With Path of Exile hitting Open Beta today, the guys at Grinding Gear Games have reached an important milestone in the six years they've spent working on the game. It's been a long time coming too, after entering Closed Beta almost a year ago with keys going out to a select few (and people willing to crowd-fund the game). Now the loot-scooping and monster slaying will be accessible to all, and we'll see if the micro-transaction modeled dungeon crawler is able to sustain itself and potentially dethrone Diablo 3 from its lofty perch. After a bit of time with the third act that will be available with the launch of the open Beta I'm pretty confident that the guys at Grinding Gear Games are on the right track.
Before I could get my hands on Path of Exile, a brief primer regarding the skill system was in order from Chris Wilson, Producer and Lead Designer of Grinding Gear Games.
“...when we started making this game, it was after an awful lot of playing of early action RPGs like the Diablo series, Titan Quest, and a lot of playing Magic: The Gathering. And what we've realized is a lot of cool things about Magic: The Gathering was the way that there was so many interesting combinations of stuff players could do with the cards, that they were constantly breaking the game in ways that the developers hadn't planned, with cool card combinations and so on. Which basically was like, you're playing red and you'd use some green cards and then a blue card because it synergizes really well together. And for every choice you make like that, that synergy, there's always a cost, in terms of it's much harder to play. So we wanted to make an action RPG that allowed players a lot of choice, and of course this means that it's an action RPG where it's really easy to screw your character up. But we try to guide players in the right direction, teach them. And it's quite a rewarding experience, for those who do master it.”
Chris wasn't kidding. By the time I got my hands on the game and took a look at the passive skill system I was absolutely floored. Anyone who thought the Sphere Grid system from Final Fantasy X was daunting will cower in fear at the Path of Exile passive skill tree. When players level up they are given a point to allocate to their passive skills. This includes stat increases toward dexterity, strength and intelligence, but also lesser tangible skills like accuracy, critical hit chance, and spell or missile damage. So anyone looking to min-max their character like they could in Diablo 2 will find plenty to enjoy in Path of Exile. Even though Chris has stated that it's possible to screw up your character there are plenty of opportunities to make fixes to your character in the form of stones that grant you the ability to re-spec a spent point.
When I initially set out, I went with two different character classes, the ranger, and the witch. The ranger is your standard specialist with a bow and arrow. The skill stones that she picks up will imbue her arrows with magical properties, like fire, ice, or lightning. There are also non-elemental skills that allow her to fire off multiple projectiles, or set traps for enemies to trigger. The witch is pure spellcasting power. She isn't able to hold up well in a hand to hand fight, but she can fire off spells rapidly, provided her mana is holding out. Path of Exile has an interesting take on the potion system. Rather than schlep back and forth between town when you run out of precious life or mana juice, you'll constantly carry flasks that recharge as you defeat enemies. Taking a sip from one of these flasks will use some of the charges, and will refill as more enemies fall.
There is still a bit of back and forth trekking when it comes to offloading your excess inventory. But items that are sold in turn give players materials to power up their current weapons and armor. The inventory augmentation allows players to reforge equipment with new slots for skill stones, new magical properties, or just raw power increases. These augments can go on pretty much any item, including those potion flasks, causing them to use less charges, or grant buffs after their use in exchange for some charges.
Enemies are everywhere in Path of Exile, and they can be merciless. It's easy to get overwhelmed and it's even easier to lose track of your life and wind up back in town. Difficulty is definitely a point of contention amongst players, and seeing the developers in game fielding questions from the players regarding balance and difficulty was definitely an encouraging sight. The only negative I saw from death was sometimes I'd die, head back to the zone where I died, and find that it had changed. Maps frequently change, and it's easy to lose track of where you were or what you were doing. Playing with friends is definitely encouraged to keep the difficulty in check.
Visuals are pretty spot on, with plenty of effects flying about the screen from attacks. The framerate was locked in and pretty steady on my 2-year-old rig with a GTX570 and all the settings maxed out. There are some genuinely breathtaking areas out there too, like traveling up the cliffs from the beach in the first act, and seeing the grass and foliage fly through the air is quite impressive. The audio is pretty spot on as well, with some good voice acting and plenty of Foley sound effects that make each spell and attack believable.
After receiving nearly two million dollars in crowd funding it definitely looks like the guys at Grinding Gear Games have definitely put the money and development time to good use. The Open Beta should be available as you read this, so I highly recommend checking it out. If you're a fan of games like Diablo or Torchlight and want to make a character that is built to your perfect specification then Path of Exile might just be the game for you. It's looking incredibly polished in its Beta state, so I'm excited to see how this game looks when it enters its proper release state.