Path of Exile - A Preview for Solo RPGers
It might be too early to tell, but methinks the developers and production team at Grinding Gear Games really have "got it." After playing the beta version of Path of Exile for the past few days, I am stunned at how good this ActionRPG already is. With five years in development, Grinding Gears has introduced an online RPG that is truly friendly for the solo player, is very challenging, has the most innovative skills system in years, breaks new ground in the idea that "free" really can mean "free," and is absolutely addictive in its entertainment value. My mage (a witch in PoE terms) must have died a half dozen times trying to solo the boss at the end of Act I, but I could not give up until I worked out a strategy to defeat it.
To make sure my own bias is clearly identified, I tried the PoE closed beta out of curiosity, but was so blown away by a game far beyond my expectations that I quickly became a donor at the Silver level. Twenty play hours later I was so impressed, and was having so much fun, I upgraded to Gold. Things like PoE, or sites like RPGWatch, are too rare to let go without becoming a donor to help support them. Apparently I was far from alone in this. As of June they had already received more than $700,000 (USD) in donations for a free game! However, I also must make clear that I have nothing to do with the firm, and my only knowledge of them other than playing the game is a series of emails to their producer with questions I had writing this review.
I quote several of the questions and answers from my research for this piece throughout this review. Grinding Gears producer Chris Wilson and his team were very helpful in chasing down some topics.
Single player hack-and-slash, ActionRPG, top down, hot buttons, with very few prompts/helpers
The standard label for PoE is "top-down RPG, single player (not party-based), client-based (4 GB download), hack-and-slash." Path of Exile is designed to be equally accessible and playable for solo play, or for groups. It is ironic that most reviewers will inevitably compare PoE to Diablo 3. Yet my $60 (USD) copy of D3 lies idle and bored on my hard drive (a dumbed-down, linear, boring rehash of old ideas in a glitzy new box), while this new free game would be worth every bit of the premium prices charged by the recent releases in RPGs.
Path of Exile is not Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age, or Mass Effect. What it does is take the class of games like Torchlight, Titan Quest, Diablo, and Sacred to a whole new level. A good comparison for those familiar with the title would be the Titan Quest series, but with much better mechanics, skill sets, and RPG elements than TQ. You control a single toon that is one of three standard classes – Marauder (warrior), Ranger, Witch (mage) – or three hybrids – Duelist (marauder/ranger), Templar (marauder/witch), or Shadow (ranger/witch.) But don't let the six-class limit fool you. As discussed below, there is a more extensive and innovative ability to customize the skillset of your player than any game I remember.
Perhaps the strongest general feature of Path of Exile is a structure that favors the solo player in an online game. Rare indeed! PVP, ladders, and multiplayer are supported, but I only took a brief look at them for this review.
RPGers will like some subtleties of PoE. For-pay microtransactions, of course, are in the game, but none are performance-enhancing purchases. That means you earn your victories, not buy them with buffs, megaweapons and so on. At the same time there are no flashing arrows and map markers for quest locations. You are told a general zone, and it is up to you to find the place. The waypoint system is the most sensible I have seen in a long time – the right mix of enough so you do not have to repeat an hour's play if you die (and you WILL die!) yet not too many to dumb down the combat by easy retries. A lot of care has gone into the UI – it is simple, but effective for controlling your toon.
And you will like the maps. The engine is not as glitzy as several new releases, but the landscapes and environments are clever and immersive. I'm not quite sure where this place is located, but it is a dark, foreboding place that really sets a scene for you.
One warning up front – there is enough innovation here in skills and class capabilities that you might want to play through Act I, then toss your toon and start over. You will find there is an art to selecting good armor pieces, that some skill builds are much different than you expect, and that each class has a unique ability or two that will deeply influence how you will play. Using the witch as an example, I started out rolling a pet class, but found that the pets were underpowered in the early part of the game (perhaps a beta balance issue, and not long term?), yet they look as though they will be very strong by midgame. Meanwhile the energy shield is a much more powerful concept than I first recognized. Thus, I scrapped my L18 witch and started over and rerolled with new skills and armor decisions that made a large difference in playability.
