“So I’ve got this job lined up, you see. We’ll break into a heavily fortified stronghold, avoid the guards, or KO a few if we have to, bypass the security systems, find the loot, and then skedaddle before anyone’s the wiser. Everyone know their roles? Good. Let’s do this!”
I don’t write dialogue for Path of Exile, but if I did, I’d probably craft up something like that for Heist, the game’s next expansion/league. As soon as Grinding Gear Games’ Chris Wilson told me its title, I thought of some grand Ocean’s Eleven-style caper, with a crack team of thieves infiltrating a secure location and making off with all kinds of fabulous loot. As it turns out, I wasn’t far off.
Your adventures will begin in Rogue Harbor, a sufficiently seedy new area with denizens to match. There you’ll acquire the services of such notables as Karst, the Lockpick and Tibbs, the Giant to assist you in your thieving ways. You’ll recruit the rogues with Markers, a new currency found in the world or awarded after successful heists. There are 13 rogues in total, four of whom assist in prep by gathering intel or other useful pre-mission information, while the other nine accompany you on your heists, carrying out various tasks like lockpicking or demolition or disarming traps – or just providing some added muscle. You can also bring friends along, as Heist content is “fully multiplayer compatible.”
To get into a heist, you’ll need to use Markers to craft a map item in the form of a contract. Just like with other maps in Path of Exile, you can use various items to make the map more challenging and yield greater rewards. Your goal in a heist is to reach the vault, secure the valuable artifact contained therein, and then make your way back to the extraction zone to escape. After a successful heist, you’ll fence your artifact to a rogue for more Markers, as well as intel for your next heist, and your rogues will level up.
Something that sets heists apart from other PoE content is that you’ll have the option to be stealthy. As you progress through a heist, the map’s Alert Level will rise the more you loot – rifling through boxes is noisy – and engaging the guards in combat. AI guard squadrons will even “line up” behind doors and prepare to jump you if you’re a little too noisy in your breaching attempts. You can try to avoid patrols and limit your looting to keep quiet or just rampage through the area, sacking and plundering to your heart’s content.
If you do that, however, and max out the Alert Level – or once you reach the vault and secure your target prize – Lockdown will be triggered, and guards will spring up from every corner to try and hinder your escape. If you die, you’ll lose all the loot you’ve accumulated on your heist. Heists offer a choice as to whether players choose to be stealthy or not, but Wilson notes that “Once they’ve got items that are valuable, they’ll naturally be more careful.”
Once you’ve got a few heists under your belt, you’ll be ready for a grand heist. These are multi-area jobs that require you to pick up intel from rogues so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into – and, importantly, how to get out. You can take up to three rogues with you, and you’ll need them because “there are lots of complicated mechanics on grand heists.” Some examples Wilson provided were bridges you’d need to build, heavy doors that need moving, and even laser security fields – a classic staple of any grand heist movie.
The right team for the job
It should be noted that, minions aside, this is Path of Exile’s first real attempt at giving players “pets” or “henchmen” to control (to a degree). It’s something players have wanted for a long time, but Wilson and his team have been hesitant to add them to the game. As such, they’ll be “tested” in heist content, and if they work well, they might be added to Path of Exile 2.
Rogues have skills and equipment you can improve, which allows for a lot of customization based on your play style but had me wondering if the system would just feel like just another grind. You’ve already got your character and their gear to upgrade, so will it feel excessive if you need to do the same for a baker’s dozen of ancillary characters?
If you don’t care about min-maxing your rogues, “You’ll still be able to complete most of the heists,” Wilson said. “I think the impact of equipping them correctly is that it makes it 10% to 20% more effective. That’s something that Path of Exile players will seek out, but I don’t think it’s critical to completely care about the fine details of your guys.”
“That’s a balance we try to seek: that the main game is the thing that matters, but there should still be rewards for caring about what’s going on in the leagues. We’ve found in the past that when we require deep engagement with a league that there are players who resist and say, ‘This is not what I signed up for. I want to play Path of Exile, and I’m happy for you to change it, but please don’t make me care too deeply about your Pokémons.’” He said that the last league, Harvest League, offered “a good balance between engagement and the rewards you get.”
And if you don’t really want to do Heists? Just farm up the markers and maps and trade them with other players. Given the two-pronged approach to Heists – planning and execution – Wilson envisions that players might like to do one and not the other, which is a totally valid way to enjoy the content.
Don’t forget the loot!
