Path of Exile preview: Diablo set free

A man with a lightly-accented voice taps my arm as I wander the PAX exhibition hall.

"Excuse me, but what media outlet do you represent?"

"Joystiq," I tell him, and he lights up, says he's been looking for me and insists he has a game he needs to show me with a title I've never heard of. He starts pressing through the throng of people and I follow as best I can, stifling the fear that he's taking me to some remote corner of the convention to rob and murder me.

My preview of Path of Exile was not, in case you've never covered a convention, how these things normally happen.
I soon understand the unusual approach. New Zealand-based Grinding Gear Games doesn't really have its own space at PAX. In fact, its just co-opted a section of a stage in a remote corner of the queue room. Its booth? Two laptops.

I'm told the small team is mostly made up of hobbyists, and I can believe it as they nervously watch me slide into a folding chair in front of the stage. As I soon discovered, they needn't have worried: What the studio lacks in head count, it more than makes up for in ambition.

Path of Exile is a dungeon crawler in the classic Diablo style. As the demo begins, my character washes up on a beach, picks up a piece of driftwood and (with a few clicks) starts pounding away at the closest thing to him, a gaggle (pride? pack?) of zombies. As I explore the coast (randomized, like most the game's areas) and cut down hordes of undead, the loot starts piling up and I get more dangerous, first with a bow and then with some dusty armor.

It's all very satisfying -- in the way that this genre often is -- but I'm still not getting the hook. It's not until Grinding Gear starts talking about what's under the hood of the unassuming kill-and-loot that I finally start to see how big these Kiwis are thinking.

First is the almost Final Fantasy VII-esque skill system that itemizes every ability as a gem. Want to shoot fireballs? Throw a red gem on your gloves. Want to perform a devastating leaping slash? There's a gem for that too, just pop it into your sword. Want a completely new character class? Load up a new set of gems.

The really cool part is the class of gems that augment skills. I'm shown a demonstration video on the second laptop where a "multiplication" gem has been teamed with a fire gem to create a wave of skeleton-incinerating flames. I giggle in spite of myself.

In the game's large hub areas, you can meet up with other players and trade some of those gems or maybe just form a team and head into the wilds for an instanced mission. It's not quite an MMO, but it's clear that community was on the team's mind as they developed the game. They're also trying to capture some of that MMO longevity: In addition to the randomization, Path of Exile will offer harder difficulty levels to test those who've already finished the game.

Okay, are you ready for the best part? Totally free. No, seriously! The game will be funded by what the team calls "ethical microtransactions." You'll never be able to buy something that alters the gameplay one bit, but if you want to personalize (say, turn your fireballs into dragon head-shaped fireballs), you can pony up some dough to do so.

Path of Exile won't hit beta until early 2011, so it's tough to say anything definitively about the game's future. But I remember leaving my demo with the feeling that, if Grinding Gear makes good on all its plans, I may have to be the one tracking them down next year.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.