Ragar returns to Wraeclast to try the upcoming expansion to Grinding Gear's action RPG
Two months ago Grinding Gear Games announced the upcoming major expansion to their online action RPG, Path of Exile. While the game has had two expansions since release in October 2013 (Sacrifice of the Vaal and Forsaken Masters), The Awakening is a significantly larger endeavor. New story act with new assets to match, new skills and items, the addition of gems and sockets to their passive skill tree, as well as changes to UI and game balance. Because of the scale of these changes compared to previous expansions, GGG has been running a Closed Beta for Awakening since late April.
ZAM was provided with a beta key for coverage, so over the last month I’ve been playing through the new content. After a few wipes and your typical beta crash bugs, I’ve finally cleared what’s available in Act IV and can give my impressions.
What is Wraeclast and What Exactly Is Awakening?
Many of you are likely familiar with Path of Exile, either playing it during open beta or trying it once added to Steam. For those who haven’t set foot into Wraeclast, I’ll give you a quick rundown. In PoE you start by waking up on the shore of Wraeclast, a continent that was once the center of an empire; now it’s cursed and used as a penal colony for criminals (and other unwanted folk) from the island of Oriath. As the player, whichever class you’ve chosen may have a different story for why you were shipped off to die, but whatever the case it’s now up to you to survive whatever this land throws at you. Over the course of the game, you’ll work with other outcasts and discover secrets of the long-dead Eternal Empire and the Vaal civilization that came before you...all while simply trying to stay alive.
Story aside, this is an action RPG, so let’s talk about the gameplay. You start the game by picking one of the six starting character “classes”: Marauder, Duelist, Ranger, Shadow, Witch and Templar. If you’ve played through the game before and found her in the final area of Act 3, a seventh choice will open up: the Scion. Each of these options has their own voice acting, some variation in reaction to boss kills & story events, and a slight difference in starting attributes. The majority of the difference is their position on the passive skill tree, which affects their build options. The passive skill tree is a giant grid similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Each node on this grid has some form of passive bonus you can unlock, from raw stat increases to specific buffs like +X% to two-handed weapon damage or +Y% to mana regeneration. Buried amidst all of these nodes are the notable passives and the Keystones.
Notable passives are similar to the specific buffs mentioned earlier, but much stronger. As an example, Wrecking Ball gives 20% more physical damage and 10% more attack speed with 2H melee weapons. Compare with the regular nodes which only give 4% more attack speed or 12-14% more damage. The Keystones are your goals on the passive tree – not only are they powerful by themselves, but can severely change how you play your character. For example, Resolute Technique makes it so your hits cannot be evaded, but you never deal critical strikes – not great for a Dexterity-based character, but great if you’re running a Strength build and not planning on stacking much Accuracy Rating. Another example would be Blood Magic which removes all of your mana, causing you to spend life for skills instead. Not a great option if you’re a straight spellcaster, but for anyone else who has a bunch of lifesteal / health regen and lacks mana for their skills, this could be a awesome fit.
Speaking of skills, let’s look at PoE’s Skill Gem system. Unlike more traditional action RPGs like Diablo III, Torchlight 2, or Marvel Heroes, your combat skills have little to do with the class you chose at the beginning. Other than the Scion’s Spectral Throw, everyone else is drawing from the same pool of skills in the form of Skill Gems. Your weapons and armor all have colored slots, some with links between them. Once you socket a skill gem in the appropriately-colored slot, you can use that skill in combat, regardless of whether you’re a Marauder or Witch. The only restrictions on the gems are their stat and level requirements. It’s unlikely you’ll see many Witches using Molten Strike with its pure Strength requirement, or Marauders with the Intelligence-based Arc shooting lightning from their hands...but it’s still possible. Support Gems do nothing by themselves, but will modify gems in sockets they’re linked to like Lesser Multiple Projectiles (adds two projectiles to an attack but reduces base damage and increases mana cost). Trigger Gems will set off an attack or cast a linked Skill Gem whenever their condition pops up like Curse on Hit or Cast on Death. Finally there’s Vaal Skill Gems – corrupted versions of regular Skill Gems; they’re significantly more powerful, but require the souls of your fallen enemies to cast rather than mana, restricting their use.
