When Path of Exile creator Chris Wilson took the stage during ExileCon this weekend, I expected a big announcement. I didn't expect him to announce Path of Exile 2—a whole new campaign set 20 years after the first one. Though it's still all one game (players will choose which campaign they want when starting a new character), Path of Exile 2 will feature major overhauls of many core systems along with significantly upgraded graphics, all while avoiding the problems inherent with sequels. No extra costs, no divided playerbase, and every core expansion from the original campaign will be re-integrated into the new one.
After playing through the first 45 minutes of its new campaign a few times, it's hard to overstate how much Path of Exile 2 feels like a proper sequel. It's an improvement over the original in nearly every way, and its smart refinement of its skill system makes Path of Exile's daunting complexity a lot more accessible—all without sacrificing an inch of depth. If anything, Path of Exile 2 is going to become even more of a theory crafter's dream come true.
Return to Wraeclast
Set 20 years after the events of the original campaign, Path of Exile 2 is the story of a society trying to rebuild after the original cast of player characters killed every single god in existence and used their power to murder an even bigger god. Now all the gods are dead and humankind is left to clean up the corpses (there's a lot) and try and move forward.
Path of Exile 2, Wilson tells me, is Grinding Gear Games' chance to preset the reset button on Path of Exile and tell a smaller-scale story that isn't about apocalyptic world-ending threats. You play as an entirely new exile who narrowly escapes their execution and washes up on the shores of Wraeclast again. Though it wasn't immediately clear from the early quests I completed, your goal is to investigate the Duke who sentenced you to die and the paranormal mysteries that surround him. Like Path of Exile's original campaign, that means clicking on enemies until they explode and good loot (hopefully) falls out of their dismembered corpses.
Even in the first minutes of this adventure, Path of Exile 2 feels like a big improvement over the original. The original three acts of Path of Exile are now seven years old and their age is shown most in how one dimensional much of boss fights are. More often than not, you're standing in place clicking on a big monster until it stops moving. And after beating those bosses dozens of times, the lack of challenge is grating. Path of Exile 2's bosses clearly benefit from years of figuring out what makes these fights fun.
One early quest tasked me with killing The Devourer, a monstrous worm living in an underground passage. Path of Exile's first bosses are usually pretty simple but The Devourer was a surprising challenge. During the battle, The Devourer would frequently tunnel underground and explode upwards, forcing me to run for my life or die. But I had to be careful, because each time The Devourer's head moved, it would leave behind a pool of acid that I had to avoid, and its deadly tail would crush me if I ventured too close. Meanwhile, the worm's head constantly fired acid projectiles or tried to dismember me with one of its large mandibles. It was hectic and overwhelming—exactly what I love about action RPGs.
Each of the bosses I fought were exceptionally good at keeping me on my toes and fighting for my life. In a later zone, The Rusk King pelted me with jagged bits of metal. If I got nicked even a little bit, I could quickly bleed out.
That high-stakes combat trickles down to regular packs of enemies. Contorted witches spawn occult symbols on the ground that explode seconds later, while hulking ghouls slam stone slabs into the ground, sending shockwaves in my direction. I still slaughtered hordes of imps, skeletons, and slimy bugs with reckless abandon, but I also felt far more aware of how they could, in turn, slaughter me.
Path of Exile 2's combat benefits greatly from an improved graphics engine, too. Environments in the original campaign were great, but better lighting and particle effects enhance the creepiness and danger of some areas. A zone called Grimtangle is a dark and colorless knot of gnarled branches that would be boring to look at if it weren't for the searing glow of yellow fungi found on the floor. These mushrooms aren't just pretty to look at, though. Venture too close and they'll explode, coating you in acid. What's worse is the zone is full of infected zombies with a special attack that coats the ground in more mushrooms, forcing me to always be on the move.
More demanding combat means players will also have to make smarter use of whatever skill gems they happen to find. Fortunately, this is another area where Path of Exile is significantly improved—especially for new players.
The skill system in Path of Exile is enormously complicated, but the gist of it is that, unlike Diablo, abilities aren't automatically learned by specific classes. Instead, every ability is a skill gem that can be looted or received as a quest reward and must be socketed into your gear before you can actually use it. Things get more complicated when you start getting gear with linked sockets, letting you equip support gems that augment how your main skill functions. You could cast fireball yourself, or you can socket it with a Spell Totem support gem and summon a stationary totem that fires off an endless stream of fireballs for you, saving you time and mana.
It's a great idea hindered by an unintuitive interface that makes managing and understanding skills troublesome. But the new system coming in Path of Exile 2 fixes most of these problems while adding even more ways to tinker and build ridiculously powerful monster slayers.
With the new system, armor no longer has randomized sockets on it so that players don't have to swap skill gems every single time they equip a new piece of gear. Now, each armor type has a set capacity for skill gem, with the skill gems themselves having sockets for support gems. This is all managed in a new inventory menu that makes it much easier to understand how skill and support gems interact.
The other exciting feature of this new system is that it's now possible to have more six-linked skill gems. It's hard to explain why this is awesome without diving into a 40-minute lecture on Path of Exile theorycrafting, but the current maximum amount of linked sockets is six, which is extremely rare but creates an astronomically powerful skill. The current system is limited, though, because only a player's chest armor and two-handed weapons are capable of having six sockets. With the new system, any skill gem can have six sockets. Players will now have way more options available to them—if they're lucky enough.
From my short time playing through its first act, it's clear that Path of Exile 2 is a major improvement over an already great game. The new graphics and more demanding combat is a lot of fun, but the reworked skill system goes a long way in sanding down those few remaining jagged edges. And because this isn't a separate sequel, the original campaign will get access to the same core improvements—everything except the better designed bosses and enemies, that is.