Grinding Gear Games was kind enough to give Massively a few beta keys and permission to livestream the game in its current beta state. The livestream was a huge success, with over 200 people tuning in to check out the game and have a chance of winning a beta key. In this article, Massively's Patrick Mackey and I deliver our first impressions of the Path of Exile beta based on last week's livestream and further play time.
Skip past the cut for Massively's first impressions of the Path of Exile beta.
first finding out about Path of Exile, my initial reaction was, "Why the hell haven't I heard of this game before?" The game's already in closed beta, and screenshots on the official website show off the graphical quality we'd expect from polished AAA titles. When I got into the game, I found the same gorgeous scenes enhanced with atmospheric effects like lightning strikes and rain. Although our livestream stuttered and skipped at times, the game was smooth and extremely pretty when I wasn't streaming. PoE's art style is dark and gritty, but I found the lack of contrast did make characters blend in a bit with the background and with monsters.
It's likely that Grinding Gear was aiming for the dark and dirty style of the Diablo series, from which it seems to draw much of its inspiration. If this is the case, we have to remember that Diablo's graphics had a huge contrast range, made good use of bright colour shades, and seemed to always make player characters pop out of the background. Where the graphics in PoE really stand out is in the sharp shadows and beautiful lighting effects. The viewable area on the screen is quite small, but this may be required to let the game play on anything but high-end machines.
Although we only got to play through the first area of the game and test out a few skills, that was enough play time to see that Path of Exile's gameplay is strongly inspired by the Diablo series. Where it differentiates itself is in the skill system and how players group together to play. Skills are itemised as gems set into sockets in gear, with intelligence-based skills going into blue sockets, agility-based skills filling green sockets, and strength-based skills fitting into red sockets. Every piece of gear seems to have a socket, and the skill gems level up as you gain XP. It's a very free-form system, and I grew to like it when I got my second skill gem and was able to raise zombies. Items with blue sockets seemed to be itemised better for spellcasters, though that may have been a coincidence.
As an old-school Diablo II addict, I found Path of Exile really did scratch many of the same itches that Diablo II did. The instinct to scramble for items when you hear a ring drop, the OCD indulgence of playing inventory Tetris, and the never-ending quest for slightly better gear are all things Diablo players are familiar with, and they're all in Path of Exile. Players still group together in Path of Exile, but they do so through Guild Wars-style communal towns rather than just a game lobby. This further blurs the line between hack-and-slash action RPGs and standard MMOs. If Guild Wars is an MMO with its district system and heavy instancing, is Path of Exile an MMO with the exact same system in place?
Grinding Gear Games clearly used Diablo as its model when developing Path of Exile, and it's a decision that might just pay off. Basic gameplay will feel intuitive to any fan of the genre, allowing developers to test out new gameplay ideas like the skill gem system without alienating its core audience. Things like the health and mana flasks that charge up as you kill monsters are clever iterations on the classic action RPG model. Path of Exile is currently in the closed beta stages, putting its potential release window dangerously close to Diablo III's predicted due date. PoE will be free-to-play on release, however, and is definitely worth playing on its own merit.
Another thing that bothered me is the lack of character customization. Although Diablo-esque games mostly focus on customization through gear, I noticed that a lot of higher-level players looked remarkably similar to lower-level ones. In other games where gear is the primary source of visual customization, high-level gear looks more epic and dramatic than lower-level gear. In PoE I couldn't tell the difference between myself and a level 50 except by mousing over. I'm not sure whether this is a long-term issue, though, and I suspect that more cosmetically interesting equipment will be produced as the game moves closer to launch.
My real criticisms are gameplay-related. This might come as a shock because the game is really cool and has a lot of unique abilities, but my problem comes with the lack of class diversity. It's hard to tell what the difference is between the classes other than starting stats. Any class can use any gem, so you can make a Witch with bow skills or a Marauder with magic as long as you have the gems in your storage. The passive skill tree is also identical for all characters, so you can easily make a Templar with dagger mastery and run around stabbing stuff. While this is cool for making characters flexible and versatile, it also makes them feel homogeneous. The passive skill tree system is being changed in patch 0.9.3 to give each class more identity, so this is unlikely to be a problem at launch.
Ultimately, PoE is a grab bag; it's going to appeal to some people more than others, and I'm not sure that I'm the target audience. It has a really, really elaborate skill system with a lot of complexity that I barely had time to explore. I also don't think a first impression is particularly fair because it doesn't cover the layers of gem combos and such that make the high-level game interesting. The game may also be lacking a bit in its new-user experience, though, and that might color my first impressions.
Path of Exile is a worthy Diablo successor with a lot of depth. Grinding Gears really took the existing Diablo formula and tweaked it in many ways to make it more interesting, but does it match up to the hype? I'm not really sure. A first impression doesn't really do a game like Diablo justice, and Path of Exile is no different. Nobody judges Diablo on Act 1, so it might be unfair to do so for PoE, especially when it's still in closed beta. If you're looking for a good game that really hearkens back to the old Diablo roots, PoE is probably for you. I am not so sure it is the same for me, however.
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