Path of Exile: Baby Steps

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Baby steps through the office. Baby steps out the door. Baby steps down the Path of Exile.

I’ve been playing the Path of Exile beta on and off for a few months now. This game and Torchlight were where I ended up looking for the qualities I loved in Diablo and was afraid I might never see again from Blizzard. Long story short, Path of Exile is a blatant love letter to Diablo II. I really like that about it: it doesn’t try to hide its agenda, and its agenda is to capture a little of the spark that made Diablo II special. And, mostly, it succeeds.

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The atmosphere and world aren’t quite as engrossing. (Don’t shoot me, but that’s what I remember most fondly about Diablo II, over the gameplay.) They do admirably recapturing a touch, though, of that dark and dangerous mystery of Diablo, with a lot of help from the wonderfully familiar musical style. The story, presented through the typical NPC monologuing, is surprisingly clever and well-written, and it gives the world a bit of vitality you might not expect. Whoever wrote this stuff deserves a big hug; I fear he or she has put all this personality into dialogue that’s going to be skipped over by most players in order to get back to the action.

Speaking of the action, how’s the gameplay? That’s what you really care about, right?

Odd as it sounds, the term that comes to mind when I think of Path of Exile is “baby steps.” At it’s core, we’re still playing Diablo II. There’s nothing game-changing going on, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Structurally, the game obviously takes its cues from its granddaddy, but it works into that template a lot of minor tweaks with some deceptively brilliant consequences.

I’ll cover the three additions that most impressed me. First, this:

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This essentially my stockpile of wealth. All the items here are forms of currency in Path of Exile. There is no gold or coin of any kind.

When you “sell” a piece of equipment to a vendor, these are the types of items you’ll receive in return, and all of them have actual value. That is to say that each of these items has a function aside from being bartered. The most common (and least valuable) form of currency is the identify scroll, whose purpose I’m sure I don’t have to tell you. As you barter away more valuable loot, you’ll receive baubles and gizmos that can improve the properties of your equipment, add magical effects — even turn a unenchanted white item into a powerful yellow one. As a side effect, it changes up the way you look at loot because even plain old white drops can be turned into something awesome.

With this system, then, when you trade with another player, you’re bartering something you can use for something they can use. I never realized gold was so pointless until now, and now I wish every game in the genre had a similar barter system. It’s just so dang obvious.

Oh, and on the left side are skill gems, which are the source of all your characters abilities. Not surprisingly, these can be quite valuable as well.

Number two: potions are basically pieces of equipment.

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This is genius. When I realized what was going on here, I was dumbfounded by how elegant a replacement this is for the usual potion mechanic. Instead of being able to carry a ton of healing and mana potions, stocking up while you’re in town, and spamming them during battle, you carry refillable flasks. You find these flasks just like any other piece of equipment, complete with random properties. They’ve effectively taken the fun of decking out your character in sweet armor and weapons, and cranked that up to eleven by having you deck that character out with sweet potion slots too.

I should also mention that flasks refill by killing enemies, meaning it’s much harder to cheese the combat. No spamming, and no annoying cooldowns. You just have to keep fighting or your flasks will stay empty. It’s brilliant!

Last, but definitely not least, is the skill “web.”

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Skill trees? Don’t be silly! Now we have webs, which is kind of like a tree but bigger and betterer.

This is just a small portion of the skill screen on my Marauder. Every point on here boosts some stat — strength, agility, health regen, sword damage, block chance, magic resistance… you get the idea. On the outer edges of the web are skills that more drastically change the way your character plays. For instance, close to this part are some very Marauder-friendly skills like one that prevents you from getting critical strikes but also means you never miss.

You have total freedom over how you want to specialize your character; the challenge (and fun) is just figuring out how to navigate the web, picking up as many relevant skills along the way. And since all classes use the same web, you never feel like the game is telling you you can’t play the way you want to. Want a heavily armored, club-wielding Witch? Cool. A long-range, bow-specialized Marauder? Go for it.

Skill trees and classes with very specific roles still have a place; I’m not saying I want everything to be like this crazy web system. More rigid systems can be fantastically designed and incredibly fun. But it’s nice to be so free for a change. Makes me giddy with the possibilities.

Baby steps or not, I like where Path of Exile is headed.

So it’s better than Diablo and Torchlight?

Hey, I didn’t say that! All three worlds have really neat things to offer, and I love them for different reasons. Which one is better? I dunno. Check out Path of Exile and make up your own mind on that one. This time tomorrow, it’ll be totally open to everyone, not to mention playable for the low, low price of exactly nothing.

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