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.