Path of Exile open beta – first impressions
Genre: Action RPG
Path of Exile went into open beta on the 23rd January, opening up the action-RPG to a wider audience. While facing some very obvious comparisons to the Diablo series, Path of Exile does have a few ideas of its own, and feels like a promising foundation for a future release – however far into the future that may be.
There has probably never been such a good time to be a broke gamer. While the free-to-play movement in games is a double edged sword – for every great title, there are several more that sit quietly steaming; and for every game that draws income in a discrete manner, there are hundreds if not thousands that press players to spend for an advantage at every opportunity. Looking to prove itself on the better side in both categories, step forward Path of Exile by Grinding Gear Games.
Having spent over a year in closed beta, Path of Exile (PoE) moved into open beta two days ago (23rd January), offering itself to a new audience. And let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way – if you’ve played a Diablo game, you will feel very comfortable with PoE. The isometric view, mob grinding, randomised loot, dark atmosphere and even elements of the interface all carry that sense of deja vu. However, this could also be said of Sacred, Fate, Torchlight and others – all games that also brought their own elements to the formula.
You begin by choosing from one of six characters, each representing a different class and all on a prison ship before being apparently thrown overboard. From this point, the time until zombies are trying to chew on you can be counted in seconds, and the grind for XP, story advancement, and better gear has begun.
So what does PoE offer that is different to other titles in the genre?
Well, skills are handled very differently for starters. The six characters represent the three attributes – strength, dexterity and intelligence – either singly focused, or with two in combination with each other (for example, the Witch is pure intelligence; while the Templar is strength and intelligence). However, skills are tied to gems that can be collected, socketed onto equipment (or removed without penalty) and individually levelled up as needed – the nearest comparison that can be made being materia in Final Fantasy 7. Almost every piece of equipment in the game will have one or more sockets, colour-coded according to the attributes and ready for gems to be added. In summary, if you wanted a fireball-throwing Duelist, or a melee-focused Witch, you can do so – provided you have the right skill gems and plan ahead when you use the skill tree.
And at this point, things are in danger of feeling overwhelming…
The above is part – only part! – of the tree that is used to assign passive skill points. One point is gained per level to a maximum of 111, and the website claims there are 1,350 nodes on the tree, which is believable. Most of the nodes are attribute bonuses, most commonly +10 to whichever statistic, obviously allowing use of better skills or equipment. Others however may have different effects, such as increasing damage with axes, or improving spell casting speed, or even unique effects like making summoned minions explode upon dying. Skill points can be refunded, but having an idea of where you’re heading is pretty important from the start – especially if you are building a character “against type” and need to lead the tree into different skill sets.
The developers have realised this too, with a skill planner tool on their website.
The game is technically an MMO, although unlike most MMOs the game areas are instanced – you may see a lot of people running around in town, but in the wilderness it’ll just be your party (or you alone if you prefer soloing). Well, almost – there are also PvP rules, some of which would allow people to enter each others’ instances in an attempt to rob them (although this, along with several other variants, is not the default playing style and would be essentially done by mutual consent).
Trade is purely barter-based – there are no coins in the game, with NPC vendors “selling” items in exchange for consumable resources, such as scrolls of wisdom (identify) or town portal. As inflation from the effect of an infinite amount of gold entering a game is often an end effect of many MMOs, it’ll be interesting to see if the use of consumable items instead will result in something more stable.
Items sold to vendors tend to be paid for in shards and fragments of basic consumables too; this does make you consider your items carefully, knowing that an item which needs identifying may potentially be worth only one-fifth of the scroll needed to do so, and a town portal will often be more valuable than the loot weighing you down you want to return and sell.
And while we’re talking of trade, the game already has a cash shop available. The PoE website says the aim is to have “ethical microtransactions”, which may be the single hardest element to balance. At present, the content available is a mixture of the cosmetic such as pets or dyes, and the functional such as more storage space. Whether these will be enough to fund the game, only time will tell. There is definitely some loyalty and interest among the existing playerbase, with Grinding Gear Games claim to have received $2.2mil during the closed beta stage from players supporting development.
It is obviously too early to give any form of rating to PoE, although in terms of playability it already feels as strong as many other action-RPGs. The comparisons to the Diablo series are understandable, and it’ll be interesting to see how PoE develops to stand on its own ideas (and whether the passive skill system will be refined in any way) and if it can draw in the loyalty – and finances – from a larger group of players than those who supported them through the closed beta.
To try Path of Exile for yourself, sign up at the game’s website; the client currently stands at just over 5gb to download.