Posted on May 24, 2012 AT 07:30pm
It seems this is a year for hack-and-slash RPGs with Diablo 3, the granddaddy of the series being released earlier this month; Torchlight 2 is in the final stretch of its beta phase, and the Victorian adventure Grim Dawn has been fully backed by kickstarter. Yet, even with all of these big name titles looming large over the genre I find myself drawn more to Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile game which will be free-to-play upon its release. While it is still within the early stages of its beta, Path of Exile maintains the dark atmosphere that the original Diablo games were know for and blends it with an incredibly customizable style of gameplay. This is not a review of the beta as it is still changing and being updated in accordance to player feedback, but is instead a collection of my thoughts on the beta’s two acts.
There are currently six classes available for play in the beta; the Witch, the Duelist, the Ranger, the Templar, the Marauder, and the Shadow. These six reflect the combinations possible with the games three main stats of strength, dexterity, and intelligence. Unlike other games, your class does not determine what your play style will be on the isle of Wraeclast due to the way PoE covers character skills and progression. The only thing that your class effects is your look in game, your starting stats, your starting place on the passive skill grid, and your starting weapon. All but one of these can easily be changed according to your choices. In addition, weapons and armor are not restricted to your class. If you want to be a witch in full plate armor and use a two-handed battleaxe you can. If you want to be a marauder running around duel wielding wands, the game isn’t going to punish you for it. While this freedom in game is nice, at times you are still limited by what can be considered a viable build; but only if you want to be even moderately successful. It will be fun to play around with the different builds and find what you like to play.
The first thing you’ll notice after you finish making your character is that the environments are surprisingly detailed. You start out washed up on a beach in the middle of a storm, lightning is flashing in the sky which is casting shadows all over, the tide is constantly ebbing and flowing (as you expect it would with the added impact of the rain on the water), and the texture details in the sand show just how much care was put into the game. While its graphics are impressive and it does get down the Diablo 1 and 2 dark-gothic-horror theme very well, it isn’t all that pleasing to look at in comparison to Diablo 3 and Torchlight 2. The statement that Path of Exile was designed to have Diablo 2’s graphic style brought up to current generation detail levels are spot on the mark. From my experience with the Torchlight 2 beta, I can say that Path of Exile definitely beats out Torchlight in its animation quality. Every move your character makes is very fluid, every attack blends into the next in a way that feels natural. When you hit a monster, it looks like you’ve just slammed a hammer into its face, and creatures act like they have just taken an arrow to the chest when you hit them. It just feels very satisfying to kill things in Path of Exile.
Speaking of the monsters, the variety of them is very good from what I have seen so far. Just in the first act you come across the standard fare of RPGs like skeletons and zombies. However, you are also confronted with some rather odd creatures that don’t often get the same exposure. Crazed cannibals wanting your legs on a dinner plate and giant c’thulu-like horrors that float around for no apparent reason all try and make you a pretty red smear on the floor. The amount of creature variety just within the first act of the game is rather refreshing and makes combat a bit more fun considering you need to learn the various patterns and abilities the creatures have.
When it comes to the gameplay itself, PoE doesn’t do very much to break away from the standards of the genre, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very good at what it does. Same old left click to move and attack while spells can be bound to your keyboard on the QWERTY keys and the right mouse button. Control over your character is rather intuitive to any fan of the genre at this point, though it does feel a little clunky in its response time to multiple orders. Beyond that problem, the game feels very good to play. It has a more realistic feel to combat than the other games out right now and I’m finding myself really enjoying it so far. The only moments that have broken this for me are the odd bug in the system like enemies not doing a hit animation or my arrows floating in space. Such things are expected in a beta though so that’s not really a problem.
As for difficulty, the game is rather punishing at times. If you play the game smart and engage enemies in small groups, the difficulty is at a manageable level most of the time. Unfortunately, it can get out of hand rather quickly when you pull more and more enemies towards you. Kiting, one of the main ways of dealing with large threats in ARPGs, can often get you swarmed by an absolutely absurd amount of mobs that will wreck you for even the smallest mistake. It does keep combat fun and challenging but at the same time it forces you to think on your toes about positioning or else you will be quickly swarmed and killed. My only real problem with the gameplay is the death penalty or the lack of one in this case. When you die, you are teleported back to the town and if you don’t get back to an area in 15 minutes the monsters respawn. The game lacks any real push to survive an encounter; there isn’t any tension to a frantic battle because of it. You can also party up with other people though I have yet to try it out. I want to play through all the content available on my own first before I start mucking about Wraeclast with someone else.
