There’s no polite way to frame this, so here it goes: in all likelihood, Diablo 3 is going to be a huge disappointment.
The character classes look like they’ve been pasted together from a few different anime series. The story and acting are, at initial glance, laughable. And the dark, hopeless tone of the original Diablo has all but disappeared.
And in the decade since the second game in the series, Blizzard was acquired by Activision.* The game’s entire soul has effectively been sucked out, chewed up, and spit out in a nasty, console-friendly pile of filth.
But what’s a gamer to do? Most dungeon-crawling action/RPGs since Diablo 2 have been a far cry from perfect. And while there’s always the option of dropping back into numero dos for another thousand hours or so, you’ve probably exhausted every PvE and PvP build known to man by now if you’re anything like me. You know every drop rate, every unique weapon variation, every farming route. You need a game that has the soul of Diablo and Diablo 2 without whatever bullshit Bobby Kotick tries to ram violently into Diablo 3.
Well, dear reader, you need to check out Path of Exile.
In development by a small New Zealand studio called Grinding Gear Games, Path of Exile is an unabashed Diablo clone that has improved upon almost every aspect of the series’ strengths and fixed the majority of its weaknesses. It’s no exaggeration to say that anyone who loved Diablo 2 will love Path of Exile, especially considering it is completely free to play. More on that later.
Players familiar with Diablo 2 will be immediately at home in POE. The game features six character classes, a 3/4 overhead camera angle, and endless fighting through hordes of loot-carrying monstrosities. The controls are a mixture of mouse clicks and hotkey quickfire uses, and areas are connected via waypoints across a series of Acts.
Yes, there are even identification and town portal scrolls.
But where Path of Exile shines is not in its myriad similarities to Diablo, but its clever divergences. Grinding Gear Games has managed to rethink, rebalance, and redesign some of the most tedious, boring, or otherwise useless aspects of Blizzard’s masterpieces to create a game that is somehow more compelling, more complete, and more addictive. The elegance of the changes are astounding and make for remarkably improved gameplay, trading, and customization.
It’s the economy, stupid
In Diablo, the vast majority of items that dropped were completely worthless, including the default in-game currency, gold. Most players accumulated vast millions of gold, the purposes of which usually deteriorated into gambling for rares or repairing extremely high-end equipment.
In POE, there is no in-game currency. Items are “sold” to NPCs through a bartering system that revolves around consumable items. Instead of gold, you might receive Scrolls of Wisdom (that identify magical items), or other single-use trinkets. Some can improve weapon damage permanently by 1%. Others can make a normal item magical, or a magical item rare, or re-roll a rare’s stats.
The end result is that NPCs can always provide players something of value. Their “currency” scales with your level and loot, because you will always be interested in identifying items, improving your best gear, and rolling the dice on middling finds. This system effectively makes all drops useful, since junk items can essentially be traded for scrolls that make other junk into usable equipment. And because it’s all consumable goods, it is readily emptied out of the economy. There is no longer a disconnect between what’s useful to merchants and what’s useful to players.
Actually, do drink the Kool Aid
Let’s look at another example: potions. In Diablo and Diablo 2, potions were loaded into your belt for near-instant healing whenever you felt like mashing your number keys. It was intuitive, but it made certain encounters a matter of how much Kool Aid can I stuff into my pants? In Diablo 3, this has been replaced by the significantly more awkward “some enemies drop health orbs when they die” system. Because we all know how fun wagering your life is on each mob’s drops, right?
In POE, players stock health/mana containers that fill as kills accumulate. In essence, they combine the systems of Diablo 2 and 3 into a more manageable, less game-breaking way. Players can no longer bring 400 Full Rejuvenation pots with them to a boss fight, but neither are they at the mercy of the game’s drop system to keep them alive. Instead, gamers must now balance their health/mana consumption against how much they think they can fight in the next few minutes. Players who overestimate their abilities will be overrun as they take damage faster than they can kill baddies. It’s significantly more fair, and it keeps the player from having to spend hours managing an inventory of neon soft drinks.
In addition to the balance struck by POE’s health and mana management, flasks and vials can also be magical, with special properties. It’s possible to find a use for a Small Health Vial, if it has a property that gives you its entire boon instantly (instead of the default healing-over-time effect). Some larger vials might come with bigger vitality boosts, or may offer side effects like “Run 20% faster while this potion is in effect” or “Cast spells 8% faster during this potion’s effect.” Instead of being just a means of staying alive and recharged, the potion belt is a strategic element of its own. Who would have thought chugging mana pots could be so cool?