Enough Exposition, Let’s Get On to the New Stuff!
For my adventures in The Awakening, I started a Scion since I’d already beaten the original campaign – theoretically a more difficult character given her versatility, but I wanted to play with Spectral Throw. The core of the first three acts is the same as when I played around Open Beta, but there have been some additions from the previous two expansions. The Vaal gems and their associated dungeons were an interesting touch, though I didn’t end up using any Vaal gems in my build since the game kept giving me ones that relied on INT and I was playing a 2H STR Scion. The main difference I ran into during that early part of the game was from the Masters I ran across while out in the world. Each would give you some form of mission when you found them, from hunting corrupted monsters to retrieving the spirit of a fallen Karui. Completing missions would increase your reputation with that master, improving the items they would sell to you and unlocking further options: a customizable Hideout base, an enchanting-like system for that master’s type of gear, and daily missions to provide more consistent reputation gain than just hoping you ran into them in the woods.
Once I finally made my way through the original three acts of the game, I finally started in on Act IV and made my way to Highgate. It’s here you learn of the Beast, an ancient evil locked away behind the Deshret Seal and guarded by the Maraketh to prevent anyone from awakening that which is Nightmare incarnate. Unfortunately the Beast has begun to stir and, as it starts to awaken, the core of Wraeclast trembles as the raw power of its evil sends waves of corruption throughout the world. If the Beast finishes waking up, it will likely cause another cataclysm that will wipe out all life on Wraeclast – and that’s where you come in.
Since the Beast was already starting to wake up, I went ahead and broke through the Deshret Seal, delved into the Highgate Mine and went in search of a way to kill this creature of Nightmare. Once I made my way into the depths, I was met by Lady Dialla, the Gemling Queen. First encountered during Act III, she is your connection to the Beast and her former lover Malachai. In order to go after the Beast, she directs you to go after two of the Beast’s former victims, Daresso the Sword King and King Kaom of the Karui. Each of those infamous figures had their own dungeons that made up the last half or so of the currently-playable Act IV. There were a few new monster models in each of the different zones and dungeons I ran through in Act IV; there were some reused models, but those fit the encounters. The boss encounters for each of those dungeons were quite unique. They were frustrating, but I’ll acknowledge much of that is likely due to my build; they hit too hard to melee with Molten Strike, so there was a lot of Spectral Throw kiting and the fights take forever when you’re doing that against one guy. A sword/shield fighter or someone with more focused single-target ranged attacks would likely have fared better in both fights. After those dungeons were complete, I talked to Dialla and headed to what I assumed would be the Beast’s lair...but the credits rolled and I was given a portal to Act I’s starting zone to begin the next difficulty setting. Given the bits of voice acting I heard playing behind the music during the credits, and the changes to the setting once they were finished, it would appear the remainder of Act IV is being withheld either for a later stage of Beta or for release. What story I’d seen up to that point of Act IV looked like it would do a good job wrapping up some long-standing plot threads from the previous three acts. If you’re invested in your exile’s story, this expansion looks like it’ll continue the same level of storytelling the original game provided.
Of course more story isn’t the only thing The Awakening is bringing with it, so let’s talk about the gameplay changes. There’s new equipment that’ll show up during your journey – new unique items, Maraketh weapons with different properties than existing weapon options, and Divination Cards. I don’t recall running into any Maraketh weapons during my journey through the story, but examples on the website look like they’d work with a variety of builds. Same thing with Unique items – all of the examples look potent enough, but I can’t speak from experience since the last time the game saw fit to drop a unique for me was Act II (stingy monsters...) and I was wearing rares for the vast majority of the game.