Now standard formula for the genre is that you choose your class and as you level up in the game, you unlock new spells and upgrade old ones. Path of Exile throws that system out the window and puts a brand new one in its place. In Path of Exile, every weapon and piece of armor you pick up has one to six sockets that you can slot matching gems into. These gems you pick up are coded red, blue, and green to signify skills of strength, intelligence, and dexterity. As long as you have the stats to use the gem and the slot that fits it, you can use any one of the skills in the game. This means that you can be a Ranger who is skilled with using trap abilities and the bow while also having the intelligence to summon skeleton minions or the strength to summon totems of rejuvenation. How you design your character is up to how you want to play. These gems also gain experience as you do; gain enough experience with them equipped and they level up becoming more powerful or gaining new features.
Ability gems are not the only type you find as you play through the game. Once you near the end of the first act you will start finding what are known as support gems. On their own, these gems have no effect to your character, however, when they are put into a linked socket with one of your abilities, the skill is granted the support gems bonus. These bonuses can come in many forms such as a 50% increased critical strike chance or add a stun to the ability. What is really cool about this system is that with certain abilities these gems can completely change the mechanics of the spell in a way that is similar to Diablo 3’s rune system. For example, if you were to put a frost damage support gem on a trap spell it would change the trap into a freezing mine. If you put a fire damage support gem on a rejuvenation totem, it will heal you all while tossing fireballs at your enemies. The customization in PoE will lead you to play around with your character builds a lot. Grinding Gear Games focused on letting the player play the game how he or she really wants to. My only problem with this gem system is that finding them as drops is very much luck based, you could go a long time and find no gems at all or gems you cannot use at the time which can really stunt the fun you have playing.
What you saw above was Path of Exile’s skill web. Please feel free to either squeal in glee or run away. Where you start on the grid is dependent on your class, from there it is all up to you as to where you want to go and how you want to spend your 100+ skill points. On the grid there are three types of spheres that each cost a single point to activate; small spheres are all over the place and give minor stat boosts like +8 to intelligence or a 3% faster casting speed. These gather up over time to make some big improvements. The medium spheres with the gold rims give large stat boosts such as 30% increased fire damage or +15% to all elemental resistances. Lastly, the giant spheres are game changing in what they give characters. For example: there are ones that will convert all but one point of your health into energy shield and also provides immunity to a type of damage while another can give your minions the ability to explode causing knockdown and fire damage upon their deaths. The range of customization in this thing is absolutely mental in its complexity and the range of possible builds. The problem with this is that it’s such a grind to get the major changes to your play that you will often feel like you’re going nowhere. When you do get something that offers a major change though, it feels awesome and you can instantly see the payoff. My main fear with this system of character progression is that for some it will be intimidating and likely to push players away. Honestly, it seems like it would be more fun planning out your build than actually leveling it would be.
One thing that PoE has done completely different from almost every other RPG out there is how they dealt with potions. Path of Exile completely threw out the old method of stacking as many health and mana potions as possible to survive an encounter or collecting health orbs. Instead, they have you equipping a set of five upgradable and refillable vials in your inventory. These vials each restore a certain amount of health or mana over a period of time that is unique to each vial you find. Taking customization one step further, the bottles can come with various status buffs that stay in place as long as the potion is in effect. For example: a melee class can walk around with potions that give a 90% damage reduction stat or a 50% increased critical strike chance all while healing him. Mana potions on the other hand could have faster energy shield regeneration or cause increased elemental damage while their mana returns.
This does not mean that each potion type is limited to buffs normally associated with the class; I have found mana potions offering evasion bonuses as well as having increased recovery speeds at the cost of less overall healing. The potions you choose reflect your playstyle and after playing around with this system of health potions, I don’t believe I can go back to the old way of doing things. This is one advancement to the genre that I feel will become a staple once PoE is fully released.
The last thing I feel I need to talk about is the in-game economy that has completely gotten rid of gold. No one on Wraeclast has any use for shiny metal pieces, it has no way to make survival easier and therefore has no value to them, what does have value to the people on the isle are items with an actual use. Replacing gold are scrolls of wisdom that you use to identify items, armourer’s scraps which are used to increase the quality of your armor, orbs of Alteration which give entirely new magic stats to items, and many, many more as you advance on Wraeclast. When you take the items you have collected to a trader you are given shards of these items. Get enough of the shards together and you create a full item that has some inherent worth to it. At that point you can keep it and use it to trade later on or you can use it on the items you have to make yourself more powerful. It’s an interesting design choice all things considered, a little awkward at first but quite useful once you get used to it. It makes you think about every purchase you make since something you don’t need now could be useful later. I’m not sure this sort of system will work everywhere or anywhere else for that matter, but it is a nice change.
I’ve only had a week and a half now to play around with it but so far I am really enjoying myself despite some of my complaints. I will not make up any stories like this is going to be a Diablo 3 killer but I do see it as one of the many viable alternatives to come out over the next few months to try and gain a bit of the market. The fact that it will be free to play at launch is something I feel will draw more than a few interested parties to play and depending on how the micro-transactions are handled; Path of Exile could make Grinding Gear Games very successful. Now back to shooting arrows that call down lightning bolts at zombies, tootles.
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