So what are these valuable artifacts that are so heavily guarded and so desirable for you and your rogues to purloin? There’s a bit of lore behind that, as Wilson explained to me. Unique weapons exist in the game and are, well, unique. However, the wealthy treasure-hoarders you’re stealing from are attempting to replicate them and the results are … mixed. Those knock-offs are comparable to the originals but have some differences to set them apart. As usual, these new “unique” items will offer players the options of different builds, while not providing a straight power upgrade.
Brand new to this league is the first new equipment slot in Path of Exile, trinkets, which enhance your heist rewards, such as by dropping more loot from heist chests or by having monsters drop more Markers. As with the rogue henchmen, they’re only usable as enhancements to heists, so the dev team can give them a try without impacting the larger game. If they work well, then their role might be expanded in the future.
What other treasures will cunning thieves acquire? How about 900(!) new support gems, which are alternate quality versions of existing gems that do things a little differently from their counterparts. The new Cast on Critical Strike support gem grants additional damage rather than adding to crit chance, while the new Anger gem replaces its AoE increase with burning damage for your allies.
Finally, heists can yield what Wilson called “the most powerful of the new rewards that we’re offering.” These are enchantments on items that provide significant power boosts, such as a piece of armor that links all sockets. Some might come with hefty drawbacks, though, like a melee weapon that gains +15% to its physical modifiers but comes with a +200% increase in attribute (Strength, in the example I was shown) requirement.
In the “normal” uniques category, this expansion will introduce the usual slate, including a pair of boots that creates corpses with every step you take, which you can then use to fuel all kinds of typical corpse-based skills. Or, you know, just laugh at the absurdity of creating corpses with every step you take. There’s also a belt that curses you with Temporal Chains every time you’re hit, but whenever that runs out, you gain maximum Rage. That’s cool and can be very powerful, but it’s not creating corpses with every step you take.
A particular set of skills
As usual, various types of skills are getting worked over in Heist. Curse spells are first on the list. These days, they’re hardly ever cast by clicking, instead relying on various support gems to cast them when a player lands a crit, when enemies get too close, and so on. “We wanted to provide an incentive for what’s called ‘hand-casting’ curses,” Wilson said, and now their potency increases over time if they’re cast in that fashion.
Impending Doom is a support gem that supports this play style. When linked to a curse, it causes a chaos explosion when the curse ends, which can be done through its natural duration or via other means. It creates a kind of “bomber” build, as Wilson put it, cruising through packs of mobs, cursing them, and blowing them up. Nasty way to go, that.
Steel skills were a recent addition to the game, and they let you hurl your weapons at enemies. They cause the impale mechanic, which proved popular enough that they were added to other skills and steel skills lost some of their, well, shine. They’re now getting upgraded with the shard mechanic, broken swords that fly around behind your character and impale and split apart inside your enemies, ripping them apart. OK, that’s an even nastier way to go.
There’s also a new range of spells, which have the goal of making position in combat more meaningful and, similar to the situation with curses, reduce the reliance on “auto-casted” spells. A perfect example is the Flame Wall spell, which you can use defensively, to block off monsters and burn them if they come through or placed strategically so you can fire arrows through it, which then light on fire.
Another example was Void Sphere, which sucks in nearby monsters – which can also be set so that you pull them through, say, a Flame Wall. That way, the monsters will “catch on fire before being ripped to pieces in the black hole.” At this point, I think the dev team is just loaded down with sadists who are continually trying to one-up each other in coming up with horrifying ways to inflict pain and death.
Path of Exile: Heist will release for PC and Mac on Sept. 18, and a week later on consoles. Yes, you heard right, Path of Exile is coming to MacOS! It will be the exact same game, with all the updates and systems, and you’ll be able to carry over your progress seamlessly between Mac and other platforms. Wilson confessed that the Mac version of the game might “stealthily” go live a few weeks early, to provide a little testing on that platform, but without the Heist content.
While it looks cool and well-polished, not everything went as smoothly for Heist development as the team would have liked. The update was originally scheduled for June, but its complexity required it to be the September expansion instead, due in part to the myriad issues surrounding COVID-19 (which New Zealand recently saw a new outbreak of, forcing the team to go back to working from home).
Maybe that’s why Grinding Gear Games opted for such an easily identifiable theme for this update. As I said at the start of this piece, “Heist” conjured up an immediate vision in my mind, and it seems that I wasn’t the only one on that track. “The thing that made this one easy to develop is you say ‘Heist,’ and everyone gets started, they know what to make,” Wilson said. “You’ll go work on the vault, you’ll go work on the cast of characters … it’s quirky and charming in many ways.”
Quirky, charming, and also exceptionally painful for anyone getting sliced open by shards of metal, set on fire, and yanked into a black hole.