Path of Exile players love to go fast—and I mean, really fast. They whip through levels, vaporizing thousands of monsters with the staccato clicking of their mouse and keyboard. It's fun to push your character to its limits like that, and it's the reason why previous leagues, like Breach, were so popular. While racing through levels in Breach, players could trigger an ever-expanding portal that would constantly spawn monsters. As long as they kept killing, the portal kept growing. And when it finally collapsed on itself, players were left with an exorbitant amount of loot to gather before racing deeper into the level.
This "speed meta" is also why Path of Exile's last league, Bestiary, wasn't received too warmly. It's Pokemon-inspired catch 'em all design was satisfyingly deep but necessitated constant pauses from the wanton slaughter, which isn't that much fun in a game that is all about wanton slaughter. But the new expansion, which launches on June 1, is a combination of both. It has the speed of Breach with a deep strategic layer evocative of Bestiary. Oh, and you also can screw with the time continuum.
Back to the Future
Incursion focuses entirely on an ancient Vaal treasure temple called Atzoatl that was lost after the Vaal Cataclysm. "The central core of Incursion is that actions you make in the past can affect the present day," Chris Wilson, lead designer at developer Grinding Gear Games tells me. No one knows where to find it, but a new character called Alva Valai has a hypothesis on how to uncover its location. As players enter each new area during a regular campaign, they'll encounter Alva standing next to some Vaal marker stones. If you talk to her, she'll offer to use these stones to send you to the temple as it existed in the past. In doing so, you'll gradually reveal the location of the temple as it exists in the present.
These incursions send you into a random room within Atzoatl in the past where you'll only have a limited amount of time to kill all the monsters found there. Each kill grants you more time, but you're still going to need to move as fast as you can. Because this section is so time-intensive, there's no need to worry about picking up items or managing your inventory. A bar on the bottom of the screen tracks your progress toward killing every monster in the area and, once the timer runs out and you're sent back to the present, all the items you would have accumulated spill out in one glorious fountain of loot.
Wilson tells me that this is the first layer of Incursion: Here's a room full of monsters to kill and a fountain of loot to enjoy for doing so. On the surface, it's something that barely breaks the flow of the regular campaign.
But this is where things start to get a little crazy. See, the ultimate goal of these incursions is to eventually reveal the location of Atzoatl in the present day. Once you've done 11 of them, you can run the present-day temple, this time without the burden of a timer, to reap whatever rewards are hidden inside. But what you do in the past will have a dramatic effect on how the temple appears in the present.
One of the key ways players will want to shape the present-day version of the temple is by opening up passageways between rooms—effectively increasing the size of the dungeon. To do this, players will have to keep an eye out for keys while running their time-sensitive incursions in the past. If they find one, they'll need to quickly find a door in that same room and unlock it. That way, when they revisit that room in the present day, that passage will remain unlocked and give them more rooms to explore. "If you haven't been opening doors extensively, you don't get to see a lot of the temple in the present day," Wilson says. The ultimate goal, Wilson tells me, is to open doors in such a way that you eventually make a path to the Central Chambers where a boss waits to be killed.
Getting there, however, is a matter of luck. You'll only be sent back to the past 11 times and each room you're sent to is random. The current version of Atzoatl has 13 rooms, and you can be sent back to the same room multiple times, so you won't always have the opportunity to reach the Central Chambers. That's okay for two reasons: There's other objectives to complete in Atzoatl, and your discovery of the temple resets to a new random one each time you complete the present-day version. It's a bit confusing, I know. But Incursion is immediately available to level one players and Alva appears in every zone you enter. So, over the course of the campaign and subsequent endgame, you'll perform incursions, shape the temple, and run the present-day version countless times.
The architect in the room
That's still just scraping the surface of how you can shape Atzoatl's present-day version, however. When looking at the map that Alva shows the player, each room of the temple has a function that might be of interest to them. "Every room has things that it adds to the temple," Wilson explains. He mentions a Vaal breeding grounds room, which increases the density of monster packs around the present-day temple. That's a good thing because more monsters means more killing.
Like passages, players have agency over which rooms spawn in their version of Atzoatl, too. In the past, each room you enter has two architects that are competing with one another to shape the room according to their design. If I enter the Vaal breeding grounds, for example, and kill the associated architect, the competing architect has free reign to transform the room into whatever his specialty is. If, however, I kill that competing architect instead, the Vaal breeding ground architect will upgrade that room, making it a tier two version with stronger effects—in this case even greater monster density. Each of these rooms can be upgraded three times in this way.
If it's hard to wrap your head around, consider this example. I find Alva, and she sends me on an incursion to the past where I end up in the Vaal breeding grounds. During the 30-ish seconds that I have, I want to find a key to connect this room to an adjacent room so I start building a path up to the Central Chambers. But I also want to kill the breeding grounds architect. In succeeding at both objectives, the room is connected but also transformed into a Poison Garden. During my next ten incursions, I randomly enter the Poison Gardens two more times and each time kill the competing architect so the Poison Garden architect upgrades the room to tier three.
Because I upgraded the Poison Garden to tier three, when I eventually visit the temple in the present day, I find every room covered in deadly poison plants that make running the temple significantly harder. But, if I survive long enough to make it to the Poison Garden room, I find a powerful unique shield waiting for me that I can't get anywhere else. "There's a risk and reward with every decision you make," Wilson says. "But you can always control how hard it is because you've crafted the temple yourself. If you don't want a challenge, then don't upgrade all the rooms to tier three."
That's just an example using two rooms of a possible dozen, each with their own rewards and effects on the temple. And keep in mind, each time you complete a present-day Atzoatl, you'll get to start over with a newly randomized dungeon.
What I love about this system is that all of this is happening over time during those time-intensive incursions to the past. As Wilson explains, the time limit means you'll rarely be able to complete off multiple objectives at once, so players will have to prioritize whether to open doors or kill an architect. And all of those decisions will impact Atzoatl in the present day. "It meets the immediate action that people love in leagues because every area you're getting a Breach-like encounter," Wilson says. "But it also has the deeper strategic level of how you're going to upgrade your temple and what your overall goals are."
While the last update, Bestiary, disappointed for a variety of reasons, Incursion feels like a tried and true Path of Exile expansion—pockets of intense action that bleed into deeper layers of overarching strategy. Incursion will arrive on June 1 and, like always, is free. If you're looking to hop into Path of Exile for the first time, check out these good starter character builds.