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Hands-On With Path of Exile

Grinding Gear Games has some hurdles to jump over with their mid-June release of Path of Exile (PoE). First of all, the independent developer must overcome the less-than respectable reputation that other ‘free to play’ (F2P) games have made for themselves in the past. Anyone who frequents most free online games that have developers who claim to “hate the pay to win motto” know that this statement is said often, usually with little-to-no follow through or conviction to what the statement should imply to the player. Also, normally F2P games are not typically what most people would consider a truly ‘good’ stand-alone game or there is simply nothing free about them and they require you to pay to enjoy the fruits of your gaming labors. Apart from the insincere past practices of most F2P games, Path of Exile must also draw players in despite its familiar-looking gaming experience. Well, PoE seems to overcome both of these challenging feats.

At the point of this writing, Path of Exile is truly a complete free to play game. It’s complete in the sense that it plays absolutely smooth, looks superb from animations to particle effects, has innovations, a good story (thus far), is very polished, and no aspects of the game can give you an edge from paying. At this time the only PoE purchasable features are an extra storage tab and an additional character creation slot, of which a default account starts with four of each. Grinding Gear has also stated that they plan to never implement any purchasable features that will enhance a player who pays to be better than someone who does not. They want the game’s future store to mostly consist of aesthetic and appearance changes for the player’s character. If, or when, they stay true to their word, Path of Exile could be the best example of what F2P can bring to the gaming industry. 

As for that other hurdle, PoE does a great job of managing familiar action-RPG aspects while also being unique. Path of Exile pulled me in with traditional gaming tropes that manage to keep the gameplay recognizable enough to be action-RPG friendly and very enjoyable to play. The way you move, click, fight, manage inventory space, equip your gear, amongst other features will feel extremely intuitive to any ARPG veteran. Yet, Path of Exile maintains these ARPG conventions while also creating its own identity to divide itself from the games it is clearly drawing inspirations from – like Diablo.

The first most distinctly differential feature is Path of Exile’s brilliantly deep, complex, and intimidating skill web. This is where the game screams out to be different than its other mainstream action-RPG counterparts. Instead of seeking extreme accessibility with very easy to manage and finite character skill sets, the skill web alone says “Go away unproven, this game is for seasoned RPG fans”. At first glance the skill web can be a bit overwhelming, and it is, but what a fantastic and open-ended system it is. After you spend the time to study and acquaint yourself with the web’s workings and layout, you might just find yourself gazing at it for hours at a time to imagine the boundless possibilities it can suggest.

Yeah…that’s roughly one-fifth of the skill web.

Allocating points into the web might have you following a simple stat path of strength, intelligence, and dexterity, but you may also acquire passive abilities that are more complex with various effects. Such complex talents can usually be found on the outskirts of the webbing and require you to spend some time to reach them, but they’re worth it. These abilities range from things like making your minions explode upon death or increasing a projectile’s likelihood to pierce through foes, and can even cause critical attacks to apply poison or make you unable to achieve critical strikes but also unable to ever miss, and many more.

One of the only aspects that separate each of the starting character classes from the next is where each class originates on the skill webbing initially. The skill web is comprised of hundreds of passive attribute points and abilities, and what class you choose to play will establish your starting point. The barbarous Marauder begins surrounded by strength-oriented aptitudes, the Witch by intelligence, and the Templar is in between the two, offering the ability to quickly be proficient in either melee or magic combat. You can head in any direction as any class to obtain any talent across the webbing if so desired; your starting character choice does not classify you into any one specific type of gameplay.

Your freedom of gameplay style and versatile character class creation is complemented very well by Path of Exile’s utility talents. Because the skill web is consistent of completely passive abilities the game does not revert to a traditional talent tree to obtain attacks and abilities that have an actual utility. Instead, PoE uses skill gems that are obtained through quests or are dropped like any other piece of loot. All you must do to be able to wield any skill in the game is meet that specific gem’s requirements and have an affiliated colored open-slot in one of your pieces of gear. For example, the skill ‘raise zombie’ is a blue skill gem and requires twenty intellect and your character to be at least level four. So, to be able to make corpses burst forth with a new zombie ally to fight on your side, all you need to have is one blue socket in your gear to equip the gem in and have twenty or more intellect at level four.

Skill gems are one of many aspects that make PoE unique, regardless of feeling so familiar.

Skill gems level independently from your character and increase in potency with each rank gained. Meaning, as you use the gem’s power it will get experience points and level-up, each level will make it stronger or add new effects to the ability.  Each increase in the skill gem’s rank will usually increase the gem’s requirements of player level and stats needed to equip the skill. This gem system retains great flexibility, if you’ve been using the skill ‘molten shell’ or ‘whirling blades’ and have begun not to enjoy them anymore, you can simply pull them out of your gear with a click of a button to put them in your inventory for later or trade them to someone else who desires the ability. Skill gems are one of the game’s greatest commodities and they complement the diversity of the enticing skill web superbly.

Class flexibility and countless possibilities for character builds is one of the game’s greatest assets for certain. Seriously, you can do whatever you can think of with the points allotted and the skill gems available. Check out my holy necromancer, totem-using shaman, elemental magma armor, lightning strike, hammer smasher…guy.

All of this and I didn’t even touch base on the unique potion, item crafting, and bartering systems, amongst other end-game systems yet to be revealed to beta testers. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for Path of Exile’s public release this June and checkout PlayerAffinity.com for the review after the full release.

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