Path of Exile 2.0: The Awakening Expansion Review
Mechanics9.5
Technical9.5
Content9
Community7
Gameplay10
Support9
Strengths
  • Passive Skill Matrix
  • Items, Slots, Links & Crafting
  • Hideouts
Weaknesses
  • Death Penalty
  • Lack of Managed Trading System
  • Complexity
9Overall Score

Path of Exile 2.0: The Awakening Review Introduction

Author’s Note: I wrote my first review of Path of Exile (PoE) back in November, 2013, shortly after the game launched. I provided an 8.3 score citing Desync and Death Penalty as the biggest issues. Instead of writing a review covering just the PoE expansion, I’ve decided to publish a new and complete Path of Exile 2.0: The Awakening Expansion Review because so much has changed. Some of the content will be very similar to my original review (for details that haven’t changed), but after playing the game thoroughly (since launch and through the release of 2.0) and taking numerous characters to end-game and playing nearly all of the content PoE Has to offer, this review provides a complete perspective.

Path of Exile (PoE) was started by a handful of developers in New Zealand back in 2006. They named their company Grinding Gear Games (GGG) and released the 1.0 version of PoE in October of 2013. Now, nearly two years later, GGG has launched version 2.0 of their game (the Awakening expansion), and they have done an amazing job. There is a reason this game has a score of 4.5/5 on Metacritic, 9/10 on Steam and 9/10 on Gamespot; and the majority of the negative reviews cite desync as the biggest problem (which has been fixed in 2.0). A complete list of the patch notes for 2.0 can be found here.

Let’s first talk a little about the history of ARPGs and the games on which PoE is based. Released in June of 2000, Diablo 2 is held as the finest ARPG created, holding a special place in the hearts of all. Not just because of gameplay, but the community aspect of it – namely the chat lobby and ladder system which brought players together. After Diablo 2, we have Titan Quest, which is held as the second best ARPG. Other fun ARPGs have come since then including Dungeon Siege 1 & 2, Sacred 1 & 2, and Torchlight 1 & 2. Let’s take a quick look at this timeline. The Diablo 2 expansion, Lord of Destruction, was released in June of 2001; just a year after Diablo 2 was launched. Dungeon Siege 1 was released in 2002, then for roughly two years we had no activity. Sacred 1 was released in 2004, Dungeon Siege 2 in 2005, Titan Quest in 2006, Sacred 2 in November 2008, Torchlight 1 in October of 2009, Diablo 3 in May of 2012, and Torchlight 2 in September of 2012. While this may seem like a lot of games, it’s really not. Sacred, Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest (while good games) failed to capture the community aspect of Diablo 2. Torchlight 1 was a single-player only game, and Torchlight 2, while allowing multi-player, didn’t really “bring players together”. It wasn’t until Diablo 3 was released with its Battle.net support that the “community was back” for the ARPG genre, but there were also problems with Diablo 3. They dropped the chat lobby and ladder systems (which people are still upset about today), and injected a real money auction house which had adverse affects on the game the developers are still trying to address to this day. While Diablo 3 is a good game, and Torchlight 2’s addition of multiplayer paired with its customization and “fun factor” earn both products proper credibility, none of these products “brought the players together” like Diablo 2 did; until now.

PoE is an evolved mixture of Diablo 2, Dungeon Siege, Sacred, Titan Quest, Torchlight and Diablo 3. There’s even some Guild Wars 1 influence in PoE. Take much of the best from all of these games, wrap them into a new game designed by an independent group of dedicated developers who build only for the community, and you have Path of Exile. However, PoE is not an easy game; as a matter of fact, it is rather complex and can be too overwhelming and challenging for casual players. While the 2.0 version has refined the game and fixed issues such as desync, the core complexity that so many love is still there; but it’s also a level of complexity that can drive players away. It’s also important to mention this is a Free to Play game. It costs nothing to jump in and try out, and for those who end up enjoying the game, there are numerous enhancements one can purchase to support the team at GGG. Even better is the fact PoE is not “Pay to Win”. All market purchases are supportive in nature and do not provide an advantage to players beyond visuals and storage space.

Due to the complex nature of PoE, this review can also serve as a guide. I hope there is information in here that both new and experienced players can benefit from.

Prepare to enter the Belly of the Beast! ... watch your step, it's slippery.

Prepare to enter the Belly of the Beast! … watch your step, it’s slippery.

Content

Story & Lore, Regions & Hubs, Classes & Passive Skill Tree, Environment & Ambiance, NPCs (Masters & Enemies), Rogue Exiles, Quests, Treasure, Hideouts, and Maps (Corrupted Zones & Atziri)

The content offered by PoE is solid and great quality, especially with the 2.0 expansion. The Story is dark and disturbing, but also empowering as you traverse the lands and kill evil leaders. There is a wide variety of zones, and the class & passive tree combination is unprecedented (and often overwhelming to new players). The environment is immersive, the world is filled with strange, disgusting and dangerous creatures, and Rogue Exiles add a dynamic aspect of fun to any adventure. The Quests are fairly common, and the treasure is bountiful. No other ARPG has done what PoE has accomplished with Hideouts, which adds another dimension of fun to the overall experience.

Story & Lore, Regions & Hubs

PoE takes place in the dark fantasy world of Wraeclast where you are an exile who was aboard a ship that sank during a storm, yet you managed to survive and crawl upon the shore of the lands. The Story begins here, also with inclination some force was behind your exiling. With the addition of the expansion, there are four acts to the game. Act I takes you up the shore through the prison and into the lair of Merveil, the Siren. Act II takes the player through the monkey-infested Forest and into the mainland to deal with undead, bandits, and finally the Vaal Oversoul, which is inside the top of a pyramid you must climb. Act III takes the player through the city of Sarn, overrun by numerous nasties, and then through a terrible palace with torture and mutilation in its depths to fight the first antagonist named Piety. In 2014 PoE expanded act III and added a second boss, a nasty guy named Dominus.

Awakening Token Small Once you have vanquished Dominus, you enter the new Act IV content from the Awakening expansion: Highgate. There are 14 new areas, 40 new monster varieties, 6 new quests and 9 new bosses. The core goal is to go after Malachai, and during this process, fight through aqueducts, mines, lava-laden underground caverns and arenas compete with spectators throwing flowers down upon you. The final boss fight against Malachai is extremely difficult and the end of the story-based content (taking the player into the next or final difficulty level). However, even with the new Act IV boss, Atziri still remains the true end-game boss fight (which is covered later on).

There are also numerous Lore objects spread throughout the world, which will provide a detailed narrative when the players click on them. These lore objects are important for those who want to learn about the history of the region they are in, and there is a lot of history to learn.

Each Act has its own Town Hub that serves as the point of operation. Within these hubs are the quest givers, merchants, stash access, masters (covered later) and notice boards. When players are in a Hub they will see other players running around, which is a nice touch and gives the feeling of a living breathing world. Note however once you leave the hub, unless you are in a league that shares areas (covered below under Gameplay), you will only encounter other players you are grouped with.

Awakening Token Small Numerous changes have also been made to Acts I-III, and are as follows: The Lower and Upper Submerged Passages have been combined. The Waypoint in the Mud Flats has been moved to The Coast. The Waypoint in The Lower Prison has been moved to be near the start of the level. The Coves area has been removed. The Chamber of Sins Level 2 has been replaced by the Chamber of Sins Level 3. Its Waypoint is now at the start of the new Chamber of Sins Level 2. Plagueretch has moved out of Chamber of Sins Level 1 and has been replaced by Black Death. We wish Plagueretch all the best on wherever his new journey takes him. The Wetlands area has been moved prior to the Vaal Ruins. They now connect to The Riverways. You can now find Oak without having killed Loretta (the tree). A Waypoint has been added to The Riverways. The Dark Forest has been removed. The Vaal Ruins Level 1 and Vaal Ruins Level 2 have been merged. Its waypoint has been removed. A new area, the Northern Forest, has been added after the Vaal Ruins. The Dread Thicket is now attached to the Northern Forest rather than the Wetlands. The Dread Thicket is now always 50%. The Caverns Level 1 and The Caverns Level 2 have been merged. Clarissa has been moved into the City of Sarn (from the Slums). The Slums no longer attaches to The Warehouse District. You can no longer access The Warehouse District or beyond without opening the Sewers (by finding Tolman and freeing Clarissa). The Sewer Waterway has been removed. The Marketplace Sewers now has two entrances in the Marketplace. The Marketplace waypoint has been moved. The Ebony Barracks waypoint has been moved. Lunaris Temple Level 1 and Lunaris Temple Level 2 have been merged. The waypoint is now in this merged area. Piety’s boss arena in Lunaris Temple Level 2 has been changed.

Environment & Ambiance

The Environment & Ambiance of each area is very well done and contains a fantastic combination of visual and audio components all based on the area’s theme. While the game doesn’t have destructible objects to the extent of Diablo 3, each zone is refined, the colors are vibrant (especially in the City of Sarn), and lighting/time of day is a big factor in the game, adding an extra feeling of realism to each area the player explores. When you’re in Koam’s realm, you truly feel as if you are inside a mountain surrounded by rivers of lava. Shadows are also very well done in PoE, adding an extra level of depth and overall immersion to the game. The forests in PoE feel like forests (especially when monkeys swing off the trees down on top of you), and there seems to be more variation to the random layout of the zones compared to other ARPGs. When you run through a nasty wet cave or the ruins of an ancient city, there is no doubt the developers put meticulous love into the refinement of the overall look and feel of the game. Act IV brings a new lively aspect to the game as well, providing the player with a real feeling of fighting as a gladiator in an arena. The Act IV mine walls burst forth with elemental creatures after the decaying dead have finished their digging, and the final run to Malachai is a disgusting maze of eyeballs, entrails and blood. It’s fantastic.

Classes & Passive Skill Trees

Character Creation is very simple. You pick a starting class, choose your league (covered below) and name your character. There are seven classes to choose from: Marauder, Ranger, Witch, Duelist, Templar, Shadow, and Scion. The starting class defines the sex and voice of your character as you play the game, but the next part is where PoE is very different from other games. While other ARPGs and even MMOGs factor in numerous static/starting actions, skills and abilities relative to your starting class, PoE does not do this. Instead, the starting class defines your starting point in the massive skill matrix and what quest rewards are made available when you complete a quest. A player can turn any class into pretty much whatever they want. For example, while a Witch traditionally goes the route of Magic, the player can branch out and create a melee tank Witch. On the other hand, a player can also turn their Marauder (traditionally a Melee class due to its starting point) into a spell caster or ranged warrior. As such, there are no class-specific actions, skills, or abilities. The chosen class only defines your starting point in the massive passive skill system, not what you can or cannot do. I will cover all of this in detail as PoE is a complex game, especially to new players.

The Passive Skill System (aka “Skill Matrix”) is the most unique feature of the game, allowing for unprecedented character and class customization more in-depth than any other ARPG. The depth of this system is so extensive some even refer to it as esoteric. While other class-based ARPG games (including MMOGs) define a preset template for their classes (of skills, abilities, traits, etc), the starting class of PoE only defines the starting point within the massive Passive Skill System Tree. This means a player can plan out more than 100 points to spend in this comprehensive skill matrix of 1,321 nodes, and if planned properly, can blend together benefits revolving around different classes. While the nodes around the starting points are related to the particular class (e.g. a ranger has dex and ranged-related nodes around their starting point), the player can quickly break out of their surrounding class nodes and shoot into other nodes wholly unrelated to their core class. This ensures all nodes can be accessed, but must be chosen with thought and planning. When a player starts PoE for the first time and sees the passive skill matrix, they are often overwhelmed, but each starting location can only branch out in two directions (except the Scion which has 6 starting points), simplifying the initial exploration into the system for the new player. This is how players raise their stats and obtain everything ranging from increased attack speed to additional mana and life. Characters can also acquire special abilities such as “Hex Master” (curses never expire) or “Blood Magic” (which removes mana and uses life to cast spells). While a player acquires “refund points” as they progress through the quests (and through Orbs of Regret) which can be spent to “take back” a spent point, because of the depth of this matrix and the difficulty of the game later on (level 50+), many players choose to rebuild new characters rather than reverting their current one as they better understand the Skill Matrix and nodes that are very important (such as stats to support item use, and life & resistances to support survivability at higher levels). But this isn’t a bad thing; the game is so expansive and immersive, players enjoy creating new characters and “doing better’ each time around. It is nearly impossible for a new player to plan out a solid skill build that will be viable at the highest levels and difficulty of the game (70-95) without having spent weeks playing the game, getting a feeling for it, and understanding the mechanics and veritable threats that exist through the game world. When looking at the Passive Skill Matrix, you will notice four types of nodes: Normal, Notable, Keystone and Socketed (covered below). Normal nodes are the standard looking circles (usually stats, life, etc), notable are the circles with the flashy gold border (usually bonus stats and modifiers), and keystone nodes are the ones with the big thick borders. Keystone nodes are often the most unique and powerful nodes in the game, offering game-changing modifiers to the character. You can see a list of the nodes and their bonuses here.

Ready for more than 1,300 nodes of character customization?

Ready for more than 1,300 nodes of character customization?

Awakening Token Small One of the biggest changes with the new expansion is the addition of Socketed Skill Nodes and Skill Jewels. They add a completely new dynamic to the game, allowing players to “socket” passive skill settings in a fashion that supports a specific build. While some jewels offer bonuses (such as extra damage to spells), others will convert values within a radius of the placed jewel to something different (e.g. all strength nodes within a radius of the jewel will become intelligence nodes). This empowers players to plan, experiment, and seek out very specific upgrades and build templates that have never been tried before.

To provide some guidance for newcomers, there is a website that has numerous builds a player can follow from the start in order to create end-game viable characters. Two of these sites are PathOfPoE and PathOfExileBuilds. Players can study these builds and decide what suits them best. But be warned; many builds require certain unique items in order to make the builds viable. This is why a “starter” character is always a good idea so the player can get a feel for the the game, find unique item drops that may be necessary for following a more advanced (and costly) template, and thus gather the necessary items to make the next build viable. New players – be patient! After a few weeks of play, the Passive Skill Tree won’t seem nearly as intimidating and you’ll have a great time creating your own builds. Once you are ready, you can build out your own Passive Skill Tree here. As you build a tree out, you’ll notice the site changes the URL; when you’re done, simply save the URL and you can now share the tree with anyone by giving them the URL. Characters gain one Passive Skill Point point per level and also gain additional points by completing quests. The total amount of points a character can currently achieve is 123, but it’s more realistic to plan around 100-110 since the last 10 levels take a monumental amount of time to achieve.

