Grinding Gear Games' free-to-play action RPG, Path of Exile, has enjoyed continued success since its initial release toward the end of 2013, thanks to the developer's continued efforts to support the game with new content updates. These updates have come in a pattern, with the team alternating between a full expansion and a smaller content addition every three months. It's a schedule that has so far proved very effective; in fact, subsequent updates have had increasing numbers of players joining it each time. With the Prophecies Challenge Leagues releasing in June, Grinding Gear Games is putting the final touches on its next expansion, Atlas of Worlds, and Producer and Lead Designer Chris Wilson was happy to offer RPGamer details about what it features ahead of its arrival on September 2, 2016.
Atlas of Worlds' looks at reworking Path of Exile's end-game maps system. Currently, players are able to find, or craft, map items that transport them to a zone that has a fixed boss at the end. Throughout the zone players will find plenty of enemies to reward them with experience and items, including new maps. Rare maps have modifiers that offer increased difficulty but also potentially greater rewards. Players are able to trade maps, so they can be on the lookout for those with modifiers that might not adversely affect their particular builds. However, aside from a few additional maps, there haven't been any improvements to the system for a couple of years, and the game also doesn't really offer any story background to the existence of these maps.
The expansion looks to remedy this with a new narrative focusing on the titular Atlas and a mysterious character known as the Shaper. In Atlas of Worlds, once players have completed their first map they will go to the Eternal Laboratory and meet a character called Zana, the Eternal Cartographer. She introduces the Atlas of Worlds and asks the player to help her explore and learn more about it. The Atlas starts out covered in a fog-of-war, with players able to view the small corner of the map where they begin. There are four starting locations, each connected to other nodes on the map. At present, the game features seventy map bases, but Atlas of Worlds pushes this up to a hundred, with many of the existing ones also receiving redesigns.
Rather than finding completely random maps as before, the game will distribute maps so that players receive those more relevant to their current progress on the Atlas. For example, the starting Desert map leads into the new Oasis map. As players go through the Atlas, more will be revealed about the nature of the Atlas and the story behind the Shaper. The ultimate goal is for players to reach the four guardians at the centre of the map: the Hydra, Phoenix, Chimaera, and Minotaur. These feature very difficult fights similar to Act bosses that evolve and produce further challenges as players whittle down the guardian's health. The example fight shown against the Phoenix saw various minions and environmental hazards appearing in greater numbers of the fight went on. While players may be tempted to try and drive straight for the middle, Atlas of Worlds offers players incentive to fill out the Atlas by providing a one-percent increase to the map drop-rate for each completed node.
The design of the Atlas — placing thematically similar areas together — is reflected by the some of the loot available, in particular new base items created for the expansion. An example shown was a Bone Helmet that offers a great boost to minion damage, but is only available in the maps around a graveyard portion of the Atlas. Upgrading the maps in those zones as before will also increase the chance of higher level versions of these base items being dropped, giving players further incentive to look around the Atlas or focus on certain areas, rather than charge toward the centre.
Players concerned that maps will get too easy for their level shouldn't worry with the introduction of the Shaper's Orb. This allows players to upgrade maps by five levels each time, keeping the challenge and increasing the level of rewards to be more useful. This levelling of maps will result in different players having a different selection of maps to play, and this is one area multiplayer can help a player, giving him or her the option to join others and play on their versions of a map instead, which may be able provide better rewards. This should be a positive for those interested in grouping up, letting individual players specialise on upgrading certain areas and giving the overall group access to a full selection of high-level maps.
There are other ways to modify maps. One in particular is the Cartographer's Sextant. This places a red circle centred on a map node that encompasses surrounding nodes. These add new properties to the map, potentially making it harder or increasing rewards. These bonuses are temporary, lasting five runs, but are mandatory so players will have to consider risk versus reward in placing them as some will have purely negative effects. The modifiers can stack, maybe adding five more on top of the six that can be added through regular crafting.
Chris made sure to note some of the performance and graphical improvements coming with the free expansion. In addition to the new tilesets the designers have been able to create for both the new and redesigned map types, there is also a bit more possible layout-wise. Traditionally zones in the game are either outdoors or indoors, but upgrades now allow some zones to feature both outdoor and indoor areas which are reflected in some of the new maps in Atlas of Worlds. The developers have created some very interesting locations with the tools available, notably the Estuary with its theme of fire and ice, and the Mesa map with its red cliffs and ledges. The expansion will also see the game engine becoming fully multithreaded, allowing it to make full use of the CPU and significantly upgrade performance and frame-rate in chaotic combat situations. This upgrade has been available for players opting into its beta to a very positive reception, and will be turned on for everyone on Atlas of Worlds' release.
Although Atlas of Worlds focuses on the end-game, Grinding Gear Games is also catering to other players by adding a new set of Challenge Leagues, where players create a new character and start from the beginning in an isolated economy with a major new gameplay aspect introduced. The new Essence Challenge Leagues feature monsters trapped by essences that can be freed by the player clicking on them, at which point they will naturally start attacking. These essences, such as the Wailing Essence of Sorrow, affect the subsequent battle, this particular example adding totems that give off slowing and water effects. There are twenty-five essence types (Sorrow, Horror, etc.), with seven potential degrees (Wailing, Murmuring, etc.).
Winning the fight gives players the essence as an item, which is used to craft an item, giving it random mods but one mod of which is guaranteed. A group of essence-trapped monsters will on average appear once in each area, giving players lots of opportunities to craft items with effects they want, with the higher degree essences providing effects that have not been included in the game before. Maybe five percent of the time, however, players will instead end up with a Remnant of Corruption. This can be used on a future monster-trapping essence, randomly changing it. This can be good or bad, perhaps giving players a different essence, adding another essence and its effects, or immediately starting the fight and removing the essence reward but keeping its effects.
Grinding Gear Games is keeping up with its well-deserved reputation of supporting its players, and this expansion looks more than likely to provide yet more reasons for players to keep coming back. Although a free-to-play title, Grinding Gear Games has successfully avoided introducing any pay-to-win style items, ensuring that all the Supporter Pack items are cosmetic only. The expansion will be bringing new items to the store, including some iconic armour sets based on the four guardians at the centre of the Atlas. Path of Exile: Atlas of Worlds releases for PC on September 2, 2016. As with all other content in Path of Exile and the full game itself, the expansion is free of charge.