Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Path of Exile's Stress Test Weekend

This past weekend the upcoming free-to-play action RPG (Diablo clone, if you will) Path of Exile had its first stress test. The game's currently in closed beta, but they opened it up for two days and I pounced on the chance to try it out. I was glad I did, because I liked just about everything there is to like about the game and its developer, Grinding Gear Games. Allow me to elaborate.

First of all is the game itself. It bears mentioning up front that Path of Exile does not reinvent the wheel. It puts some better tires on the wheel, for sure, but at its core, PoE is a relatively standard Diablo-sytle action RPG. There's hacking, slashing, and loot. The game is pre-rendered in 3D, but the camera is locked and there's no rag doll effects. It feels very much like a high-res version of Diablo II, graphically-speaking. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. The art direction is very solid and the nostalgia factor is palpable. The monsters in particular are very nicely done, and there's a noticeable lack of ridiculous or comical enemies. This gives the game a very dark, serious tone.

Even though a lot of the gameplay is familiar, there are a number of interesting refinements and tweaks to the popular Diablo/Torchlight/Titan Quest/Silverfall formula. The first one that I noticed while playing is that potions aren't consumable items in the same way they are in a lot of games of this type - that is to say that they aren't "use and lose" items. Instead you get five belt slots to fill with potions flasks and these automatically refill themselves as you kill monsters. This has two effects that I noticed and enjoyed. First, it cuts down on the clutter in your inventory, which is always a welcome thing in games like this. Second, and more interestingly, it allows potion bottles that have additional effects beyond just restoring hit points or mana points, and it also allows the restoration of points in interesting ways. For example, I had a health potion bottle that healed less health per use than other bottle of the same size, but healed it instantly. (That bottle was particularly helpful in boss fights.)

Another noticeable departure from the norm is the skill tree. Again, there are two really noticeable differences from the usual formula. First, all 6 classes share one enormous skill tree. And when I say enormous, I do mean it. The skill tree looks like a coll retro star chart with branches and forks everywhere. Here's the thing though; the entire skill tree is passive. Active skills are acquired in the form of skill gems which are socketted into your equipment. This means that, among other things, any character can theoretically use any skill, though some skills are better suited to a particular class than others. More importantly, however, this combination of a vast, complex passive skill tree and instantly-interchangeable class-agnostic active skills (that also level up automatically along with you so long as they're equipped) means that you can play exactly the type of character you want to play and it's very likely that even two characters of the same class and level will be significantly different from one another. Active skills can be further enhanced with augment gems which add useful additional effects to the active skill(s) they're linked to.

Pretty cool, isn't it?
All of this customizability feeds directly into my love of complexity in my games. (And if you doubt the seriousness of that statement, consider this: I play Jagged Alliance 2 with the 1.13 patch and the AIMNAS mod on top of it because "vanilla" JA2 isn't complex enough.) However, at the same time it's not particularly opaque, intimidating, or possessed of a steep learning curve.

This brings me to the business model. The game is going to be free to play and the pay elements will all be cosmetic things. I'm very interested to see what form those cosmetic pay elements take, because what I've seen and played of Path of Exile is a remarkably polished and enjoyable package all on its own. In addition, the weapons and armor pieces all look pretty nice on the characters in their existing form. Put simply, the free parts of the game are so good I'm not quite sure what's left to charge for, but I'm sure anxious to find out!

And that brings me to the developer, Grinding Gear Games. Every indication that I've seen (and some small amount of direct contact) points to them being an exceptionally talented, friendly, and ethical game studio. In that respect, they remind me a bit of Mojang. They are deeply committed to doing the game in an ethical way, which to them means not allowing people to buy power in their game with real money (the "pay to win" model) and instead seem focused on making the game itself as appealing as possible. Furthermore, after the stress test weekend, a lot of people (myself included) have been clamoring for a way to buy their way into the closed beta. It appears that they're going to do this by allowing pre-purchases of their paid content, which will come with a beta key attached for free. Think about that for a second. People have been clamoring for a way to donate money to them, and instead of just gleefully (and gratefully) taking the funds and handing out keys, they're still trying to figure out ways to get value into their customers' hands, even though the game's not even released or even in open beta yet! I just hope whatever they do lock behind a paywall brings in sufficient revenue for them to keep the game running, because from what I've seen so far, I'm going to want to play a lot of it.

 If any of this sounds interesting to you, I hope to see you in the beta when it opens up, either to payments or entirely. As a final treat, check out the Templar trailer for the game:

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