Last fall, I met with the guys from Grinding Gears games shortly before they launched their hit online action RPG, Path of Exile. Four months and five million registered players later, the team stands on the cusp of releasing their first major content update, Sacrifice of the Vaal. I met with Grinding Gears Managing Director Chris Wilson and Path of Exile Technical Director Jonathan Rogers once again this week, and the two filled me in on what we can expect from this first sizable content dump.
As the name suggests, Sacrifice of the Vaal is inspired by the Vaal, the oldest known race in the game's world of Wraeclast. In keeping with the gem-centric Vaal culture, players will find new Vaal gems that grant them highly lethal—and visually stunning—powers. (Grinding Gears said the gems these enhanced skills will number “thirteen or fourteen” to begin with, and that more will become available at a later date.) Vaal gems must be charged up with kills during battle, but once they are, the character holding them can perform extreme versions of his or her skills. During the demo, Rogers showed off the Vaal fireball which creates a large rotating spiral of fire, and the Vaal cyclone which sucks all nearby monsters into it. The visual effects for these skills are hilariously over the top, and will no doubt make the players who use them look and feel badass.
In addition to Vaal gems, players will also be able to use Vaal orbs to “corrupt” (read “modify”) their existing items. Applying these orbs to equipment grants random improvements. While there's a chance the process won't improve the gear, the process in no way damages it.
Third on the list of Vaal item additions are Vaal artifacts. These are designed to appear roughly every half hour of gameplay and create areas of corruption that negatively affect everything around them. Within these areas, players will find new bosses as well as Vaal caskets containing the aforementioned Vaal gems. All of this supports Grinding Gears' attitude toward item additions. Wilson emphasized during our meeting that it's important to the development team not to just dump a slew of new items into the game, thus devaluing players' hard-won items. Their idea is to use things like the Vaal orbs to allow players to not only improve existing items, but to help even unmodified ones retain their value.
Aside from new items, Sacrifice of the Vaal also brings the addition of two new Challenge Leagues: Ambush and Invasion. The first involves treasure chests guarded by monsters. At first blush, the idea's not all that unique. What's interesting about it though, is that it will allow players to customize the fight by choosing the kinds of monsters they'd like to defeat. The second league will be hardcore, and will feature special guest bosses armed with all manner of highly dangerous new mechanics. (A cool side note: Wilson said these bosses' new moves were designed after observing the inventive skill combos authored by some of Path of Exile's most adept players.)
Other new opportunities for players to test their mettle will present themselves as players discover fragments of ancient artifacts within the Vaal caskets and assemble them. Artifacts like the Sunless Disk will unlock new areas tailor-made for the game's more experienced players. Wilson also hinted that the most diligent players might find and unlock additional, more rare and difficult, versions of these new areas. For the less PvE-inclined players, Sacrifice of the Vaal offers two new PvP modes: Cutthroat and Free-for-All. Cutthroat mode is aimed at the old-school Ultima Online sadists—er...veterans—who enjoy PvP at its most uncivilized. In it, players can relive their gaming salad days by killing other players and taking their stuff. Though less brutal, Free-for-All mode is more or less what it sounds like: an arena in Sarn where players can engage in totally unstructured PvP.
After we'd discussed the new features, the guys took me on a two-person jaunt through the Mayan-ish dungeon (working title “Apex of Sacrifice) at the center of which lurks the terrifying Queen Atziri. Rogers admitted that the dungeon was designed to be impassable for all but the best players and said that the first hundred to get through it would get a special micro-transaction reward. (Neither Wilson nor Rogers were too specific about what this would be, but said it would be some kind of in-game status item.) From what I saw during the demo, those hundred players have their work cut out for them.
Rogers and Wilson are good players, but the Apex of Sacrifice proved to be particularly treacherous. Not only does it contain a limited number of portals (six) which means you can only re-enter six times, it's also filled with lethal bosses. These bosses have an inconvenient tendency to appear in multiples as well as a penchant for becoming increasingly deadly if they're not dealt with in just the right way. When mishandled, they generate deadly effects like poison pools, crazy minion spawns, and (in the case of a boss called A'alai) relentless firestorms. The fight with A'alai was utter chaos, and even with their beefed-up Vaal gem skills, it was a near thing for Rogers and Wilson. Even more impressive was the final confrontation with Queen Atziri. I won't give away the fight but let's just say it involves a glowing red egg shield, a range of devastating boss skills that also come in an “ultimate form,” and four one-armed versions of the original multi-appendaged queen.
From the hour I spent with it, Sacrifice of the Vaal appears to be packed with enough items and gameplay to both bring back old players and entice plenty of new ones. The new skill augmentations, randomly achievable weapon mods, fragment scavenger hunts, challenges, PvP modes, story content, and the race to beat Atziri should be good for hours of explosive, loot-filled entertainment. We'll find out for sure when Sacrifice of the Vaal launches March 5th.