Awakening Token Small GGG has executed a complete and comprehensive re-balance of nearly all passive skills with 2.0. Nodes have been moved, changed, removed, and added, requiring those who are familiar with the “old matrix” to re-familiarize themselves with the new one. The changes are so extensive, it’s not practical to cover them here. Just dive in and start exploring!

NPCs, Masters, Enemies and Rogue Exiles

NPCs in PoE are pretty standard for an ARPG, but it is worth noting the excellent quality of the voice acting. Most of the NPCs are in town and act as quest givers and merchants. There are also 8 Masters that can be found throughout the lands (the only exception is Zana, who can only be found in maps). When a player encounters a master in the game world, they are offered a quest. If the quest is completed, the player gains experience towards leveling that master. Once a master is level 3 (the max is 8), it will appear in town and becomes available to create or join the player’s Hideout. Masters are critical to custom crafting and also sell items. They also function as a passive leveling system that offers daily quests and hideout enhancements that can be used by all characters on an account (in the same league). I will cover hideouts and masters in more detail later on.

What do we have here?

What do we have here?

There are a great number of nasty creatures in the game, all of them Enemies that are out to kill you. There are four difficulty types monsters: (1) the normal (white) mobs, which are the most common; (2) magic (blue) mobs which have basic affixes in their name (such as deadly for more damage, or hexproof if they resist curses) and are usually identified by their darker texture (which often shifts and moves) and size; (3) champion (yellow) mobs which have a number of modifiers including auras, and usually glow; and (4) unique (gold) mobs which are bosses with special and often unique abilities. If the game feels too easy at the beginning, don’t you worry, the enemies get very nasty later on in higher difficulties. I’ve found groups of blues to often be the most dangerous because of their enhancements paired with the fact you can encounter a large number of them. One thing I like about this game is the behavior of the monsters. The animations and actions tied to their special abilities (such as charging or jumping or laying eggs) is very well done, and it’s quite satisfying to shatter cold enemies, litter the ground with those pesky octopus creatures, and crumble the living statutes . You will quickly learn what different monsters can and cannot do, which includes learning how to avoid their nasty abilities. One of the first nasty Damage Over Time (DOT) attacks players are exposed to is Puncture, which causes you to bleed/lose hits profusely if you move around while afflicted. Monsters can also have inherit resistances which can make them challenging for certain elemental builds. There’s nothing worse than specializing in lightning magic and running into a room of lightning resistant monsters that do high damage and are blue (thus enhanced). But that’s part of the fun of the game. The other thing I really like is the bodies (or what’s left of your victims) stay on the ground; they don’t disappear until you load a new version of the zone (covered below). Be wary of Necromancers and other monsters that can raise the dead as there’s no limit to the number they can bring back! Another thing I like about PoE is the wander radius of monsters. It’s very common for another group of creatures will come out of nowhere while you’re fighting, as if they’re drawn to the sounds of combat. One must also be very careful leaving a character unattended as PoE has mobs which like to wander. If you think you’re safe because you cleared the mobs around your area and get up to get a drink, by the time you return, you might be dead. It’s also important to point out monsters will use the very same skills you do. They will curse you, cast frost pulse, shock, fireball, and cleave you and anyone who fights with you. It’s fun!

Rogue Exiles are custom-built AI-controlled characters that can randomly appear throughout the world. They are mean, have their own unique set of actions based on the numerous skill gems within the game, and behave as if you have encountered another player. At this time there are 26 of them, and each one is different. There are tanks, ranged shooters, shield slammers, DOTters, and more. They are a lot of fun in normal difficulty, but can be very dangerous by the time the player reaches merciless. The good news is when you kill one, they explode like a loot piñata and give up at least one item per character slot, often resulting in numerous valuable drops.

Raging Spirits are another special type of enemy. There are many variations, but all are similar in the fact they fly away from you and can be quite difficult to kill before they disappear into the sky. The advantage to killing them is they always drop rare items (sometimes uniques) and count as credit toward achievements. They can also posses nearly rare and unique monsters, turning their victim into an augmented killing machine! There’s nothing more interesting than entering a boss fight only to see a spirit in the corner of the room fly into the boss and turn it into a raging machine of death complete with even more dangerous augments! Spirits also augment other monsters they fly by, adding their special modifier to anything they touch, but that also includes improving the item drops of those monsters they have touched! Some players drive spirits through large groups of monsters to “tag” them before killing the spirit; then when the monsters are killed, they drop extra loot!

Awakening Token Small In addition to the warband/tempest features of the new leagues (covered below), the expansion also features a complete re-balance of monsters throughout the game. Returning players will notice a big difference in the overall “feel” of combat. Rogue exiles are a bit easier (and more fun), you won’t get 1-shotted nearly as often as you used to, and many of the boss fights are more involved (and enjoyable) than before.

Quests (Storyline & Master)

There are two types of quests in PoE. The first are Storyline Quests. They are designed to take the character through Wraeclast through the execution of specific goals. There aren’t a lot of them (the game really is about exploring, fighting and finding treasure), but they are designed to guide the player through the world. Act I has 9 quests, Act II has 7, Act III has 10, and Act IV has 6. The quest/travel map provided within the game makes it easy for players to see where they need to go and how they need to get there. While most quests involve killing boss mobs, there are some which require the player to secure items, open a passage, or make choices (such as the Bandit quest). You can see a list of the quests here. At this time there is just one quest in the game that provides permanent enhancements to your character, and that’s Deal with the Bandits from Act II. While a character can change their option (it’s very expensive) it is one quest that a player should familiarize themselves with prior to completing so they know what core enhancement they would like to obtain for their character (i.e. increased cast speed vs. physical damage).

The second type of quests are Master Quests, which consist of either random quests (e.g. encountering a master in a zone or map) or daily quests (which are provided from masters in your hideout). Executing daily quests becomes essential for players who are looking to level their masters to 8 (in order to maximize crafting abilities). Many people collaborate and share master quests in order to level them up quicker. A group of 6 players can get together and run each other’s daily missions, and everyone gets credit for it. Common etiquette is you only join a group if you can share your master quests (i.e. they haven’t already been done), that way nobody is a freeloader. But sometimes players will post “free” runs for others to join in on. The global chat channel everyone uses to share master quests (and form daily groups) is 820.

Treasure & Strongboxes

Of course Treasure is one of the main reasons we play games like PoE, and luckily, the world of Wraeclast is littered with numerous chests and other “lootable” objects. The game has boulders, bodies and other objects that are often hidden which can cough up valuable orbs and items. I have found unique (legendary) items in caskets and exalted orbs under stones. Always open/break every lootable object you encounter, you never know what could be inside/underneath! I cover rewards in more detail later on in this review.

Strongboxes were introduced with the Master’s expansion. They are special loot containers that can appear randomly throughout the game and come in 11 categories including Cartographer’s and Gemcutter’s (which drop maps and skill gems). They can be extremely dangerous to open through, often freezing you with a trap and spawning large groups of monsters right on top of you. But the rewards can be exceptional, especially for those who are seeking maps. You can roll Strongboxes just like you can items by using orbs on them (covered below in economy). This allows a player to adjust them to provide the types of modifiers they are looking for (as long as the currency is available).

Hideouts

Introduced with the Forsaken Master’s expansion in July of 2014, Hideouts are customized home zones a player can design, build, and expand. They are account based (i.e. all characters within an account will have access to them) and can be used as central operating hubs for gameplay, crafting and running maps. Most players will also use their hideout as the meeting location for executing trades. The tileset of a hideout is based on the chosen master used to create the hideout. Haku is Coast, Eleron is Library, Catarina is Graveyard, Tora is Forest, Vorici is Sarn, Leo is Garden, Vagan is Barracks, and Zana is Solaris Temple. The size of that tileset is based on the level of the master. There are numerous decorative objects you can purchase from the masters (which take favor points you acquire by completing master quests). You can also purchase a number of decorations from the real-money marketplace. When you acquire a new decoration, it goes into your hideout stash and can be placed with the click of a button. What’s very cool is many decorative objects have numerous variations which can be cycled through by using the mouse wheel. Players can also rotate their decorations, which allows for nearly any variation of layout. Players can also place pets in their hideout. Once placed, pets will run around on their own, but will not pass through solid objects (allowing for the creation of pet rooms and corrals). Want to build a mansion of blood, bodies and fireflies? Not a problem! Perhaps a zoo with scorpions and spiders? The game has it! What about a steampunk steam engine looking artifact complete with tracks? You can do it in PoE. The diversity in hideout customization is simply astounding. GGG runs a Hideout of the Week contest, and has created a list of all the hideouts they’ve covered here.

One of many beautiful player-built hideouts.

One of many beautiful player-built hideouts.

Maps

Maps are end-game item drops which open some of the highest level and most difficult content available in the game. When a character has completed the quest given by Lady Dialla in the Solaris Temple in Merciless difficulty, they gain access to the Eternal Laboratory (which has a waypoint). To run a map, the player enters the laboratory and throws their map into the Map Device. The result is six portals into the map world, and each portal can only be used once, which means only six trips back and forth can be taken. This also ensures players cannot engage in too many “recharge” runs back to town if they are too weak to handle the bosses of the map. Maps start at Level 68 and currently go to level 82. They are also custom drops which can only be found in Merciless difficulty. Most map drops are only within 2 levels of the area you are currently in. In order to find higher level maps (72+), they must drop within map runs. Normal mobs drop within their level, magic mobs drop within a +1 range and rare/boss mobs drop within a +2 range. This means a rare mob in a level 68 map can drop a level 70 map. Within the 70 map another rare could drop a level 72 map. This is how players progress into the more difficult maps. Just like items, players can find and manipulate maps to be magic, rare and unique quality levels. Maps can feature up to six modifiers which define the overall item drop quantity bonus. The harder the map, the more loot, and the additional chance even more maps will drop. Most high-level players prefer to do maps with a group because there’s more drops (covered in party benefits below) and it’s just more fun.

Awakening Token Small A total of 12 new maps have been added with the 2.0 release, and the new level range of all maps is 68-82. They reworked the entire map system, which includes a change in map drops, the modifiers that are available for re-rolling (such as item rarity and pack size), and addressing progression (there are now more maps at higher tiers than before)..

Players can also drop unidentified maps into the machine, which provides a 30% item quantity bonus. The problem is the player is not made aware of what the modifiers are, so unidentified maps can be very dangerous. Maps can also be corrupted by Vaal Orbs, which can change the level, reroll the item into a rare, or unidentify the item (while retaining the affixes and bonuses). Vaal Fragments can also be placed in the machine with a map, which increases the item quantity by 5% (mortal fragments increase it 10%) per fragment. A single Vaal Fragment without a map will open a random corrupted area.

Once a player has invited Zana to their hideout, they can set up a map device within their hideout and start running maps from there. Check this thread for the ultimate map guide.

Corrupted Zones

As one explores Wraeclast, they will occasionally encounter portals to corrupted zones. These are mini-maps with special modifiers (similar to maps, such as monsters do extra physical damage, or 15% more items drop), a unique boss, and the chance of dropping a Vaal skill (covered below), or a Vaal Fragment (used to get to Atziri, also covered below).

Atziri

Atziri is Queen of the Vaal, and held as the most difficult boss currently in the game (even with the 2.0 release). She is incredibly difficult and can be accessed through two difficulty levels: Normal and Uber. Normal Atziri (Level 70) is reached by combining the four different Vaal Fragments in a map device. Once in The Apex of Sacrifice, a player must defeat her four guardians: Dual Vessel of the Vaal, Q’ura, Y’ara’az and A’alai. Once her guardians are defeated the player must survive her three forms, which utilize all types of attacks, often killing even the most skilled and well-equipped character. But the rewards are excellent: a coveted flask, boots, heavy belt, and scepter. She can also drop an exclusive chestpiece (non-unique, but white) that can be crafted called a Sacrificial Garb. She can also drop Mortal Vaal Fragment pieces (which are required to open the portal to her uber domain). For those players who want to fight the most challenging boss in the game, and the chance at getting some of the most valuable drops, they can run the Uber version, which takes them to the Alluring Abyss. Atziri and her guardians are much tougher, and she will always drop one of the four uber unique items: gauntlets, a chestpiece, a 2h axe, or a helmet. Many players sell Atziri runs for challenge completions, and sometimes even for the item drops.

Mechanics

Attributes, Elements & Charges, Level, Experience, Skill Gems & Quality, Auras & Curses, Resistances, Companions (Minions & Totems), Pets, Regeneration (Bleeding & Leeching), Consumables (Flasks), Travel  and Death (Hardcore), Achievements & Challenges

The Mechanics of PoE are some of the most complex I’ve seen in an ARPG due to the extensive nature of skills and passive combinations. While the Attributes are standard (Str, Int and Dex), they play a critical and much more extensive role than other ARPGs in support of character refinement. The Skill Gem system is not only fun but immersive as players strive to find the best combinations possible. Auras, Curses and Resistances are critical to survival, and Companions (such as zombies, spirits, totems and dominated victims) also allow for fun and very powerful builds. Travel is easy, but the Death Penalty is a big problem towards end-game (and drives casual players away). There are plenty of Achievements for players to  pursue.

Attributes

The PoE Character Screen, complete with Attributes and support values.

The PoE Character Screen, complete with Attributes and support values.

There are three core Attributes in PoE: Strength (Red), Dexterity (Green), and Intelligence (Blue). As mentioned above, these attributes support the Socket and Skill Gem system and define requirements for items (e.g. a bow can require 156 dexterity to use). Starting attributes are set by your class and raised through the Passive Skill System and item stat bonuses. Unlike other ARPGs where the stats directly affect nearly all sub-attributes (such as armor and DPS), the stats in PoE have the following affects: Strength (every 2 points = +1 life, and every 5 points = +1% Melee Physical Damage), Dexterity (every 1 point = +2 Accuracy, every 5 points = +1 Evasion), and Intelligence (every 2 points = +1 Mana, every 5 points = +1% Energy Shield). As you can see, the stats don’t affect Armor, Block, Resistances or other sub-attributes. The sub-attributes are broken down into four categories: Offense, Defense, Charges, and Misc. Offense includes the DPS, Chance to Hit, Critical Chance & Multiplier, Attacks Per Second, Weapon Damage, and support damage such as Life on hit, or Stun. Defense includes Armor, Evasion, Resistances, Block and Movement Speed. Misc includes flask recovery rates and magic find. Critical Strike chance is based on the core weapon’s crit chance paired with the character’s increased crit chance. If a weapon has a 5% critical strike chance and the character has a 50% increased chance to strike, the critical strike chance will be 7.5%. Crit damage multiplier is pretty basic: a multiplier of 150% means a critical strike will do 150% more damage than normal. For example if you have a 250% multiplier, a Critical Strike attack that normally does 100 physical damage and 10 fire damage will instead do 250 physical damage and 25 fire damage.

