I signed up for the Path of Exile beta some weeks ago after reading some positive posts here on the forums. It seemed Grinding Gear Games were already running a beta but sadly you could only access it by prepurchasing packs of ingame currency and/or other goodies to help fund the project. All the way up to $ 1000 "Diamond Packs" (0_0). That's pretty ironic, because Path of Exile is intended to be a completely free game apart from "ethical micro transactions".
Many people have been willing to support them so far, (they raised around 250k USD in the first 6 days alone) , but I am a terrible cheapskate and waited patiently for an opportunity on a free beta ride just like I did with GW2 and D3. That moment came this weekend with a public beta event for all sign-ups and I hopped on the beta train right away.
The fact that they are a loveable bunch of independent kiwis with an idealistic project "for the people by the people", doesn't mean I am going to treat them any differently than AAA developers though; no more mister gullible, nice pony in these times of sugar lumps being on a ration! Not even when the developers are on the list of endangered species.
That said, the hours just melted away for me while playing the PoE beta this weekend and I will kindly repay my debt with this blog on mmorpg.com.
Compared to my D3 beta experience the difference in sheer development effort is obvious: I bet the Diablo 2 sequel got around 10 more design passes on every single pixel and had a dedicated taskforce and an art-director assigned to it, discussing various aspects of said pixel in weekly team meetings and having to get approval from their appointed assistant lead-designer for every proposed change too.
In contrast; these guys, a bunch of hack & slash enthusiast from various walks of life, got together with a plan to make their own game, managed to keep it in development for nearly 5 years and did everything themselves with a company the size of a professional rugby team. But you'd be wise to not underestimate rugby teams ... especially not if they are from New-Zealand.
Here's the shocker:
Despite the huge differences in resources, funding and man power somehow PoE has much more in common with Diablo 2's core values than Diablo 3. And the things it does different ... are actually improvements on the formula. It transcends the hack & slash model at times and has some aspects in common with games like the original Guild Wars.
Of course, the PoE beta is a bit rough around the edges and there is a distinct indie odor to it; a smell you pick up as soon as you visit their website; "Eew ... 90's style frame borders!". This also is prevalent ingame with a similarly retro'ish UI design which feels a bit oversized and clunky at times. Also there are no voice-overs for the few npc's which can be interacted with and some minor bugs and glitches here and there, but none of those things really got in my way of becoming very compelled by this game and playing it non-stop for hours.
The good stuff:
- A more social hack & slash experience! (Even when just going at it single player style): Towns aren't private instances but shared hubs, similar to GW1. It also has a lively global chat (which can be hidden).
- Challenging gameplay! No more "faceroll your way through the first 10 levels". This game can be quite brutal and I found myself dying a few times as well as running away and employing kiting tactics to deal with some opponents. Even some of the normal mobs are just nasty: necromancers which try to sneak away from you to resurrect fallen undead, for example. Yeah, we've seen those before but in PoE, when you leave them unchecked, the buggers will merrily keep evading you whilst softly humming their incantations and revive the entire friggin' map!
- Open map design and world layout: Much more wide and open compared to what I saw in Diablo 3 so far. Also some maps have multiple adjacent maps: it's not so much of a linear experience like other hack and slashers, or at least they hide it well. Maps are randomly generated too. I think there's even multiple "zone paths" into the second Act but I am not 100% sure about it. (I got there through the "Cave of Woe" but the Act 1 map had other zones that seemed to be leading there that I didn't even visit yet).
- Smart mechanics:
+ Some monsters (as well as yourself) have an "energy shield" which functions like a short immunity buffer that recharges when you or the monster, doesn't get damaged for some time: neglect finishing the monster off and you'll have to rework your way through its buffer again before you can kill it.
+ Health and mana flasks are permanent items that recharge. But better yet: your flasks aren't generic: there's tons of better ones to find, some with extra modifiers.
+ Agro range beyond your screen: attack a monster and his friends will come to its aid from beyond visual range sometimes. This and the occasional difficulty makes it less of a tank and spank fest but urged me to play more carefully: you never really know what's around the corner.
+ Free to use the skills you want: like many hack & slashers, itemization is randomized with a ton of possible pre- and suffixes, but next to this, most items have one or more sockets for skill gems, these gems are precious quest rewards or rare drops and determine your character's special abilities. Using the associated skill will level the gem up and they can always be taken out of an item and even be traded. There's an interesting depth to mico managing your skills and gear in this game as it allows for a lot of freedom and choice. This micro management is part of the core of the game at any level and not limited to rare quest rewards or hard to get rune words.
There's no predetermined, linear skill progress in this game and skills don't seem class restricted: there's a myriad of choices to make and the list of skills available to you seems to grow exponentially when you level up.
+ Multifunctional currencies: there's no gold in PoE but a variety of multifunctional currencies adding more value to apparently secondary items and consumables; Your cookie cutter Portal Scroll is next to its obvious function also a bank note, able to buy your certain stuff at vendors. Selling loot nets you "scraps" of these currencies and the kind of currency you get depends on the kind of item you sell. Some currencies can be exchanged for one another too. Consequently, every item you find is worth selling. (Which does make your limited bag space kind of a b*tch).
- Grim and foreboding atmosphere: akin to the Diablo prequels. There's some blood and gore too.
- Visceral and tactical combat; you need "to work" your character to overcome foes and use the right skills at the right time. Combat animations are a bit glitchy sometimes but they feel real and "weighted". The most remarkable thing: due to skill, mana and health management as well as the level of challenge, combat overall feels much less simple and dumbed down compared to most hack & slashers (!)
- Client is very stable and the game runs like a charm on my mediocre system: I did have a few dc's but no item loss whatsoever. It's not much of a resource hog either.
Last but not least:
- Freedom in character development due to an absurdly bloated free for all passive skill tree. Next to the great "free to slot the skills you want" system I described earlier, this completely overrides the strict class restrictions which we are so accustomed to in this genre.
Very lastest but not leastest:
- It's going to be free. To download AND to play.
My list of negatives and concerns are mostly minor:
- Still needs some polish (beta + indie game, durr).
- You never know exactly how "ethical" micro transactions end up being in the launched game and since they have plans for massive pvp too (!) that suddenly kind of matters.
- No voice overs (they might plan to add them later, not sure). I hope so because the VO work and writing in the class videos are pretty damn good and gritty.
- The trading mechanics of the UI feel a bit awkward. (Separate menu's for buying and selling).
- Most of the UI and all pop-ups have "90's" written all over it.
- WTB more bags! (Plenty of in-town storage though).
- Sometimes mobs behave a little dumb and disregard you or shoot into obstacles.
- Visually decent but in Act 1 dull and grey and never really breathtaking. Things get much more sunny and attractive in Act 2 however.
- There's no character creation: just base class picking. Even gender is predetermined.
The bottom line questions you should ask yourself for each Action RPG:
Is it fun to play and is it compelling enough to keep playing?
To me that's twice a resounding "yes" and frankly I am pretty amazed by what this company has pulled off: a proper addition to my short list of hack & slash classics and taking the formula to a next level in combat, skill systems, utter freedom in character development and clever mechanics. Very curious how this game will shape up further along the line.
Thanks for reading <3