Path of Exile's next expansion lets you decide the fate of a war between gods

Last summer, Path of Exile launched the Fall of Oriath, a massive expansion that completely restructured the leveling experience by introducing six new acts to play through. It was, for people like me struggling to get into Path of Exile, a complete game-changer. Path of Exile's next expansion, lead designer Chris Wilson tells me, won't be as big—at least not in terms of size—but it does shake up the other side of the coin for Path of Exile: the endgame.

"With the Fall of Oriath we focused squarely on the storyline, providing only minor improvements to the endgame," Chris Wilson tells me. "Now we're going all in on the endgame."

'X' marks the spot 

For those unaware of how Path of Exile's endgame works, it largely centers around the Atlas of Worlds, a massive network of randomly generated maps that become harder the deeper you progress through them. During normal play, monsters can drop a map that can then be taken to a special device and used to conjure a portal you or your friends can travel through. These maps, like items, have random properties that dictate the kinds of monsters you'll encounter, limit or buff your abilities, and a lot more.

It's a system that, at its most basic, is similar to Diablo 3's Rifts—you're running randomly generated maps at progressively higher difficulties in search of powerful loot. Where it gets interesting is that more difficult maps can drop while you're clearing out a map level, leading to greater challenges and, yes, the chance to drop even more difficult maps. Eventually, players can work their way through the Atlas to the final four maps, each protected by a powerful Guardian. Killing one of them lets you then take on The Shaper, the Cthulhu-looking big bad of Path of Exile's universe. Well, until December 8, when War for the Atlas launches.

War for the Atlas revamps this entire system by introducing 32 new maps, a new layout, and a new threat to the Atlas: The Elder. Though they share a similarly vague name, The Elder and The Shaper are at war and its up to you to decide which one wins. Wilson isn't willing to divulge much information on the why of it all, as that's a mystery that the community will have to work together to solve.

This is the new Atlas.

But as you begin exploring the Atlas of Worlds, you'll see map locations that have become tainted by either The Shaper or The Elder. These taints manifest physically in the level, adding greater challenges to contend with. For example, The Elder's minions are tentacled beasts that suck the very color out of the game, weakening your character if they're caught in this monotone aura. Shaper-tainted maps, on the other hand, might have glowing orbs that detonate, ripping the fabric of space-time and dealing fatal damage to characters that get too close to the rip.

Each time you complete a map, the Elder or Shaper taint spreads like mould to new maps, and it's up to you to try and control it. By completing maps with an Elder or Shaper taint you'll cleanse it, allowing the other to move in and take it over. Players can choose to either destroy the Shaper, the Elder, or try and stop both from spreading and taking over the entire Atlas of Worlds.

There's a variety of reasons players will want one or the other to win, Wilson says, and a lot of strategy too. As the taint spreads, players will want to encourage it to grow in the direction of harder maps by cleansing it on easier maps, increasing the challenge but also the rewards. If the Elder's taint spreads far enough, he'll manifest in certain maps, killing its boss and stealing its powers to create a guardian similar to the four you'd fight trying to kill the Shaper.

Of course, there's a lucrative material reward for going to war against these gods. When clearing either type of map, it's possible to find Shaper or Elder gear, which has a special starry or tentacled background. On its own, this gear might not be any different than the normal loot you'd find, but Shaper and Elder gear can have special extremely rare properties randomly pop up while crafting it. One special mod for boots that Wilson showed me let you walk across fiery surfaces without taking damage—a definite bonus for certain areas in Path of Exile. "These will certainly be the best items in Path of Exile once they've had them for awhile," Wilson says. "But it will take a lot of resources to achieve that."

Getting these items will be a challenge, because each time you complete a zone looking for them to drop, you're also effectively shrinking that god's taint. There's no way to eliminate it entirely, but Wilson says players will want to "responsibly farm" zones to keep each taint a healthy—but not too big—size.

Skills to pay the bills 

War for the Atlas also introduces four new skill gems and six new support gems that players can mess around with. Of the four new skills, all of them are themed around corpse manipulation. How morbid. Unearth, for example, fires a projectile that causes a body to rise out of the earth. Wilson then paired this with another new skill, Cremation, which turns corpses into exploding geysers of fire. Obviously the two work together extremely well.

Another skill is Volatile Dead, which consumes a corpse and creates an exploding orb that chases down enemies. Wilson paired this with a Cyclone melee character and gave Volatile Debt a support gem that made it cast automatically after killing an enemy. This essentially turned his character into a spinning-axe madman that launches a steady stream of orange orbs that track down monsters and explode.

Some new support gems are also welcome additions. I love Spell Cascade, which causes any area-of-effect spell to cast three times beside the area where you cast it. It's kind of hard to explain, but the idea is that if you cast something like Frost Wall, Spell Cascade will create another wall in front and behind, a massive chunk of ice you can use to wall off enemies.

Into the Abyss 

As is typical with expansions, War for the Atlas also introduces a new challenge league for players to start new characters in. This one is called the Abyss and works similar to last year's community favorite, Breach. In the Abyss league, you'll have a random chance to happen upon cracks in the earth teeming with nasty enemies. By following these cracks as they spread and killing the monsters that crawl out, you'll eventually find a gaping hole with hordes of baddies to kill. Slay them fast enough, and new cracks will form leading you to a new hole. Each Abyss hole that you clear consecutively will make the next one more challenging and reduce the time limit you have to kill everything.

Wilson says there's a lot more to unpack about the Abyss and how it works, but he's leaving that for the community to figure out. Still, the rapid pace of chasing cracks and clearing holes sounds like a fun challenge. Since most of the expansion is focused purely on the endgame, the Abyss league is the only major change that new players will feel directly.

War for the Atlas certainly isn't as big of an expansion as Fall of Oriath was, but its massive upheaval of the endgame is promising. As with all expansions, this one will be completely free. If you've never tried Path of Exile before, now is a great time to jump in. I finally pushed through the veil of complexity that surrounds it, and it's quickly become one of my favorite games this year.