a head taller than Men and is a daunting shock troop in any battle.
As for me, epic battles have an uphill, erm, struggle in regaining my interest, but I'm willing to try anything once. At least the rest of Update 15 sounds like a great way to end 2014 in LotRO and to give me a New Year's resolution to get a bear-dude all of the way through the game.
When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.