Path of Exile is a F2P Diablo-like MMO being developed by Grinding Gear Games that is currently in semi-open beta (a donation of $10 will get you access). I learnt of the game a month or so ago and was very interested, but it turned out beta keys were rarer than gold dust at the time, so I was unable to participate – that is, until the recent open beta weekend of which I thoroughly took advantage and am now able to provide a preview, free of charge.
My love of Diablo is reasonably well documented on TSA, so stepping into Path of Exile was like putting on some comfortable shoes; left click to move to your mouse pointer, right click to use a skill (e.g a spell), click an enemy to move to and attack it, hold shift and click to swing your weapon in that direction. Thankfully, the controls were tight in that respect and whilst clicking individual enemies is a tiny bit difficult as always, that’s not really how you’re supposed to play the game effectively anyway.
In addition to those controls, however, are some small innovations that make quite a bit of difference. The middle click is also used to activate a skill, and Q, W, E, R, T and Y keys are used similarly. Whilst it seemed a bit strange at first, once I started using them this seems like an excellent idea – I don’t have to constantly switch and then right click every time I want to use a spell, instead I can press the appropriate (customisable) button and cast it directly. A pretty great idea.[drop]Another big difference comes from potions. You won’t be collecting potions like someone from Hoarders for when you inevitably need them; instead the game uses flasks. These are multi-use health or mana potions that are automatically refilled as you battle monsters. Sounds good, perhaps, but this leads into bit of a problem I encountered – the game is rather easy, or what I played of it in the default (as opposed to hardcore) league was, at least.
I was rarely under any real threat and on the rare occasions that I was, the health and mana flasks ensured that I wasn’t really in any danger of actually dying – each one can be used multiple times before emptying and mapped to the first five number keys. Perhaps I should have played on hardcore?
Perhaps the biggest departure from the familiar for me is one that I wasn’t sure I liked, however. The skill system is broken into two different sections; passive and active. Every time you lever up, you can choose a passive skill from the rather elaborate skill tree. These consist of things like increasing magical damage or your dexterity, or increasing the number of skeletons you can have summoned at a time and other passive boosts along the same lines.
Active skills, which are skills and spell that you use in combat, come in the form of gems that you can either find as normal loot or be given as a quest reward. You slot this gem into a matching socket on a piece of equipment (read: same colour) and you’re then granted that ability. That ability will gain experience for as long as you’ve got it equipped, eventually levelling up to get more powerful, much like you do. The gems are hot-swappable, meaning you can just take them out and slot other ones in whenever you feel like.
The upside to this is that you can find skills just lying around like you can any other loot, so you can stumble across an awesome spell and start using just like you can a weapon. This also avoids the build up of older skills that you no longer use as you level up, since you can just take the older ones out and you’re done.
The slight reservation I have when it comes to the issue is the reduction of character skills down to just being loot and the loss of choosing what spell you want to unlock first – I liked that, it was a tactical choice that affected how you would play the game considerably or, more appropriately, how you were going to play the game determines what skills you chose.
Whilst there are definite upsides to Path of Exiles skill system, reducing skills down to loot is basically throwing those tactical choices out of the window, at least early in the game, as you can only use what you happen upon whilst looting.
You may have noticed earlier that I said PoE is an MMO, but that’s only partially true. The only areas you’ll encounter public players are in the quest hubs. When you venture out into the wilderness you are completely alone; other players will not intrude as you’re in your own instance. Should you want to bring people along you can form a party and they’ll join you in your looting.
It’s quite clever in that you can easily trade any items worth trading with whoever you like in the hubs without any lack of audience, but you won’t risk losing your loot when you’re actually adventuring, not to mention you won’t be murdered every 7 minutes by another player as is wont to happen in Diablo 2’s multiplayer in recent times. Naturally, the quest hubs are good places to recruit other players for some multiplayer looting should you want some company anyway.
Path of Exile is pretty great, to be honest. Despite the small reservations (that are entirely down to personal preference, really), I really had fun playing the game. It is polished, it is very pretty (and from the options menu, sufficiently scalable should your computer not be up to scratch) and it’s great fun to play. It’s also F2P, but in an entirely strange way.
You can play the game in its full capacity without paying a penny – in that respect, it’s just a free game. The things you can pay for are purely for aesthetics and customising your character – the game’s website itself specifically says that the perks you can buy do not affect gameplay. That’s quite unique as far as free to play games go.