Path of Exile: Awakening Preview

[Editor's Note: Official screenshots for Awakening unintentionally released before embargo due to an error with our database system that controls the visibility of game entries and paired screenshots. We are working vigorously with our development team so that this doesn't occur in the future. Regardless, it shouldn't have happened and we should have double-checked. We must apologize to Grinding Gear Games and Path of Exile fans for this leak. ~Ed. Nick Tan]

Path to greatness.

Path of Exile veterans have been waiting for this expansion, ever since this free-to-play love letter (and soon-to-be rival) to Diablo by New Zealand-based Grinding Gear Games fully released in October 2013. It always felt strange to complete the third act of the game, only to suddenly load onto the beach of the first act all over again at the next highest difficulty. But Awakening, after two years of development with a separate team in the studio, will finally unleash the missing fourth act of the story and will bring with it a wealth of features that emphasize what Path of Exile is all about: deep character customization, build variety, high replayability, and finely-tuned balancing.

Upon entering the final temple in the city of Sarn in Act III, you will reach the aqueduct, a pathway that will eventually spit you out into the new hub area for the fourth act: Highgate. This mining town resting high above the city was the birthplace of the numerous skill gems that now flood the game with their brilliance and power. However, a creature known only as The Beast has awakened beneath the mountain, a force which must be stopped at all costs before it swallows the world whole.

As you might suspect, Highgate and its surrounding environments are not for the feint of heart. Not only will you face nine mandatory bosses, but you'll encounter mini-bosses at a higher rate and you'll need to navigate tricky dungeons comprised of various reality-altering dreamworlds. The Beast, having absorbed the souls of the world's greatest heroes of the past, has hidden many of the key items you'll need to progress in the heart of their worst nightmares.

Duresso's Dream, a setting based around the legendary duelist, twists and turns between hallowed halls with giant living statues and gladiatorial coliseums filled with hounds, warriors, and bull-centaurs. But even that seems pleasant compared to Kaom's Dream, a twisted subterranean world filled with lava, archers, and monsters known as Taniwha which are creatures from Maori mythology (in a nice touch of native New Zealand culture). While the usual interpretation of Taniwha are of protective guardians, the game's Taniwha would love nothing more than to stick their tails out from under the ground and pelt you with spikes that can easily kill you if you stand around in one place for too long. That said, the upside to the challenging fourth act is that it will effectively shorten the time needed to reach the max level, so endgame players will appreciate the difficulty.

While it was pretty much suicide attempting to defeat the bosses of these two areas with an archer build, I tackled them during the demo head-on. The boss in Duresso’s Dream could zip around the circular arena, creating ice clones of itself, and then buff its attack power when in danger. I fell about four times before slaying it. In contrast, the final area of Kaom’s Dream was an even more claustrophobic circular arena with fireballs that spewed out from multiple directions as an environmental hazard. The boss would occasionally slam down its sword, causing the ground to bleed with fire in a straight line. Getting caught in that dealt nearly half of my poor archer’s health. But with a few respawns, I was able to claim the key items from their corpses.

But Awakening is much more than just a new act with a new setting. The other key selling point for the expansion is the nearly insane number of customizable builds, which were already ridiculously high, now available thanks to the new uniques as well as the ability to augment the game’s notable passive skill tree using jewels.

The only reason my archer had a chance against the bosses and mobs during the demo was due to Null’s Inclination, a bow that activates minion-based skill gems with every kill. So combined with the likes of Tornado Shot, my archer would automatically create zombies and skeletons with each enemy death, creating an effective meat army for crowd control. Sine of Shards, a staff that grants a nova effect to any socketed skillgems, as well as Empire’s Grasp, gauntlets that reverses the knockback effect to cause a sort of vacuum, will also give veterans new ideas on effective character builds.

Comparatively, though, jewels are the main game-changer. The massive skill tree now comes with sockets where jewels can now influence any nodes within its radius. Some of the more common jewels will merely trade one stat for another; for example, essentially making all strength nodes into dexterity nodes or having all melee damage affect bow damage instead. But the rarer jewels can grant you the ability to inflict an additional curse or grant bonus chaos damage, so long as you have enough intelligence nodes activated within the jewel’s radius.

Other rare jewels will have passive bonuses apply to minions instead—a necromancer’s wet dream—and my favorite jewel, Intuitive Leap, will allow you to activate any node in the jewel’s influence without having to make a linear path to it. That’s right, you can now hop around the board, saving lots of skill points for even crazier builds. And those are just the jewels that I tested during the demo, as the developers said these were hardly the finalized set of jewels. (I suggested that they include the ability to swap between jewel sets on the fly, as well as a pair of unique jewels like Intuitive Leap that would teleport you between them. They would have no other effect, but it would allow you to cross nearly the full length of the board. Let's see if they heed this peon's requests.)

Path of Exile: Awakening will have a beta launch (sign-ups here!), featuring the first two-thirds of the expansion, on April 20 and last 6-8 weeks until its June 2015 release window. With all the balancing that needs to be done with the jewels and the new unique gear, I imagine they’ll need all the player feedback they can muster. But with all this free content to a free-to-play game that can stand its ground against Diablo III, I can safely say that the release of Awakening will be the perfect time to delve back into Path of Exile for both veterans and newcomers alike.