I am late to walk the Path of Exile. Very late: the evergreen free-to-play dark fantasy action-RPG launched literal generations ago in 2013, the heyday of Bioshock Infinite and GTA 5. (It’s still arguably the heyday of GTA 5. Bioshock Infinite, not so much.) It’s my understanding that New Zealand-based developer Grinding Gears have released approximately one bazillion Path of Exile updates and expansions in the decade since, the latest of which, Affliction, is briefly detailed in a boxout down the page.
I am not your guy for blow-by-blow descriptions of what Affliction adds to Path of Exile. My cautious summary would be: lots of terrifying trees, and lots of modifiers. I am, however, your guy for a newcomer’s snapshot verdict on the sequel ahead of the closed Path of Exile 2 beta on 7th June 2024. In a twist so far-fetched they might just pull it off, the new game is designed both for returning players and newcomers, and I think a lot of that is epitomised by the just-announced Mercenary class, which reflects game director Jonathan Rogers’s desire to create combat mechanics that are at once more involved and more inviting.
The Mercenary is a very gruff man with an extremely swanky crossbow, which isn’t so much a weapon as all the weapons, fighting to exist simultaneously. You can plug in attachments, gems and ammunition types that alter its behaviour dramatically.
For example, you can turn it into a grenade launcher that lobs flashbangs to stun opponents, or cannisters of oil to slow them down and prep them for incineration. You can configure it to launch V-shaped walls of frost that sprinkle icy shrapnel everywhere when bulkier enemies waddle through them. You can turn it into a rapidfire weapon that can be used while moving, and equip the aforesaid frost mod to seed the earth with pressure-sensitive exploding crystals. You can turn it into a sniper rifle that shatters armour, or a rocket launcher. And you can switch between these various loadouts and configurations on-the-go.
You can, you can, you can… I know, having lots of options in combat doesn’t automatically equal Enjoyment, but I was impressed by the crossbow combos I saw during my press briefing, and how they fed into underlying questions of range and tempo, damage dealing and crowd-control. Above all, I was impressed by how intuitive the game seemed, for all the elaborations. Here was an experience I could get my head around – essentially, a twin-stick shooter with a complex underbelly. Whereas what I saw of the Path of Exile Affliction update immediately afterward felt like being thrown into a jacuzzi full of individually numbered piranhas.
By the time you read this, Grinding Gears will have finished their latest development livestream and released new footage of all of the above. In advance of that, I sat down with the aforesaid Jonathan Rogers to discuss the beta, and whether this is the right moment for newbies to join the fun.
RPS: What can you tell me right now about the content of the Path of Exile 2 beta?
Jonathan Rogers (JR): We’re planning on just having the entire game in the beta, all the way from the beginning to the endgame, with all character classes and everything. It’s sort of firmly our belief that for a beta like that, you need to be able to test the whole game. Otherwise, you’re not really testing anything – we need to understand the economy, because it’s our last chance to get all that stuff actually good before we deploy. And once you’ve released something, you can never fix the economy again, because people will keep all the items they have. So yeah, we do have to make sure that we’re testing the full economy.
RPS: I take it you have no concern about ‘giving away’ the full game?
JR: Path of Exile is very much built around the idea of playing through again and again. People have come back after, like, 40 leagues or something like that. It’s actually something that we’ve gotten comfortable with. So yeah, we have no concern that people will not come back for 1.0 release.
RPS: What exactly are you looking for in the beta feedback?
I guess there’s a few things. One of them is that we need to be able to balance skill combinations, like people will find all sorts of crazy shit – our game tends to be extremely open to all kinds of things that players can come up with. So we need to make sure that we get on top of all of the combinations. And because POE2 is such a reset of how everything works, it’ll be a completely new minefield of potential balance problems that we haven’t worked out. A lot of the rules we have for POE2 are being broken in POE2. So we have to make sure that the consequences of that aren’t too dire.
And then the other thing is making sure that as far as the economic side of things goes – we want to try and avoid the situation that we have in POE1 with the item drops, where there’s tonnes of stuff on the ground, but it also feels like we have to drop a lot to make something feel valuable, in POE1. And so we need to get to the point where we can actually make the economy feel good with regard to item drops, without having to spam the ground with so many items that it’s ridiculous. So those are two of the big things.
RPS: In terms of “breaking the rules”, what do you think returning Path of Exile players will potentially take issue with the most?
JR: Well, I that probably the big one that we’ve already had from Comic Con on is basically the fact that, if you look at POE1 combat at this point, it looks completely crazy – the level of speed, but also the degree to which you can just kind of, like, hold down right click, you don’t have to have too much interaction. Whereas with POE2, we really want to make sure that there’s a lot more interaction in combat – like, you can actually engage with a boss fight and have to learn its mechanics, and all that sort of stuff.
And so there has been some concern from some players about this, like ‘oh, I have to actually think to play this game’, which might be a little bit disingenuous of me, to put it that way! But at the same time, we want to make sure the combat is engaging with a lot more combos to do, things like that. And it’s something as I said that some players have some concern about, but I think it’s actually good that the games differentiate themselves a bit.
POE1 is a game where you kind of have one main primary skill, and that’s what you mostly use, but with POE2, we want to make sure that it’s a lot more situational. I can use this skill in one situation, that skill in another situation, and kind of fluidly have a whole pile of skills that you can use as options. And they will kind of make the combat ultimately a lot more interesting, a lot more engaging. So yeah, the combat is probably the largest change from here.
RPS: How much are you trying to bring in new players?
I mean obviously, we want to have more players. Certainly with regard to the point I just made, if you go and watch a Path of Exile 1 stream right now, it looks like utter lunacy to a new player. If you see 1000 projectiles going everywhere, you can’t tell what on earth’s going on, you’re just thinking ‘what the hell is this, even, how do we even approach this kind of thing’, you know.
At the same time, we don’t want to reduce the depth. So I think that, making things more understandable and more visible is important. Making things easier from a technical level is important, too, which is why the skill system now works as it does. But we also want to make sure that all the options are still there, and it has just as much depth as it ever did. And so that’s kind of our main thing.
So we do think about it. But I think that a lot of people think ‘oh, you’ll have to simplify the game somehow’. I don’t think that’s true – you have to simplify some of the mechanical complexity, but I don’t think you have to simplify the combinations that kind of give us our name. Some people say ‘oh, you open the skill tree, and it’s this huge, complicated thing – how are you going to simplify that for the new players?’ And I don’t think that’s the kind of thing we should simplify at all. I think that’s iconic, and something we need to make sure we maintain. It’s really just around the stuff that new players get wrong, making sure they understand why, so they don’t get it wrong any more.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
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