The first truly solo-friendly Online Action/RPG
All major MMOs of any genre (and all major software DL vendors, for that matter) seem hell bent on building around the need for social groups, chat, multiplayer, and group requirements. Pushed to the side in this desire to control access to games is the solo player, especially in RPGish MMOs. Perhaps the best for RPGers, before Path of Exile, was Lord of the Rings Online. Yet even in LotRO, many of the landscape quests, and most of the instances other than the rings series, are impossible to solo unless you are many levels over the design of the quest.
For stubborn RPGers who "just wanna have fun..." while playing solo, PoE breaks new ground. In 30+ hours of play I have yet to find a quest I could not solo, although I certainly died a few times trying some of them. The trick PoE uses is to create instances for each major quest series. The various towns (where you get quests and shop) are flooded with whoever is online so you see a dozen other players running from quest giver, to merchant, and back. But when you exit to a quest zone, you are in an instanced version – either solo, or with a group if you so choose. This is great for the solo player.
To give you an idea of a subtlety that shows just how committed the designers were to solo play, you even have an option to turn off general chat. Now THAT is a blessing for many RPGers, considering the tone of some MMO chat sessions!
The end result is a free MMO that is the equivalent of a top-tier, excellent RPG (typical cost $60 USD these days) with far more playtime and replayability than any single player standalone game on the market today.
VoxClamant: I am struck by your apparent vision to make what might be the first MMO that is truly "solo friendly." That has to be a huge untapped market. All the major MMOs are centering their designs on building group content and social relationships (groups, fellowships, guilds), at the expense of the solo player, so much so that the bulk of their quests cannot be accomplished solo. Where does the solo player fit into your vision for PoE?
Chris Wilson: We designed Path of Exile so that all content can be completed solo. The difficulty of monsters that you fight scales with the number of players in your instance, so it's not strictly easier if you're in a party. While the most difficult content can be completed solo by players who are very good at the game, you can often take advantage of synergizing with other party members. For example, having one player with high damage reduction to absorb damage while another one kills from afar. We understand that while players love to play together (and can easily find parties of up to five other players to play Path of Exile with), many people prefer to play in short sessions and don't want the hassle of having to get a group of friends together before they can make any progress.
Multiplayer and PvP as well – Untried for this review
PoE has not ignored all the PvP and multiplayer gamers out there. Since it is not my interest, I only briefly visited this portion of the game while I was concentrating on the solo aspects. A central "notice board" in each town lets you request groups to attack quests together. There is complete support of friends lists, and multiple levels of chat. I saw a very active ladder system, and leaderboards. Based upon what I read in the PoE forums, MP and PvP players appear to be very happy with that aspect of the game. MP and PvP is the next major portion of the rollout that will be addressed.
VoxClamant: What do your developers see as the "next big thing" they want to release into PoE once the beta is up to your expectations?
Chris Wilson: Currently, the PvP system and Act Three are the major items we're working on. We're going to get both of them in before we enter Open Beta later this year. In terms of PvP modes, we're initially going to provide both dueling (of arbitrary team sizes) and random team matchmaking. Later we'll add support for more complex modes and tournaments. Act Three has been in development for over a year and is in its final polish stages. We're really excited to see what people think of it!
Six very customizable base classes
Path of Exile uses three major classes, and three hybrid classes that are a mix of two of the main three. The classes follow the warrior-ranger-mage format (marauder-ranger-witch, in PoE terms). Oddly, there is no thief class for those who like stealth and backstabbing, but the game (so far) has no traps or locked doors to surmount.
