The Free Agent: Episode 16 - Path of Exile

At long last the Free Agent walks the Path of Exile

Hello to all our new readers, and welcome back to those who have been following ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Our mission, as always, is to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?"

Welcome to the real Path of Exile episode. Unlike previous episodes that made high and lofty promises to provide hard hitting investigative action-RPG coverage and instead brought you the noob crushing awesomeness of The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, this episode is legit and on the level, and features exclusively 100% Path of Exile content. I promise. Seriously...

Just to clarify though, the 100% Path of Exile content promise is still valid if I mention Diablo 2 and 3 right? Because trying to write a column about Path of Exile is nigh impossible to do without at least mentioning those other Action Role-Playing (ARPG) titles.

Not only are they definitive of the genre, they also seem to heavily influence Path of Exile, from the UI to the play style. But that's not to say they are exact clones. Path of Exile still dares to be different in some respects.

Hold up, what's an ARPG?

If you've never played an ARPG before, here's a quick rundown. Most of them are characterized by profuse mouse clicking hack and slash combat, loot grinding, randomized dungeons and replayablilty largely achieved through increasing difficulty modes. While for most this sounds like heaven, admittedly for me I find ARPGs somewhat tedious if they don't have enough meat strung on the basic skeletal framework I've just mentioned.

Those "other" games very much typify the experience, but you're here because you want to know how Path of Exile differs right?

Perhaps you're even one of those disgruntled Diablo fans that waited so patiently for Diablo 3 only to discover after weeks or months of game play that it wasn't Diablo2 and therefore decided that you wanted nothing to do with it or at the very least you'd keep playing it but give Blizzard an earful on whatever forum would have you.

It turns out a lot of those people believe Path of Exile to be the savior of the Diablo franchise, don't think too hard on why that doesn't make sense, or you head might explode.

Having never been the type of gamer who happily played through both Diablo 2 and 3 once, and then pretty much left them to their own, I'm perhaps less biased in that whole debate and more inclined to simply take Path of Exile at face value.

So similarities aside, here are a few things that I enjoyed about Path of Exile

For starters, it was difficult. I died. A lot. With so much mouse clicking involved, if combat isn't challenging it gets old really fast. In Path of Exile I found I had to constantly mix up my strategies in order to gain any traction.

In one zone, summoning copious numbers of minions to fight for me seemed to be the ticket, but then I'd move on to another zone and discover that my minions weren't holding up as well and more kiting was required.

Which brings me to the next thing I enjoyed about Path of Exile. The skill system; or in around about way, the complete lack of one therein.

To be honest, at first it really threw me for a loop. I started to scratch my head after trucking along for a while, as I still had not unlocked any new skills. Luckily I had these two gems socketed in my gear that for the meantime filled the role nicely.

Eventually I put two and two together and realized that, unlike other games, new skills were not tied to my character class or level ups; the gems ARE the skills. In a genre where item drops reign supreme, building the skill system into the items is a stroke of brilliance. Of course not spelling that out for new players is a blunder of equal and opposite magnitude.

Also fresh, new and extremely confusing at first, but ultimately pretty creative, is the passive skill tree. This is more directly linked to character classes and level ups. The skill tree is an intricate web of nodes that are interconnected through a variety of pathways.

Assigning a single skill point (gained from leveling up or completing certain quests activates a node and allows you to then place future points into any node connected to the newly activated node by a pathway.

When activated a node grants either an attribute increase (strength, dexterity, intellect) or a variety of passive skills such as buffing damage with certain weapon or magic types, or increasing attack speed. The paths or routes you choose to take as you level up define your character and allow you to be a highly focused specialist or a jack-of-all-trades.

With active skills based on gems that are item drops or quest rewards rather than class specific level ups and the added interconnectivity of all classes sharing the same passive skill tree, early on it’s easy to get the impression that class choices don't really matter.

While technically with the right set of gems and passive skill tree progression any class can almost do anything, it's not quite that simple. Each of the six classes (and a seventh class that you unlock toward the end of ActIII) starts at a different location in the passive skill tree. Meaning that if I want to diverge from a standard build for a given class I need to invest heavily into the skill tree to do so.

All in all, once I got used to it, the class and skill system was unique and flexible, but also balanced. Sometimes when the design adage, "we want players to be able to play the way THEY want" is taken too literally you end up with a washed out system where class or skill choices end up feeling meaningless. If you stick with Path of Exile long enough you will discover that they have more or less avoid that pitfall.

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Truly a great game.
# Nov 27 2013 at 10:52 PM Rating: Decent
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The only reason to ever spend money here is because you want to support the developers. I did, so I ended buying some stash tabs. I love it because now I can just keep tons of ****

I never had a problem understanding the gem system at all. Selling stuff can be a pain in the **** and figuring out what you want to pick up takes some time. However note that you don't have to drag everything I believe you can ctrl+click it.

The skill "tree" they have is the most interesting progression systems out of any game in recent memory and I love it. I love that it requires you to think ahead, that you can't get everything and sometimes you really have to go out of your way to pick up something from the opposite side that you want. Not only is it important about what you want when you get to "the end" but it important to think about what you want on the way and when to get it, to make getting there more enjoyable.

I've never had too many technical problems unless playing on a crappy PC. And you would be surprised by how low you can go and still play this game.(albeit I wouldn't play hardcore on the lowend)

I think also that they have enough randomization that I don't really find myself getting bored that much despite not normally being the kind of guy who wants to play the same game through 4 different modes.
Truly a great game.
# Nov 28 2013 at 10:01 AM Rating: Decent
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Thanks for the feedback. It's always great to hear what other peoples impressions are. Ctrl-click would have been handy know. Of course they could have mentioned that...

For some reason map and dungeon randomization has never been a big catch for me. I get why they do it but sometimes it actually frustrates me because I'm the kind of gamer hat likes to fully explore an area before moving on. But then when I come back to it later, it's all random and unexplored again.

Overall, I agree though, it's a great game if ARPG is your thing.

Thanks for reading Bombardj
Truly a great game.
# Nov 28 2013 at 6:53 PM Rating: Decent
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Yeah it would probably be nice if that kind of stuff was documented, but I'm not one to read the manual so even if they did I would probably miss it. I found the dragging frustrating too, and just thought "there has to be an easier way to do this" and just started doing some trial and error, and that's how I found out about it, but yeah probably not super friendly.

I am kind of the same about exploration, in games like the old Baldur's Gate I could not move on if there was even a speck of fog left on the map somewhere. In PoE it can suck if you don't have time to clear a whole map in your play session, and having to come back later and everything is reset again. However when you get to the point where you are farming certain maps to level up a bit, that randomization is a god send. Also if you are leveling lots of alts it is nice to have a bit of variety. But yeah I wish they would let you leave a map open as long as you want so if you are just passing through you don't have to clear the whole map in one go.

Also I didn't mention it but the end game random maps can be a lot of fun too.
Truly a great game.
# Nov 29 2013 at 10:19 AM Rating: Decent
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Yeah I didn't get a chance to experience any of the end game maps, but the idea of building your endgame into itemization is pretty creative.
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