Preview: Path of Exile
New Zealand developers Grinding Gear Games have been working on Path of Exile for a few years now. For those fond of Diablo II, and not quite ready to make the commitment to Diablo III, it represents a kind of mid-way path.
Zara Baxter | Tuesday, May 15 2012
Test Platform: PC
Developer: Grinding Gear Games; Publisher: Grinding Gear Games
A Kiwi-made answer to Diablo, with good entertainment value
New Zealand developers Grinding Gear Games have been working on Path of Exile for a few years now. For those fond of Diablo II, and not quite ready to make the commitment to Diablo III, it represents a kind of mid-way path. It has vastly better graphics than Diablo II, for example, with many of the dynamics, such as gems, skills and stashes, that Diablo II players will be familiar with. But despite the many comparisons, Path of Exile is also developing into its own beast, rather than a Diablo copycat. And did we mention that it’s free to play? Right now, you have to donate money to access the closed beta, but there are regular open beta weekends, and the full open beta is expected sometime in June.
As you begin Path of Exile, you are a prisoner being given a new chance in a distant land, Wraeclast. As you land on the beach, groggy and not entirely co-ordinated, you turn to a companion only to see them devoured by some kind of crazed and waterlogged cannibal zombie. Apparently filling an island with criminals wasn’t such a great idea after all. Picking up the nearest item (which happens to be a moderately useful example of your class weapon, in all cases), you start eliminating these monsters before they eliminate you. After defeating the boss of the beach, you find yourself in a shore encampment, where you can buy supplies and gear, talk with fellow escapees (players) and learn about problems that need solving in the surrounding regions.
It’s a fairly basic setup and plot, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. The main aim here is to clear entire maps of the mutant creatures, zombies, cannibals, skeletons and other denizens. As a result, the gameplay is also simple: point your mouse at a bad guy, and click to attack. The complexity, instead, is around the character development and equipment.
When you create a character to start the game, you have a selection of one of six character classes, each focused on one or two of the key stat attributes - strength, dexterity and intelligence. The witch, for example, is based around intelligence, which she uses for casting spells. The templar, on the other hand, is a mix of both strength and intelligence. Because the game is online-only, you can't choose a character name that someone else has already used, but I had no problem creating six different characters, one of each class.
Your character's class doesn't only determine what stats your base attributes are comprised of. In addition, the class type limits the weapons that you can use and to some degree what passive skills are available to you in your skill tree.
One of the more interesting aspects is the way in which the skills work. Each time you level up, you get a skill point to spend on your skill tree. The skills vary depending on class, but a ranger, for example, might have the initial choice between adding 10 dexterity, adding 4% attack speed or adding 10 intelligence. Each choice is part of a larger pathway, so choosing the right early skills is the key to building the kind of character you prefer to play. While I like playing magic-wielding characters, for example, my preferred ranger archetype is a sniper, so I selected skills, such as accuracy bonuses, critical hit percentage increases and improved speed, that helped me to become a 1-shot killer. Others may prefer strength and a bullocking-rushing style of play, focused on strength and area-of-effect skills.
You're not solely limited to these passive skills when developing a character, however. Your equipment opens up additional options. Sound confusing? Let me explain. Any single piece of equipment can come with one or more coloured sockets - sockets come in red, blue or green, which roughly correspond to strength, intelligence and dexterity, respectively. Into these sockets, you can insert gems of a colour that matches the socket. You can find these gems while exploring, but they are also granted as quest rewards. Red gems add strength-based skills and fire-based spells, while blue offers intelligence-based skills and cold spells. Green adds dexterity-based skills and poison spells. Gems level up as you gain experience, so that you can have higher level skills granted, as long as you meet the requirements - I found myself without a much needed cold spell when the gem leveled up but I no longer had the intelligence required to use it.
As you might imagine, these mechanics add a great deal of variety to game style and strategy.
Equipment itself may also be magical or 'rare', which adds intrinsic powers and skills. Even if, say, a helmet doesn't have any skills or intrinsics, it can still offer one of three differing types of protection - evasion, armour or energy shield. Each has its own advantages or disadvantages, and I hadn't been playing very long at all before I found myself weighing up between all the possible permutations and combinations of armour type, armour attributes, skill gems and skills.
Fortunately, if you don't like any particular combination, there are ways within game to improve armour, make it magical or rare, alter its magical properties, and more. However, there's a caveat: be careful using the items that confer these changes, as they also form the currency of the game.
Rather than using gold coins, Path of Exile uses a sort of bartering system that involves exchanging the scrolls and talismans for equipment, items and other scrolls and talismans. At times, the exchange rate seems like highway robbery, but you can also trade gear with your fellow gamers. All trades happen in the encampment, where you can talk with other players and join a party. There will be ways to use real money to add enhancements to your game, but Grinding Gear has said that this won’t affect overall character development, only cosmetic aspects.
It's worth pointing out that Path of Exile is still a game in progress. A new character class - the shadow, based on dexterity and intelligence - was introduced in mid-May, for example, and quests, skills and other elements are being updated regularly. That also means that the quests are incomplete: currently you can only finish Acts 1 and 2, which takes between five and fifteen hours of gameplay. Despite this, the game doesn't feel unfinished or unpolished. I particularly liked some of the tiny touches that add detail. Grasses sway in the breeze as you run past, seagulls alight and cast shadows on the ground, and - my favourite - when you shoot arrows into creatures, the shafts remain visible sticking out of them, in whatever spot you struck.
The monsters are challenging on single player, although more easily handled in co-op mode, and the bosses require a measure of thought and strategy to defeat. The maps are complex enough that you can miss an entrance to the next stage and have to do some backtracking to relocate your next mission. This all adds to the satisfaction you feel when you complete each step in the quest, and makes up for the limited plot and dialogue available. The music is atmospheric and more than a little little claustrophobic, adding to the dark, sinister feel of the game.
I'd say that it helps to have played Diablo II, even if only to be familiar with the juggling of items within your pack, and a patience for the frustration that can cause.
For me, the best aspects of the game are its stability, despite being online only, and with servers based in the US, as well as the free form approach allowed by the multiplicity of skilling systems, and the attractive maps and varied terrain types. The less appealing aspects are the gear-juggling, exchange system and lack of truly strong overarching plot. As a time-waster, however, it's both excellent and fantastic value for money.
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