Recently, the Path of Exile open beta launched, and my friends —ever eager to migrate on to the next free-to-play game, convinced me to give the game a shot with them. After all, they argued, at the very least I’d have a bad experience to write about. I scanned over the Path of Exile website as the client downloaded, not really impressed with what I was seeing. The game looked like a stock Diablo 3 clone, and still being slightly bitter at Blizzard after paying $60 for their one-shot linear 4-level slaughter-fest, I just wasn’t too excited to sink any amount of time into Path of Exile. So, with the odds of my favor already against the game, I loaded up Path of Exile and created a Shadow (aka a thief-class) and named him Shrat.
Two Acts, probably around a half-dozen hours, and a few thousand dead zombies, monster-bears, squid-beasts, and enraged monkeys later…I am having a blast with Path of Exile.
The first thing I noticed about Path of Exile is how smoothly the game runs. Cranked up to the highest visual level, I checked the in-game FPS-counter (F1, for those interested) and I was dancing safely over 100 frames-per-second. With that said, the game doesn’t look bad at all. I don’t know how Grinding Gear Games did it, but Path of Exile looks super crisp, plays incredibly fluid, and is hardly taxing on my system. Granted, my PC was built for gaming, but all of its hardware is 2-ish years old…hardly spearheading any PC-gaming technology race.
The controls and interface are what I expected to find in a top-down Action-RPG like Path of Exile. While hardly innovative, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as I knew relatively instantly where things were and what buttons to press for the different attacks. The only awkward interface design choice I ran into was that by default, players must hold the left-ALT key in order for dropped loot to be displayed on screen. However, with a simple look-through of the key-bindings in the options menu, I noticed that by simply pressing ‘Z’ the player can turn loot-labels on and off, at will.
While I’m on it, the loot system could use some tweaking. Now, I understand that Grinding Gear Games wants the loot-system to be a cut-throat experience, and while I do think that is a strange design choice, I applaud them for not bending under pressure and changing something they feel, in the end, adds character to their game. Currently, the way the loot system works is that when something is killed, loot explodes over the ground like a loot-pinata. All of the gray “trash” loot is free for all, but the rarer items are assigned to specific players…but only for a few seconds, and then it becomes free-for-all. If you’re playing with a group of friends, this isn’t really a big deal and you can go by the honor-system, like my friends and I did…leaving the loot that wasn’t dropped for us, and pointing out things that dropped for someone else if they’re not in the area. That works, and it’s no big deal. But if you plan on playing online with strangers, you will want to be paying attention to the loot as it drops, because there will probably be greedy ninjas about.
Aside from the arguably unfair loot system, I was hard-pressed to find anything else to take issue with. The “pay-to-win” fear that hovers over every free-to-play game is absent from Path of Exile thanks to what Grinding Gear Games calls, “ethical microtransactions”. There are no skill boosts or one-price-unlocks-all bonuses that people can buy to achieve greatness faster than anyone else. Instead, things like added account features (extra stash tabs and character slots), pets (frogs, bugs, lizards, etc.), cosmetic effects to weapons and armor, skill effects that change the default effect to something much cooler, and character animations (time to /dance) are all available for purchase. And the prices are not too bad either, where else could you get a pet frog for roughly $2.50?
The amount of detail in the environments in Path of Exile is stunning. Every zone looks incredible, and some of the levels are straight-up spooky. From the foggy ship graveyards, to the claustrophobic torture dungeons tucked deep within the mountains, Grinding Gear Games‘ level designers did an amazing job. Also, the lighting effects in Path of Exile put the game’s contemporaries to shame. In the darkest of dungeons, the only source of light comes from your character and the occasional explosion he or she might cause by using spells. This single source of light casts perfectly dynamic shadows on everything, creating a spectacular effect when there are multiple characters on screen at once.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Path of Exile is something I would never have expected to enjoy as much as I am: the gem system. In short, your attacks come from the gems you find. Players have to strategically place gems in their gear, as most items have a color coded slot that only a matching gem can go into. Anyone can find any type of gem, but obviously the Witch would have more use for a fireball gem, than a Shadow would. However, there is nothing stopping that Shadow from equipping, and using the fireball gem. The “talent tree” that is the staple for most character progression systems in RPGs, has been replaced with what I like to call a “talent forest”, which is to say that all of the character’s talent trees are connected, and no character is limited to one set of abilities. As a Shadow, if I spend enough points, I can work my way across the talent forest and fill in all of the Witch’s talent points. The only limit is the number of talent points you have, and you get one per level, and some are given as quest rewards.
Path of Exile is the first free-to-play game that I feel compelled to support. Sure, I bought crate keys in Team Fortress 2, but that’s because the weapons inside came with new abilities. In Path of Exile, you are given the game in its entirety, and Grinding Gear Games oh so politely (and most importantly, ethically) asks that you spend a handful of dollars and support them. Throw down $15 and buy a pet frog and a glowy helmet, support these guys. Because this is how you do free-to-play.