I learned a lot while playing Path of Exile over the weekend. I learned, for instance, that Diablo 3 sucks. I also learned that Diablo 3 is great. I learned that Mass Effect 3 is the best in the series and a really good game, and that Mass Effect is a rubbish series and anyone who likes it is an idiot.
I also learned – very quickly – how to mute global chat, but then I’m grumpy and unsociable.
Gamer chatter aside, though, there’s also a lot to be learned from the approach that Path of Exile has taken when it comes to building and streamlining a free online RPG that fits snugly alongside Diablo and Torchlight. For the most part it’s familiar territory; you pick a character class, click on monsters to attack them, use abilities, and become a regular participant in the ever-compelling slot machine of equipment drops. Where Path of Exile starts to tread its own path is in the depth of its customisation systems, and in the way it cuts out a lot of the chaff.
Take currency, for instance. No, really, take it; Path of Exile doesn’t bother with it, so it’s useless to me. Instead of hoovering up showers of gold that erupt from the corpses of slain foes, you trade one-use items like scrolls of identification or town portal for equipment and items. When you sell stuff, you get shards that add up to form a scroll or an item modifier.
What’s an item modifier? Well, they’re things like Orbs of Transmutation or Alteration – or, in English, they’re one-use items that have some effect on your equipment. You might get an orb that upgrades a boring item into a magic item, or even into a rare. You might get one that adds a random magical effect to a weapon. Maybe you get something that randomises the stats the item has, or changes the colour of its gem sockets so that you can pop in some different skill gems.
The upshot is that, whatever you’re doing, you’re feeding into the gear system. You’re never weeping bitter tears because you haven’t had a worthwhile drop for ages – pretty much everything you can sell will, in some way, come right back to building up the gear that you have. Haven’t found a useful wand in ages? Well, maybe you’ll be able to instantly upgrade the next crap one you find into a powerful rare. Found some useful gloves, but the colour of the gem slots means you can’t slot in your Ice Nova gem? You’ll find an orb that lets you shift the slot colours sometime soon.
Another interesting thing about the game is the skill tree, which should really be called a skill rainforest. Seriously, just look at this:
That’s part of the tree. Every level – and some quests – grant a passive skill point, and each one of those can be placed one step further along the regularly branching tree, giving you an almost unprecedented level of customisation. In one direction lie things like intelligence boosts, which might branch off into increases to wand damage, or upgrades to particular elemental attacks. Another direction might focus on strength boosts, just in case you want your Witch to be a bit more effective in a close-range scrap. Up to you.
The abilities you can unleash don’t seem to be linked to classes, either. As you proceed you gather skill gems of various colours, which slot into your equipment as noted above. While some gems are inevitably superior for certain classes – I’ve seen Duelists summoning skeletons but to a lesser degree than my Witch, who has a few passive summoning boosts, presumably due to her starting location on the tree – you can, as with almost everything else, decide for yourself the direction in which you want to take your character. Equipped gems get a little of the experience you earn and thus level up along with you, and from the looks of it there are also modifier gems that can be slotted in alongside skills to change the way they work.
Path of Exile, then, is a game with a tremendous level of customisation and possibility, but one that doesn’t feel overly daunting since the basic mechanics should be immediately familiar to most gamers. But what’s really stuck with me is how right it feels.
It’s easy to get a Diablo-esque game wrong. If enemies die too slowly or too quickly, or if skills don’t feel powerful, or if weapons don’t make a satisfying thwack as they hit home, then it’s very easy to remember just how repetitious the gameplay is… but Path of Exile gets it right. Skills are fun to use, varied, and effective; the spell that launches a shard of ice which pierces nearby foes and then explodes at a distance is a personal favourite. It’s also worth noting that it actually looks rather lovely, too, thanks in large part to a highly effective lighting engine that makes dungeons and caves claustrophobic, maze-like, and dangerous.
As it stands, the only real problem I had during my short time with Path of Exile is the somewhat archaic way it actually treats the selling of items – namely, the fact that you have to go back to town whenever your inventory fills up. With a small inventory and a fairly high drop rate, it’s not uncommon to want to head back to town every two minutes (no, really) if you’re as much of a sucker for selling things as I am. It’s possibly designed this way so that players have to head away from their instanced combat areas back to group areas like towns on a regular basis, where they can interact with players and form parties, but it’s still an irritant.
It’s possible that I missed an Instantly Sell Everything button, or that selling stuff is only meant to be an occasional thing – it’s hard to tell how this is balanced over the course of one weekend – but even if that mechanic was working for me as intended, it doesn’t do much to dissuade me that Path of Exile is going to wind up with a rather large userbase, despite Torchlight 2 on the horizon and Diablo 3 just around the corner. Path of Exile has a unique identity, it gets plenty right, it’s entirely free, and from the looks of it the only microtransactions on offer will be cosmetic. I don’t doubt it’s going to provide decent competition for both of those highly-anticipated titles, and any fan of top-down action-RPGs would be doing themselves a disservice by ignoring it.