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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Game Review: Path of Exile


Path of Exile is an Online Action RPG, produced by Grinding Gear Games studion in New Zealand. For reference, other popular games of the genre are the Diablo and Torchlight series. I've been playing it for the last few months and have fallen madly in love with it. I wanted to share my insight on the game with you, so I decided to make a complete review.

Note: What you're about to read is my personal take on the matter and my point of view on the game, so please do not be angered if our opinions differ in some aspects.


For ease of read and write I'll be using the following therms:

1. PoE - Path of Exile

2. Str - Strength

3. Dex - Dexterity

4. Int - Intelligence

5. GGG - Grinding Gear Games

Without further ado, lets jump right in.

The Market Model


The game is completely free to play, since open beta. There are possible micro-transactions, but those don't offer any ease of play or superiority. In now way is it pay to win. Also, the game is perfectly playable without a penny spent. What you can buy with money are cosmetic effects to your skills, weapons and characters, pets that follow you around, but don't participate in combat and extra stash pages. While some are pretty cool, the lack of them is no inconvenience at all.

The Setting


Your character is an exile, cast of on the dark and vicious continent of Wraeclast. All your past is erased and you are given the chance to begin a new, granted you can survive long enough for you to make a story out of yourself. Immediately after you end up on the shores of Wraeclast, you have to start your battle for life, as there are not much things in the game that wont attack you.The atmosphere is dark and depressing, which is exactly what you will expect from a cast out continent.

The story is nothing special, you make your way through hoards of monsters and bosses, become the champion of the people and ultimately defeat the guy that put you on Wraeclast in the first place. Yes, I was absolutely aware what was going to happen and there were very few twists in some side quests, but it was interesting to listen to the dialogues.
The reason for this is the narration. The story is presented vaguely, mostly by dialogues with the quest givers. On a few random places you would find carvings by tribes and warriors that tell a tale which you know is linked with your story. Also, some items have a few lines of lore in their description.
Furthermore, each playable character, has his own personality and presents his or her own point of view, while you advance in the game. They comment on what's happening in their unique way and really give the feel that, even though you play the same content, you experience a different story.

In the end however, it's plain and predictable.

The Graphics


There is much to boast about the art team of GGG. The style of the game is dark, unruly and realistic, whereas a lot of modern RPGs are bright and welcoming. The company managed extremely well to create a world that actually fits the story.

The world of Wraeclast is not beautiful. It's oppressive, dark and terrifying. You will encounter a lot of disgusting and terrifying creatures. You character will wear drippy clothes, rusty and worn armour and in no way intimidating weapons. There are no half naked and sexy female characters with huge breast; no flashing chest plates and glowing swords. However, that is the point of the whole art style. It strives to create a realistic scenery of miserable, weak and hungry people who strive to survive at each step.


A big emphasis, graphic-wise, is put on the environments. They are highly detailed and present a vast world, in which you can immerse yourself and completely join Wreaclast while playing. The dungeons, mausoleums and crypts are fantastically light and look like genuine underground structure.

The effects are nothing too spectacular, but generally look nice and descriptive about what is happening around you. Spells look like spells, enhanced attacks look appropriate, status effects are really visible and can be differentiated with visual perception.

The game looks absolutely stunning for what it's supposed to be.

The Sound


The voice acting is brilliant. Each character, playable or not, has his own voice, which complements it's owner's personality and makes it stand out even more than it already does. The soundtrack is well composed and augments the scenery very well, however, it's not too diversified and well, it starts to annoy after some considerable time in the game. The sound effects are a tad cheesy for my taste, but there is nothing too obnoxious to ruin the experience.

The Gameplay


If nothing else in the game impresses you, the gameplay of Path of Exile certainly has to.
For structural purpose, I will break it down into few parts.

Classes


In PoE, you can choose one out of seven different stereotypical classes upon starting the game.

There are three pure classes based on one single attribute:
   Witch - Int (top)
   Ranger - Dex (bottom right)
   Marauder - Str (bottom left)

three hybrid classes - mix two attributes:
   Shadow - Dex/Int (top right),
   Templar - Int/Str (top left)
   Duelist - Dex/Str (bottom)

and the newest addition, from the official release, the Scion, which mixes them all (centre).

Tied to the story, your history is deleted upon arrival in Wreaclast. Thus, you can be anyone you wish from this moment on. The classes only suggest what role can fit well with them, however there are no limitations, if you choose to ignore the suggestion.



Passive Tree And Skill Gems



For the full view go here.

Each class starts in a certain spot of the same tree. The Witch for example, starts off in the top of the three, right next to nodes, which give bonuses to spells, energy shield and mana. However, should you choose so, you can easily go down the tree grab a huge mallet and start smacking things like a Marauder. Or, equip a bow and become a Ranger. The choice is entirely up to you.
Passives alone can't make a build, since it's also dependent on your active skills. Which is why no skill is associated to a certain class .
The skills inside the game are represented by gems which drop freely inside the game. The most basic of them are also quest rewards in the progression.
They are divided into three types corresponding to each basic attribute.

By attribute:



Green gems associated with Dexterity




Blue gems associated with Intelligence


Red gems associated with Strength




For the full list of skills go here.

Skill gems are inserted in sockets on your equipment and are free for use to anyone who covers their attribute requirements. Each colour of gems can only fit into the corresponding colour slot in your equipment. Two or more sockets on a piece of gear, they can be linked together, which allows you to use a new type of gems - Support skills.
Support skills also have the basic attribute association. Their function is to provide a certain set of bonuses and penalties to an active skill, when inserted in linked sockets. To make it a bit more clear, lets review the image below.

