Sitting in the Aotea Centre in Auckland, New Zealand last weekend, the sense in the air was palpable. Close to fifteen hundred fans had traveled to the island nation for one purpose: Path of Exile. ExileCon 2019, the first iteration of this conference from studio Grinding Gear Games, kicked off with a bang, showcasing the long awaited 4.0 update to the ARPG.
Players were not disappointed.
The 4.0 update turned out to be Path of Exile 2, the next installment in the story told by the New Zealand developer. A new campaign which will integrate into the existing Path of Exile launcher, the next installment takes place 20 years after the events of Path of Exile, and with it will come a host of changes to improve upon the existing experience.
I had a chance to go hands on with Path of Exile 2 in Auckland multiple times, and each time felt better than the last. Visually, I love the aesthetic of Exile 2. The dark, grimy setting sets a grim tone right off the bat as you choose one of the three playable classes. Set to be hanged for crimes not explained, whichever wretched soul you choose - the Marauder, Witch or Ranger - will snap loose of the gallows and escape, ready to start a new life.
Path of Exile 2, simply put, looks great. The visuals on display, from the gnarly roots of the Old Forest to the dour, run down and bleak Clearfell Encampment were stunning to behold. The improved lighting specifically over the original Path really helps set the mood in each area, giving them a distinct feel.
Combat, also, is greatly improved over the original. Every single encounter felt as though it could be my last - indeed I can’t remember how many times my Exile met their fate the first time I played. Standing in one spot, spraying enemies with skills and basic attacks won’t lend itself well to survival. You need to constantly move, slinging death and destruction with every step. Hordes of imps, Skeletons, werewolves and more would throw themselves at me, and if I wasn’t careful I could die just as easily as I could lead them to the slaughter.
This challenge is also felt in the boss fights. Grinding Gear Games really knows how to make boss fights, and the early ones you’ll face in Path of Exile 2 sets the stage for what I can only hope are more in-depth encounters in the future. One of the early fights, The Devourer, made it clear these boss fights were more than what they seemed compared to some of the early bosses in Path of Exile.
Standing still is not an option, as The Devourer would continually drop underground, tunnelling around the arena, only to pop up nearby and spray acid all over you. Stray too far though and you could find yourself being smashed by the tail of the giant worm creature. Additionally, it would attack from afar by shooting balls of acid which saturated the ground as they hit, causing damage if you walked through them.
As such, The Devourer required both finesse and strategy to kill, it wasn’t as simple as spamming what skills you had at that point to finish the job. You needed to be careful, as one wrong move could wind up causing you your life.
One of the greater improvements being brought to Path of Exile 2 is the overhaul of its skill gem system. Skills themselves aren’t learned by your class, but rather are learned by slotting skill gems in your weapon and armor slots. These skill gems can be earned through loot or finishing up a quest. Armor would have randomized sockets to slot skill gems into, with those sockets linking together so you can equip support gems to augment the skills they linked to. It’s a confusing system for new players, which is why when Chris Wilson, one of the founders of Grinding Gear Games, showed off the new system during the Keynote at ExileCon, I found myself immediately interested.
Now, armor and weapons have a defined amount of sockets they can have. As such, you can equip skills to those weapons themselves - and those skill gems then have six support sockets to augment the skill itself. It’s a marked improvement over the confusing system previously, and one that made it immediately clear how you can make your skills more powerful.
One of my favorite support gems I found while playing the Witch was a skill that gave me the chance to summon an ethereal phantasm, and it was incredibly satisfying when shooting a fireball to have two or three floating spirits helping me along when packs of enemies became too much to bear.
I cannot wait to see some of the theorycrafting that will come out of the new system, as every skill can now be six gem system, compared to the current system where only a chest piece or two hander is able to have a six-socket system.
As I made my way through Path of Exile 2 multiple times, I got farther and farther along with each forty-five minute playthrough. I cannot wait to see more of the upcoming campaign to Path of Exile, and in fact the lead up to what was called the 4.0 update has me excited to hop into the original to start playing the years of storytelling Grinding Gear Games has put together. And that excitement is even greater knowing that the original Path of Exile will also see many of the improvements coming to Path 2. As such, the overall Path of Exile experience will be improved, not just the sequel campaign, which is just going to make what many can consider a legitimate Diablo killer even better.
Full Disclosure: Travel and accommodation to ExileCon was paid for by the Grinding Gear Games.