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Path of Exile 2 has blown me away after a four-hour preview

We went hands-on with three Path of Exile 2 classes and were blown away by the beauty, synergy, and movement mechanics of the upcoming ARPG.

A ranger pulls back her bow against a background of green poisonous smoke in Path of Exile 2.

I’ve wiled many hours in ARPGs like Diablo 4, yet my first experience of Grinding Gear’s Path of Exile series came during a recent hands-on preview of the upcoming Path of Exile 2. This expansive follow-up will exist alongside the original game in total harmony when its currently unknown release date finally rolls around.

During an in-person event in LA revealing some interesting details on the upcoming game – including the sad news that the next PoE2 beta is delayed – I was lucky enough to have Path of Exile 2 to myself for over four hours. Starting from the beginning, I worked through Act 1 as three of the game’s launch classes. And, even as a total newbie, I’m already sold.

PCGamesN's Danielle Rose talks to Grinding Gears' Jonathan Rogers in front of a PC playing Path of Exile 2.

The first thing I noticed about Path of Exile 2 is its gorgeous animations. Even from the login screen, as rain lashes down over a stunning landscape, it’s clear that the look of this game is going to blow you away. This is further confirmed by skills and their symbiosis with the environment, as well as character movements. The dodge roll, for example, looks and feels great, while specific attention has been paid to each enemy’s heavy stun animation. I’ll get into more detail about skill synergy in a bit, but by bringing up a Flame Wall and firing Spark through it, the writhing blue flashes of lightning catch fire and glow with both orange flame and white lightning to stunning effect. While it’s no bad thing, it’s hard to keep your eyes on approaching enemies when your powers are so eye-catching.

These are some of the earliest skills available when playing as the Sorceress, the first class I chose of the three in this preview build. As one of the ranged classes, the Sorceress also shows off a new mechanic: the ability to move while shooting. This is a byproduct of the addition of WASD movement, which you can choose as an alternative to the standard click-to-move controls. In fact, you can change your mind at any point and instantly switch between the two, so if you’re cynical about WASD, all I can say is give it a try.

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As someone who has experience with other ARPGs, this fluidity of movement is a game changer, and WASD makes a huge difference to what you can do and where you can aim. If you’re worried about how this advantage might affect Leagues – it won’t. There are no plans to make either control type unavailable in competitive play, and when asked about the advantage WASD offers, game director Jonathan Rogers tells us “there might be a slight advantage… but we’re going to do it anyway because I don’t want to miss out on what we might get if we try this.” He elaborates, “we found out that the advantage isn’t as great as we thought, and click-to-move still does work pretty well anyway,” citing roughly a “5% advantage” for WASD players. “There’s a more than 5% difference in skill between people anyway, right? Some people pick health bars for monsters, and there’s probably an advantage for that. It’s okay in some cases.”

Without a doubt, the best class I played was the Ranger, which is saying something, as I usually always opt for magic-wielding classes. Again, the high agility of the class and move-and-shoot, combined with that WASD movement, made for much better gameplay and easier combat, despite a general consensus that PoE2 is more challenging than PoE1.

The world map in Path of Exile 2.

While I enjoyed playing the Ranger, my hour with the character didn’t allow me to explore all the available skills. However, in a Ranger demonstration provided to us from later in the game, it appears that this might be one of the best classes to play thanks to the incredible skill synergy in Path of Exile 2. Grinding Gear has gone to great lengths to improve the collaborative nature of skills and elements in PoE2, and the combination possibilities of both skill and support gems is incredible. One example that stuck with me was the combination of poison and fire. By using a burning arrow on an enemy within a poisonous gas cloud, you can cause an explosion. Then there’s an incredible lightning build combining Rain of Arrows, Lightning Arrow, Barrage, Chain Support, and a new charged critical shot to deal prolonged damage in the AoE. As PoE1 players will know from the complexity of options, it will be hard to say what the best builds could be in PoE2, as there are so many viable – and fun – options. Again, all of this is made even better by the improved animations, like the fantastic electrify animation when one of those charged lightning arrows hits home

The third class, the Warrior, was widely considered the most troublesome, so some changes will hopefully land before the beta later this year. Right now, it feels as though the Warrior is too vulnerable in close-combat positions – especially against multiple foes – to make it a worthwhile choice. Saying that, even in my brief time with the character, there are still some viable early-game builds. I found some success with a combination of Rolling Slam and Boneshatter, which was super satisfying to set up against strong enemies or large groups of foes. Still, I succumbed more times playing as the Warrior than either of the other classes.

A corwd of enemies surrounds the player in Path of Exile 2, as the screen reads "You have Died".

Speaking of life, there are some changes to Life Flasks in PoE2. Rogers tells us “you never really cared about your flask state much in PoE1. It went up and down very quickly to the point where it never really mattered. There was never the idea of ‘I should hold off using this flask until I need it,’ so that’s what we want to change.” To that end, you now only receive Flask Charges from blue and rare monsters, which don’t really appear in the early game. “We tried to address [that],” Rogers continues, “by making checkpoints refill them and levelling up refills them, just to make sure that the early-game progression doesn’t get affected too much.” From speaking with Path of Exile veterans, it seems the general consensus is that this makes PoE more challenging – but only in a good way.

Similarly, the passive skill tree is as complex and massive as PoE1’s, the complexity of skill and support gems provides another level of difficulty and consideration, and health and mana control are always at the front of your mind. There’s also strikingly little spamming required in PoE2. Even in the very first stages of the first act, every enemy and boss is deliberate. You don’t feel overwhelmed, but you do have to consider each and every move with a level of precision often unwarranted in ARPGs.

We’re still in the early days of Path of Exile 2, and we’re sure you can’t wait to get your hands on the beta at the end of 2024. Some improvements would be welcome, particularly with the Warrior, and there are still many more classes to experience, but from what I’ve seen so far, PoE2 could blossom into the best action RPG game around.