· Marauder – basic warrior, strength-based skills
· Ranger – basic archer, dexterity based skills
· Witch – basic mage, intelligence based skills
· Duelist – Marauder/Ranger, mix of strength and dexterity skills
· Templar – Marauder/Witch, mix of strength and intelligence skills
· Shadow – Ranger/Witch, mix of dexterity and intelligence skills
But those class choices do not limit you much at all if you like to roll your own toon. They only determine where you start in the passive skills tree (see the section, below) and what kind of armor and weapons are best for you. While, of course, there are benefits if you concentrate in one skill area, you have the freedom to customize your skills to almost anything you want. Want a battlemage in plate armor with deadly fireball spells who can outshoot Robin Hood? Go for it. My dedicated witch will whip your butt with her advanced spell skills long before you get close enough to use that pointy thing of yours, but no problem!
The most innovative skill system in years
The skills implementation in Path of Exile is innovative and exceptional. It is what we all expected from the big RPGish releases the past couple years, but found lacking. The key to PoE's approach is their treatment of Passive versus Active skills.
Passive Skills: As you level up, you get a passive skill point. This lets you add/upgrade a passive skill (AoE damage, strength, accuracy, etc.). There are some 111 choices to make. You start at one of the six starting points on a huge passive skills tree, with three starting skills predefined based on the class or hybrid you chose. The rest is up to you. The only limit on what you select is that it must be connected to a previous skill point.
Below is a screenshot of a SMALL portion of the skill tree, centered on the witch starting point. This screenshot does not do justice to the concept. Click on this link (Passive Skill Tree) to play around with the full tree and see what is possible!
Active skills: Active skills (a fireball spell, poison arrows, etc.) are based upon inserting gems into your equipment. Gems are found as loot, purchased from merchants, and given as quest rewards. Any of your equipment items can contain gems, so you can have many skills available. Five active skills can be mapped to your hotbuttons (and two more to mouse buttons). One of the excellent design ideas in PoE is that these gems level as you gain experience. Thus, a "fireball spell" gem might give just 3-4 damage at first, but it keeps improving in strength proportional to your level.
The only limitation on gem use is that color matters (a learning curve item for me!). Equipment you find or buy from merchants has red (strength), green (dexterity), or blue (intelligence) gem slots. Mage spells, for example, are all based upon blue gems. Warrior skills are red gems. So you want to equip items with the slots colored to your specialty. A witch wearing all red slots would not be able to slot any blue gems, and would have no spells available to use!
A gem in any equipment slot activates a skill can be tied to your hotbar or to your mouse. As well, any armor with two or three slots can have "linked" skill gems side-by-side that effect each other, such as having a summon zombie skill gem in one and an "increase minion life 40%" gem next to it. Nice creativity here!
Microtransactions that don't let you "buy a win"
Anyone who still thinks F2P is F2P needs a lobotomy. The average user of a free-to-play MMO spends significantly more each month than the original subscription basis. But while, of course, that is fine for those who want to spend their money any way they wish, to the solo RPGer it is this ability to "buy a win" that ruins solo experience in most RPGish MMOs. Purchasing skill boosts, megaweapons and armor, buffs, health potions, etc. lets you win anything with your wallet rather than your sword. (I suspect it is equally a problem for PvPers who hate losing to someone who could afford to gimp out their toon with mega items.) Typically in F2P, most of the quests or zones require additional purchases. And personally, I find it offensive the degree to which F2P games loudly proclaim "FREE" while ensuring their game is far from free.
Path of Exile is the first F2P I have seen that has a publically stated policy of no performance-enhancing items available for pay. Wow! They will sell cosmetic items, more storage, additional character slots, etc., but will not sell items that impact actual gameplay. For that reason alone, I hope PoE is named MMO of the year for 2012.
Free really means free! To put this in perspective, I have played a couple dozen hours with 1000 PoE credits in the bank (no clue what they call their online currency) gained from being a Silver Donor, yet have nothing to spend them on that I need. I am looking forward to PoE rolling out the cosmetic upgrades so that I can spend my credits customizing the look of my character.