Armor, Evasion and Energy Shield are the three primary forms of defense for characters, and all pieces of armor have one or two of these values. Armor is for physical damage mitigation, but it doesn’t affect elemental damage (which is resistance related, covered below). Evasion (not to be confused with Dodge) defines a character’s ability to avoid being struck by attacks, but it’s countered by the enemies accuracy. Dodge is treated as a separate roll from Evasion, but ends in the same place – did the attack hit you? And finally, we have Energy Shield. This acts as an additional buffer of hit points on top of a character’s base hits and is usually found on casters. Players will notice monsters can also have an Energy Shield, represented as a blue border around their feet and in the hit bar. A character (or monster) won’t take damage until their shield is knocked down unless it’s chaos damage (which bypasses any shield). Energy shields recharge if no damage is taken for a few seconds. If a character has an energy shield up when they are struck, there is an automatic 50% chance to avoid being stunned. All of the defensive attributes have numerous Passive Skill Nodes that enhance and manipulate how they work. One most common Passive Skill is Iron Reflexes, which converts all Evasion to armor, but removes all Evasion bonuses, leaving the 5% minimum chance. This gives a huge boost to physical damage mitigation if the player has outfitted their character with a combination of Armor+Evasion equipment.

Elements & Charges

There are four main Elements in PoE: Fire, Ice, Electricity and Chaos (Poison). Weapons can have bonus damage on them tied to these elements, increasing the damage by quite a bit. Pair that with specific Passive Skills that increase elemental damage (some give bonus damage to all elements while others give bonus damage to specific elements), and weapons which do both physical and elemental damage are highly useful, especially when one is fighting monsters that have vulnerabilities or resistances to specific elements.

There are three kinds of Charges and they are a big part of the game, representing a temporary amplification of abilities. Endurance Charges are associated with Strength, Frenzy Charges are associated with Dexterity, and Power Charges are associated with Intelligence. Endurance Charges grant +5% Physical Damage Resistance and +5% Elemental Resistance per charge. Frenzy Charges grant +5% Attack Speed and +5% Cast Speed per charge. Power Charges grant 50% increased critical strike chance per charge. Charges are accumulated by the use of certain skills and equipment, and last only ten seconds; but gaining another charge within that time frame both stacks and resets the timer, allowing characters to build charges and keep them up during combat. Charges can then be consumed by specific actions, which can amplify the results of the action taken. For example, Immortal Call consumes endurance charges to make the character invulnerable for a short period of time. At level 11 the gem will provide 0.50 seconds of invulnerability per charge. If a player has 5 charges up, that’s 2.5 seconds of invulnerability, which can make the difference between life and death in a tough fight.

PoE follows the traditional model of killing monsters to gain experience. Once enough experience is gained, the character will gain a new Level which also provides a passive skill point. When a new character starts the game, the levels come quickly. This is exciting and rewarding because the player can start building out their Passive Skill Points at a steady pace. The amount of experience a character receives is based on the difficulty of the monsters and whether or not there is any penalty (from a character running an area either too high or too low). For example, a level 24 character receives 100% experience from monsters level 20-28, but would receive 95% for monsters 5 levels above or below, and 52.5% for monsters 7 levels above or below. By the time a character reaches level 90, a level 77 map will only provide 50% of the experience whereas a 66 or lower region will only provide 2% of experience (which is the minimum). You can see the death, penalty and party play experience details here.

The maximum character level in PoE is 100. Prior to the 1.0 release, the first player to reach 100 was HvR. He had 2,800 hours of in game play and 1,426 hours of XP play (e.g. separating the time he spent in the game altogether including trading, waiting, etc. vs. actually fighting and acquiring experience). A lot has changed since then, and with the release of 2.0 raising the max level of maps, it’s hard to say how many played hours a skilled player could reach level 100 in. I anticipate the number to be well below 1,000 hours, but we won’t know for a number of weeks since 2.0 is still quite new.

Skill Gems

The variation of Skill Gems in PoE is astounding.

The variation of Skill Gems in PoE is fantastic.

Skill Gems are the center of all action within PoE and they come in two flavors: Active and Support. Want to cleave a group of monsters, curse them, cast a fireball, shoot explosive arrows or throw an array of knives? Those are all active skills. Want to leech life or mana, catch your enemies on fire, blind them, or increase the speed of your attacks? Those are support skills. Link life leech to your fireball and now you’ll gain life for the damage you do with that fireball. This allows players to build their own action skills complete with specific benefits. Support skills must be linked to an action skill in order for them to work with that skill, and you can link multiple support gems to your action gem. There is a limitation that prohibits using duplicate support gems (e.g. 2 fire damage support gems) and while you could link two of the same kind of support gem to an action, you will only receive the benefits from one. Skill Gems are acquired either as drops in the world or are provided as quest rewards. Like a character, slotted Skill Gems level up based on acquiring experience (which is 10% of the amount received by killing monsters). When a gem is approaching a new level or is ready to level up, it will appear in the upper right side of the interface. Once a + appears, you can click on the + and level the gem. Don’t put off leveling a gem (unless you specifically don’t want to) as once a gem has enough experience to raise in level, it will stop receiving experience until you level it. All slotted gems receive experience from kills equally. The reason gems don’t automatically level up is to give the player a chance to decide if they want to accept the extra costs of using the ability provided by the gem, which could throw off the build of a character. For example, the mana cost of an Aura may be at a level that is perfectly balanced for the character’s current status, and leveling up the gem by just one level could throw off that balance. If leveling up a gem would result in requirements that exceed the character’s current attributes, the gem will grey out and leveling up will not be permitted. Skill Gems also have level and stat requirements which raise as they do. While a number of skill gems only require level 1 and starting stats (and can thus be used by any new character), a number of gems require higher levels with the current maximum “starting level” of certain gems being 24 (for auras such as Haste and Grace). This means a skill such as Cleave which has a starting requirement of level 1 will level quicker than a skill such as Haste which has a starting requirement of level 24. Leveled skill gems retain their properties when taken from their slots and traded with others. The maximum level for a skill gem is 20, but support gems (such as empower) or items with +x to skills can raise the level even higher.

Awakening Token Small All skill gems that are offered as quest rewards are now made available for purchase at hub vendors. This is a fantastic addition because players no longer need to stockpile skills or worry about choosing the wrong skill from a quest. When a quest reward offering multiple gems is presented, just choose one and run back to the merchant and you’ll be able to choose any that were an option, including any previous skills that were offered. Note the available skills at a vendor vary based on the act you are in and they will level up as you do, so when level 1 flame totem is made available around level 5, when you go back to the merchant that sells it at 60, the purchasable gem will probably be a level 12-13. A complete list of skills and their availability can be found here.

Skill Gem Quality is a very important part of the game and adds another fun layer of leveling and goal setting for all characters. Every single gem in the game has a unique modifier relative to the quality of the gem. For example, Fireball provides a 1.5% chance to ignite enemies per quality level, so a quality 0% Fireball will never ignite enemies without a support gem, but a quality 20% Fireball will ignite enemies 30% of the time. This is a huge difference and can completely change the power of a skill, especially when you begin to take into account the custom quality modifiers for support gems, auras, and other essential actions. But obtaining 20% quality on a gem is very costly (1 Gemcutters Prism per 1% of quality), and most experienced players won’t put a GCP into a gem to “max it out” unless it’s already at 15% or so. As mentioned earlier, if a player levels a gem to 20, they can turn that gem into a merchant with one GCP and receive a level one 20% version of that gem, allowing the player to level everything up once again at a 20% quality value. This is a great design.

Awakening Token Small There are 20 new skill gems with the 2.0 release; 14 active and 6 support. The new active skills are: Magma Orb, Wild Strike, Frost Blades, Flame Dash, Ice Crash, Frost Nova Mine, Phase Run, Detonate Mines, Golems (Flame, Ice, Chaos), Rallying Cry, Abyssal Cry, and Vigilant Strike. The new support skills are: Fortify, Bloodlust, Trap and Mine Damage, Ice Bite, Hypothermia, and Innervate.

Introduced with the previous Master’s expansion, Vaal Skills are also available in the game and can be acquired by defeating the unique boss at the end of a corrupted map (and certain strongboxes). They are essentially corrupted versions of normal skills. Vaal skills behave differently as they must be “charged” by collecting souls, and each slain ememy provides one soul. Some vaal skills are considered “useless” while others are highly sought after (such as Vaal Haste). A complete list of Vaal Skill Gems can be found here.

Auras and Curses

Auras and Curses are a critical part the game. Auras are beneficial buffs and Curses are harmful debuffs, and not only do characters have access to these spells, so do monsters. Many characters run Auras (Haste is one of the most popular, raising attack and cast speeds) which also benefit other party members and can change the outcome of battle. Curses are also a huge benefit for characters as they start running more difficult content. For example, a character that deals fire damage may come across a boss or group of monsters that has fire resistance paired with life regeneration, and as a result may not be able to do enough damage to kill them. Hit that monster with either Elemental Weakness or Flammability and it could tip the balance enough to allow the character to kill its target. Curses are all AoE (area of effect) spells which grow in the size of effective coverage as they level.

Only one curse can be active on a target at once unless a character can support multiple curses either through unique items or a passive skill Keystone. This includes being in a party, so be careful you don’t override your other party member’s curse!

Awakening Token Small One of the most important additions for melee builds in 2.0 was the addition of the Fortify support gem, which grants an increase to melee damage while also providing a Fortify buff, which reduces incoming damage by 20%. This makes melee characters much more viable and enhances survivability.

Resistances

Resistances are another key factor in the game since elemental damage is such an important part of combat. There are four types: (1) Fire; (2) Cold; (3) Electricity, and; (4) Chaos. As with any ARPG, it’s always beneficial to have the highest resistances possible, but also with a focus on what type of monsters you are fighting. Resistances also play a key part in preventing afflictions such as burning, freezing and shocking. This is why players like to use resistance-related curses and why they also try to get numerous +% all resistance nodes in the Passive Skill Tree. While there are no resistance penalties in normal difficulty, Cruel has a -20% all resistance penalty and Merciless has a -60% all resistances penalty. As you play the game, you will find certain monsters are deadly due to their elemental attacks, and others are very difficult to kill based on their resistances. Not only are there curses which lower the resistances of the monsters, there are also support skills which penetrate certain resistances. An example of this is a ranger using electricity-related actions and socketing a Lightning Penetration support gem to ensure if a lightning-resistant mob is encountered that some of the lightning resistance is ignored by the supported attack. Chaos is a unique damage and resistance type which ignores energy shield. Monsters that do Chaos damage can be very dangerous to characters who use their shield as a buffer for damage. Players can do Chaos damage as well through certain skills, unique items, and even link a Chaos Damage support gem to their action skills.

Companions & Pets

All Companions in the game must be summoned (or created) by action skills and come in two categories: minions and totems. Minions include Zombies, Skeletons, Specters, Guardians, Dominated creatures and the new 2.0 Golems. All minions (except for Dominated) must be summoned with a spell and have their own damage/actions separate from the character that summoned them. There are numerous passive skills (and support gems) that affect minion damage, health, and even the number which can be summoned at a time. Dominated creatures are “created” by using the Dominating Blow action skill, and it’s quite a sight to see a player turn a gaggle of monsters into their own personal army. Guardians are created with the Animate Guardian and Animate Weapon skills. Animate Guardian allows the players to actually “build” a complete humanoid using random pieces of armor laying on the ground, and as the guardian is built it takes on the armor-based values of the equipment used. So a character running around and selecting random white boots, gloves and chestpieces (for example) will piece together a guardian composed of those respective pieces.

Witches are the most common class for Companion builds. Totems are summoned objects that come in seven variations: Decoy, Devouring, Flame, Rejuvenation, Shockwave, Ranged Attack and Spell. Some of these totems cause damage while others provide auras which benefit their summoner. One of my favorite totem combinations is a Spell Totem with Skeleton Minions. It drops a totem that continually casts summon Skeleton; this is an excellent distraction for any monsters that are trying to chew off your arm!

There are Pets in the game that can be acquired through the Marketplace ranging from Rock Elementals to Chickens, but they are only aesthetic and provide no combat support.

Awakening Token Small Three types of Golem companions were introduced as skills with 2.0 and are awarded through the second quest in Act IV normal. The Flame Golem grants increased damage while active and uses fire spray, wave of fire, and explosives. The Ice Golem grants increased critical strike chance and accuracy while active, and attacks with an icy barrage and chilling spin. The Chaos Golem grants physical damage reduction while active and has a damaging chaos aura and cascade of spikes. The Golems are great enhancements and give players the feeling of having a “little buddy” when them, who is quite useful.

Regeneration, Bleeding & Leeching

Regeneration is key to survival in PoE. There are three sources of Health and Mana regeneration: (1) passive skill points that increase the regeneration rate; (2) item attributes which also increase the rate, and; (3) the most important: Flasks. While other ARPGs follow the traditional small/medium/large/huge, etc. potion structure, PoE has taken this a step further and instead of forcing the player to forage for potion drops and eat charges which ultimately run out, Flasks constantly refill their charges when you kill monsters, and can have enhancing attributes. There are four types of Flasks: Life, Mana, Hybrid, and Utility. Utility Flasks can do a number of things including giving 40% movement for 5 seconds or adding +4000 armor for 4 seconds. For Life, Mana and Hybrid, there are multiple sizes of flasks which have level restrictions, and the size defines the amount of life & mana restored when used. Flasks generally have between 21 and 32 charges, but the amount can be changed based on magical attributes. Killing a normal (white) monster will give one charge, a magic (blue) will grant 3, a rare (yellow) will grant 6, and a unique will grant 11. Note the charges are spread across all flasks, so if you have 5 flasks equipped and kill a unique monster, all 5 flasks will receive 11 charges. This system works fantastically as it automatically resolves whether or not your character can handle the monsters it’s fighting. If you can survive but run out of flasks (using all 5) and can’t recharge them, that means you’re probably in over your head even though you may still be alive (i.e. it’s costing you more resources than you can recover). One technique players use when fighting bosses is to port back to town in the middle of the battle (which refills all flasks) and then immediately return to continue the battle. Orbs of Alteration are the primary source for rolling solid flasks with great properties (such as stopping bleeding, burning, electrocution, etc.).

