I’ve been playing Path of Exile since closed beta. I was really blown away by what it offers, both in terms of innovation and the game world. But don’t let these innovations trick you: underneath it all, Path of Exile (PoE) is similar to what Diablo 3 offers and, in my good opinion, not really better than Torchlight 2. Diablo 3 might even offer something a bit better (which, honestly, should surprise none of us given the resources Blizzard has compared to Grinding Gear Games). Of course, Torchlight 2 is just a far more polished experience with a much more pleasant community and dedicated modders to keep things fresh …and it’s offline. PoE is online, all the time and has a ways to go before it’s competing with the big dogs, but it’s full of great ideas and potential. It’s also free to play.

Path of Exile Item SocketsPath of Exile has a very unitary system when it comes to character development. Everything, and I mean everything, hinges on the items you equip, but in a totally different way than in previous ARPGs. It’s a very fascinating system and probably my favorite feature. In it, items limit the amount of skills you can use (via sockets), the bonuses you can add to the skills (via socket links), and the overall quality of the item (the various orbs). However, if any one part of this system goes wrong, the whole thing comes down with it. It’s complexity means it’s going to be really difficult for the devs to improve/fix the things that really need it in a timely fashion. It also means that changes cascade across all aspects of the game. If just one ability is determined to need a nerf/buff then, character skill resets will be a given and player ire will run high. That’s because sockets and abilities are so closely tied to each other that changes have the potential to dramatically change your character. In a game where economic investment for good characters is quite immense (both in terms of time and scarcity), this is a gravely serious flaw. Also, you get a limited amount of skills to equip to your action bar (just 5) and no way to switch your key binds to different buttons.

In Diablo 3, changing a skill actually can change the way you play the character unlike PoE. Gear is separate from abilities so that tweaking one thing won’t automatically have cascading effects on the rest of the game. Since abilities are relatively isolated, nerfs and buffs aren’t as painful. Also, because respec’ing is highly encouraged these tweaks aren’t nearly as big a problem in D3 as for PoE. Tweaks to different features, such as jewels, crafting, or abilities won’t break each other. In fact, this is part that static thing D3 has going on that many of us thought was just too stale/uninteresting. There are no consequences to anything, but that has the upside of making changes easy to absorb. This is part of the reason Blizzard has been so adamant about “long-term development.” It’s long-term to the point of uninteresting. In PoE, change will be hard and probably take longer. This doesn’t mean they won’t regularly patch the game. This just means that if balance issues with skills occur, it will affect much more than just the buttons you click.

Passive Skill TreeWith 1300 passive skills, changes to the talent tree are nothing short of painful for players and developers. That awesomeness of the tree is also the magnitude of the game’s weakness. Currently, GGG has a “stick it to’em” philosophy when it comes to game changes, which means they don’t believe in refunding skill points, lost items, or things like that. They so far also seem to have the mindset of sticking with their guns; feature requests and changes to their own ideas seem out of reach. It’s the kind of policy that can break a game when you have a skill tree that’s so difficult to tune whenever needed. With this stance, I predict they will rarely change the passive tree system, even when it badly needs it. Doing so will challenge too much of their core game philosophy. To top that all off, with the way currency and gear modification works, changes to gems are equally difficult. Imagine having spent 1000 only to have the item you modified nerfed, or a gem you modified for that item changes. Changes in PoE are very high impact. I won’t say change is impossible, but it won’t be simple.

D3 has the rune system. Swap whenever you want, every ability has it’s own unique rune options, and improvements from gear can only improve them. Change is all too easy. In TL2, who needs change? It actually gives more interesting options than the other two when it comes to gear and ability enhancement.

Smash

Path of Exile CombatThe most important thing: smashing demons. That’s at the heart of what we do in these games. No one can doubt the slick action of D3 (in fact, slick is probably one of the most used terms to describe the system). PoE on the other hand feels nice in a handcrafted way, but also kinda rough. Targeting is a little off (for melee and ranged), performance isn’t quite there (it’s still beta), and the game overall isn’t really plug and play. A player can’t walk up to it and easily understand what’s going on, unlike D3.