More choices, less confusing
In the original Diablo, the three character classes had mild differences but could otherwise learn any spell, up to certain limits. In Diablo 2, character classes were locked into rigid skill trees with minor variations possible along the way. Each system had pros and cons, though both got stale over time. Diablo’s system didn’t really give the player real choices (other than “get every spell as high as you can) and Diablo 2′s skill trees, while large, were easily exhausted as “best” builds were discovered.
Path of Exile did away with skill trees and, yes, stat points, opting instead for a radical combination of ability gems and passive skills.
What most players think of as skills (Multishot, Smite, Whirlwind, etc) are now socketable gems that any player can find, buy, or trade. A gem like Lightning Arrow can be equipped by any character, and that gem will progress in level if it’s active while the player gains experience. Abilities can be enhanced by other socketed gems, and items have different socket numbers and types (Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence alignments). Don’t have a use for an Axe-based skill? Trade it to someone else. Need gloves that will allow you to use a cool new Fireball spell? Use one of the previously-mentioned NPC resocketing consumables.
While this system may sound counterintuitive, it accomplishes several important things. First, it gets rid of the entire problem of min-maxing one’s skill tree. Players don’t have to choose how to level their abilities, because abilities auto-level whenever they’re equipped. If you have ten abilities socketed into your gear, they’ll all progress linearly as you fight. Secondly, it gives you the ability to play how you want. Instead of bemoaning the lack of a summoning tree for your Duelist, you can simply throw some summoning skills in his equipment for an instant set of minion-based abilities.
Of course, a Duelist won’t be nearly as good at summoning as a Witch or Templar, thanks to the Passive Skills system. When a character levels up, he or she can elect a single point into one of literally hundreds of passive bonuses. That’s not an exaggeration; the Passive Skills screen is so large it has its own zoom function to let you better navigate its dozens of winding paths. Most passives grant more blocking, better magic find, and the like, but several offer special abilities (like projectile piercing) that will define your character. Each bonus has its own interconnected prerequisites, and each bonus is tied to Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence.
As you might imagine, the more magically attuned classes have significantly simpler prerequisites for attaining powerful sorcery passives. So, while any class could be spec’d to sling Fireballs everywhere, it would take a Witch fewer passive skill points to do so. The end result is a game that won’t punish players for a single misspent point, nor force them all down the same skill paths.
Mmmmm… fresh meat
If you’ve played Diablo, this header doesn’t require explanation. It was so simple yet so utterly terrifying, like so many other moments in Diablo (and, to a much smaller extent, Diablo 2). The first game was so good at throwing hulking, barely visible monsters at you from every angle. They hunted you relentlessly and could easily corner you if left unchecked. Tied with the haunting music and claustrophobic levels, it made every trek into the underground of Tristram a scary proposition.
Most deaths in Diablo 2 felt cheap by comparison, with lightning wraiths 1-hit killing the player character from off screen. As a result, a lot of that foreboding tone was lost in Diablo 2, and it looks like Diablo 3 won’t be making a return to that terrifying mortality either. Players can run so quickly through generally open areas that it’s hard to imagine getting ambushed or stalked… which begs the question Will Blizzard resort to annoying monsters instead of simple spatial challenges?
The answer is a resounding Who gives a shit? Play Path of Exile instead. Grinding Gear Games is committed to preserving a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere full of unsettling imagery, powerful audio, and general hopelessness. The game immediately begins with the player clawing for survivals after washing up from a shipwreck, and immediately throws him/her into barely-lit caverns to fend for dear life. And while POE does have forests, they’re actually more terrifying than some underground areas, thanks to gloomy shadows and broken line of sight created by the numerous hulking trees. Sprinkle in some deadly, well-camouflaged mobs and things can get real Blair Witch real fast. The player character can’t outright sprint like in Diablo 2, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed, at least as far as I’ve seen.
The price paid for perfection
While I could spend a few more paragraphs waxing on about the small, ingenious touches of Path of Exile, there’s really only one more thing you need to know: the game is entirely free to play. When it’s released, it won’t cost anything up front or per month. The devs are hoping to sustain it solely through aesthetic microtransactions and the kind of paid services that fueled Guild Wars: extra character slots, special personalization options, additional weapon skins… that sort of thing.
The game is currently in closed beta, but periodic stress test weekends (like the one I just played) do open up. In the interim, creating an account at the official Path of Exile site will automatically enter your name into the constantly run drawing for more closed beta players. I suggest you sign up, read about the title, and get ready to lose all of your free time the minute you gain access.
* If that requires further explanation, you probably don’t meet the minimum Intelligence requirements to finish this article: WiNG’s Gaming Rant of the Ages, req lvl 18, req INT 198