Flasks restore life and mana over a period of time. While some can provide instant restoration through modifiers, for tough battles many players “queue” up multiple flask uses which “feed” health or mana over a period of time during combat.

Bleeding is a very important (and dangerous) aspect of PoE. Many monsters use bleed attacks which can cause you hemorrhage out as you move, often so quickly you’re dead before you know it. You can inflict the same bleeding attack on monsters as well, causing them to bleed out and drop dead as they run around. Some builds are based on doing extra damage to bleeding monsters as well. One of the first flask modifiers a player should pursue is that of removing bleeding, especially since many unique bosses utilize bleed attacks. A flask that removes bleeding is a must have for anyone running in merciless difficulty.

Awakening Token Small Leeching is a critical component to the game, and received a major overhaul in 2.0. Multiple leech effects now stack, but the speed at which you leech has been reduced. The leech rate now has a cap, and the leech values on items prior to 2.0 have been substantially reduced. Even with the changes in the expansion, both Health and Mana leeching are critical role to numerous builds, requiring the character to “keep the flow” going in order to survive. Many items including rings, amulets and uniques have leeching modifiers. Melee builds often survive on health leeching (life on hit, or life leech) and many magic-using builds also rely on leeching mana from their target in order to sustain the ability to continually cast spells. It’s a balancing act, and just a few percentage points can mean the difference between life and death. A detailed overview of the changes to the leech mechanics can be found in the “Changes to leech” section of the PoE 2.0 Patch Notes.

Travel

Travel is managed the traditional way, through portals and waypoints the player must discover as they explore. PoE also allows players to travel across difficulties (e.g. you can go from Act I in Normal to Act III in Merciless if it’s available). The player can also open a portal to go back to the hub town for the act they are in, and then return to the spot where they opened the portal from (which closes it). However, PoE does something more than the other ARPGs when it comes to travel. The game allows you to reset zones. Simply hold down CTRL as you either click on the waypoint destination or the zone entry point and you will be prompted to either create a new instance or enter an existing one. This is a great feature that allows players to run the same areas again and again (with a reset each time, if they desire) and makes it so they don’t have to exit to the main menu and restart a game instance (as Diablo 3 requires, for example). Players can also teleport to their hideout from any waypoint.

Death

When it comes to Death, the game has two modes. Standard (the default mode) and Hardcore. In PoE, roughly 33% of the player base plays in hardcore. This is important to note because it shows PoE has created a very sizeable hardcore group whereas a game like Diablo 3 only have ~10% of its player base in Hardcore.

Unlike other ARPGs when a Hardcore character dies in PoE, the character is converted to a Standard so you can keep playing. This is very cool and ensures all of your efforts in Hardcore aren’t completely lost; you just won’t be able to use that character in Hardcore anymore. In Standard mode, death is just an inconvenience in Normal difficulty, and can require the player to do quite a bit of running if they died far away from a waypoint. There is no durability or item loss, but once you enter Cruel and Merciless difficulties you will lose 5% and 10% experience per death. While these numbers aren’t really a problem prior to end-game, once a player gets into the high 80’s, the penalty becomes a serious problem that has driven many players away from the game.

The death penalty has been a heated and debated issue since the launch of PoE. The core issue revolves around the fact that the game takes away time and effort put into gaining experience if you die, and once you get into the high 80’s and 90’s, the amount of lost time (based on a player’s map pool) can range from hours to days (note by days I mean a casual gamer who only has 2 hours to play every evening could find themselves having to play for 3 solid nights to make up for one death). This is a very bad design and takes away from the fun factor. I’ve seen more people get infuriated over this flawed system and quit than any other game I’ve played. While GGG has made “adjustments” since launch (their belief that lowering the penalty from the original 15% to 10% would somehow address the problem — right; a player is so much less inclined to quit due to losing only 15 hours vs. 20), they have failed to address the core problem – you don’t punish the player (and take from their time, energy and effort) without consent. That’s what hardcore mode is for.

Another key issue with the death penalty is the game inherently punishes players for any form of reckless fun at the higher levels, a place where players want to have more fun because the content can become repetitive. If you’re a L88 Ground Slam Marauder and you want to mess around with your gems and perhaps a few of your passives, or run a new map with a boss you’re not familiar with, you could very well lose an hour or two of progress due to a single death. Want to run in and do a Leroy Jenkins on a map? Forget it. This kills a certain “fun factor” these games are supposed to provide and forces all high-level players to play in a semi-hardcore mode. So if you’re a casual gamer and you want to do more than run basic maps but can only play an hour or two a night and don’t have the best gear, PoE will drive you away from continuing to play your character when you realize you’ll never be able to experience the end-game content without having hours and even days of your time ripped from you, all for trying to have some fun. Sadly, because of this system, the only people who are able to play and enjoy the end-game are hardcore players, even in Standard mode. There is no real “casual” play at level 85+. In my opinion, this is a grave design flaw and the one remaining key problem with PoE. Even with desync being a thing of the past, the death penalty mechanic as it stands today will drive the casual players away once they realize the endgame is designed for hardcore players only.

Achievements & Challenges

PoE has both Achievements & Challenges. Achievements are generic to the core game (and are league-based, but shared throughout the game) and include objectives such as help all 3 bandits, tag each waypoint in the game, and listen to all NPC dialogue. Achievements don’t award anything other than a road map to achieving a specific goal and a flashy message. GGG really needs to evaluate providing rewards for each achievement.

On the other hand, Challenges actually provide awards, but there are only a few. They are league specific and include completing such tasks as killing rare monsters, using shrines, slaying bosses, reaching high levels with classes, owning unique items, killing unique bosses, using currency items, obtaining items from Vendor Recipes and more. Right now the custom league-based challenges provide a very cool totem (with multiple levels based on the number of challenges completed) a player can put in their Hideout. Players who complete certain challenges also receive flare in the forums.

Awakening Token Small Eight new challenges were introduces with the new leagues: Reach Level 82, Redeem Divination Card Sets, Kill these Warband Members, Clear Areas with Tempests, Kill these Unique Bosses, Items from Vendor Recipes, Corrupt these Unique Jewels, and Knowledge and Power. Each challenge awards a “level” of the new expansion totem.

Gameplay

Combat, Rewards, Learning Curve (Difficulty & Progression), End Game & Replayability, Leagues (Events & Races)

Gameplay is very intense with PoE because due to the dynamic nature of skills, character builds and combined monster augments. The Learning Curve of PoE is a very steep one because it is a very difficult game. Progression is good in the beginning, but very tough later on. The End Game revolves around running Maps, and while many players hit a brick wall as they approach level 90, the replayability is really found in the diversity of new character builds. GGG runs the best leagues of any ARPG on the market.

Combat

PoE is all about Combat, and it does a fantastic job. Combat is everything it should be: fun, strategic, involved, intense and rewarding. Normal difficulty is more like training than anything else because once you enter Cruel and Merciless, the game takes on a whole new dynamic, requiring strategy, planning and quick thinking on your feet, regardless of the build you run. When it comes to merciless difficulty and maps, there really is no “faceroll” build for everything. Every build has its strengths and weaknesses, and the combat system takes advantage of that. Stun is a big factor in combat and will interrupt any action you or your target is engaging in. The default “stun length” is 350ms (or .35 seconds). While this may not sound like much, if you get stunned multiple times in a row by multiple mobs, it can often kill you as it prevents you from reacting. Learning which monsters can stun and how to avoid the stuns is critical, especially on higher difficulties. Players are introduced to stun by the charging Rhoas in Act 1. The champions and their properties can also make for very engaging combat, especially when they boost the surrounding monsters with frenzy, endurance and energy charges, amplify their damage, or even preventing them from dying. When you get 2-3 champions together with a group of blues, it can be quite a mess, but it sure can be fun.

A character can equip two sets of weapons and swap between them by pressing X. What’s nice is the player has instant access to Weapon Swapping and doesn’t need to train any skill or level up to use it. This is very useful when a melee character comes across a very dangerous high damage melee monster that can be kited and killed with a ranged attack, allowing the melee character to switch to a ranged weapon to take the target out.

Many players are unaware you can level up gems in your inactive swappable weapon while you’re playing; the gems in that weapon will receive experience just like your other items! This is very useful for players who want to level up gems they are not currently using to take to level 20 in order to convert to 20% and then sell on the market or use on another character.

Rewards

Rewards are why we play these games, and PoE is provides bountifully in this department. Making levels, spending Passive Skill points, finding awesome items with numerous properties including the right socket or link combination, crafting your own items with orbs, stumbling across the very rare large chest that spits forth a dozen or more items, slaying that nasty group of critters only to see a unique gold item drop, watching dozens of monsters fry, shock and freeze shatter as you destroy them with weapons and spells, and running custom maps to get some of the best drops in the game — there’s plenty to reward your playing experience. There’s even a reward structure set up for those who participate in league events and races, and with the new 2.0 leagues and races, there is no doubt PoE is planning on creating extended gameplay experiences with extensive rewards that appeal to a much broader group of gamers; much more than any ARPGs.

Learning Curve, Difficulty & Progression

3Characters

Ready for anything!

As mentioned at the start of this review, PoE is a very complex game and has a substantial Learning Curve due to the Passive Skill System, Skill Gems and Socket Links. Learning how all of the action and support gems interact with each other can take quite a bit of time. While the core gameplay is easy enough to understand, the Difficulty increases dramatically as the player enters Cruel  and Merciless difficulties. If the player has built a character that is lacking in hits, resistances and/or mana (depending on the build), they quite often have to start a new character, or spend a lot of money on purchasing Orbs of Regret to do a substantial respec.

The Progression in the game is very well done prior to end-game; not just with leveling, but with monster difficulty, item drops, quests and overall exploration. By the time the game begins to get difficult for new players, there is still a good sense of advancement and accomplishment due to the rate of character and skill gem leveling. Things begin to slow down after a character gets into their 50’s and 60’s. Leveling up skill gems is also a very nice touch to progression as it happens while you’re working on your level and is a great mid-level reward system. With the existing content and experience model, once a player passes level 80, the game begins to really slow down, and due to experience penalties for running lower level area, progression crawls to a snail’s pace. Once a character approaches 90, the only way they can make reasonable experience is to run high-level maps. For example, a Level 90 character will gain 50% experience from a level 77 map, but only 3% experience from the Catacombs (the highest level non-map area in the game). By level 95, the player only gains 12% experience from a Level 77 map, and 2% from Catacombs. And remember, high level maps are ultra rare, so most players usually run L69-71 unless they have a group of friends who harvest and upgrade maps. A level 80 character receives 47% experience from the Catacombs. By level 85, it’s dropped to 10%.

End Game & Replayability

This brings us to the End Game, which revolves around running maps, leveling masters and collecting the best gear possible. The highest level zone a player can run outside of the map system is 69 (The Belly of the Beast, The Grand Arena and Koam’s Stronghold). The new popular non-map zone for farming is now the Dried Lake (level 67) where players can also farm Voll, who is an easy boss that can drop some good loot. If you want to pursue content higher than level 69, you can only do it through maps (which go up to level 82), and the map system does add a high level of Replayability to the game, but so does the overall economy. As previously mentioned, a high level character can receive item drops that a much lower (or even starter) character could use, thus enticing players to create multiple characters and try out different builds. Add the massive Passive Skill matrix to the mix of action skill gems that can be augmented by support gems , and you have the most extensive customized action system of any ARPG ever made.

But PoE is a hardcore game, even for those who don’t play in hardcore mode. End Game can become very frustrating for players who begin to hit a brick wall once their character enters the 80’s. The two key issues are a lack of maps (a limited pool due to poor drops) and the difficulty factor paired with the death penalty. While many players consider their characters “build complete” in the 80’s and move on to build new characters (which is part of the fun and the replayability factor), for those who are casual gamers and prefer to run a favorite character, they will find leveling beyond 90 to be near impossible either due to difficulty or lack of content that provides any noticeable progression with their experience (and then losing hours of that experience to a single death).

Leagues, Events & Races

Another unique feature PoE brings to the ARPG space is that of Leagues, Seasons and Races. With the launch of 2.0, there are four leagues available: Standard (Parent), Hardcore (Parent), Warbands (Standard child) and Tempest (Hardcore child). The new Warbands and Tempest leagues feature new items, monsters, challenges, and shrines, and when they end, all characters revert either to Standard or Hardcore and the stashes convert into  “remove only” within their parent league. There are Events planned almost every day, and sometimes multiple events in a day. Participants can receive Season Reward Points which provide fantastic items they can use on their other characters. The Event Calendar (starting July 24, 2015 for the expansion release) shows what is planned for the “Season” (which is currently a month), and upcoming events are broadcast in the game so players can prepare if they want to participate. When an Event has been announced and is ready to start, players can create characters in the temporary league for the event and either wait in-game, or run the character after the event has started. If the character is run before the event starts, the character cannot move until the event starts, and a countdown is provided informing the player when the event is starting. Right now, all events are Races to see who can achieve the highest level. Some focus on groups, others on melee, and some on pvp. Each event has a timeframe. For example, one day there may be two events: (1) a 45 minute Turbo Solo event to see how far players can get in 45 minutes from the start while mobs move, attack and cast 60% faster, and; (2) a 12-minute Solo BLAMT which defines the mods available to characters (in this case Blood Magic, Lethal, Ancestral, Multiprojectiles, and Turbo). The longest event I’ve seen was an 8-hour party event.

Awakening Token Small Introduced with 2.0, the Warbands League features random multi-tiered encounters of enemies centered around the elements of Fire, Lightning and Ice that can drop unique items only found in the league (3 unique shields, 3 rings, 3 boots, and items with exclusive modifiers). GGG has said the pool of unique items will grow as the warbands expand throughout the lands.  These encounters shift from region to region and are visible via the world map. The icons on the map represent the tiers and have one to four dots, and also show an element. Tier 1 only has easy enemies (and is common in normal difficulty) while Tier 4 includes a nasty elite complete with collaborative working support AI (and will only be encountered in merciless). The locations of these encounters are global for all players (but are instance based on a character or existing party), allowing the community to collaborate on where certain warband enemies are located. If players collaborate and wipe out a warband in one area, they can move to another. Only the areas with the strongest influence can spawn the leaders. Be cautious! Warband enemies are relentless!
Awakening Token Small 2.0 also introduced the Tempest League for hardcore players. In this league, magical tempests roam the lands and influence both players and monsters (by providing buffs, debuffs, etc) to those within their region (similar to a zone being inhabited by warbands). There are four unique items that can only drop in the Tempest League, and the random modifiers tempests inflict on both players and monsters certainly make for interesting combat.