This is a bow with three linked sockets - red, blue and green. 

      If the red and the blue gem are both active skills, they don't interact.

      If one of them is a support gem, the other gets supported by it.

      If both of them are support gems, they don't interact again.




Gear and Crafting


Gear in PoE follows the standard chart of rarity.

Items by rarity:
  • White - Plain - less rare
  • Blue - Magic
  • Yellow - Rare
  • Orange - Unique - most rare
Unique items are particularly extraordinary. Generally (with exceptions, of course), every piece of unique gear is the best for the bonuses it offers. However, uniques are a double edged sword. While they certainly give massive bonuses, they also have penalties for other statistics.

In this example you get a lot of bonuses for your minions, but the item reserves 30% of your life, which is enormous and doesn't work with the Chaos Inoculation passive point.



There are a lot of statistics available in the game, so to find the perfect gear is harder than you might suggest. Also every piece gear, like skills, can be worn from any class. And while farming for drops can't offer you the possibility to fine tune your equipment, crafting certainly can.
Crafting, although not complex is really hard. To craft you need one of the 21 different orbs in the game. They can be found as a world drop, traded for, or obtained when you sell items to the vendors. Each orb has it's own effect, however, the results are randomly generated. It gets even harder, because the crafting orbs are also the currency in the game. Each time you fail to craft a good item, you lose money. This makes crafting risky and requires knowledge and precise assessment of what and when to craft.

Levels


The levels are randomly generated each time you reset the instance, which makes farming a lot less tedious than it normally is.
Furthermore, end game farming is done in the so called maps. Those are items which activate a portal to a new generated location, full with monsters and a boss at the end. They are created of the same types of terrains you can see in the regular zones, but as you finish a map the next one might have a new scenery.
Also, maps are items and can be crafted with orbs to include a variety of conditions and attributes for you or the monsters in the map. This breaks up the gameplay and increases the replay value.

Competition


I haven't reached PvP stage yet, however, from footage I've seen, I can say it's pretty straight forward. My guess is, due to the large quantity of builds, the matches would be unbalanced in cases. But that is entirely out of the developers hands, so I won't count it as a flaw.
Along PvP, competition is further complemented by various ladderboards, races and achievements throughout the game. Races in particular are highly competitive.
Generally, in a race, the participants aim to level up a new character as much as possible for the given time frame. Often there are certain conditions to the race, which differ from the normal gameplay. A race would provide a unique reward for the winner and you have only one chance to obtain it.
It definitely makes the game competitive for experienced players and offers a great opportunity for beginners to learn more about the game and experiment.

Problems



Balancing is not perfect, but it never is. Most of the times, something is better than most others. However, it's humanly impossible to really balance that much combinations. A huge shout out to Grinding Gear Games here. They introduce new patches every month, some times multiple times a month and battle the balancing issues.



The biggest flaw to the game is desync. It's desynchronization between your client and what really happens inside the game. For example you stand still in the middle of nothing and suddenly your health starts to drop down. In reality there is a monster attacking you, but you cant see it or react to the situation. Only after the system automatically synchs back, you realize what is happening and where you character is. You will die many times because of desynch and hardcore is especially challenging with it. 
GGG hasn't found a permanent solution to this problem, so it persists. But, there is a manual command you can type in to instantly synchronize you back to the server and continue your game.

Honestly, the AI is not very impressive. The monsters will only execute simple actions, like: attack, kite or cast a skill. They are pretty stiff and absolutely predictable, which sometimes makes the game a bit boring after a prolonged session. Bosses have multiple phases and skills to execute, but there is still place to improve. The gameplay is not about outplaying the monsters, but outlast them, which is still pretty challenging. Take the game lightly and you will die quite a lot.


Conclusion

  • It's completely free to play. Whereas other free to play games introduce a certain degree of a push to invest in the game, when you play PoE, the only time you would realize you can actually buy something is when you see another player in town with a glowing sword or the likes.
  • The story isn't anything impressive. However, rarely games of the genre focus on it. It's presented in the form of dialogues with quest givers and random lore items, but it's generally dull and predictable.
  • The graphics are amazing. There is a great atmosphere and the feel of the game resembles oldschool Action RPGs. The environment is very detailed and realistic. The characters are stylized and beautiful in their own way. This game is not about sexy female avatars and flashing armour, but about realism in a non-realistic fantasy world. The effects are recognizable and there is a clear visual information on the screen. The art department has done a phenomenal work.
  • The sound relates to the game very well, but the few tracks get boring after a while.
  • The gameplay is phenomenal. The build progression is absolutely amazing. The combinations between gear, active and support skills and the passive tree are so much, there literally thousands of possible builds out there, some good, some no so much. But finding the right one, which really clicks for you and your gameplay preferences, is what makes the game so good. You will suck at the start, you first few builds will probably be worthless over time and become generally unusable in the later stages of the game. There is a lot of content to explore and have fun with. Procedural levels and maps to enhance replay value.
  • There is direct and indirect competition and lots of ways to prove yourself better, or superior than others.
  • There are balancing issues and occasionally something will be better than the rest. But in a game with so many options, it's a natural occurrence. Frequent patches battle with this and game support is in no way idle.
  • Desynch is a big issue and needs a fix as soon as possible.
  • The AI is dull, but the game is still very challenging. The content is heavily diversified and offers a lot of things to do and try out inside.


Score

  • Metacritic - an 85/10
  • The users - 8.9/10
  • Me - 9/10


The game is near perfect, but some issues and mainly desynch restrain me from giving it a full score.

Now, I leave you the Open Beta and Release Trailers.