I always think a good measure of a game is it's staying power. I purchased copies of both Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3 and, while I enjoyed the first play through of each of them, I did not have a burning desire to play either again.
I thought about that a lot and, in retrospect, I suspect it was largely to do with the lack of depth in each of the titles. I don't mean the storyline, but rather the mechanics of the game. I need a challenge; what I was given instead were games that were designed for the most casual of players, lacking the depth of detail in character management I craved.
Not so with Path of Exile. Despite being in limited Beta, with only 2 of the acts completed, it is a game that I continually go back to again and again. Of the six character classes (Marauder, Templar, Shadow, Duelist, Witch, Ranger) it was the Ranger that I chose for my first play through. Usually they are the easiest characters to play and, to be frank, I love taking down my opponents from a distance.
Once you're in the game, the first thing that strikes you is how dark and foreboding it is. There is a trend for a lot of games to resort to a cartoon based graphic set. Maybe because it is easier to develop or maybe the thinking is that realism is not what players want. Not me; I much prefer a game that has a gritty and realistic feel.
So here I am in Act 1, washed up on a beach with no weapons and no idea what is in store for me. The obvious thing to do is speak to a nearby (and severely injured) sailor. After getting some helpful directions, the body he's lying next to rises up in the form of a zombie. Luckily, on the ground is also a bow (in my very first play-through I missed the first "gifted weapon" and had to resort to punching the zombie to death.) A few quick arrows to the head and it was goodbye to undead surfer dude. It was kinda cool how graphically the arrows punctured his body; these little touches proved to be a common thread in the game.
Fresh from my first victory, I do what any adventurer worth his/her salt would do... loot! Sure enough, there was a gem laying on the ground. Opening my inventory I saw I had found a skill gem of Burning arrow. Dropping it into the appropriately coloured gem slot in my bow, I could now send arrows of burning death down range. Nice!
With the preliminaries taken care of, it was time to head off on some serious adventuring. Battling up the coast, I was assailed by more of the undead folk and some nasty bugs that turn and fire their poop at you. Between the slow zombies and poop chuckers, I figured out that by shooting and scooting I could avoid most - if not all - damage.
Further up the beach (and it felt like a wind swept Wellington beach – government worker zombies included) I met my first boss. By using the terrain and getting behind him, I finally managed to turn him into a flaming pin cushion. The reward for this was gaining entrance to the first quest hub.
By this time I had also achieved my first level-up and earned a passive skill point to use. In my earlier preview of the game, I talked about how massive this skill system is; however, you have to play it to really appreciate the complexity of it all. There is only a limited ability to “do over” your points allocation so, once you head down one the myriad of skill tracks, you largely have to stick to it.
At the quest portal, I had my first opportunity to see how trading works in the game. There is no hard currency, which is unusual; instead, any and all items you pick up can be traded for another item of some sort.
Basically, if you find something, you keep it. You also quickly learn that even the plainest of items have value. If they have the right slots and attributes you can - by using orbs and gems - turn them into an awesome weapon. This build-your-own-magic-item system is very well done and adds another layer of complexity to the game.
As I quested on, there were other things I noticed (apart from the exploding dogs, undead arrow rain of death, and stuff emerging from the ground) - including the huge number of chests and containers to open. It is almost overwhelming at times and you quickly find the limitations of your backpack.
Each of the Acts are broken down into zones, with some zones having multiple levels. Where this gets maddeningly hard is with the teleporters. Unlike other games, they are not in convenient places and do not appear in every zone. Multiple times I had to battle through zones and thoroughly explore them in the hope of finding a teleport. The rare teleport scrolls are a godsend and have to be used tactically to ensure you create an anchor point if you die find yourself back at the quest hub. Just to add to the challenge, particularly tough boss fights tend to be in zones without any teleporter at all.
It was not till I was into my 20th level that I got into Act 2. It was quite a contrast from the wet and wild coast, with its hidden paths, shipwrecks, and caves. Here it was all jungle and open fields. By this stage I had learned how to combine skill and support gems - my favourite of which was a combination of multiple arrow and poison cloud. By laying out multiple dense clouds of green gas, I could kite my enemies as they slowly choked on my stench.
Unfortunately, the enemies had also become more cunning at this stage. They were faster, for one thing, and some dropped from trees while others transformed from some of the scenery. The boss fights were more complex as well. Often they had multiple abilities that required some hasty rejigging of weapons and gems to exploit their weaknesses.
The last boss fight was particularly tough and after a couple of long sessions I was despairing, wondering if I would ever beat it. Finally, I overcame, with a combination of judicious use of health pots, and re-positioning each time the beast transitioned into a different phase. It was a real sense of achievement once I triumphed.
Now I am three quarters of my way through my second play through the game at a higher level. The monsters, as you would suspect, are tougher, while the items and gem combinations are more complex. Increasingly, I'm having to combine skill effects (poison cloud, distracting totem, and ice arrows are my combo of choice at the moment.)
What I like most about this game is the huge array of options you have. It often seems each play session is different, as I try out another combination of gems and skills. The random generation of zones also helps to keep the game fresh, and they repopulate after awhile as well. I have now tried all the characters up to around level 10, but with the Ranger alone there are a lot of different builds I can try, so it will be a while before I fully explore the others.
The closed testing period ends today, replaced by an open-to-all version of the beta - including the addition of a third act (based around a industrial area and wharfs.) So it's goodbye to my Ranger Willymott, and it's time to start the challenge all over again. By the time this article is published, you will also be able to join in on the fun and see why I think this kiwi-made game is something very special. Download it from here
Pros: It’s made in New Zealand, and it’s bloody good!
Cons: Big-name competition