Economy

No Gold, Items (Sockets, Item Level and Links, Quality & Identification, Item Filters, Inventory & Stash, Crafting (Orbs, Masters, Merchants & Vendor Recipes), Divination Cards, Marketplace & Support Packs, Trading & Storefronts

PoE is unlike any other ARPG when it comes to Economy. While the game lacks a good trading system, players are constantly bartering and exchanging items between each other. The variation in Items and the ability to augment them with suffixes, prefixes, sockets, and links makes for the most advanced customization of any ARPG on the market. The addition of Item Filters with 2.0 makes a huge difference in farming, and an account’s inventory space is easily expanded with microtransaction purchases. Crafting is top notch, and the addition of Divination Cards allows players to farm and trade for uniques they otherwise wouldn’t find or couldn’t afford. The online marketplace has numerous visual and hideout enhancements, and players are able to set up and browse storefronts through the forums and the use of 3rd party tools.

No Gold

There is No Gold in PoE. The economy revolves solely around items (namely Orbs) which come in 24 different variations (I am counting the chisel and prism as orbs and omitting the fragments and shards). These orbs are designed to change/augment items (or refund a skill point) and can do numerous things including re-rolling the colors of the slots on an item, upgrade a white item to a rare, provide Passive Skill point refunds, and even give the player a chance to roll a unique (or “legenday”) item. The orbs serve as the root of the crafting system (which is covered below) and can drop in anywhere in the game. This means a level 1 character in the starter area can overturn a stone and find one of the most valuable orbs in the game. This economy works because all of the orbs are valuable and can be used one way or another to enhance, prepare, or upgrade items, maps and strongboxes.. You can see the latest trade rates through a number of online websites (e.g. ExileStats). The current economy also creates a form of haggle-based bartering among players who must determine how many orbs an item is worth. It’s hard to properly represent how expansive and complex the economy is; you really have to experience it.

The orb-based economy of PoE means that a starting character has the same chance of finding some of the top tier currency as a veteran. This ultimately rewards the player for simply playing, not just for playing at max level.

Items (Sockets, Item Levels, Links, Quality and Identification)

As with most ARPGs, Items are everything in PoE. The “gear” for PoE includes: Armor (head, chest, gloves, boots), Jewelry (Amulet, and 2 rings), Weapons (1H, 2H, Shield), Quivers, and Flasks (Mana, Health, Resistances, bonus Armor, etc). Sockets are a big deal in PoE as they are required for the skill gems to function, and come in three colors: Red for Strength, Green for Dexterity, and Blue for Intelligence. Head, Chest, Gloves, Boots and Weapons/Shield items can have sockets. Jewelry (except for Unset Ring), Quivers and Flasks can not. The Max number of sockets for items is: (4) for Head/Gloves/Shoes, (3) for one-handed weapons, and (6) for chest, bows and 2H weapons. Items are one of four levels of quality: Normal (white), Magical (blue), Rare (yellow), and Unique (dark gold). Most items have level and stat requirements, but some do not (quality items without level or stat requirements are highly coveted as a starting character can use them and benefit greatly). Rare items can have up to 6 properties, and given the right combination, can result in the most powerful items in the game.

There are some Unique items in the game that are so powerful, if a player is lucky enough to acquire one, they will build a character just to use that single item.

One of the most beautiful sights in the game. A 6L Chestpiece.

One of the most beautiful sights in the game. A 6L Chestpiece.

Unique items (or Legendary, if you’re a Diablo 3 player) can have enhanced/unique properties which give Passive Skills. Unless a player is crafting, Blue items are generally disregarded except for selling to the Vendors or “scouring” to take advantage of a socket/link configuration (covered below). All items have an inherit Item Level which is different from the required level. The Item Level is what defines the values of the item properties and how many sockets it can have. Item Levels of 1-14 can have 2 sockets, 15-27 can have 3, 28-34 can have 4, 35-49 can have 5, and 50 and above can have 6 sockets. The interesting part about this system is a player can find items with a high item level (and thus better properties, sockets, etc) yet with a low level requirement. This is one of the great features of PoE; no matter what level character you are running, you have the potential of finding something useful to other characters you already have or plan on creating. Item Quality is also a factor. Weapons, Armor, Skill Gems and Flasks can have no (0%) quality or up to 20% quality. The higher the quality, the better the properties of the item. Blacksmith’s Whetstones are used to improve quality of Weapons, Armorer’s Scraps are used to improve quality of Armor, Gemcutter Prisms (very rare and valuable) are used to raise quality of Skill Gems, and Glassblowers Baubles are used to improve the quality of Flasks. Skill gems are the most difficult and costly to upgrade, and 20% (or higher, from corruption) skill gems are some of the most coveted items in the game.

 

Magic, rare and unique item drops are unidentified (unless they come from a strongbox with the “contains identified items” property) until a Scroll of Wisdom is used for Item Identification. Items cannot be equipped or manipulated via crafting until they are identified. Scrolls of Wisdom drop throughout the world and can be acquired by selling items to the vendors. Also, a player will not gain the benefits of an item’s properties when selling to a vendor when the item is unidentified. In other words, if you’re going to sell an item to a vendor, make sure you identify it first as it may have properties which the vendor provides additional orbs for (which I cover in more detail below under Vendor Recipes).

It’s always better to bump weapons or Armor to 20% quality before you use an Orb of Alchemy on them; you get 5% per use on a white vs. 1% once it’s rare. 

 

Socket Links serve as a core mechanic for PoE which allows for dynamic customization of all actions in the game. Linked sockets allow the player to connect skill gems together to augment their power and even change their behavior. For example, if you want to cast a spell like fireball, you throw a fireball gem in a blue socket (since it’s INT based) and you can now queue that action to cast/fire. Want to enhance your fireball? Find an item (let’s use a Helmet, for example) that has 2 blue slots linked together and throw both your Fireball and a Chance to Ignite support gem in the linked slots. Now your fireball has a chance to ignite targets when you hit them. Let’s take it one step further; say you have a helmet with 3 blue linked slots (or 3L as people refer to it). Now throw in a Faster Casting support gem. Your fireballs now cast faster and ignite their targets. next, imagine having a chest piece with 6 linked slots (6L). You could have Fireball+Ignite+Faster Casting+Life Leech+Mana Leech+Stun (for example). While items up to 4L are quite common, 5L items are rare, and 6L items are some of the rarest (and most difficult to find/create) in the game. Players can craft their own socket links one of two ways. Both ways are often very expensive. The first is through fusings. The second method is through master crafting (which is a static cost depending on the number of links, covered below under crafting). The advantage (and disadvantage) of using fusings is the percentage chance is completely random. But this chance can be enhanced by attempting to fuse an item of 20% quality. So for those of you who are trying to craft a 5L or 6L with fusings, make sure the item is 20% quality first; this improves the chances quite a bit. So you may get a 5L or 6L with just 10 fusings (it happens!), or you may spend 1,000 fusings and never see a 6L. That’s the random nature of using fusings.

There is no binding of items, so you can transfer/trade any and all items anytime you want!

Awakening Token Small 13 new Maraketh weapon types were added with the 2.0 release for a total of 39 item variations. These weapons have different implicit mods and are very rare. Additionally, 119 new unique items have been added with the expansion. 4 specific to Tempest, 9 specific to Warbands, 48 unique jewels, 31 items created by the GGG staff, 16 created by supporters, and 1 new unique strongbox.

Item Filters

Awakening Token Small The Awakening added an amazing feature which impacts the entire treasure-gathering experience: Item Filters. These are custom scripts a player can use to change the way item drops are displayed (and even play custom sound FX when certain items drop). Want to outline 4-link items? Make an exalted orb drop display huge colored text on the screen so you won’t miss it (paired with a nice GONG sound)? Not a problem. One can even program behavior into the script so certain items (depending on a character’s level) don’t even show. This removes a great amount of clutter. Even better, the script you want to use has probably already been created. You can find a list of pre-built filters here. I personally recommend Neversink’s filter.

Inventory & Stash

Inventory & Stash is similar to other ARPGs. It is cell based (character inventory is 12 x 5 in size, or 60 cells), and each item you find takes up a certain number of cells. Amulets, Rings, Orbs, Skill Gems, and such all take up one slot, and many items are stackable (some to 20, some to 40). Bows take six or eight slots, Quivers take six, 1H items can take three or six, 2H items take eight, chest armor take 6, gloves/boots take 4, and Flasks take 2. The starting Stash has 4 tabs with 12×12 (144) slots available for storage, shared between all characters. There is also a Guild Stash, and that’s covered below under the Guilds section. You can purchase additional stash tabs through the PoE Marketplace.

Crafting & Orbs

Ready to use some currency?

Ready to use some currency?

And now we get into one of the coolest parts of PoE, yet another unique feature that sets it above and apart from the competition: the Crafting system. Players don’t actually create items, they manipulate them. Firstly, all items in the game (regardless of quality) are based on core item types. This part is not really any different from other ARPGs (I’ll get to the unique part shortly). Thicket Bows, Gut Rippers, Poignards, Tribal Clubs, Vile Staffs, Spiked Mauls; these are examples of weapons in the game. Each weapon has a range of values for its damage, attacks per second and requirements. These core items are what become the awesome rare and unique items people are constantly searching for. You can learn what core items exist by checking out the WeaponsArmor, and Jewelry Lists. The next step is to review the unique items list and look at the core item name which is listed under the unique item name. The reason this is important is because you can roll a unique item with an Orb of Chance, but it must be used on the proper core item. While the chance of getting a Unique from an Orb of Chance is not known (it’s very low), some players have gotten the exact unique they’re looking for after just a few tries while others have never gotten what they are looking for after going through hundreds of orbs.

As mentioned before, the economy revolves around Orbs. These orbs are all designed to manipulate items and can do a myriad of things including upgrade an item from a normal white drop to a rare, add properties, sockets, links, and more. The Orbs are capable of creating every item in the game, thus giving players the ability to actively pursue and obtain the best items for their character. This system also addresses the “junk white item” drop problem because the white items can have sockets, certain links, and can be of certain item types a player is specifically looking for to craft and augment. The player can then take these specific items and use the orbs and upgrade and manipulate the item. For example, Orbs of Alchemy are valuable because they take any white item and convert it into a rare item. Here’s an example of how a player can use Orbs to get what they want. Say a level 28 character wants a new bow and they are using Rain of Arrows, Blood Magic, and Faster Attacks (2G + 1R, 3L = 2 Green Skills + 1 Red Skill with all 3 Linked together). A Royal Bow is perfect since it’s Level 28. So, a white one drops with 4 sockets, two of them linked. But the sockets are RGBB. The player wants RRGG with the RRG being linked (3L) because he wants to link RoA+BM+FA together and also throw in a support Aura gem (G) which doesn’t need to be linked (it operates independently). He runs back to town and first bumps the bow to 20% quality by using 4 Blacksmith’s Whetstones. He then uses an Orb of Alchemy. Unfortunately he doesn’t get the properties he wants, so he uses an Orb of Scouring to strip the item back to White without affecting the slots or links. He uses another Orb of Alchemy and this time gets the properties he wants. Now it’s time to get the Slots taken care of. He uses a few Chromatic Orbs to randomly roll different socket colors and finally gets RRGG. Now it’s time to get the links. He uses a number of Orbs of Fusing which re-link the sockets and finally gets the RRG linked. He now has the item he wants! This is just one example of how the Orb/Crafting system works in the game. 6L items are the most difficult to create/find and are the most valuable in the game because they often take more than 1,000 Orbs of Fusing to achieve! But imagine taking a 5L action setup that does massive damage and boosting it with a 6th support action that affects all 5 other gems.

Players can also obtain Shards of orbs which automatically stack and combine into a complete orb when the number of shards required (usually 20) is achieved.

Chromatic Orbs have a higher chance of procuring sockets based on the core stats of an item. For example, a piece of Armor that requires both Int and Str will more often roll blue and red than green whereas an item that only requires Dex will often result in green. Of course this means a RGB+ combo is one of the most difficult to achieve given items only carry one or two stats, but never three.

Vaal Crafting was introduced with the prior Master’s expansion. It allows players to corrupt items, maps, gems, jewels and strongboxes. Corrupting an item can enhance it greatly or destroy it. For example, a Vaal Orb can change an items sockets from colored to white (allowing any color gem to be put in it); imaging having an end-game unique 6-link armor piece with all white sockets. But what players really look for are the Vaal Implicit Corruption Modifications. To take a highly valuable unique item and corrupt it with an implicit corruption augment can make that item one of the most valuable in the game. But it’s a roll of the dice. Implicit corruption mods include adding things like chaos damage, increasing attack speed, allowing for an additional curse, or granting the item a level 15 anger aura. But be wary, most of the time the item is “destroyed” or downgraded (especially if it’s a valuable unique). And once an item is corrupted, it cannot be modified in any way ever again (you can just socket gems). Players enjoy corrupting maps and strongboxes since the “loss” factors are far less than those of items and gems, and corrupted maps can drop Vaal Fragments or Vaal Skill Gems. Another key corruption players strive for is a 23% quality skill gem, which can only be achieved through Vaal Corruption. A complete list of available implicit corruptions can be found here.

Crafting & Masters

Crafting Masters were introduced with the previous Master’s Expansion (and hideouts) and are a critical enhancement to the crafting system of PoE. Once invited to a hideout, each master offers a crafting “table” that allows the player to customize items (based on the item type and level of the master). Even though a hideout can only have certain number of masters “active” at any given time, once a crafting table is installed, it’s always available (reflecting the level of the master, even if the master is no longer in your hideout). Here’s a breakdown of the different masters, the tables they offer, and the types of items they can modify: Haku (Armourer’s Workbench, which modifies gloves, boots, body armour, helmets, and shields), Elreon (Blessing Font, which modifies rings and amulets), Catarina (Headstones, which modifies primarily wands, staves, and scepters, and can add int and mana stats to other items), Tora (Bowmaker’s Tools, which modifies bows, wands, quivers, and belts, and can also add movement speed to boots), Vagan (Sharpening Wheel, which modifies weapons), Vorici (Artisan’s Bench, which modifies socket numbers, links, and colors), Zana (Map Device, which adds an extra effect to the map at time of activation), and Leo (Gladiator’s Workbench, which modifies various kinds of equipment).