The Divination Cards are the item change that interests me above all others, though. They allow a player to work towards acquiring different desirable items without relying on random luck; with enough cards, the player can trade with a vendor in Highgate and grab the gear they want – it’s essentially a badge/token system from other online games, allowing players with poor luck to eventually upgrade their gear. There’s always been the option of trading with other players for equipment, but adding an NPC with more controlled purchasable loot options — rather than the random junk the masters and act vendors provide—is a great idea. I know there were many points during my playthrough where my weapon was very, very out of date; I kept trying to get a rare weapon that was not only an upgrade in damage, but still had the linked green gem sockets I needed for my Spectral Throw and Lesser Multiple Projectiles combo. With how rare those drops can be by themselves, let alone the odds of getting one for your build with optimal stats, those upgrade droughts can get quite long. Sure, it helps when you can use Orbs of Alchemy to boost something to a rare, and various consumables to change gem sockets and linking, but you could just as easily dump all those consumables on something that’s merely a sidegrade or worse.
Awakening also brings with it new gems, both Skill gems as well as the new Passive gems. There’s a variety of different new skills, but the majority of announced ones fall into two categories: Golems and Warcries. The various golem summon skills allow players to summon different elemental golems, giving the summoner a single powerful ally and provides them with a passive buff (dependent on golem type) for as long as the golem lives. Warcries are linked skills (they all share the same cooldown) designed for group play and for large groups – the more monsters you hit with the skill, the greater the effect. For example, Rallying Cry will boost a group’s damage and mana regen, and the damage increase scales based on the number of targets; Abyssal Cry will slow monsters more based on the target count, while also causing any enemies who die during the effect to explode and deal damage based off their maximum life.
The Passive gems are the big item addition though. Players looking at their passive skill tree will see new empty sockets that appears around the board. These sockets are purchased with skill points similar to the other skill nodes but, rather than having set bonuses, you can socket Passive gems here to suit your needs. Blue gems tend to be on par with the more powerful buff nodes you find, rare gems are more powerful, and the more basic unique gems tend to be on par with the Notable and Keystone slots. The real interesting ones though are the Passive gems with a radius. These gems affect the nodes in a radius around them and can cause effects from “Passives in Radius can be allocated without being connected to your tree” to “Strength from Passives in Radius is transformed to Dexterity” to “If at least 70 Intelligence is allocated within the Radius, enemies can have an additional curse”. With the right unique gem, a Notable node you want surrounded by undesirable nodes can become accessible. I’m all in favor of adding more customization to PoE’s Passive Skill Tree – it’s easily the best part of PoE’s customization.
So what did I think of The Awakening? Well, let’s start by looking at this two different ways: as a fan of Path of Exile and as a fan of other action RPGs like Diablo III and Marvel Heroes. Looking at it as an extension of the original Path of Exile, it fits quite well. I enjoyed their storytelling and the art design felt like a good extension of the previous three acts. The addition of Passive Skill Gems is a perfect way to expand on their already well done Passive Skill Tree, and Divination Cards will help smooth out those unlucky periods with new gear upgrades. If you’re a fan of Path of Exile, you won’t be disappointed with what Grinding Gear has come up with.
I’m personally more of a fan of how Diablo III and Marvel Heroes play, so certain features that are core to PoE bug me. I’m not a fan of tying all of my active skills to gems – I like having that feel of “this skill belongs on my class” from non-PoE action RPGs, and it made me set aside potential upgrades because they didn’t happen to have the gem sockets/colors/links I needed for my build. I like D3’s Rune system and MH’s multiple Builds / free retcons because it easily lets me change my build for given encounters or solo/party/PvP gameplay. Above all, I prefer the economy of those other games. I understand why Path of Exile does what it does – a barter system for groups of exiles and outcasts does make sense – but all it felt like (in terms of gameplay) was going from one form of currency to 12. It made me reluctant to use many of my consumables for their intended purposes because I could potentially need to buy something with them. I’ll admit that it did help alleviate the whole “your inventory is full” problem, but that’s because I had little reason to pick up most gear that wasn’t a direct upgrade, gem or consumable because I’d just be vendoring it for pieces of Scrolls of Wisdom or other consumables in town.
That’s all personal preference though, so I fully acknowledge that for many of you out there, you may prefer Path of Exile’s take on how an action RPG should be. If you loved their dark storyline and art style from the original game, then Awakening is for you. If you loved their Passive Skill and Skill gem system, you’ll get more of what you want with Awakening. Basically, if you loved Path of Exile, you’ll love its expansion.
Michael “Ragar” Branham