The difficulty level of PoE ramps up really fast. From Act to Act, the game skews player development towards defense. This is a nightmare for any game in which build diversity is the designer’s goal.

Multiplayer

Sadly, PoE is one of the worst multi-player experiences to be had out there. There’s almost no redeeming qualities to the group play. It’s fundamentally flawed.

Foremost, the philosophy behind the design was well intentioned, but grossly naive. GGG wants PoE to be a very hardcore game by design. To that end, they’re pulling out all the stops that they know of to make the experience harsh instead of challenging. In group play, in order to achieve a cut-throat feel, they have an FFA loot system. But it gets worse. They’ve implemented very short loot timers on each item that drops which assigns the items to members of the group …and they must fetch it before the timer is up. If they don’t, anyone can loot it. There’s 3 very significant reasons this feature is impractical even if you love it:

  1. Server performance: it’s atrocious in group play, from graphics processing, to hard drive processing, to just poor network latency and de-syncing.
  2. Loot Spam: With increased drops during group play, the names of the items commonly pop off the screen. This means that even if you’re in the thick of it, when dozens of items are laying on the ground it takes time to read through them all. The item may not even show up on your screen at all due to the volume of item spam.
  3. Distraction: Instead of focusing on killing things, players are often standing around waiting for loot to drop. They simply don’t want to miss out on their stuff and in the worst case, their purpose is to swipe all items before anyone else. In fact, it’s common practice for players to get ahead of each other in a group in order to blaze through an instance looting chests before your party mates catch up. Consequently, there’s not many players that even queue up, especially at the higher levels where you’ll be lucky to find 2 active parties.

At first, I thought this was a nifty idea but I could never connect why this was supposed to be hardcore. Many players have commented that this isn’t some “hardcore” feature and I agree. If they wanted loot to be a point of hardcore player competition, then tag loot with players names, keep the timers, and allow the name of the player to stay on the item even though its FFA. If anyone loots an item without their name on it, flag them for PvP. Loser gets their body looted. THAT WOULD BE HARDCORE!

Aside from the looting, party play is a frenzied mess. Soloing the content can be stonewall difficult, but in party mode it’s a snoozefest. Spell affect spam, loot spam, monster spam …it’s the spammiest most confusing experience you can dream of. Not only will you rarely be able to identify enemies in a crowd, but you’ll often find yourself aiming at teammates out of uncertainty of what’s going on. The rule of thumb is to just spam your abilities and hope you hit something. And spam, everyone does.

Other Stuff

The item shop is designed very arbitrarily and offers mostly mediocre goods/services. Chat in 1980s MUDs was better than the PoE chat system. Since there’s no common currency due to the barter system and no tools to use for bartering, trade is somewhat difficult for players.

“It’s beta!” everyone cries. Betas have changed drastically over the years. In fact, companies now hide behind the beta sticker and I get the impression that’s what GGG is doing. If problems crop up everyone defends them by saying its beta, and that would be acceptable if they didn’t turn around and call features perfect/pretend certain features don’t need fixing. Beta is a great time to test run game features and ideas, to get feedback and learn whether things are achieving what the game set out to achieve. When they aren’t, such as that elusive “hardcore” feel, it’s an opportunity to rethink. Beta for PoE is about server testing and collecting fees to continue funding the games development. My rule of thumb is: if you’re taking money for your game, especially from item shops, your game is no longer in beta. It’s for sale and that means it’s gone gold.

The game is basically launched. There will be no more character wipes or skill resets; that’s not the kind of thing you do during testing, where restarting is crucial to retesting features. This is not a beta, no matter what GGG says.

I’m currently hooked on the item crafting system and I’m not quite done with this game. Still, while it’s got some pretty neat ideas and features the game leaves a lot to be desired. For an indie team and a free to play game, ARPG fans shouldn’t miss out on this. I can’t promise this will soak up your time like other addicting games, but I think you’ll be intrigued by GGGs concept of what the genre ought to have.

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