At level 8, each master (except for Vorici and Zana) can craft a special modifier on an item. These modifiers can help refine an item to focus on specific values a player wants to achieve — but these final mods can be extremely expensive (up to 5 exalts). They are as follows: Catarina (Cannot roll Attack Mods Suffix), Elreon (Can have multiple Crafted Mods), Haku (Prefixes Cannot Be Changed), Leo (Cannot roll Mods with Required Level above 28 Suffix), Tora (Suffixes Cannot Be Changed), and Vagan (Cannot roll Caster Mods).

Modifiers from masters can be removed from an item if it is randomly re-rolled (e.g. Orb of Alteration or Chaos Orb), or through Vorici’s bench at level 7. Since master levels are account wide (but limited by league), players work to level these masters up whenever they can in order to gain access to their crafting abilities.

Worn out on crafting or hunting for items? Not a problem. Divination Cards can be used to acquire a variety of items!

Worn out on crafting or hunting for items? Not a problem. Divination Cards can be used to acquire a variety of items!

Divination Cards

Awakening Token Small Divination Cards are a new collectible item drops that allow players to alternatively work their way to the acquisition of valuable items (including currencies and uniques) without having to rely on the random chance the item (or items) will drop. Each card drops in a specific region, so players can farm regions in order to gather cards and turn them in for the rewards. Since the cards are account based, a player can gather them as they play any character (within a league) and then turn the cards in (when they have the number necessary) for the reward to Tasuni in Act IV. Some cards only require 2-3 while others can require up to 13. Examples of rewards are: 6-link armor, corrupted level 21 spell gem, 5x chaos orb, and uniques such as Atziri’s Acuity and The Goddess Bound. There are 49 cards available with the expansion, and all were designed by players who purchased the Highgate Supporter Pack ($1,100 USD). Divination Cards also add a new form of currency for trading, which is a great addition to the game. A table of known cards and their locations can be found here.

Merchants

Merchants also play a very important part in the game as they act as the “conversion” base for items to orbs (or Scrolls of Wisdom for identification). When you sell items to Merchants, they reward you based on the type of item and the combination of items you are selling. This is where Vendor Recipes come into play, allowing the player to focus on gathering very specific items in order to acquire the Orbs they are looking for. For example, if you are looking to get your hands on Chromatic Orbs, pick up every 3L RGB item you see. When it comes to acquiring items based on vendor recipes tied to properties (such as attribute or resistance mods), you must first identify the item to get credit for the properties (whites of course do not need to be identified). Players who are actively looking for any and all orbs they can get their hands on will often pick up blue items and identify them in the hopes they can acquire the orbs they are looking for. The recipes a player can pursue are very extensive.You can also create Rings, Amulets and random Magic/Rare items, and decrease Skill Gem levels and get the next level of a Map by selling a combination of items to the Vendor. You can even take a level 20 normal skill gem and convert it into a level one 20% quality gem by selling the gem plus a Gemcutters Prism (GCP) to a merchant.

Masters also act as merchants, both buying and selling items. The range of available items available for purchase increases as a master gains in level, and when a master reaches level 8, they have the chance of selling unique items. Their inventory is refreshed whenever they level up, or when their daily mission is complete.

Marketplace & Support Packs

The Marketplace for PoE currently sells Pets, Skill Effects, Item Effects, Animations, and Account Features. Players can purchase Marketplace Currency for the following rates: $5 = 50, $10 = 100, $20 = 200, $50 = 516, $100 = 1065, $250 = 2850. GGG also sells player Support Packs, which are combination packs ranging from $30-$1,100 and offer everything from weapon effects to hideout items to graphic novels, and even the ability to design a divination card.

The visual enhancements acquired through the marketplace are diverse and seeing other characters in the town hubs with different armor sets, effects and pets adds a ton of diversity to the game. I found the extra stash tabs to be worth every penny, and am more than happy to spend money to support the great team of developers who have made this game. It’s easy for players to forget PoE is a Free to Play Game, but the cost of development, server hosting and other factors quickly adds up. It is also very important to mention that PoE is not “Pay to Win”. All purchases are supportive and aesthetic in nature, and provide no advantage for players to outperform those who do not spend money. This is a smart, balanced and excellent business model that other companies could learn from. I recommend everyone who enjoys PoE make some sort of purchase; let the developers know you appreciate what they’ve built!

Trading & Storefronts

Because there is no Auction House, Trading between players is the only way for players to exchange items. The actual act of trading is easy; you simply form a party with another player, meet in a specified location (usually in the sellers hideout), and right-click on their name in the party window and initiate the Trade. It is a common and secure “accept” interface, but one interesting part is the game requires you to mouse over the items you are receiving in order to ensure they are what was agreed. This is a nice check to support honest trading and to make sure each player actually confirms each of the items before approving the transaction. There are also public Trade Channels which are extremely active (covered below under Community) yet often useless because the volume of content being posted is simply overwhelming, and those trying to buy or sell items are quickly drowned out.

Unfortunately, trading is not easy in PoE. Because it is an item-based economy, there is no real consensus on the value of items. While there are websites that attempt to represent the value of currency (such as poeex.info and exilestats.com), players still bicker over value and price, usually citing whatever ratio serves their interests. While many players will agree upon general “ranges” of value (e.g. 30 chaos to 1 exalt), each item transaction usually ends up being an effort of bartering and haggling. While this may be fun and interesting to some, it’s actually quite burdensome to most and players must spend a large amount of their time haggling with others for acquiring or selling items.

Right now, players can create Store Fronts in the PoE forums and then use the leading trade system of POE Trade to browse those stores. The two most popular applications that automate the creation of the forum-based storefronts are Procurement and Acquisition. In my opinion, Procurement is the best of the two. These applications allow the player to manage what items are shown in the store, and will automatically “push” updates to the storefront so they show in the POE Trade site. While these tools are very helpful, the nature of the 3rd party forum-based trading system is still very clunky and tiresome.

Looking for that special item? poe.trade probably has it!

Looking for that special item? poe.trade probably has it!

Community & Support

Parties & Friends, Party Item Drops, Guilds, In-game Chat (Global & Trade), Help, Population, Forums, Quality, Noticeboard, and Spam

PoE supports standard ARPG community features such as 6-player parties with the option to define if drops are shared or not. There are guilds, but they only really provide a label, chat channel and shared storage space. The in-game chat is nonstop through the global and trade channels, and for those seeking help, there are always other players available to answer questions. The population of the game is solid; tens of thousands of people are playing at any given time, and the forums are teeming with life, sharing items, asking questions and giving answers. Spam is a bit of a problem, but GGG seems on top of the built-in reporting feature. The overall quality of the PoE community is mixed. Since it’s a free to play game, there are many rotten mouthy players who are better to put on ignore, but there are also very kind, experienced gamers who are good to play with and very helpful.

Parties & Friends

Forming Parties with up to 5 other players provides great bonuses for the game. For example, each additional player gives a +50% item quantity modifier on drops. Item Rarity only counts from the player who lands the killing blow. Experience is split between all members in the party with the amount you get depending on your level relative to party members and monsters. Only the character landing the killing blow on an enemy will gain Flask charges. The same goes for all +Life and +Mana gained on killing blow. Flasks have a +75% charge recovery bonus for each party member. Not only can you form private parties, you can also form public parties, and when you access the Social window (by pressing S), you can see your Friends list, create your own public Party, and view/join public parties. To create a private party, just right-click on another player’s name either in chat or on the Friends tab and select the popup menu option. The Noticeboard found in town is just a list of the public parties which is also available through the social panel, but it serves as a good reminder public parties are available and can easily be joined. Details on the Party mechanics can be found here.

Party Item Drops can be set by the party leader via the Party Window to: (1) Free for all; (2) Short allocation (default), and; (3) Permanent allocation. The allocation model applies to rare or higher items, Currency, skill Gems and Maps. Other white and blue items (regardless of sockets) are up for grabs to anyone in the party. If an item belongs to a player, it will appear in its normal color. If it does not, it will appear faded. If a party is using Short allocation, if the player the item belongs to doesn’t pick it up in the 3-second window, the faded color will change to the normal color of the item, showing it’s available for pickup. If an item isn’t picked up after five minutes, even with Permanent allocation, it will be made available for pickup by all party members.

Guilds

Guilds can be created by any player and allow up to 30 members (additional member slots can be purchased from the market). Guilds allow the use of a guild chat channel (accessible with &) and a Guild Stash (with one default tab, but additional tabs must be purchased). There are two ranks: Members and Officers. The ranks only apply to Guild Stash tabs and can be customized allowing the ranks to View, Add, or Remove items. Any guild member can buy marketplace points for the guild (the founder must accept them though) to purchase more member slots or stash tabs. If the founder accepts points from another, that member cannot be kicked for 3 months. Guilds also allow the creation of a Guild Tag, which will appear by your name in all chat windows. Tags can have up to 6 characters and the characters are assigned by submitting Maps into the Guild Tag Editor. A list of the maps and corresponding tag letters can be found here. GGG has stated they are going to add guild challenges and other “events” to the game in the future.

One issue with the initial guild system is the lack of a transaction history to show who has taken or withdrawn items from the stash tabs. Also, no achievements or other events are announced. GGG should enhance the guild system to show when a member engages in noteworthy actions such as making a level, looting a unique item, or killing a unique boss.

Chat & Help

The Chat system of PoE is well done, allowing players to define the chat type with the leading character. # goes to Global, % goes to Party, $ goes to Trade, and @<name> whispers to a character. Without a chat prefix, the default channel is Local. Global and Trade chat channels are busy as can be and the player is automatically entered into the next available channel with an open slot, creating a lively community combination of fun, helpful, annoying and rude people. As with everything that is the Internet, you get it all. The good news is you can easily toggle the Global and Trade chat on or off via the Chat UI or via the options. Trade chat is disabled by default. There is also a comprehensive right-click menu for characters in chat, allowing for whisper, party invite, trade, friend, report and ignore. You can change Global and Trade channels by typing /global ### or /trade ### where the ### is the channel you wish to join. Since you can join any channel, some players make up their own channels and invite their friends to meet in those channels (e.g. 7836).

Global chat can be quite useful for providing Help to new players as long as one ignores the trolls. Since PoE is a complex game, new players are always asking questions, especially as it relates to skills and how they interact with each other. I found many helpful people in the game and overall had a good experience in global chat asking questions. However the undeniable best source of information is the Path of Exile Wiki. You’ll find answers to nearly every question you have except those related to builds. For build information, the Forumshttp://pathofpoe.com and http://pathofexilebuilds.com are great sites to visit for build details.

Population, Forums, Quality and Noticeboard

The Population of the game is large and growing each day. The chat channels are never quiet and you see many players in the hub towns. As I write this, the recent Steam peak was more than 32,000 players online at once, and I believe that only represents around 25% of the total active player base. The Forums also show a highly active community on par with commercial product releases. When I wrote my initial review of the BETA in June, there were nearly 3 million posts with more than 610,000 posts in the General Discussion forum alone.  Today there are more than 8 million total posts and the general discussion forum has 1,117,856 posts. These numbers speak for themselves. The Forums are a great source of information and are active not only with the community, but with updates from the developers. Discussions about bugs, issues, events, and patches are posted regularly, and there’s a nice feature on the PoE website: when a patch is being deployed, it notifies you through the UI of the countdown to server reset.

The Quality of the community is a mix. Because the game is free to play there are plenty of obnoxious people who engage in mindless banter and insults when they have the opportunity, but on the other hand, the game is of such quality and sufficient complexity that it attracts plenty of quality players. I’ve met some very nice people through Global chat, and it’s easy to put the obnoxious folks on ignore. I think the quality of the community will always be a mix, but the tools exist within the game to build a solid friends list and play only with those you trust and enjoy the company of; and when you’re ready to be social and adventuring, public parties are waiting!

This brings us to the Noticeboard. Each hub has one, and this is where people advertise parties and trades. Just click on the board and you’ll see a list of numerous advertisements. Some will be to adventure or kill bosses, while others will be to trade items.

Spam

Because the population is so large and the game is so popular (and free to play), Spam is an issue. While reporting has been built into the chat interface (just right-click a name and report) due to the Free to Play (FTP) nature of PoE, junk accounts are being created like crazy. But it’s not so bad it drives people away, it’s more of an annoyance, and one can disable global chat if they’re tired of seeing the spam posts. My understanding is the PoE team has already nailed a ton of the spammers, and I have confidence they will do everything they can to eradicate the spam over the next few months.

Technical

Graphics, Audio (Sound & Music), Interface & Tutorial, Servers (Connectivity & Downtime), Security, Patching and Bugs

PoE has some of the best graphics I’ve seen for an independent studio. The game’s custom-built engine does a great job at rendering and the servers operate smoothly and efficiently. The sound of the game is top notch, and the music exceptional. The Interface is fairly standard, but easy to use and understand. There is a tutorial, but it is very limited and only introduces the basics of the game for new players. There is little to no downtime and connectivity issues are very rare (at least here in the US). There aren’t any extra security features for accounts (e.g. no external authenticator) but I haven’t heard of any real issues with breaches. The game is patched regularly, and there are very few bugs; and when there are, the developers quickly fix them.

Graphics, Audio, Interface and Tutorial

The Graphics of PoE are very well done; this includes all visuals, animations, particles, ambient lighting, shadows and physics. While there’s always room for performance improvements, the core look of the game is solid and only enhances as you play through the acts. The Graphic Options are fairly basic, revolving around Shadows, Anti-aliasing and Textures. Make sure Screen Shake is turned on as it’s great to get that shake when you score multiple critical strikes! I am running the game on a GTX 970 and never have any frame rate issues with all settings are on max (including 16x Anisotropic Filtering). The game looks and runs great.

You can press F1 to toggle the stats UI on/off, which will show your frame rate and network latency.

I think PoE has the best Sound representation I’ve heard in an ARPG. Not only are numerous sounds perfectly synchronized with the animations, the developers have gone the extra mile by adding those little enhancements that make a difference, such as being able to hear monsters that are off screen (and what direction they are) as they move around, playing a tone when your charges wear out, and providing ambient sounds that correspond with the area. Hearing the screams of torture and anguish in Piety’s dungeon is eerie and terrifying, and adds an extra layer of immersion to the game.

Koam's realm is dark, beautiful, and full of magma!

Koam’s realm is dark, beautiful, and full of magma!

