Path of Exile: Once More, Unto the Breach

I seem to have found myself back in Wraeclast over the last few days.

News of Path of Exile’s impending Ascendancy expansion (in less than a week, Mar 4th) tempted me back into rolling up a character to check out the changes I’ve missed since I last played.

Basically, I missed the Awakening expansion, which landed sometime in July 2015, and I’m a little sad that I did.

Still, better late than never.

The Awakening was apparently versioned as Path of Exile 2.0, and I can see why.

Significant improvements have been made. That’s really saying something, given that I’d already enjoyed the game even before this.

The most obvious addition is the inclusion of Act 4, which adds new story, maps and bosses to the existing Acts 1-3.

What is not obvious, but extremely pleasant on play through, is how much effort Grinding Gear Games has put into smoothing out the leveling experience with this addition.

Previous criticism has been that difficulty in PoE felt very uneven and spiked in places – I even drew a fun graph once – you get used to it and learned to compensate. Well, now it feels like the line has gotten much smoother.

Not necessarily flatter as in easier difficulty, Act 4 bosses felt like soloable mini-raid bosses with various attack animations, the need to keep moving and circling, and even different phases and mechanics sometimes.

Just smoother, as in less sudden spikes, more of a gradual ramp up. There are more maps, since there’s an entire Act 4, so levels can be spread out into those new maps, and there’s less of a need to farm for 3-5 levels in a specific farm map before moving on. (There’s still the option to do so, of course, but you now have the option to just play through the game normally too.)

It feels good.

Considerable thought has also gone into making it easier for players less willing to sell and trade on a constant basis to obtain skill gems for different character builds, as you can now buy these from NPC vendors as you progress through the Acts.

“Just playing through the game” self-sufficiency now feels a little more playable as an option, between this and the ability to craft desired mods through vendor recipes or Forsaken Masters crafting. (Presumably this is playing at a much different level than those stuck deep in PoE’s endgame. Plenty of time for that once you hook players in the first place though.)

The UI has had some quality-of-life improvements. Small stuff, but again it feels good. An in-game clock, the ability to toggle on life and mana bars over your character’s head, the option for a smaller latency graph display next to the minimap, visible refill levels for life and mana, being able to see item level by holding down Alt, rather than having to pick up each item and type /itemlevel, on and on. Itty bitty seeming stuff, but with big impact.

What’s -really- huge is the introduction of deterministic lockstep mode, as a separate option from client predictive.

Desync was an old complaint that Path of Exile kept encountering, especially when using fast movement/teleport skills that would show the character on the player’s client in one position, while network latency meant the server still thought the character was in another position (usually surrounded by monsters, leading to death) and you’d only find out when both server and client had hashed out their little disagreement some split seconds later.

Some people didn’t like that, so now they’ve added an option (seriously, aren’t -options- such wonderful things) to force the client to sync with the server before showing you the move/action taken. With low latency to the server, this is apparently quite wonderful as it completely eliminates desync and delay is equal to the ping that you have to the server.

(Apparently, they also tried to tweak the netcode to improve the client predictive mode as well, so players who can’t use lockstep aren’t completely left out in the cold.)

What is amazingly wonderful (and a bit of a miracle, really) is that for once, Path of Exile is a game that actually has servers set in the country I’m staying in (though you have to type it in, as the Singapore server is apparently a lil sekrit option – probably piggybacking off the Garena servers.)

That means I can actually play with deterministic lockstep mode on… at 15ms or so.

(Also, no forced region-locking. I can actually use a GGG account, not a Garena one.)

State of affairs… unprecedented. *brain explodes*

Of course, it’s not all song and games. The Singapore server has a tendency now and then to hiccup and start jittery lag spiking for a night or two of complete unplayability, forcing me to switch to a US West Coast server at 190-200ms or so, but when it decides to play nice, it is awesome.

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What’s also awesome are the new art assets.

The map backgrounds just feel a touch crisper and slightly higher resolution than the old ones.

The mobs are nuts, in a good way.

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These crazy little totem things feel like they stepped right out of a twisted Miyazaki movie. They appear to be innocuous background scenery like mushrooms or corals, but as you approach, they seem to wake up, their eyes glow blue like stunted gray aliens, and then they shoot you with said blue energy bolts darting from their eyes.

(My response: Roast them in a field of fire. Hooray for fire traps.)

There’s also a boss fight in Act 4 (not my video) that made me laugh immediately as it reminded me of GW2 Sabetha’s rotating flamewall attack pretty durn quick, along with the same requisite strategy of running in a circle as close as possible to reduce the distance run.

I ended up toughing it out with healing flasks at Normal difficulty, since I was playing a tanky high-armor Marauder, and reaaally slowly killing her with fire traps (my secondary skill, since I couldn’t stay put long enough to use my primary killing skill of Incinerate – that spell just got completely countered by her mechanics) but I definitely think this fight is going to need preparation and thought at the higher Cruel and Merciless difficulty levels.

Apparently, Act 4 Merciless is intended to be an alternate challenge to PoE’s map endgame, and given how elaborate the bosses already felt in Act 4 Normal, I think that’s definitely going to be fulfilled intent at the highest difficulty.

I’m already laying in plans to get some kind of movement or dash skill before I do this fight on Cruel. Probably going to find out the hard way all the other stuff I’ll need to kill her.

Lore-wise, Act 4 also felt really good. Some really familiar historical names were brought into the picture, and the whole experience felt quite epic.

I wish I could go into more detail than the above, but the truth is that I play Path of Exile on a very shallow level, I’m no expert, I’d like to learn but it’s such an in-depth game that there’s always more to learn every time I play the durned thing.

The good news is that it’s still extremely enjoyable while not understanding half the things that’s going on under the hood, and it only gets better when you do understand that little smidgen more.

Unlike *cough* some other company I could mention, you get the feeling that Grinding Gear Games knows their game, knows their audience, and are focusing very strongly on that niche. They’re not trying to be the next MMO, the next first-person shooter, the next card game, the next raid game for funsies or introducing odd out-of-place features to catch a crowd that’s currently not into the game.

They’re making an awesome oldschool Diablo-like ARPG with mindblowing build options, challenging fights, RNG loot and map variety, and improving the heck out of it with each patch and expansion.

Come the Ascendancy expansion, I suspect it’s going to get even better still.

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