By comparison, even an outstanding MMO like LotRO has finds many ways to entice purchases in a free game – including a ton of performance enhancing supplies and equipment, and charging for most of the quests in the game. Now, I personally love playing LotRO solo. I two-box (legally – two comps, two VIP accounts, two keyboards – it's more like playing a piano than playing a game, at times!) I really like LotRO's superb implementation of customizing your toon. But I also recognize they have mastered the ability to drain your wallet with specials, additional quests, performance and experience boosts, crafting supplies, companion soldiers, etc.
With Path of Exile, free really is free. However, this does lead to my one serious concern about PoE. This game is so good that they will have heavy expense to support all the servers that will be needed, in addition to development costs. How can they possibly stay in business and be here next year if they can be played entirely for free? That is a question I had to ask of the Grinding Gear folks.
VoxClamant: Most "free" MMOs make their revenues by selling add on items that help you defeat quests – buff potions, special weapons and armor, stat boosts, etc. You have announced what I think is another first – for-pay content that does not improve your performance, or let you just "buy" a win. This is a strong step, and is one RPG purists will especially like. But can you make a profit this way and stay in business?
Chris Wilson: We're strongly opposed to the "pay to win" type of items that many free games sell. This is because our users are very sensitive to the fairness of the competitive environment that we have set up, and because we'd rather make less money from many players than more money from the few players who would stick around if we used an evil monetization policy. So far we've had great support from the community, pre-selling over $700,000USD of microtransaction credit despite only a few of the purchasable perks being actually available yet!
Random dungeons and Expansions for replayability
Standalone RPGs are justifiably proud when they can announce "a hundred hours of gameplay, and repeatability." PoE has taken this a step further. For the initial price of $0 you get those same hundred hours and replayability, plus the promise of a series of free expansions and new content on a regular basis.
To start with, all the instances are randomized to change each time you play that zone. Zones respawn 15 minutes after you leave them – giving you time to get back and collect additional loot if you have to port out to town. Add to that the great flexibility in character design, and this is a game you will play a lot.
VoxClamant: I have only played through Act 1 and some Act 2 – but I see you make heavy use of instances. I see the other players in the central quest-giver and shop areas, but when I begin a quest I can be solo in the instance if I want. Is that true for most/all of the remaining acts?
Chris Wilson: That's right, every area in the game is an instance. This is the same model as other popular Action RPGs and is very similar to how it was handled in Guild Wars 1, for example. This has a few advantages, such as allowing random levels, solo/group play with correct monster scaling, easier server infrastructure. Our towns are larger capacity instances where you can meet other players.
Weaknesses (in the beta)
(Please remember that this is a preview of a beta product. Many of the following items will be addressed before the final release.)
There are relatively few weaknesses in the beta version of the game, to date. It is remarkably stable for a beta, and some of the concerns I cite might be things planned to change in the final release.
· Toon appearance: I was disappointed to find my toon has to look like one of six archetypes, with no customization at all. Back in town I have a dozen evil witch twins. Even my mother would not find me special among all those clones! I suspect/hope that will change via cosmetic microtransactions in the final release. The LotRO model for appearance is an exceptional one, and I would gladly spend my microtransaction credits if the end version of PoE has something along those lines. (With LotRO, you have two equipment setups – one for show, and one that is the real equipment. You get the stats from the latter, and the appearance from the former.)
· I had several bluescreen BSODs when alt-tabbing out of the game to another program. (None occurred while actually playing PoE.) All appear related to the Creative Sound Blaster issue when processing sounds from multiple programs that has irritated SB users for years. Grinding Gears states they will have a workaround for the Sound Blaster problem in the final released code.
· You cannot rotate cameras (a serious problem in some areas). When walking down a narrow passage or chasm, you can lose sight of your toon in the top down camera view, hear something chewing on your leg, and are not be able to target it or tell what is using you for a toonsnack. In a forest, the trees do not disappear as you go under them, so your view and targeting is blocked when you are surrounded by a horde of pygmies. However, while the camera will remain in fixed position for the final release, Grinding Gears is working on an approach to let you see what is happening in small places – akin to the "outline" or "shadow" approach many games use to solve the same issue.
