By Mike Gunn
As far as western-style action RPG games go, this year has largely been a disappointment. There have been games, sure, but almost all of them have fallen short of expectation.
First off, there was Diablo III. It was much hyped and the initial play through of the game was interesting. However, for me it quickly degenerated into a grind for gold and items.
I originally purchased three copies of D3 so the whole family could play together, but after a few weeks it was the consensus that, while it was a good game, it quickly lost its spark. Whether it was the set maps, the largely unintelligent layout of the mobs, or just its clean and bright image, we all felt it was just not the Diablo of old.
Having played the original Torchlight as a standby while I waited for Diablo III, I purchased a copy of Torchlight 2 in the hope that what came next would be similarly enjoyable. Sadly, although initially promising, I soon tired of the cartoon world and the almost “on rails” gameplay. Again, it was a good game, but it certainly did not satiate my thirst for a good and bloody RPG.
Not a monumental year for the genre, then, and I must admit I was thinking that it had done its dash. So it was with a large helping of skepticism and suspicion that I accepted the assignment to have a shot at the Beta release of Path of Exile. Here we go, another Diablo clone, I thought.
First up, a clarification: the definition of "clone" is an exact copy of the original. This, therefore, is not a clone. The only real accusation you can fairly make is that it pays homage to the original Diablo games.
And, after playing it for many tens of hours, I can tell you that this is in fact far more than some cheap knock-off. Instead, Path of Exile is already shaping up as a game that trumps Blizzard's progenitor, its sequels, and every other clone. The genre is not dead; it has evolved to a higher level.
The game is set in the world of Wraeclast and begins with you washed up on its shores after a shipwreck. You will, in the final game, have a choice of six characters: Duelist, Witch, Ranger, Templar, Marauder, and Shadow. This choice, however, is only important in that it dictates where you start in the single skill tree for the game.
A “single” skill tree you say, that doesn't sound promising! Well it's not really a tree, but rather a map of every underground railway in the world slapped on top of each other. It's huge. It's overwhelmingly huge.
There are hundreds and hundreds of skills and branches you can take, the result of which is that you can create a myriad of character combinations. As big as the skill tree is, it should be noted at this juncture they are all passive skills. The tree contains no spells or abilities. Instead, you find these sorts of things in the form of gems. As you progress in the game, and complete quests or explore, you pick up ability gems that you can socket into weapons and armour. Just about every item has at least one slot, while many have multiple.
By placing a gem in a slot, you gain its spell ability. The more you use the ability, the more experience the gem receives, and - like yourself - it levels up. There are a heap of different gems to discover, and while some are spell abilities, others are support abilities that can enhance other gems. These gems need to be placed into special linked slots. It's a brilliant concept and one that opens the door to further combinations of character types.
If you are struggling with all this, then hold on tight as another revolution is the removal of gold from the game. What? That's right, there is no endless grind to amass a horde of gold. Instead, the game relies on a barter system. Offer a white (common) item to a dealer, you will more than likely get a scrap of a scroll of wisdom (identity); with five of these you can exchange the whole scroll for another item. Better items can be exchanged for orbs and stones that have the power to alter existing items.
For example, you can cast a certain stone on a normal item (say, one with a good combination of gem slots) and change it into an epic. Others can change the colour of the slots, alter the item's abilities, or improve a weapon's damage. It's brilliant, an absolutely brilliant concept.
The usual mana and health pots make an appearance, but instead of being single-use items, here it's all about the pot itself. Each has multiple uses and the charges are restored by killing creatures. You can pick up new pots with differing abilities and even barter or find an item that will enhance or upgrade a pot.
The game has many more fantastic innovations, however we'll leave these for future articles. One thing worth mentioning now though is that the game is free-to-play and will therefore be supported by microtransactions. However, this will be what they are calling an "ethical economy." Paying cash will enable you to only make cosmetic changes to your characters and will not give you any advantage over other players.
So which big developer is making this game? Grinding Gears Games. Never heard of them? Well, you should have, they're based in Auckland, New Zealand. Staffed by a bunch of blokes who reckon that there is a better way of making this sort of title, and they are busily proving it to the world.
Get the Beta, if you can, and look out for the game's release next year - it's looking awesome already.