Cutting a bloody swath through Path of Exile
If you’re a fan of STREAMoutof10 (and you really should be), then you may already be aware that I’ve been having a jolly good time hacking up all manner of hideous monstrosities in Grinding Gear Games’ rather wonderful multiplayer ARPG, Path of Exile. I’ve been clicking, slaughtering and, indeed, looting for many hours now, enough so that I’ve entered the second act with my rude little companion, community member Ricochetguro.
From the look of things, I’ve still got a lot of content to get through, but I’ve played enough to be able to tell you that you really aught to download the open beta and take it for a spin yourself. It draws on the rich history of the genre, channelling Diablo, Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest, while setting itself apart with its fantastic gem and passive ability systems. If you felt let down by Diablo III, then this might be just what you’re looking for.
Path of Exile has six classes with their own unique styles and back stories that, while at first don’t seem particularly innovative, give players a solid base that can be eventually customised and tweaked to create a character they are comfortable with. I went with the buff Marauder, a giant barbarian who looks like the love-child of an Urak-hai and a Maori warrior, while Rico opted for the Witch, a squishy magic class with a penchant for raising the dead. Three of the classes focus on one attribute, namely strength, dexterity and intelligence, while the remaining ones are hybrids, splitting their focus between two attributes. The Marauder is, not surprisingly, focused on strength, while Rico’s Witch sticks to intelligence.
While the classes inform players about what role or roles they will be taking on, they only start with fairly simple attacks or abilities. New abilities, like spells, are contained within skill gems that enemies drop or NPCs offer up as quest rewards. These gems can be slotted into items with the appropriate coloured slot, and become more powerful with use. For instance, my Marauder’s first gem allowed him to smash the ground with his weapon, causing thin veins of heat to spread out from the point of impact. I’m still using this gem because as my character progressed, the ability became more powerful, inflicting more damage, and reaching ever more distant enemies. Other abilities can aid multiple players, since this is, of course, a multiplayer title. Rico’s scrawny spellcaster had a nifty buff that affected me as well, at least when I was in range instead of running off to whack things with my mace — he can never keep up.
Expanding this system even further are support gems that augment existing abilities, making a single shot ranged ability a multi-shot one, for example. It’s quite flexible thanks to the fact that you can slot gems on any piece of gear with the appropriately coloured slot, so you aren’t restricted to only being able to add damage dealing gems to weapons. They aren’t permanently assigned, either, and can be removed and sold or saved for later.
Despite skills being tied to gems, Path of Exile doesn’t skimp when it comes to levelling your character up. There’s a mind-bogglingly vast passive skill tree shared by all classes. Each class begins at a fixed point, but it’s up to the player to decide how they want to progress through it. The tree is reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, but much larger. It’s dominated by boosts to health, strength, various resistances and so on, but dotted throughout are keystones that confer new passive abilities.
The path I’m following makes my Marauder a stalwart tank with high HP, regeneration, health stealing, and a bunch of elemental resistances, but I could take it in a completely different direction and start picking up abilities that are typically associated with other classes. It’s all about experimentation, and there’s a plethora of exotic and unexpected builds which players have been fiddling with. The forums are absolutely full of interesting theory-crafting.
Path of Exile has entirely done away with gold or currency, instead employing a barter system. Selling items gives the player handy ingredients that, when enough are collected, can be combined to make identification scrolls or various orbs that augment items with new abilities, or simply make them stronger. In turn, these items are used instead of currency when purchasing new gear. It’s actually quite a brilliant system, since gold typically has no purpose whatsoever beyond using it to purchase things, while these items are actually useful, making spending them more meaningful.
The continent of Wraeclast, Path of Exile’s dangerous setting, is a grim, disquieting place, though not without some stark beauty. The art direction is superb, and takes players on a journey through a haunted ship graveyard, grimy marshlands, claustrophobic underground warrens and cave networks where almost no light penetrates, ramshackle settlements filled with dejected inhabitants and rainforests teeming with deadly fauna. The areas are detailed and large, though not so expansive that you are likely to get lost — which is good, because the map is absolutely abysmal.
The enemy design also impresses, with a myriad of generally disgusting and deadly foes flinging themselves at players, from horrific plucked chicken monsters, to tentacled eldrich spawn that crawl around in the dark places. Both the setting and enemies wear their inspiration on their sleeves, drawing from pen pals H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Ancient, wild places filled with unspeakable horrors fill Path of Exile, and none would seem particularly out of place in a tale from the Cthulhu mythos or in one of Conan’s brutal adventures. Appropriately, there’s no small amount of gore.
Being a free-to-play title, there’s obviously a cash shop, though right now it’s entirely inoffensive. It’s filled with extra animations, spell and item effects, and, of course, lots of pets. With PvP and other competitive elements, I’m rather glad that they aren’t giving a serious edge to players who want to drop money on the game, but then again, they aren’t giving much reason for people to become premium players at this point. It’s still open beta, though, so much of this could be subject to change.
I’m not sure if I should be impressed or depressed that a small untested team from New Zealand could make a seemingly superior ARPG compared to Blizzard and their many years in the making third Diablo instalment. Probably a little bit of both. Regardless, such things are far from my mind when I’m slaying elder gods and shouting at Rico for falling behind for the hundredth time.