With Diablo 3 a scant two weeks away, it’s a good time to discuss this other hack and slash game that’s been kicking around since two PAX conferences ago, Path of Exile. Path of Exile is under development by Grinding Gear Games out of New Zealand. So what is this game besides a hack and slash with an isometric view, you know, a Diablo clone, and why should you care about it when Diablo 3 is out mid-month? Well, Path of Exile is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is a free to play game. To many, this might be a turn off. You are probably imagining a limited character and skill selection, not to mention content locking. This is a far cry from the case. The game itself is entirely free to play. You get all characters, content and settings straight away, without having to pay anything. So what’s their model for monetization then? Right now it’s selling beta keys, and getting in-game frills. You can buy one key, many keys, get some pets, some customization, digital soundtracks and other fluff you might expect in a collector’s edition of a game. It’s anyone’s guess what might be sold once the game is live, but I imagine it’s pets, entrance to tournaments, probably some increased item-find buffs, and some of the “do X to Y item” stuff they have in-game, which I will cover. It’s anyone’s guess for sure at this point, but I am quite interested to see what model they ultimately put into place.
In the game you can play one of five different classes, each of which corresponds to the three stats in the game: Marauder (str), Ranger (dex), Witch (int), Duelist (str/dex) and the Templar (str/int). The Marauder is your basic fighter brute, think Barbarian. The Ranger uses a bow. The Witch is your sorcerer stand in. The Duelist is essentially a dual-wielding rogue. The Templar is a mystic warrior. However, this is where the game branches in two pretty neat directions. First, everyone’s skill tree is exactly the same. There are no active abilities gained from it, and nothing affects specific skills, though categories are affected. Second, no one starts with any skills. Instead, all skills are learned the same way spells are learned in Final Fantasy 7, through gems that you level up. These gems are not tied to use in order to accrue exp, but rather just having them in your gear and killing things like you would normally level. Gems come in two types, primary and secondary. Secondary gems only provide a bonus to the primary gem that they are linked to via a socket link on your gear. Gems are available in three different colors, red, green and blue, in correspondence with their stats. Red is strength based, blue is intelligence based and green is dexterity based. Every class can always use the first level of a gem, at least as far as I can tell. However, the gems get higher stat requirements as you level them up, putting a soft ability cap in place for those that are not your primary stat. All non-accessory gear (rings, necklaces and belts) have at least one socket into which gems can be slotted. Sockets are either standalone or linked. Primary gems can go in any socket, even if they are linked. Secondary gems can only go into a linked socket. A lot of the skills are linked to weapon types for either green or red gems. Blue gems tend to be elementally themed, split between ice, fire and lightning.
Back to the skill system. As you might expect, you get a skill point when you level or complete certain quests. The skill system is all passive bonuses, as I mentioned before. It resembles a star map more than anything. You either select a ten point bonus to a specific stat, or delve into the “star clusters” for specific bonuses, such as physical crit, spell crit, physical damage, specific weapon damage, specific element damage or even category bonuses for spells such as summons, area of effects or direct damage. All of the paths are connected, but getting there takes longer if you branch out and around. Nothing stops you from starting back over at the center and starting a new path, though. One of the most appealing things about the system is that the skills you first find are never wasted with early skill point expenditures a la Diablo 2. This creates a stress free and rewarding experience in that you can have confidence that your decisions are the correct ones as there is no wrong answer that isn’t obvious. This is quite the breath of fresh air.
The last thing I want to mention here is the currency system. There is no gold in the game. Everything is a straight barter system. You earn pieces of items that combine to form items once you have enough pieces. These completed items are Scrolls of Wisdom (identify item), Orb of Alteration (make a normal item into a magic one), Orb of Augmentation (add a property to a magic item (max of two properties)), and Orb of Something Else (reroll a magic item). There are also Orbs of Chance (turn a normal item into an item of any random quality), and a wide array of “improve an item you already have slightly”. This keeps your items relevant longer, but only allowing for a 20% increase in quality from the starting point so you still do need to upgrade eventually, but you aren’t boned if you don’t find exactly what you are looking for. I am a big fan of this hodgepodge of “control you own equipment experience” that the game provides. It sounds weird, but in practice it plays very differently that Diablo. You end up holding on to a few normal items here or there in the hopes that you will have an Orb of Change or Alteration in order to give it a shot at making it better. This is a very cool system in that you don’t immediately dismiss something that’s not magic or better in quality.
The next part of the review will focus on the game play, graphics and story elements of the game.