The Music of PoE is very good, and Act IV has added some fantastic scores. Prior to the release of 2.0, my favorite piece was from Solaris Temple. With the diversity of the new zones in Act IV, the new music does an exceptional job of supporting the environment. When you’re fighting in the arena, the music makes you feel as if you are really fighting in an arena. The Mines and Belly of the Beast also have amazing scores that do an excellent job of representing the feel of the story line and environment.

The Interface is simple, intuitive and very easy to use. By default, keys 1-5 are for flasks, left, middle and right mouse buttons are for actions, and QWERT are for 5 additional actions (you can remap the bindings in the Options->Input screen). If an action has support skills, small letters will appear in the upper corners of the action icon. Items that drop on the ground show their slot color and (if applicable) their link association, making it very easy to see 4L and above (especially with the new Item Filters). Hold down Shift to attack while standing in place, TAB toggles the minimap display, and you can access the following interfaces: Options (O), Character (C), Social (S), Inventory (I), World/Travel/Quest (U), Passive Skills (P), Events & PVP (B), Challenges/Achievements (H) and Microtransaction Stash (M). You can also take a screenshot by pressing F8 (default directory for screenshots is \Documents\My Games\Path of Exile\Screenshots). At this time there is no way to toggle the UI on and off (for screenshots). As mentioned above, F1 will toggle the stats display. To socket gems, simply drop them in open sockets, or right-click a socket to pull a gem out. Mousing over actions will give you all the details you need, and Ctrl-Alt left-clicking on an item will paste it in chat.

Awakening Token Small Numerous interface changes have been implemented with 2.0. Some of the more important ones include: (1) change in camera angle; (2) size and font of the chat window; (3) NPCs and player names now show on the overlay and minimap; (4) Party leaders show in blue on the overlay and minimap; (5) You can now listen to lore as you walk away from it; (6) life and mana orbs now indicate where the current level of regeneration will fill them to; (7) you can display life and mana bars on top of your character; (8) hovering over the experience bar now shows an estimate of how much experience you’re gaming per hour; (9) You can now set /afk and /dnd messages; and (10) item level is now included when pressing alt while you hover over an item.

There is a very basic Tutorial for PoE as you play and progress, but it doesn’t cover numerous aspects of the game such as gem linking, the economy, and other important aspects of general and advanced gameplay.

Servers, Connectivity (Lockstep, Bridging), Downtime, Security, Patching and Bugs

Connectivity for me to the California server averages 25-30ms from San Diego, and I almost never lose connection. Prior to the 2.0 release (which had limited servers), the only connectivity issues I’ve heard of were from people in other parts of the world, namely Australia and South America; they would often ping at 250 or higher and experience a lot of synchronization issues. But they now have new nearly servers, and are loving it! On average the game transfers and receives between 2,000-4,000 bytes per second. This is fairly standard.

Awakening Token Small The implementation of Lockstep with 2.0 is one of the most important new features of PoE since it “fixes” desync for those who have latency below 100ms to one of the many new servers. For those who are unable to get a low latency connection to one of the servers, client predictive (the old) mode has been substantially refined, so it should not desync nearly as bad as it did before.

It is also important to mention the bridging ability of PoE, allowing players from anywhere in the world to play together. When a player from the UK on the London server wants to party with their friend from the United States, the game will switch either player to the server of the “party leader”. While latency can be an issue at that point, it’s important to give recognition for the shard-based system of PoE to collaboratively work with any server center, regardless of location.

Awakening Token Small GGG added numerous new servers with the 2.0 release, which includes: California, Washington D.C., Texas, Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Australia and Italy.

PoE really has no Downtime, and when there is downtime, it’s usually related to a patch that only requires a few minutes for the updated servers to reboot.

There isn’t a great focus on Security beyond username and password. As such, there is currently no external authenticator support; but as I mentioned, I don’t hear about account breaches or problems at such a level that additional security measures are necessary at this point.

The developers often provide Patches on a weekly basis and are very good at notifying the community with patch note updates before the patch goes live. Patch deployment is nearly seamless with a 30-minute warning (with a countdown) that’s conveyed both in-game and through the website. The PoE team has done a top notch job with planning, executing and managing patches and updates.

The Bugs in PoE are few and far between, and as mentioned, the developers quickly fix any issues that come up. PoE is a solid game.

The Future of Path of Exile

With GGG’s track record of releasing new content every 6-12 months, there is no question PoE will continue to grow. While the planned future of enhancements are uncertain, there’s no question the team will continue refining, growing and enhancing the game in numerous ways. Now that 2.0 is complete, GGG can focus on additional changes, some of which will hopefully be changes players have been asking for quite some time, and others addressing deficiencies in the core design. Below is my personal list of what I would like to see changed in or added to PoE, and doesn’t reflect any announcements or commitments the team at GGG has made. Hopefully some of them will read this and agree the below ideas would be worth implementing!

In-Game Auction System

The economy of PoE is one of its strongest features, allowing for a vast world of crafting, customization and refinement. At this time, all players must haggle with each other using chat or 3rd party tools (through the forums). There’s constant bickering about prices and values, and it’s like going to a bazaar to purchase anything. An in-game auction system with buyout and bidding would be amazing and not only allow players to more easily buy and sell items, it would also help GGG refine the economy-based statistics of the game to see what sort of values are really adopted. GGG could go a step further and define these values. While haggling may seem “cool” to many players (and allow for awesome deals on items), the simple fact is most gamers would rather one-click buy or sell an item (just like Amazon Prime) then go to a bazaar of yelling people haggling over every penny for every item.

Alternate Advancement System

Right now, PoE is a character-building game. While masters are account-based and provide benefits to all characters, it is only in the form of crafting. What if there was an alternate advancement (AA) system where players could build an account-based passive point pool they could spend that impacted every character on an account? Diablo 3 does this with the paragon system. Marvel Heroes does this with Omega Points. Most MMOGs do this. System such as this exist because players need a method of progress beyond “max level”. The problem with PoE is max level is essentially unachieveable by 99.5% of all players. As such, the majority of PoE players hit a brick wall with characters level 85+ and abandon those characters; either to build others, or to quit the game (sometimes just taking a break). AA systems are very important because they reward players for actually playing. Hideouts and Masters were a good first step, but PoE needs a true AA system that rewards players, allowing them to build some sort of support system that enhances overall gameplay regardless of what level they achieve with their characters. This will help a lot with retention.

Redesign of Death Penalty System

I believe one reason the current death penalty system exists is because there is no AA system. It’s old school, adopted from Diablo 2. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it’s not 2000 anymore. Fifteen years have passed, and the majority of players do not want systems that take away their time, energy and effort. They want to build, progress, and grow.

As I covered above in the Death overview, one of the key problems is that punishing players drives them away, and that’s one reason PoE has such a limited player base, regardless of how great of a game it is. GGG wants getting to level 100 to be a serious accomplishment that only the most dedicated and skilled players can achieve. This is understandable, but the very design of this approach is flawed for today’s gaming standards and what the majority of gamers expect. The fact that even the hardcore players use Alt-F4/Exit to try and avoid the penalty speaks for itself. There are numerous approaches that could be taken to adjust the system, but I think referring to something I wrote earlier this year provides the best explanation, including potential solutions.

I wrote the below posting in the PoE forums back in March of 2015

There have been numerous posts regarding the removal and/or adjustment of the Death Penalty for non-hardcore players since the inception of this game. A most recent thread had 69 pages (posted just last month). This is an obvious hot topic, and because it keeps coming up by so many players, it should be addressed.

First I would like to say PoE is a fantastic game, probably the most advanced ARPG on the market. The team at GGG have created a work of art and I believe the future for PoE is bright. Second, I want to clarify; when I refer to hardcore players, I’m not referring to hardcore mode in PoE, but players who don’t play hardcore mode yet are serious gamers (probably 8+ hour a day focused gamers).

== Current Application ==
As most players are aware, the penalty is a loss of 10% of experience in merciless. How does a single death impact progress at end-game? First we have to understand there’s a wide variation of gaming experiences all different based on the player and the build. Some people are fast map runners, some take it more slowly, some builds are designed to map run, others not so much (but are fun to play). Some people have a great map pool, others have terrible luck and are stuck running lower level maps. It’s quite variable to say how much time a level 80+ player loses upon death because everyone’s experience of how quickly they progress is different. My experience at level 88 given my map pool is a single death can cause roughly an hour of gametime loss. My buddy (who just dinged 91) timed his map runs at 90 and found he received roughly 3% experience on a level 76 map with +Pack Size and +Magic Monsters. It takes him roughly 20 minutes to clear a map. This means one death is more than an hour of running 76 maps. This value compounds each level above 90. At 95 the level 76 map that gave 37% experience now gives 9%. This means a death is more than 4 hours of gameplay time at 95 (realistically probably closer to 6 hours).

Map pools are everything, and at 88 I find I have a hard time keeping a pool of maps >73. This means I’m usually stuck running 72-73 (on average), but I can clear them in ~10m. I get nearly double experience on a 74 as I do on a 72, so that factor makes a huge difference. But the reality is dying takes a good hour or more of gameplay away, even at 88. I’m sure a number of hardcore PoE players can talk about how you can run 77 maps in 5 minutes and keep a vast pool and they almost never die, etc. They represent the vast minority of players. We must keep in mind the average player experience relative to this discussion.

The amount of time it takes to get to 100? One person logged nearly 1,500 “play” hours. A very interesting thread to read is “How I got to level 100”: http://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/390491. Granted it’s an old thread, the game mechanics related to their experience still exist today. One key quote: “Everyone in the group we had essentially quit the game or rerolled new characters due to deaths or boredom.” Let that sink in.

There are plenty of hardcore players out there who regularly run 75+ maps, but for us end-game non-hardcore players, it’s difficult to keep a map pool of 74+, and the maps become substantially more difficult to complete (with a much higher risk of death). Throw in spirits and the impact of opening strongboxes and the risk raises substantially. The game is hard enough at 85+ that losing an hour or more of your efforts for some unforeseen spirit+rare mod combination can be downright infuriating.

At the time of writing this, only 12 people have made it to 100 in Torment and only 156 to level 95 or higher. If 100,000 people are actively playing Torment (my guess is the number is higher), that’s only 0.16% of all players who have reached 95 or higher.

The concept of the death penalty: Why does the penalty exist? Was it implemented just because Diablo 2 had it? Did the design or the “vision” of the game include a means of controlling player progress with the penalty? Only GGG can answer these questions. A common argument made by players is the penalty exists to limit the number of players who reach max level or near max level, and to “reward” those who are able to skillfully circumvent the penalty to achieve higher levels than the majority of players. But does this really enhance the game experience for players as a whole? The simple fact is the death penalty concept comes from old-school systems that are no longer prevalent. Why? Because with a well-designed game, it’s unnecessary. Granted there are exceptions, such as Dark Souls, but most new online games (MMOGs included) do not “take” from a player when they die because they have so much to give.

There is a psychological and emotional reality relative to losing experience on a character that is high level. Most players experience anger and bitterness. Some people get enraged. These are not good things. I’ve heard more than one of my friends refer to PoE as “that fkn’ game…” even though some are still playing it. Why have a system that generates inherit resentment? The simple fact is even if PoE had no experience loss penalty, players would still be angry at dying. This is seen in D3 all the time.

Challenge vs. Punishment: There is a fundamental difference between challenge and punishment. PoE punishes you for dying. This is very problematic as the majority of people play games to have fun, obtain rewards, build something, and overcome challenges; not to be punished. I believe the core philosophy of punishment is a mistake in the gaming world unless a game is specifically designed to be punishing and cater to a niche market. I do not think PoE is such a game, yet it punishes its players – which drives many of them away. Another key issue is PoE is about experimentation, but the death penalty also punishes players for experimenting with different builds. This discourages players from “trying new things” that might not work as well as they should. Does this drive inexperienced or less skillful players away? I believe so. Even with the ability to create multiple characters, a player will think to themselves “well I could try build X but I’ll be dealing with this same problem once I hit the higher levels”.

Fun vs. Stress: we play games to have fun and to be challenged. While PoE is a very challenging game, as mentioned above, the resulting mechanic for dying is punishment. This approach generates stress among players. When you’re level 87 and 90% of the way to next level, you (generally) avoid any and all challenges that might result in your potential death for fear of punishment. This removes the fun factor and replaced it with stress. Just a few days ago, I avoided running in groups with my friends because doing so was resulting in wonky deaths that I was unprepared for due to their play style. I decided to run solo just to make level 88. The penalty caused me to avoid playing with my friends because of the stress/punishment factor. Many players also opt out of doing bosses that could be “fun” because they don’t want to “lose experience so close to level”. The mechanic can cause unsocial and avoidance behavior at end-game. That’s counterproductive.

The avoidance factor: I love my main FB/RF build (level 88) on Torment, but I’m taking a break from playing it because it’s become tedious to level up due to the difficulty of maps that provide any real progress. I also avoid any potentially difficult bosses and situations. It’s sad; a higher level character can never play recklessly (fun!) without the potential of losing hours of play time due to deaths. While some players may qualify this as being challenging, most casual end-game players find this a slap in the face as the fun factor of playing reckless for fun can decimate any (and all) progress for the level.

=== The penalty has already driven players away ===
My wife is an avid gamer. She loves D3 and many other games. She won’t touch PoE solely because of the death penalty. Her exact statement is “I won’t play a game that takes my effort away from me.” Another friend who played PoE back in 1.1 and got to ~82 refuses to return to the game because of the death penalty. He enjoys D3 but would come back if the penalty was addressed. Yet another friend of mine who plays only PoE (since 1.1) has only gotten to 90. He is a very mild and timid person, yet when I talk to him and he had a bad day (i.e. he lost 10-20% of a level at 90), he is angry and swears. I almost never hear him swear in any other circumstance. Yet another friend of mine also quit PoE because of the penalty. He came back briefly to dabble, but also says he’s not too interested in committing to the game (even with the new features) because the same thing will happen when he gets 80+ as before. He’ll just get pissed and quit. These are real players who are avid gamers, friends of mine, and I’m sure their response to the penalty represents a much greater number of players many of who we may never hear from on these forums.

We can examine the Steam Charts and see PoE is on the decline. While this does not represent the “total” player base (i.e. how many are playing outside of steam), I believe it is an important point: http://steamcharts.com/app/238960

There’s no question PoE has lost players because of the punishment factor.

== Solutions ==
I believe a good game never takes from the player, only provides, and limits that provision based on the player’s skill, time, energy, and effort. Also, for those who enjoy and thrive in a highly challenging environment, PoE already has hardcore-mode gameplay as a solution.
Below are two approaches to correct the death penalty punishment issue:

Complete Removal: just remove the experience loss completely. Would this really cause problems? It’s so difficult to level past 90 anyway, what sort of impact would this have? I believe it would be negligible.

