Path of Exile was sort of the third horse in the two horse race to find the true successor to Diablo II. I got into the beta almost two years back and was pleasantly surprised by how well the game recreated some of what I felt were the defining essences of Diablo II. Grinding Gear Games seemed to be on the right path. I put it on my list of games I was looking to play in 2012.
2012 came and we saw the release of Diablo III in the first half of the year on what has become known internationally as Error 37 day. Then towards the end of 2012 Torchlight II made it on the scene. Neither of those games really captured me as neither really felt like true successors to the Diablo II crown. Diablo III clearly got story right, but failed on itemization as well as with the “OMG we hate RMT so much!!1″ auction house plan, which even they now grant didn’t work out quite as planned. Torchlight II got points on simplicity and itemization plus having real modding potential, but really didn’t have a story that was at all compelling to me, which meant that the game ended up feeling like a disjointed series of fetch and carry quests. (Plus I am still waiting for the promised Macintosh version so my daughter an I can play together.)
And neither game got many points when it came to atmosphere, one of the more compelling aspects of Diablo II. It takes more than just making sure there is a desert zone and a jungle zone and so on. The sense of atmosphere was spoiled because both games apparently took place on worlds where OSHA had mandated all subterranean lairs must be fully illuminated via a blanket installation of indirect lighting. They successfully banished the dark and, with it, the prevailing sense of mood. Go look at that YouTube clip in that Essence of Diablo II post I did a couple of years back to see what I mean.
Yes, some people did not like that. I happened to think it was a vital element in setting the mood of the game.
Those two games launched, I played them both for a bit, and then let them fall by the wayside. Meanwhile, Path of Exile remained in beta. Earlier this year it went into open beta, so more people could pile in and give it a try, but otherwise remained an unfinished project.
More text and some screen shots after the cut.
Path of Exile open beta went on, the last pwipe was done, and development progressed.
And while I could have kept up with the beta, I did not. I saw stuff I liked early on and then stayed away after that. I did that for a few reasons. First I was already sold on its potential and was clearly going to play it when it was done, so did not want to ruin my appreciation for the finished product. Second, I really don’t want to be one of those “this was so much better in beta” people. Yeah, you know who you are. And third, I already have more than enough finished and purchased games I want to play that I don’t really need to open the door up to stuff that isn’t even done yet. There are only so many hours in the day and I haven’t yet reached that advanced age where I hear I will no longer need to sleep more than a couple hours a night.
So I left Path of Exile to play other titles while it got itself all ready for prime time.
Well, prime time is here. On Wednesday Grinding Gears Games dropped the last patch and the game was declared live. While you can download the game directly, I chose to pick it up via Steam. I have grown more accepting of Steam as a nexus for my online games lately. I actually have friends on Steam. There is talk of our EVE corp creating a Steam group. And Steam’s download and updating is better than some home grown attempts by smaller developers.
So I downloaded on Steam, created a new account through Steam (since I couldn’t remember the details of my old one, which I made pre-wipe in any case), and logged in to see how things ended up.
And I have to say that, so far, I am quite liking the game. I rolled up a Duelist, one of the classes that was added since I last peaked in, but which sounded like a good fit for me. Things still start with the gaming trope of being ship wrecked and washed up on shore to explain why you start with nothing at all. I expect that the next Pokemon will have that as a start as well. You get a shove in the right direction and a couple of drops from that first zombie and off you go. There is a minor boss between you and the first town… which is small enough that I doubt it would qualify as a census designated place… at which point you are introduced to the story and given your next tasks on a very familiar looking quest map thing.
As with the other games in its genre, it is divided up into acts. I am still plodding along in Act I. The surface area so far range from a gloomy overcast to bright daylight, though the latter doesn’t seem to hinder the locals from seeking your death.
Underground the game has managed to keep its moody vibe, with a world that apparently hasn’t invented indirect lighting yet. So it nearly gets the Diablo II circle of light thing right.
If anything, the area of light around you feels a bit too big to me. But it does leave an barrier of darkness around you. I think my problem is that the game feels like it is zoomed in just a little bit too close. I keep trying to scroll out a couple more notches, at which point the circle of light in a sea of darkness would be clearly emphasized. I will likely get used to that over time, but right now I keep trying to change it instinctively.
There are a couple of other less than stunning aspects. For example, I am not sure they had to recreate the map system from Diablo II as faithfully as they did. That overlay style… on the Tab key now as it was then, so I keep pressing “M” and getting no response… seemed amazing in 1999. In Path of Exile fourteen years down the road, it has been done and it can be annoyingly difficult to read.
And you do need the map. As with Diablo II, it makes finding doors and such easier, and some of the doors in Path of Exile are damn near impossible to find without it.
And then we mouse over the right spot:
But in the grand scheme of things, those are small items that do not really bring the game down. And there are lots of upside. There is the gem and socket system where gems can give you specific skills, level up as you used them, and can easily be unsocketed and moved to a new item. This leads to both a focus on growing specific gems as well as perhaps a desire to collect gems that are situations.
And then there is the vast Passive Skill Tree. In general I am skeptical about skill trees, and one that has 1,350 skills on it seems like it would be a nightmare.
But my general gripe about skill trees is that the skills tend to be opaque in nature, so it can be difficult to tell if something you are putting a point into will actually benefit you or not. So far, the skill paths on the tree have been pretty clear on benefits and I have had no trouble picking my first few skills based on how I want my character to develop. We’ll see if it stay that way, but my initial fear about paralyzing indecision seems to have passed.
The game therefore seems worth pursuing. And I recommend it all the more so because it is free. Diablo III was $60 (or “free” with a year’s subscription to World of Warcraft, something I and a million other WoW players opted for), Torchlight II was a bargain at $20, and Path of Exile is yours for just the time it takes to download.
Which leads to the “how are they supporting this” question. The Grinding Gear Games answer on their site is that financing will be through “ethical micro-transactions,” which is a phrase that I fear raises the skeptic in me the way that the Google motto of “Don’t Be Evil” does. At least in Google’s case, it seems to be for “specific definitions of evil,” since who thinks they can pin down evil in any case. But they do clarify their statement:
Path of Exile is completely free to play – no upfront costs or monthly fees are required to enjoy 100% of the game content.
To fund the development and maintenance costs of the project, we plan to let players purchase aesthetic perks for their characters such as:
- Additional character animations (for example, taunts or PvP victory animations)
- Dyes and item skins
- Alternate spell effects
- Social pets
We will also offer some optional paid services such as:
- Inter-realm/inter-account character transfers
- Character renaming
You’ll notice nothing in the list above confers an actual gameplay advantage.
That does seem pretty straight forward, and the cash shop, as it currently stands, reflects that.
One nice aspect of this is that, since I setup my account through Steam, Steam becomes the payment system. I know that means Steam will take a cut, but it probably makes it more likely that I will spend some money since the payment will be done through somebody I already have an established relationship with.
I will be interested to see how this plays out. Making the game actually, substantially free will certainly test the Willingness To Pay proposition that came up in a thread about F2P over at Hardcore Casual.
In the mean time, there is much more to explore in Path of Exile. There is the story line to work on, the dynamics of groups, the place of guilds in the world, and how the game holds up as it progresses. But my very early impression is that it is worth the download if you want something more akin to Diablo II than the other contenders were able to offer.