'Gearing' up for Path of Exile's launch with a demo and interview

Path of Exile
Grinding Gear Games is finally gearing up (pun intended) for the launch of Path of Exile, an MMO dungeon-crawler that hopes to satisfy fanatics and casual gamers alike. The new title has been in closed beta for just the last few months of its six-year development cycle, and on January 23rd, it will hit open beta -- surely a relief for players eyeing the closed beta wistfully. Unfortunately for those who have been grinding away (yep, pun intended again) at hordes of monsters during the beta, there will be a character wipe, one that sets all characters, levels, items, experience, passive skills, active skills, and everything else back to zero.

I recently attended a live demo and got to chat about the game with reps from Grinding Gear in Los Angeles. Read on for my take!

For those who haven't had the pleasure of experiencing this "Diablo III-killer" firsthand, let's dive into the facts. When rolling a new character, players first select their class: Marauder, Ranger, Witch, Duelist, Shadow, or Templar. Each class is specialized in strength, dexterity, intelligence, or a mix between the two. There's no tutorial to ease you into the game, which is something players have expressed concern about, but the development team says its goal is to acclimate new players gradually without bogging down more experienced players.

As the game begins, players wake from an abandoned shipwreck on a beach and leap immediately into the hack-'n'-slash action of the world of Wraeclast. At first glance, there's nothing beyond what we've come to expect from stock dungeon crawlers: There's one of you, there are many of them, and you fight them. But atmospherically, there's a darker feel to the environment than what's seen in most roguelikes. Players still battle beasts, zombies, lizards, and what-have you, but they're deformed intriguingly. (Some of the animations aren't fully fleshed-out just yet, but the dev team promises to address those problems.)

Shortly into the carnage, players will stumble upon the re-worked item system. Potions aren't just one-use items that you might purchase from a vendor. Instead, characters are armed with flasks that regenerate as they kill mobs. The action doesn't stop unless the player wants it to; you never have to quickly portal back to town, spend heaps of gold, and then portal back, wasting time.

Of course, a player wouldn't spend gold in PoE anyway. In fact, the currency system truly sets PoE apart from other games. Why? There's no gold. Instead, items are at the heart of the game. When a player visits a vendor to sell her wares, the exchange involves items that can alter the entire function of other items. For instance, selling enough items back to vendors might net a player an item that morphs a standard weapon into a magical one. This is just the beginning of PoE's item mechanics, the system where the game really comes into its own.

See, weapons and armor often come slotted; players can drop gems into these slots that give them magical abilities. These gems actually level with the player, and the abilities get stronger. What's more is that sometimes these abilities can be combined. Say the player picks up a sword with two linked gem slots, and she places a fireball gem in one and links it to a multi-gem. The combination gives her the ability to shoot multiple fireballs. Linkage goes beyond that, allowing literally thousands of combinations of gems. The challenge is for players to find the right combination of active abilities, passive abilities, and items in order to make one beast of a character. According to the devs, about 5% of the possible weapon-gem combos are the best in the game, and they're not easy to find.

This is Massively, so let's talk "massive." Players can use the noticeboards in the game to join level-appropriate teams if they wish, or they can just solo baddies on their own to level and gain skills. Passive skills are gained through leveling and the massively passive skill tree. Players of Final Fantasy X will be right at home with PoE's skill tree: Players allocate points on a large grid that directs them toward certain specializations. Don't worry if you choose poorly; you can earn respec points in order to "cancel" skill points.

The current beta community is naturally hungry for even more tweaks before launch, especially when it comes to the range of active skills, which some players believe is too limited. Others are seeking possible mount integration to the game, while still others have discovered issues of balance (ranged characters seem to fare better in battle than do melee). GGG has also shot down player proposals to integrate a monetary structure.

After my demo, I asked the team about a few of these most pressing beta concerns.

Massively: Are there plans to integrate mobile apps like an auction house?

Grinding Gear:
Not currently, but players will be able to access trade options on the website.

Many beta players are not happy with the map. How will it be changed?

The most controversial one is the overlay map, which players either love or hate depending on whether they enjoyed older action RPGs such as Diablo II. Players that don't want to play with that map are able to toggle it into the corner map, which they can use instead. Both the corner and overlay map will receive graphical updates in the future once we have the resources available to draw custom map tiles for the tens of thousands of individual map elements that our random level generator uses.

With the release, the game will be in its third act. Are there plans to add even more acts?

We will plan out expansions once the game goes live.

How will microtransactions work?

You can't buy slight advantages, but players can buy visual upgrades to characters.

Players would love to see a dungeon-crawler with a mount system. Will there be any plans to add such a feature before the final release or an expansion?

There are currently no plans for a mount system. There isn't much travel time in the game because of easy access to portals and waypoints, so the common advantages of mounts aren't necessary. We may decide to add a mount system in the future, though, so we'd encourage players to write to us if they'd like one and to let us know how they'd like it to work.

Will the gems ever be changed to change the attributes for individual gear, or will they just provide abilities?

The gems will not permanently change the attributes for a weapon.

Currently ranged characters appear to have a balance advantage. What is the advantage and how will the balance be addressed?

There are two specific systems in the current beta version (0.9.13) that contribute to ranged characters having an advantage: the totems and the Chaos Innoculation passive skill. Both of these have been rebalanced in the open beta version so that they have more drawbacks and require more skill to use to the degree that they are currently being abused. Thankfully the actual underlying ranged weapons and skills were not overpowered, but characters using those two game systems (which favored ranged play) did have an easier time than other players.

Some players have expressed their belief that active skills are limited. Will there be additions to the skill tree before the final release?

The range of active skills (on skill gems) is indeed more limited than I would ideally like, and we'll be working hard to increase the number in the coming months. The system already provides a great degree of customization, but I'd love to double that in 2013.

And that'll do it! The open beta hits this Thursday -- in fact, the official Path of Exile website is rocking a countdown. Game on!

This article was originally published on Massively.