"I'm impressed by how much this place wants me dead!"
If you find the mere existence of this article strange, be assured that I do too. Having reviewed the open beta for the free-to-play Path of Exile back in April of this year with my Level 49 Shadow, which somehow feels like a lifetime ago, doing a preview for the full retail release only makes sense in a backwards, brain-spasm kind of way. That said, the transition from open beta to full retail won't be just a flip of the switch without any substantial updates. Grinding Gear Games has made certain of that.
The most noticeable addition for veterans is the grand completion of the final act, where more than several new maps will be inserted to lengthen the entire experience. During the open beta, entering the ominous door of the last dungeon temptingly known as The Sceptre of God would shoot you out of a portal into the next difficulty level along the eerie shores at the very beginning of the game. Having reached the third difficulty level of Merciless, I thought it strange that the story's satisfying climax and ultimate question of who the hell exiled you, as the name of the title implies, were left unfinished. But in the full retail release, not only will you be able to explore multiple levels of the dim, opulent halls of The Sceptre of God, but you'll encounter the final boss to complete your quest for vengeance. (I'm keeping the name of the boss vague on purpose.)
Conquering the final boss on any difficulty level unlocks an important feature: the seventh character class, the Scion. Her main advantage is her flexibility and customizability in builds, as her starting point on the skill tree is right smack-dab in the center. The developers didn't want to release the Scion until now in part due to her being a tabula rasa, hoping to introduce the other six, more defined classes so that players could get accustomed to the skill tree. As such, the middle of the skill tree has been reformed to suit the new character class and several new nodes, like a modified Avatar of Fire and Mana Shield, will replace existing ones.
Since the Scion is more or less a jack of all trades, the developers say that the all-around Lightning Strike gem is meant for her, though her Weapon Throw base skill isn't a shrinking violet either. It allows her to fling spectral, boomerang swords that can be modified to a large extent due to it being counted as both a spell and a projectile, and its damage being based on the stats of your weapon in hand. So as long as you hold more than several mana potions on your belt, Weapon Throw can serve extremely well as her main attack of choice.
Hardcore fans who drool over six-link chest armor will likely be satiated with the addition of trigger gems that, similar to gambits in Final Fantasy XII, automatically cast whatever skill gems they're linked to depending on the specified condition. Some of the more aggressive trigger gems like "Cast on Melee Kill" and "Curse on Hit" will allow you to maul crowds while keeping your mouse hand free for other actions. The more defensive gems that trigger when your health dips below a certain point will be a lifesaver as well, as I experienced having been rescued by a timely Frost Wall when my Scion was near death.
Grinding Gear Games also promises a bevy of updates for multiplayer, including PvP tournament seasons, team Capture the Flag events, and a guild system of up to 30 players by default (you can purchase more slots) where a party of players can store loot and complete challenges together for bragging rights on guild-based leaderboards. The new season of challenge leagues will usher in two new sections, Domination and Nemesis, which boast much harder bosses and shrines that give bonuses to surrounding enemies but can aid you as well if you manage to capture them. And of course, there will be minor patches distributed biweekly and major patches coming every four months indefinitely, so long as the Path of Exile community continues to support the game.
To be launched simultaneously on the official site as well as Steam, the full retail release for Path of Exile will appear later this month on October 23, 2013. I hope that both Microsoft and Sony are watching Path of Exile carefully, because I believe it would set the benchmark for free-to-play titles on next-gen consoles. Oh, let me indulge in my fantasies, okay!