"The new atlas contains 32 additional maps and is a puzzle whose inner workings and mechanics must be solved in order to gain access to many of the new elements in the game..."
For anyone who enjoys the Diablo series, the Torchlight series, Grim Dawn, and their ilk, Path of Exile is no strange name. Officially released in October 2013, Path of Exile's reach has steadily grown throughout the years, with over 3.5 million players hitting their last major expansion, Fall of Oriath, on PC and Xbox One. Unlike other series in the action role-playing genre, Path of Exile is completely free-to-play with what they term "ethical microtransactions" that do not give players any gameplay advantage over others. This business model and the game's notorious sprawling passive skill tree, combined with constant updates and fresh content, contributes to their healthy and growing player base.
As original beta players still checking in every now and then, Bob Richardson and I were more than excited by the opportunity to chat with Grinding Gear Game's lead designer, Chris Wilson, and preview the upcoming expansion for Path of Exile, War for the Atlas. The seventh expansion in Path of Exile's four-year tenure, War for the Atlas will be released on December 8th for PC, and soon after on Xbox One. This also marks Path of Exile's release in Europe and adds support for German, French, and Spanish, and offers Europe-specific payment methods.
While the earlier expansion, Atlas of Worlds, added challenging endgame content with atlas mapping and the presence of the Shaper, War for the Atlas is poised to break the atlas gameplay wide open. The Elder has come to challenge the Shaper's control of a new expanded atlas, and depending on the player's choices, they can manipulate and steer either's dominance on areas of the atlas and potentially upset the Shaper's stronghold. Wilson noted that the intention of the Elder is to expand the accessibility of the best of endgame content to all players and not just the most dedicated or stream viewers, and as such, this goal drove much of Grinding Gear Game's design choices for this expansion. The new atlas contains 32 additional maps and is a puzzle whose inner workings and mechanics must be solved in order to gain access to many of the new elements in the game, including epic boss fights, new unique items, Elder and Shaper items with exclusive mods, additional exposition, and multiple endings. As you enter maps on the atlas, you determine the Elder and Shaper's control of them. If you are in a party, the player who places the map in the map device has their atlas altered accordingly to reflect the ongoing conflict.
Players will be able to opt in to the new Abyss Challenge League with new characters, which creates cracks in the ground that leak enemies. Players must quickly kill all enemy spawns at an abyss and follow the cracks to the next until they have vanquished them all. Wilson quipped that players have to be "uncomfortably fast" to successfully deal with the abysses and reap the rewards — challenge accepted.
In addition to new endgame content and the Abyss Challenge League, War for the Atlas comes with four new skill gems designed around necromancy, six new support gems, and over fifty new unique items that enable further character customization. The new skill and support gems really showcase the flashy visuals and synergistic intention that Grinding Gear Games has strived for. One of the new skill gems, Unearth, allows players to cast corpses as projectiles instead of relying on regular corpses on the battlefield, lending new ways to manipulate and combine corpse-based abilities. Furthermore, the other three new skill gems revolve around corpses, such as body swapping with corpses or turning corpses into homing orbs of damage, and many characters, not just necromancers, may find them advantageous to their builds. Unlike most other support gems, the design of the new gems shies away from number manipulation and stays true to the demand for ability eye candy; for example, Spell Cascade allows you to cast multiples of an AOE spell at once, resulting in potentially lag-inducing but satisfyingly epic graphics.
One thing that really stuck out in our conversation with Wilson was how much Grinding Gear Games listens to their players through multiple channels and takes feedback in their stride. He admitted that while they'll never really know how the player base will take each update and expansion, they always try to anticipate and design the game around elements that players have favored or criticized. Candidly, he conceded that there have been times where players have pointed out potential design flaws in releases, and when Grinding Gear Games caught wind of the assessment, they quickly patched the game to ensure everyone has a good experience — and this expansion will be no different.
Like Wilson, Bob and I have yet to complete our atlas in Fall of Oriath, but despite the atlas reset, we're looking forward to encountering the Elder and seeing how much we can affect the contention in War for the Atlas. And we're thinking up cool ways to combine the new gems and unique items with our builds. With Grinding Gear Games already planning the next expansion, I'm sure we'll have no lack of things to explore and try out in Path of Exile.