Listen, Diablo III isn't that bad these days. Sure, the original launch was kind of a disaster, but last year's Reaper of Souls expansion shaped Diablo III into a halfway decent sequel to the longtime king of the action-RPG genre, Diablo II.
But there's this weird experiment on Steam. Maybe you've played it, maybe you haven't. It's called Path of Exile, and it's basically the sequel Diablo II fans actually wanted: A massive, complex ARPG with almost limitless character customization, a ton of loot, and a gritty art style that matches the tone of the game. The Steam reviews for the game speak volumes—many of the reviewers have put in over a thousand hours.
Oh, and did I mention the game is free? Completely free?
Now, I'm not even close to having a thousand hours in Path of Exile, but earlier this week I got to check out the game's upcoming expansion, The Awakening. It's looking like enough to bring me back into the game, at least for a bit.
The developer, Grinding Gear, has released a fair bit of content for Path of Exile since launch. The Awakening is the piece players have been waiting for though—a true expansion, adding a fourth act onto the game's story, new locations, and completely overhauling a number of systems, including the game's legendary leveling trees.
Oh, and the expansion is free too.
As far as story is concerned, The Awakening's new Act Four will drop players into an entirely new hub city. The real draw is what the Path of Exile team has been able to do with the new combat areas, though.
I was told by Grinding Gear that prior to The Awakening, the art team was somewhat constrained by the theme of each act. For instance, if you've played Path of Exile you'll know that Act One takes place on a beach. That meant all the action...well, it had to take place on a beach. That makes sense.
Act Four? Throw out all the rules. A big part of The Awakening is a force that causes people's dreams to manifest as actual places you can visit. Thus, in my short time with the game I visited locations from gladiator pits to heaving lava pits with architecture inspired by New Zealand's Maori culture (Grinding Gear is from New Zealand).
And for those dedicated to Path of Exile's story, each of these locations is tied to a major figure from the lore—Kaom, for instance, or Daresso. It's a bit like a Path of Exile spin on Psychonauts, and fascinating from an art standpoint. There seems to be a lot more variation here than the first three acts.
But I suspect only a portion of the community is playing the game for its lore. Like Diablo II, the story in Path of Exile is sort of just an excuse to click-click-click on enemies until they die, spilling loot onto the ground like some sort of fleshy pinata.
There's a whole host of normal loot added in The Awakening, including an interesting set of skill gems that summon permanent elemental warriors to fight alongside you. Unlike the masses of weak summons in vanilla Path of Exile, these are more like personal companions—you can only have one summoned at a time.
But there are two brand new classes of items that are quite a bit more interesting.
One is a new class of uniques, the Maraketh Weapons. Grinding Gear told me it got to have a lot of fun with the Maraketh Weapons. Previous uniques were, as Grinding Gear told me, created to “fill a niche.”
That period of the game is pretty much over now, though. There's a unique weapon for practically every niche imaginable, so with the Maraketh Weapons the designers got to really push some boundaries.
For instance, one weapon I was shown made any applied spell effects get cast in a nova around the player instead of in the standard pattern. This would allow a somewhat weaker character to still wade into battle without worrying about getting surrounded. Another weapon sucks all surrounding enemies towards players, allowing them to tank more effectively. A third—this time, a bow—spawns minions around the player every time an enemy dies.
It's a bunch of slightly-crazy effects that really open up the end-game in terms of character customization.
Along with that is the other major addition: New “jewels” for the passive skill tree.
In case you haven't played Path of Exile, let me show you what I meant earlier when I said the skill tree is “legendary.”
Yeah, it's pretty overwhelming as a newcomer.
And now Grinding Gear is adding another layer of customization on top, with the new jewel system. At specific points in the tree you'll unlock sockets—empty spaces you can plug jewels into. These jewels then transform entire parts of the tree.
It looks something like this:
Jewels act upon all other unlocked passives within that blue radius. For example, one jewel I saw converted any strength modifiers within the radius to dexterity modifiers. Another turned any sword skills into bow skills.
This allows characters to completely repurpose skills meant for another class. The example Grinding Gear gave me was a section of the tree that focuses on poisoned blades—a ranger could now apply that part of the tree, with all its accompanying bonuses, to a bow instead.
It's insane—a level of customization I don't think I've ever seen before in an RPG, and Path of Exile was already top of the heap in that department. It's so huge that, when the game finally launches, players will receive all their spent skill points back and respec from scratch. That's a bit cumbersome, but the tradeoff is that the jewel system should open up tons of new, unique builds for players, though I've no doubt people will quickly find ways to min-max or even abuse the system.
In fact, Grinding Gear is counting on exploits. That's why it's throwing The Awakening into beta first. If you want to get your hands on the expansion early, you can sign up for the beta here. Unfortunately you won't be able to bring you current character over—you'll have to create a new one specifically for the beta.
And one last time—did I mention this whole game is free?