· There really is no clear driving plotline in the beta. You are not "out to save the world..." or searching for the eight strings of the Golden Megathong of Glamour. The questline is more short-term focused, developing as you go. At first I thought this was a bigger problem than it might actually be. However, the PoE open-ended approach does makes it easier to develop new content and expansions that keep you going. The jury is out on this issue until I see more of the game.
(Note: I stand corrected here by the developers when I asked about this. Acts I and II, that I have played, are the introductory and character-building stages of the story. The plot begins to surface in Act III. Wilson: I think you'll enjoy the emphasis on core plot that the upcoming Act Three has. It's intentional that the first few acts are focused on small steps your character takes having been exiled. You're also definitely right that the character is not out to save the world!)
· The main overhead map is another major problem. Even set at maximum opacity in the options, sometimes it is totally unreadable. The good news is that this is on track to be fixed well before release.
· No vendor buyback – prepare to weep uncontrollably when you accidently sell an old piece of equipment without first removing your precious level 6 gems of firestorm and trap setting! I had to start over rather than go without spells, or hope for an underpowered L1 gem to drop somewhere.
· No PBK – with all the innovation in Path of Exile, I hoped to find the first implementation of a PBK (Potty Break Key) in the game. The game is addicting, and sometimes you really do have to go – but even with 100 yard dash times that would qualify for the Olympics, odds are good you will come back and find a corpse waiting for you, thanks to a wandering mob. Grinding Gears – PLEASE add some menu option that can pause for a few seconds occasionally if there are no mobs nearby! :-)
As a final note, in the beta there is definitely a learning curve. PoE does an excellent job with rollover messages, but some things were far from clear, at least to this noob. I played for a few hours before I figured out how to map hotbuttons, and how the skill gems and armor worked. Like any innovative game it takes a while to learn the strengths and weaknesses of a class for those rare times (as with PoE) that those classes are not simple cookie-cutter designs. I had a boss fight at the end of Act I that I lost several times because I was not smart enough to understand my witch's energy shield ability. Once that seeped into my senile brain, I could suss out a way to defeat that nasty siren who did seem to already have equipped that Golden Megathong of Death, +10.
VoxClamant: PoE is the most polished "beta" I have seen in years – better than initial release of many recent games. Given five years to get it to this point, how long until you feel it is "finished" to your standards? (I have a feeling this is the s/w equivalent of Shubert's Unfinished symphony – never "good enough" for the composer to consider it complete!)
Chris Wilson: Thanks! Our expectation is to enter Open Beta later this year, which is the point that it'll be ready enough for the general public to play it and give us feedback. We have a ten year plan of features and content to add, so I suspect the game will constantly be improved. I hope the players enjoy the ride!
Bottom line – 2012 (or maybe 2013) ActionRPG of the Year?
Path of Exile is a free game that promises to offer more playtime and replayability than anything available to RPGers. Yet, while truly free, it would be worth every bit of the premium prices charged by the leading RPGish releases of the past year or so. I gladly became a donor to the project after a dozen hours of play.
It is ironic that I have already put more time into PoE than I have with my purchased copy of Diablo 3. D3 proved tired and linear – just a polished-up, glitzy version that did not live up to its predecessors. It now lies unused and bored on my hard drive, untouched since losing interest at L15 or so. Meanwhile I am relishing the challenges in PoE, in Act II now for the second time at L18, and kicking mob butt all over the forests and coastlines!
If Path of Exile releases up to the promise of this beta, PoE will be MMO of the year for 2012 or 2013, depending on when it is released. No contest. It's an Action/RPG that caters to the solo RPG player, has tons of replayability, introduces the most innovative skills system in years, has an ethical microtransaction stated policy, delivers very open-ended class specializations, provides little hand-holding in quests, and has excellent maps and environments.
And this is all free? I just hope Grinding Gears can stay in business long enough for all of us to enjoy PoE for a bit before they fold for giving away far too much, too cheaply!