For the last two years, Path of Exile has been redefining the action-RPG genre, and in a few weeks the game will be launching its biggest expansion ever, The Awakening. Grinding Gear Games has had a dedicated team the last two years, working to bringing The Awakening to life, and from the preview Technical Director Jonathan Rogers gave this week in downtown San Francisco, The Awakening's going to be quite literally a game-changer.
Rogers started by saying that The Awakening is represents the most content they've ever added to the game at one time: a full-on story-centric update that adds Act IV to the saga of Wraeclast. It begins where Act III left off, after the discovery of a powerful creature called “The Beast.” He began the demo in Highgate, near a mine (the place from which the game's skill gems originate). The story goes that The Beast is reawakening, and it's up to the heroes of Wraeclast to do something about it.
Part of that something is of course, killing monsters. Rogers mentioned that The Awakening will double the number of unique monsters in the game, and went on to demonstrate the new ways in which players will be able to take them out. Players (all classes) will now have access to Golems—tanky companions that come in fire, ice and chaos varieties. They'll also be able to use different kinds of Warcries. Warcries are cooldown spells that Grinding Gear hopes will up the effectiveness of melee players by allowing them to taunt enemies and cast helpful area effects.
After glimpsing Golems and Warcries, the high-speed demo moved on to an area called Daresso's Dream. The fiction behind this area is that The Beast, an immensely powerful creature, is protecting itself by manifesting locations that mirror the psyches of various figures from the history of Wraeclast. Depending on the figure—as in the case of Daresso the Swordsman—these dreams can be extremely dark and twisted. Daresso's obsession with battle manifests as a blood-soaked series of pit-fighting arenas populated by frightening man-cockerels and other deadly beasts.
In the sequence I saw, Rogers' took a Marauder into one of the arenas where iron cages released wave after wave of bloodthirsty pitbulls. The second part of Daressa's Dream, a sunlit gladiatorial arena, was equally interesting. There, (I was told) players will take on things like tigers, bull-headed centaurs and living statues.
After Daressa's Dream, the next dream area we took a look at was Kaom's Dream. This area, based on the psyche of King Kaom of the Karui, was a subterranean, volcanic area based on traditional Maori legends. (Rogers specifically mentioned how gratifying it was to include reference to New Zealand's indigenous culture, which is generally under-represented.) This area was populated by dangerous beasts called “Taniwha,” which the Maoris believe are the guardians of sacred places. Playing a Witch, I faced off with King Kaom himself on a small platform surrounded by lava. It goes without saying, he made short work of me.
Clearly, in order to handle such lethal situations, players will need even more weapons in their arsenals and to that end, the development team is adding a jewel socketing system to the game's already impressive skill tree. Players will in effect, be able to create their own passives through judicious placement of various jewels. Not only does this up the passive combo types exponentially, it allows players to do things like add attributes meant for one weapon, to any weapon (for instance, adding poison dagger attributes to a bow, thus creating a poison bow).
Even better, certain jewels allow their effects to work not just on one part of the skill tree, but within a radius extending beyond it. The benefit of this is that it minimizes (or eliminates) the need to work your way across the skill tree to obtain a certain ability; it will be possible to implement that ability essentially anywhere you like. You'll even be able to give passives to your minion.
Along with new monsters, areas and passives, The Awakening will add 70 new unique items to the game, including a samurai sword (one of the most-requested weapons) and a bow that spawns minions with every kill. The latter was really cool in conjunction with the new jewel-socketing system, which allows for minions to become even more varied and powerful.
Most players will be paying attention to the flashy bits of The Awakening, but along with those, the expansion will bring a lot of smaller, but nevertheless significant, changes. Among these is an interface revamp that includes a new item filter and adds life bars to more enemies as well as enabling players to change font and menu window sizes. There's also been a complete gameplay rebalance, and though Rogers admitted the changes might take some getting used to for veteran players, he also said that players new to to Path of Exile will no doubt have a much smoother and more polished experience.
Grinding Gear Games is clearly excited about releasing The Awakening, and why not? The expansion will feature nine new bosses (compared to the single bosses released with the previous expansions), which is bound to make for some epic fights and great player stories. Still, they're intent on making sure the expansion's as good as it can be. In light of that, they'll be holding a 6-8 week open beta starting next week, in order to address any problems and/or shake out as many skill-change imbalances as possible. As committed as the Path of Exile community is, that should not only make for a solid launch, but some of the most creative character builds ever seen.
For more information about Path of Exile: The Awakening, visit the official Path of Exile website.
To sign up for the beta, click here.