Reward for not dying: provide a buff to the player based on how long it has been since they died. The philosophy behind this approach is: don’t take from the player, but enhance them for playing skillfully.

Ultimately, the game should encourage people to play; not punish them for playing. There’s no reason for PoE to push a hybrid hardcore-like mechanic against non-hardcore-mode players because the concept just doesn’t resonate with the majority of players.

== Summary ==
Are people really going to quit if they don’t lose experience when they die, or if an alternate system is implemented? I doubt it, and if a few do, my guess is it would be a fraction of players that greatly outweighs the number of players who would play, stay and pay. What keeps the players in PoE are the mechanics, not the punishment.

Is the game going to be oversaturated with level 100 characters if the penalty is removed? Hardly; it is so tedious to get to 100 the control mechanism is already in place (with maps); that and many players get bored of grinding the same character at end-game and often jump into creating other characters. But removing the penalty also gives players something to build toward: character completion. If everyone can focus on 100 without worrying about losing days, and possibly weeks of gameplay time, I believe it empowers the game because people will want to take their characters to 100, and when that character reaches 100 they’ll be excited to try a completely different build.

One reason I won’t buy the Grandmaster’s pack is because I’m not sure I’ll be able to commit to this game for the long term solely due to the death penalty. I already quit once back in 1.1 due to the penalty, and while I’m having a good time building multiple characters into the 80’s, the penalty has already caused problems and deterrence for me. Many use the argument “just start a new character” but the reality is any experienced PoE player knows “while it may be fun leveling up, once I get 80+, I’m just going to have the same problems as my other builds.” This is an unnecessary deterrence that pushes players away rather than embraces them to build and have fun.

Since PoE lives and grows based on the microtransaction-related payments of players, it makes sense to entice more people to play.

I want PoE to be very successful and believe addressing the penalty/punishment issue will greatly improve the game and invite more players to build and progress, which is what the game is really all about.

Skill Build Templates

Many new players are driven away from PoE due to the complexity of the skill matrix. Why not allow prebuilt templates that auto-assign skills based on a few good “starting” roles that GGG defines? Take it a step further and allow templates to be built and shared by players. Such a system would be much more inviting to newcomers, or those who just want a quick built and not have to think about every single point they’re spending. Besides, the manual system would always be available for those who are interested, and I can’t think of a better way to get new players into the amazing customization system of PoE better than providing a template for their first character (thus walking them through their first build) and then letting them go hog wild with experimentation. RIFT showed this works excellently; when they first launched they had the soul combination system, but too many players complained about it, so they added prebuilt options, yet allowed those who wanted to manually chose their own customization. It worked great for that game, and it can work very well for PoE. Some may argue this would somehow impact the fun factor and commitment to building a character, but let’s be honest; many (if not a majority of) players already do this manually by following guides posted on the forums and on build sites.

Exile Companions

How cool would it be to build out your very own exile companion, complete with skills and items? This could add a completely new dynamic to the game and also open up new forms of content for players to experience (e.g. maps, bosses and regions that require the support of a companion).

Open Collaborative Zones

Imagine entering a very large zone that respawned monsters and allowed 10+ other players to collaboratively run around together and wreak havoc. This would be a “living” zone that constantly spawned new monsters, bosses, chests and strongboxes. Granted this would throw off the zone and quest-based progression, Marvel Heores 2015 has pulled it off very nicely. Want to quest? Go for it! Want to jump into the Fields of Blood with 20 other players and level up for two hours doing nothing but exploring and fighting in a dynamically regenerating zone? That would be very cool.

Item Filter Marks on Minimap

While the Item Filter is a fantastic addition, we can still have drops that occur off screen. It would be nice to enhance the scripting system to allow for certain items to appear as different colored dots on the minimap, that way one could quickly check a map for any missed items before leaving.

Reclaim All Effects & Decorations

When a player starts a new league, they might want access to all of the microtransaction effects and decorations they’ve purchased. The problem is many (if not most) item effects are spread across multiple characters (and stash tabs) and multiple leagues (same with decorations in a hideout). The player now has to hunt down and search for each effect and decoration and manually reclaim each one at a time. A Reclaim All Effects (and one for Decorations) option would be fantastic and allow players to quickly reclaim any assigned effects or decorations back into their microtransaction/hideout stash, regardless of where they are being used.

Conclusion

Path of Exile has grown into what is probably the second most popular fantasy-based ARPG in the industry, directly behind Diablo 3. This is monumentally impressive; that an independent company of less than 50 people in New Zealand has built such a product. As I presented in my introduction, there’s a reason this game has such great reviews. It’s fantastic, and hands down the most in-depth ARPG out there. But it’s complex and can be very harsh. Many casual players are deterred by these facts; but the game’s complexity is one of the things that makes it as good as it is. With the new features and content of 2.0 paired with the fix to desync, PoE is a game that every ARPGer should play. But it requires patience, time, and planning. It’s not a game casual players can casually jump into. It requires focus, dedication and a drive to build, learn and experiment. Much more than Diablo 3 (for example).

Every gamer should try this game. PoE is top quality work of creativity and passion by a group of gamer developers who want to make the game they want to play.

The desert tileset is just one of the new map landscapes available in 2.0.

The desert tileset is just one of the new map landscapes available in 2.0.

Additional Resources

Guides & Builds

Currency & Trading

Tools

 

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About The Author

Mr. Allen has an extensive background in technology spanning 20 years including software architecture, design and development, project management and leadership. He specializes in corporate planning, productivity and collaboration, and is the creator of the games Mordor, Demise, Horizons, and Alganon.

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13 Responses

  1. Axie

    Now this, this is a serious review. Bravo to you! Bravo to the game designers!

    Reply
  2. Orson

    I highly disagree on the topic of Death Penalty.

    Death Penalties exist in virtually every game.

    Getting 100 shouldn’t be a question of when but if.

    Removing the loss of exp on death rewards bad play by achieving max level anyways. This is a terrible idea, and it doesn’t matter if some people don’t like it.

    That is the whole idea behind a penalty, that it feels bad.

    Don’t like losing 10% of your EXP? Well don’t die! Make a better build, use better gear, play better! Or simply don’t try to achieve level 100. You can easily have a strong character at level 90 or even 80.

    To be totally honest. Screw the casuals. Games have become too easy in the last years anyways and that is thanks to the catering to casual players. Path of Exile is a hardcore game and I love it because it is. It is even less punishing on some regards.

    For example “death-zerging” bosses is a phenomenon in PoE. You can die at any act boss and try again and again with a 100% success rate as long as you deal some damage, since bosses don’t reset after leaving the boss room.

    I think that is bad game design as it rewards bad play. At least exp loss and limited Map portals are something that at least in the late game punish you.

    Reply
    • David Allen

      I think your representation of “To be totally honest. Screw the casuals. Games have become too easy in the last years anyways and that is thanks to the catering to casual players. Path of Exile is a hardcore game and I love it because it is. It is even less punishing on some regards.” is key here. You are correct on a few points: PoE is a hardcore game. You are also correct because of that, it has features and mechanics beyond other “casual” ARPGs (which I cover). However, there’s a big difference between punishment and challenge. Keeping PoE challenging while staying true to the core of the game without executing punishing actions will make PoE a better game for everyone.

      Reply
      • TheMadToker

        Fantastic review, very in depth and would recommend this to anyone interested in the game.

        Anyway, I feel the XP loss is justified, as was pointed out one can always beat a boss given time. Death is supposed to be feared, and avoided at all costs. Rewarding someone for not dying isn’t quite as stron an incentive as punishing those who do.

      • David Allen

        The issue isn’t having “a penalty” the issue is at 90+ the penalty can rob you of hours (and days) of gameplay (especially for casual gamers). It’s a major deterrent, not just for me, but for my friends who played PoE and loved it but quit when they realized the end-game just wasn’t worth the risk – solely due to the penalty. Simply put, gamers don’t like having their time taken from them. I think my statement in the review regarding the mechanic covers it pretty well.

  3. Idon'teven

    I don’t usually comment on reviews but this one takes the cake. Very thorough and well informed, something that sadly I don’t come to expect out of written reviews anymore. I think you single-handedly made me interested in this site. Cheers.

    Reply
  4. RutRoh

    First I’d like to say nice review! But I’d also like to add a few things here. When people talk about POE being punishing, and it is in many ways, they tend to overlook the reason for this. GGG is trying to balance the game for characters 1-100, but there are no “World Maps” in the game, or even “Dropped Maps”, with appropriate monster lvl’s for the 90-100 level characters. The highest “World Map” is somewhere around 69 or 70,and “Dropped Maps” only go up to the high 80’s. So how does GGG balance the game? They add crazy spike damage from monsters that can one shot a level 100 character, that’s coming from monsters anywhere from 10-25 levels below their level!! That’s artificial difficulty in the form of punishing mechanics. Malachi isn’t even level 75 and he can mop the floor with characters in the 90+ range. Now if a high level character is getting whipped up on like that, what does that mean to the rest of the gamers? That’s where POE is too punishing. And when you look at GGG’s past release record, regarding major updates, they have always been “over-tuned”. Chris Wilson, at GGG, has even admitted as much on Reddit. “We do tend to err on the side of releasing difficult content, but that’s partly because it’s very hard to make things harder after the fact. Thanks again for the feedback, it’s super useful.” link; https://www.reddit.com/r/pathofexile/comments/3cz84x/maybe_an_unpopular_opinion_but_i_dont_like
    So if you put that into perspective, and consider that it took GGG 2.5 years, from Open Beta until 2.0 release, then we’re looking at somewhere on the order of 8-12 years, before we even have act8, and that still doesn’t give us monsters of sufficient level to give a level 90-100 character a challenge. So, if GGG leaves their model as is, the same issues I described above, could very well be prevalent throughout its development. Is there a solution? Yes, there is. I have an idea that may resolve these issues. Is it the only solution? Probably not, but it pretty comprehensive.

    Here’s my idea on the question: How on earth do you balance a game, for lvl 75 and lvl 100 Characters, when your highest maps are, well, lacking in appropriate monster levels for the level 90-100 Toon’s? (or even from 85 upwards).

    1) Take the highest “World Map” and make those monsters hit like they should for their lvl, and give them appropriate life for their lvl.
    2) Make the lowest “Dropped Map” one lvl higher than the current highest “World Map”. (all old maps “Grandfathered” in, as World Maps increase in lvl, you can still run old maps till their gone.)
    3) All Map Drops that are white; The monsters on that Map hit like a monster of the Maps lvl. (ie; lvl 75 Map = monsters hit like and have life like a lvl 75 monster)
    4) All Blue Map Drops/Rolls; the monsters hit harder and have more life, depending on the MOD’s of the Map.
    5) All Yellow Map Drops/Rolls; Again a bit harder hits and more monster life, determined by map Mods.
    6) All Legendry Maps; Ramped up a bit harder than Yellow Maps of the same lvl.
    7) Map Drop Level; No map can drop lower than the lvl of the map you are running.
    8) Map Drop Rate, while running a Dropped Map; a) White Maps get a very low chance to drop a map, 1-2%’ish. b) Blue Maps, increase the drop rate slightly c) Yellow Maps, again slight increase the drop rate. d) Legendry Maps, another slight increase in drop rate.
    9) Make it to where Maps can drop for the lvl 95 Toon, ie; lvl 90 and up.
    10) One Exception to the Map Drop Rules (outlined above) would be that when “Partied”, no map can drop more than one lvl above the lowest lvl character in the game. This would do two things. a) It would discourage high lvl characters from “caring” significantly lower lvl Toon’s on their maps to power lvl them. b) Since it effects parties only, the lvl 75 Toon that can actually run a lvl 77 map or higher solo, can still be rewarded for their skill and build.
    11) Keep the XP penalty as it is.

    My alternative XP penalty idea is; 11a) Keep XP penalty as it is with one exception, if you die on a map of a higher level than your character, you take an additional 2% XP penalty for each level the map is above your level. ie; a lvl 75 Toon that dies on a lvl 77 map loses an additional 4%, making the penalty 14%, to a maximum of 20% XP loss max per death. This would do a two things; a) It would make people think more about the lvl/build of their Toon vs the map lvl. b) It would further discourage power leveling. Some may feel this is too “punishing”, and I can accept that, because I’m a little on the fence with that one, but if the game is more balanced, I could live with it.

    If the above were implemented; It would put into place the rules the game must follow, for the different monster levels, all the way up to 100. This could alleviate the Balance issues currently plaguing every initial release, (remember Chris already admitted to the “over-tuned” situation) because they don’t have to balance the game again, just because they added new areas a few levels higher. All they have to do is tell the game what level the new areas are and presto, the monsters come in doing what they should be doing. Furthermore, if you die in this situation, you have a much better chance of figuring out where the real problem lies. ie, is it your equipment/passives/skill gems or combination of skills etc.

    This could balance the game IMO.

    Reply
  5. Mark

    Such a lengthy review and not one single mention of the voice acting?

    Does that mean it was so unimpressive to you that you forgot to mention it?

    Reply
    • David Allen

      Good point; and you are correct. The voice acting is very good (although I preferred the pre-2.0 Piety over the new Piety). I’ll make note of this under NPCs.

      Reply
  6. Joris

    Wow! Even though I haven’t played PoE yet and don’t know if I will ever be able to, you can tell this is an amazing review/guide. Honest, in-depth and covers everything you need to know.

    Reply
  7. Riley

    Thank you very much for writing up such an in depth review. I had taken a lengthy break from the game and this was perfect to fill in me in on the changes that were made in 2.0.

    Reply
  8. Mark

    This is easily one of the best reviews I’ve read on any game. I loved PoE back in Dec 13 – Feb 14 but definitely got bored running 72-73 maps. Your commentary on death penalty precisely described how I felt before quitting PoE. Many of my friends and I quit for the same reason.

    Wondering if I should re-install given the new updates?

    Thank you and bravo sir!

    Reply
    • David Allen

      Thanks for the feedback Mark! I definitely recommend revisiting the game. Lag is a thing of the past if you have a good connection and enable Lockstep, and the game is much more balanced now. While death is an issue at 85+ depending on the build (Siege Ballista is my new favorite build I’ve taken to 90+), it’s a lot more fun than before, especially compared to pre 2.x. General rule of thumb is once you hit 90, your character is done, and any other progression is just bonus/fluff.

      Reply

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