Path of Exile Preview
I’ve always enjoyed action-RPGs. For the most part they’re easy to get into, combining addictive combat loops with even more addictive loot-fests and character building. That being said, I’ve never gotten super deep into the genre either. I’m not one of those people who obsessively played Diablo II for ten years straight. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it. Path of Exile on the other hand, might become the first ARPG to really suck me in. It does this with a combination of deep, rewarding, interlocking mechanics and shaking up some of the staler genre conventions.
Perhaps one of the most striking things about PoE is that absolutely everything is an item… and when I say everything, I mean everything. There are of course standard items such as chest pieces, maces, gloves, etc. but even the currency and active skill system are tied to items. Gold has been excised in PoE; in its stead is a currency system that ties into how your gear improves. For example, one of the most common currency items is an Orb of Transmutation. This orb upgrades a regular white item into a blue magical item. There are a multitude of other currency items that allow you to go completely nuts on your gear and tweak it however you like.
As I mentioned before, even the skills are items in the form of skill gems. You put these gems into specifically coloured slots on your weapons and armour, then you are able to use that active skill. An unfortunate side effect of making active skill items is that you can’t just level up your character and earn them. This kind of traditional progression is emulated in that you are rewarded with skill gems for completing some quests but usually you have to make a choice from a large selection. Another way to acquire skill gems is to wait for them to randomly drop, or trade for them. There is no auction house in PoE; all of the trading consists of hawking your wares in a trade channel and then bartering in whispers. While this is a refreshing throwback to more hardcore days, the way the economy works in PoE can make trading with other players completely baffling when you first start. Because there’s no ‘gold’, determining the value of an orb of transmutation against the value of, say, a rare wand is still up in the air. No doubt the fledgling community will come up with exchange rates in the near future. This won’t really help a new player who just wants to get some new skills to play around with though. They’ll either have to get lucky, play the game through a bunch of times, or grapple with an unwieldy bartering system.
The lack of easy access to the ‘active skills’ hindered my enjoyment. This system also feeds into the more hardcore ideals of the game; one of which is creating value and attachment to your character. There are no full re-spec options in PoE – you do earn an occasional re-spec point here and there as you progress through the game though. There is a very real possibility of your build not being up to the task of surviving in the later difficulty levels. Personally, I’m torn between hating the idea of not being able to fully revamp a character and thus having to reroll if my build doesn’t work out, and respecting the game for demanding that I at least put a little bit of forethought and planning into my character. I don’t have as much time to devote to one game like I used to, but I admire PoE’s devotion to the classic age of hardcore in a time when games are becoming more and more disposable experiences.
For those that like to compete, PoE has you covered. Upon character creation, you are forced to choose a league (basically a ladder) that the character will be put into. Currently there are only two leagues: hardcore and default. In the hardcore league you only have one life; upon your first death you are booted to the default league. It has been exciting to watch the top tier players of PoE on their streams compete with each other and watch their looks of disbelief as their hardcore character dies, forcing them to start from the bottom and fight tooth and nail back to the top of the rankings in the league. Grinding Gear Games has a variety of long and short term leagues planned with in-game rewards for players who perform well.
I’m not only excited to participate in these leagues but also follow them in the long term. It’s a decidedly eSports mentality in a genre that one wouldn’t expect to be ably supported. On top of all this, GGG plans on allowing clans and communities of gamers to pay to create their own private leagues, with a wide range of variables to adjust.
I could go on and on about the myriad other mechanics in PoE, but I feel like one of the strongest is the class system. There are six different classes, but the hook here is that active skills are not tied to one class in particular. What differentiates the classes is where they start on this absolutely gargantuan passive skill tree. The vast majority of the skills on this tree are small things like +50 health, +5% armour etc. The coolest parts of this tree are the “touchstones” – they fundamentally change how your character will play if/when you decide to take them. For example, the touchstone ‘Blood Magic’ removes your mana pool and makes it so you spend life to use active skills and spells instead.
The real magic of the passive skill tree is the weird builds that can come of it. Even though the six character classes start in different areas of the tree, traveling into other areas isn’t very difficult or expensive in terms of skill points. Kripparian, one of the top players in PoE at the moment has had massive success with a marauder (the pure strength class) that relies on wands to deal damage. Only time will tell what other wacky and fun builds people will come up with in the future.
PoE has been dominating my gaming time. I’ve never found myself more drawn into an ARPG like this before. The mechanics all interweave to create an immersive experience that not only rewards planning and forethought, but also experimentation and pushing boundaries. If you enjoy these types of games in the slightest you owe it to yourself to at least give PoE a shot – you can do so at the low, low cost of nothing. PoE is currently in a soft-release/open beta phase and is completely free to play with no hints of freemium. All of the micro-transactions are completely cosmetic. Hopefully this model works out for GGG and they can make Path of Exile all that it can be by the time of its 1.0 release later this year.