Do you play Diablo III? I haven't played it in a while - ever since I started playing in the beta of Path of Exile, in fact. Far and away the better game, some say Path of Exile is what Diablo III should have been. I agree. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's the pinnacle of the genre, and something that other developers should aspire to.
Never heard of it? Let's go over the basics. A bunch of Aucklanders got together seven years ago, disillusioned with the direction that the Diablo series was heading (or not heading, as was the case at the time) and decided that they could build a better mousetrap.
In order to ensure the game had as much chance of success as possible (it is, let's face it, in a hardcore genre), they decided to make the game free to play. That's right, gratis; not a cent is required to enjoy, complete, and compete. There is a microtransaction system, but none of what you can buy in anyway affects the gameplay or grants you any advantage. You can buy additional stash slots, etc, and graphical effects on weapons and spells, but you don't need them at all, and at no time do you feel you have to have them to succeed in the game.
There are seven character types (Templar, Marauder, Ranger, Witch, Shadow, Duelist, and Scion); normally, it would be at about this juncture in an RPG review that I would include a description of the skills and play style of each character, however that would be impossible when discussing Path of Exile. The character selection determines where in the skill tree (well... skill-web is probably more accurate) you start, but that's all. It's up to you where you want to grow and develop your character as you level, and there are countless options.
The skill tree contains passive skills. Some add to the likes of dexterity, strength, and intelligence. Others add to your protection from things like of lightning or fire. Others improve your damage output with certain weapon types, spells, and elemental magic. Yet others give benefits to your minions, buffing things like their damage, their health, and the number you of them you can summon. It's an incredibly massive skill tree, with hundreds of nodes and thousands of combinations. You need to be careful what you choose, though, as you only have access to limited reassignment points, so there is a lot of planning required as to what path you take.
Spell and weapon abilities are further affected by gems. Your weapons and armour all have a varying number of slots in them, which come in three different colours - corresponding to the three different colours of gem you'll find in your travels. Spell gem examples include fireball, ice spear, and lightning, but there are many, many more out there.Each gem starts at level one but, like your character, they also level up, gaining more and more power as you use them.
The really cool aspect of this system is the way in which slots are "linked." With this system, you can take a standard fireball and link it with an ignite gem to change the effect, or you could take a "summon zombie" gem and add an additional damage gem, resulting in higher-damage zombies. This setup can get quite complex, like linking a spell totem gem to lightning, additional lightning damage, and then an additional critical damage gem. Set the totem up on one of the fast keys or a mouse button and you have a lightning grenade you can cast into a room.
There is no gold to loot; instead, the economy is based around the trade of orbs and scrolls. Vendors will instead exchange your spare items for scroll and orb fragments (or if it is a better item a complete scroll or orb.) The scrolls are used to identify items (like in Diablo II), while orbs are invaluable in improving your other items.
One type of orb can convert a common item into a magic one, while another can upgrade to rare. Others adjust the number of gem slots, change gem slot colours, link different slots, or change the stats on an item. The net effect of this is that all items you pick up are of interest. A common item with a good combination of slots and base benefits is often better than a magic item, as - by using your orbs - you can change it into a rare that's better suited to your character,
The depth of character development and itemisation leaves all other games in this genre in the dust. It really hits the mark in terms of bringing a solid combination of both loot hunting and loot building, resulting in a system that's both challenging and interesting.
The developer's willingness to innovate carries over even into the potions system. Health and mana potions are not discarded when consumed, but rather they refill as you kill more monsters in battle. These can in themselves be magical, with instant heal on low health, or extended potency. There is also a crate of protection and buff potions you can carry in a five-slot "belt." These are good to have on hand and, together with curse gems, can make a difference in a boss fight.
With Path of Exile, every time you load the game randomly regenerates each area. This relatively small feature greatly increases the appeal of the game for me. Each time I play, there's a new set of challenges to explore. End-game content has also had a touch of innovation. Once your character's level is high enough, you'll start picking up maps as loot drops. These are random dungeons that include boss fights that you can solo or co-op. Remember those orbs for upgrading items? Well these can be applied to the maps; make a normal map into an epic one, and you'll get epic loot.
The style of the game is quite dark. Developers Grinding Gear Games have moved away from the trend of clean, cartoon-like monsters in favour of the realistic and creepy. Some enemies are fast moving, while others jump at you. Some spit fire or lightning, others create minions that charge and explode. There are the standard zombie and human foes, as well as those with too many teeth that pulse lightning or poison. They all represent a challenge and - when working in combination with each other - can quickly overwhelm you. The game is designed to be a challenge and not a loot harvest; the three acts all have branching quest lines that are repeatable at an increasing difficulty.
The graphics are dark and well detailed, The opening act is reminiscent of the west coast, right down to the toetoe and the zombies. You can zoom in and out at will, and overall the game is very smooth.
The game has co-op play (Player vs. Environment, or PvE in online role-playing parlance) and Player vs. Player (PvP.) There are regular in-game events, leagues, and guilds. The developers will be making regular updates and content additions, so it seems unlikely to ever get tired.
The only complaint I have about Path of Exile is (believe it or not) related to the initial loading and splash screens. Loading the game takes ages. Sometimes it can take over a minute. The splash screens themselves remain unchanged from when the game was in beta, too, and they still look like placeholders.
Despite this tiny niggle, this is a fantastic game. For a free title, knocked together by a small team, it's stunning just how much it blows the opposition away. They have taken what was wrong with the genre and fixed it; what was right, they have made even better. If you have a PC, you really need to have a go; you can download it from their site or from Steam. Its free!