Path of Exile hands-on: The sequel Diablo II deserved

First Impressions Path of Exile vs Diablo III

Like many gamers in their mid-20s, I spent countless hours in my teenage years smashing through dungeons and hunting for loot in Diablo II. The deep itemisation system made building effective characters a real challenge, and periodic ladder resets kept the loot-hunting economy fresh. Fast-forward 10 years and the highly anticipated sequel Diablo III was released to some serious complaints. The servers were unstable for weeks at launch, the always-online DRM caused a stir, and the endgame item grind was severely underwhelming.

Indie developer Grinding Gear Games aims to beat Blizzard at its own game with its new free-to-play action RPG Path of Exile. The game boasts a dark art style and an unprecedented level of character customisation that lets players build truly unique characters. Each skill is itemised as a gem that can be slotted into your gear and augmented with dozens of different support gems. The sprawling passive skill system is better described as a "skill octopus," with millions of different ways to build a character. I've spent the past few weeks smashing up monsters in the Path of Exile open beta and absolutely loving it.

Read on to find out why I can honestly say that Path of Exile is the sequel Diablo II deserved.

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Look and feel of the game

The first thing you'll notice on firing up Path of Exile is that the game is extremely pretty, with high-detail textures and the best use of lighting and shadows I've ever seen in a game. The art style is dark and gritty, which I found really added to the atmosphere within caves and underground zones as enemies can appear to sneak up at you from the darkness.

I had hilarious fun in the early levels flinging fireballs about in caves. My only complaint about the art style is that it can sometimes be difficult to pick enemies out from the background. Holding the mouse over summoned creatures also shows health bars that look the same as enemy health bars, which can be a little confusing.

One of the main complaints about Diablo III's zones was the distinct lack of randomisation, a problem that path of Exile has definitely avoided. Every play-through of a zone will be different enough that you'll have to explore to find waypoints and quest objectives. Elite monsters can be a real challenge, with special effects like auras and spells, and normal monsters deal an appropriately low amount of damage such that you won't die from a few stray hits. The main problem I've had is the crippling lag spikes and rubber-banding that's been happening on the European servers for the past week or two. The game has been unplayable for me at peak times, but I cut it some slack because it's still in open beta and the servers are being bombarded by an ever-growing playerbase.

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Character customisation

The passive skill system was initially very intimidating, but after a while I started to figure out how to navigate it. The key is to pick certain major passives that will synergise well with your favourite skills and then work out an efficient path to each of them through stats you'll find useful. I built a Witch that focused on energy shield and critical hit damage to pair with Ice Spear as it gets a 600% bonus to critical hit chance on far away enemies.

The skill system is complex enough that you can build crazy characters like a ranged warrior, a tanky melee witch, or a necromancer who summons flaming zombies. Yes, you can build a character who summons flaming zombies! Respeccing passive skills is possible, but you can get only a few respec points for free from quests and have to expend valuable Orbs of Regret to get more. I consider this a huge plus because it encourages you to build new characters when you want to try something new.

Much of the replayability in Diablo II was in building new characters, but in Diablo III there's no reason to have more than one character of a given class as respeccing is free. Path of Exile also plans to encourage building new characters using a D2 style ladder system, and the studio periodically runs special weekend ladder race competitions for in-game rewards.

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Itemisation and the flask system

A big part of building a character is getting the perfect items for your build, and the core of any action RPG is always farming for loot. There are so many different stats in Path of Exile that finding the perfect items for a particular build is going to be a real challenge. Even white items can be valuable if they have the right socket configurations as they can be rolled into magic or rare items using orbs.

There's no auction house, but I think that's a good thing as arranging trades through forums is a lot more personal. To streamline the trade process, Grinding Gear Games has added a clever little feature on the official forums that lets you quickly link to items on your characters.

The flask system is a stroke of genius because it replaces the aggravation of having to replenish supplies of consumable potions with another layer of character customisation. Flasks are just like potions but they refill as you kill monsters, and they can even spawn as magic items with stats. I found it handy to pick up superior non-magic flasks and use Orbs of Transmutation to upgrade them to magic items. You can seek out flasks with properties that support your build, like health flasks that also heal your minions. I ended up using health flasks that heal instantly for those "oh shit" moments when my energy shield ran out, and I'm using mana flasks that gain charges every time I get a critical strike.

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One of my favourite things about Path of Exile is that gold has been replaced with new currency items like the Orb of Transmutation. All of the currency items are consumables that are guaranteed to be in high demand because they can be used to upgrade items or re-roll item stats. There's even one called the Mirror of Kalandra that will produce an exact copy of a rare item. It's an absolutely inspired way to get rid of gold and the need for a gold sink, but it makes trading a little more complicated.

Apart from the ongoing server issues and memory usage, I've had a fantastic time playing Path of Exile this week. I didn't really find the story behind the quests very appealing, but I don't think many people play action RPGs for the story. The art style and randomised maps gave me some serious D2 nostalgia, and the permanent character customisation options and ladder plans are the biggest things missing from Diablo III. In my opinion, Path of Exile is the sequel Diablo II deserved.

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