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Wednesday May 21, 2014 2:17 pm

Path of Exile review

Path of exile review

I'll be the first to admit that I am not a hardcore gamer. Ok, that's false, many people have said that first, but the point stands. I can never keep track of the differences between core and hardcore and pro gamer and who is playing what. But when I look at my steam account and see that I managed to log triple digit hours in some of those things I don't know if I can say I'm casual either. In fact, there is only one thing I can say with certainty about video games:

I like the free ones.

The majority of the games in my steam library were free. Metro 2033? Free promotional. Red Orchestra? Free steam weekend. And now another, Path of Exile. Another freebie, and at 132 hours it takes second place for play time in my library next to Civilization 5. That one I bought the hard way.

Its one of the expanding genre of free to play MMOs on the market these days and it ranks at the fifth most popular freebie on steam with a pretty solid community rating. Metascore 85/100 is nothing to sneeze at. It got glowing reviews from Gamespot and IGN. It has five million players. I'm willing to bet some of you reading this have that icon on your desktop right now.

Now I'm going to tell you about my experiences with it after 132 hours.

Path of exile skill grid

At its heart, Path of Exile is a Diablo clone. You get a fixed overhead camera, you point and click to move, and you bludgeon an evolving host of bad guys to pick up shiny items to bludgeon more bad guys with. Sounds simple, yes?

Well, the game is slightly more nuanced than that. Among the shiny bits and pieces you scrape off the ground are gems that grant character abilities. They drop randomly and comprise Path's special abilities system. This means any character can have any skill. In theory, anyway. How they use them is a matter of class aptitude.

So there is no exclusive skill system in the game. Your character can use any skill or item, so your witch can use the bludgeoning skill and the warrior can use the fireball skill. But there are still seven different classes. Seems a bit over complicated at face value.

Well, there is a reason for that. When characters level up their stats are increased using a complicated skill map. The map is the same for all classes, but each class has a different starting position. This gives them access to different abilities. The witch starts closer to spell power nodes, the warrior to physical power nodes. Starting in the middle of the map leaves a player without focus and can easily lead to an underpowered character.

And yes, the game is very punishing of suboptimal builds. Unless you have mapped out what you want in advance and checked it against an established builds, you are going to have a bad time. I started off with a witch- the basic spell casting class of Path of Exile. After my hundredth “game over” screen I decided to look up good beginner builds.

Beginner does not apply only to people without experience in Diablo style games. God knows how many times I played Diablo 2. No, for many characters to be viable at all they need very specific items, and in a game with randomized drop tables, getting those items can be a real chore. Your alternative is to pick one of about five “itemless” builds, or character guides that do not rely on anything beyond that skill map.

This effectively torpedoes the customization aspect of the game. At least at first, I'll explain in a bit.

Path to Exile review

I decided to play a marauder, the class that specializes in hitting things with other things and seeing big numbers pop up. This effectively kept me alive long enough to explore the world of Wraeclast, the game's setting.

For a game that professes to be an MMORPG, there is a pretty severe shortage on the RPG element. There is little story to tie the quests together, and the world background is only partially told on stones that spawn in obscure locations on specific maps. Did I mention that the maps generate randomly? As a game, I really cannot give it marks for much of a plot. The main bad guy isn't mentioned until you get the quest to fight him, and the secondary one gives little reason to hate her. Thankfully, the game's strengths do not come from its plot.

The game is addicting and vastly replayable. The random maps ensure that it is hard to get bored, and the variety of abilities and the scope of the skill map means each character plays very differently. I know, I've built more than ten so far (hey, I had to earn those hours somehow.) The controls are very simple and intuitive. Right hand on the mouse, left on the WASD keys to trigger your primary skills. No fiddling around trying to remember what you logged to the secondary number pad.

Level ups come fast in the early game, and the satisfying MMORPG 'ding' is very much in effect. Your abilities level separately, so even more dings to keep track of and drool in anticipation for. The randomized loot tables ensure that you never know what will drop and keep checking everything to see how it compares to your current gear.

The maps are big- I've spent over 30 minutes exploring some of them. The graphics are pretty, the colors bright. Visually this game is pretty engrossing, and can keep you there for hours at a time just watching the different maps and bosses. I will give the game this much- every map is distinctive enough in design and color palette that I do not get the sense that they are repetitive.

And finally Path has some innovative features. There is no money system. Instead the game drops single use power ups that can be traded for other power ups or used to modify and craft items. I thought this was pretty cool- if the item you need doesn't drop on its own, you can make it. Even on the secondary market, some of the random drop currency items can buy solid unique items that will benefit any character. And with enough of them, just about anyone can hold their own even in late-game maps. The best part? Items are transferable between any character on your account, so when you finally find that shiny unique hammer with your support caster, you can hand it to your face-smasher. This opens up the customization aspect considerably.

And that's what keeps me playing. I am not constantly bombarded with suggestions to use the microtransactions system- in fact, it is so unnecessary to succeeding in the game that I forgot it existed. I can build a buff character (provided I follow a guide or think it out very well) and have fun. And it's kept me playing for most of a week's worth of real time.

That's pretty impressive, at least by my reckoning.

Would I recommend the game? Yeah, what do you have to lose?

It's free.

Now if you'll excuse me, my unique hammer has a date with Piety's face. Again.

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