Friday, January 25, 2013

[Beta Review] Path of Exile

As some of you may know, Path of Exile went into open beta yesterday. If you haven't heard about PoE, it's a Diablo clone with six different classes, one massive skill tree, and a whole lot of heart. Many are heralding the game as the "spiritual successor to Diablo 2" and after having spent a few hours and nearly a dozen levels of time with it myself, it's definitely a fair comparison.

Because the game is still officially in beta, I'm hesitant to call this a full review or give it a proper score. From now on, if you see [Beta Review] as a tag on this blog, please assume it's my first impressions with a game in an unfinished stage, and take the information I provide with a grain of salt. Beta always means that everything from mechanics to graphics to even major plot lines are subject to change in the live product - never forget that!



Back to Path of Exile, from the moment you log in, the game screams Diablo 2. You have an array of six different characters to choose from, all brooding in the dark cargo hold of a creaky ship. These brave and often misunderstood (or perfectly understood and slightly unhinged) individuals have all been exiled, for one reason or another, to the dangerous land of Wraeclast. Few survive the trip to Wraeclast, and those that do must not fear demonstrating their prowess to survive.

Path of Exile plays simplified and elegant in one manner, yet terribly complex in others, and these differing intricacies mesh and harmonize well with one another. There are only three primary stats (Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence) and each class uses a combination of two to start. The skill tree is massive, as it's shared by all six classes, and features nothing but passive increases for various combat styles. In theory, you can start as Ranger and build over into combat casting and increased Intelligence like a Witch, but it will take you a much longer journey and far more effort to do so. I highly recommend tinkering with the skill tree before you start, too - the ability to respec your points is few and far between as it's provided as rewards from quests or rare items, making your choices extremely meaningful.

The last level of character customization comes in the form of skill gems. Unlike the gems in Diablo 2 or 3, the gems you find in Wraeclast grant you actual abilities. You might decide to build a Duelist who can Cleave or set Fire Traps, or maybe your Marauder comes across a Fireball gem and slings the occasional spell. Your choices vary only by the basis of the gems you find or trade with other players rather than with skills picked from a talent tree.

Finally, the last major mechanic I want to touch on is currency. Path of Exile is a Free to Play game. Those words are terrifying to many gamers, including myself, because the first thing that comes to mind is "Oh god, it's going to be pay to win, isn't it?" This is not the case with Path of Exile, and it's absolutely glorious. There is no true currency in Wraeclast. True to the story of taking place in a land filled with exiles, merchants operate on a barter system. Unloading some crummy trash items to the vendor will net you fragments of Wisdom Scrolls, which are used to identify items. Selling higher quality items provides shards of orbs that are used to either upgrade common items to rare ones, or reroll the stats of an already powerful item. This creates a unique economy where players barter with one another and it's necessary to pay close attention to the values of both the "currency" and the items you have at your disposal.

As for the actual micro-transactions, currently I'd drop this game into the "pay for convenience" category. The most useful purchases are bonus tabs for your stash (personal storage) and additional character slots. There are other purely cosmetic purchases, like special character animations or non-combat pets, and then the major one for the truly insane: a mere $1000 gets you the opportunity to design an in-game item.

The only thing that might miff the picky gamer is that the game visually looks like a direct rip of Diablo 2. The graphics aren't immensely upgraded to today's standards, but that's understandable given the whole thing is free. If you feel offended that someone might go and rip off of Diablo 2, remember that this is what disappointed fans coming from Diablo 3 have been outright demanding - simply a new Diablo 2. From all I've seen, the New Zealand based studio Grinding Gear Games seems to deliver on this.

If you're a big fan of Diablo 2 or the clones it has amassed over the years, you would be doing yourself a disservice to pass up Path of Exile. Giving it a try won't cost you anything but time, and if you find yourself enjoying the journey, there's plenty of ways for you to toss cash the developer's way. I'm looking forward to spending a bit more time in Wraeclast myself - my Ranger could always use more loot.

General Verdict: Worth a look.

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