After waiting for over a decade, I finally got my hands on Diablo 3 thanks to Blizzard’s open beta event. And overall, I had a pretty good time. While it didn’t exactly capture the atmosphere of Diablo 1 & 2, it still felt like a true successor to the series in a lot of ways. Then we have Path of Exile, a game that’s heavily inspired by Diablo and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. Does it capture what made the first two games great and possibly surpass Diablo 3?
After being in closed beta for a few months, the developers of the game, Grinding Gear Games, finally opened the floodgates this past weekend and let gamers everywhere give it a shot. I have to give them credit; it was a very smart move to do this event right before Diablo 3 launched. It was the perfect time to build up buzz and get attention to what certainly is a much smaller project. It may not be as polished, but for being an indie game Path of Exile is a pretty ambitious.
Right off the bat, the first thing you notice after creating a character is the game is visually no slouch. With all the graphical settings maxed out, the game comes alive with excellent particle effects, realistic water and detailed character models. It looks a bit better than Diablo 3, but they go for two different art styles. Funnily enough, if you asked me which game actually looked like a modern day Diablo, then Path of Exile wins hands down. Its art direction is much darker and grittier, versus Diablo 3 which anyone will tell you has been cooking in the World of Warcraft oven for a bit too long. Not to bash Blizzard, I actually liked the style they chose after playing it for a while, but Path of Exile really nails what Diablo 2 would look like if it were to come out today.
It’s hard not to make comparisons when playing Path of Exile, from the user interface to the much more zoomed in camera; you can tell these guys were extremely fond of the earlier games. The camera also gives the game something that Diablo 3 lacks, a much more claustrophobic and intense atmosphere. Blizzard’s sequel I found is simply too open and gives your character too much freedom to move around. Path of Exile is just like the older games in that it’s much harder to see the enemies surrounding you which can make for some very scary encounters if you’re not being careful. This doesn’t happen too much in the game’s outdoor environments, but once I got inside a cave dungeon it was like Diablo 1 all over again.
But don’t think that the developers simply copied Diablo and called it a day, this game actually introduces systems that frankly improve on the established formula. Take gold for example; this game has none. You’re probably asking yourself, “what the hell?” Well, mortal, you see in this game the economy actually runs on consumable items like identification scrolls and magic imbuing orbs. It’s actually pretty ingenious. While you’re slaughtering enemies you of course get crap loot and rare loot that needs to be identified, yet you have no scrolls to do so. So you trade the crap for scrolls and then use those to identify the rare stuff. Or for orbs that can turn regular items into magic ones.
You can also use these scrolls and orbs to buy better gear, and overall it works quite well. The problem with gold in the Diablo games is that you would eventually to the point where you had so many piles of it that it simply lost its value. The endgame economy of Diablo 2 wasn’t based on gold, it was based on rare items. Path of Exile just does the next logical thing and removes gold all together and lets the items themselves provide value to players. And one of the most valuable of these items are the game’s gems, which is another mechanic in of itself.
Unlike the Diablo games, the way you learn skills and spells in Path of Exile is through multi-colored gems that you find through loot and quests. Pretty much every piece of gear has 1-3 slots for these gems, so you simply insert and you suddenly have a new skill. They’re not class specific either, you’re completely free to use them however you want. A good example is my Shadow character. While the class is meant to use daggers, I quickly got a hold of a bow and gem that gave me a long range fire trap. So I kept using that and leveling it up and got extremely effective at mowing down monsters. Eventually I also found a Raise Zombie gem, which as you can guess gave me the ability to summon my very own zombie pet! So now my dagger assassin ended up being a bow wielding necromancer. And that’s not all.
There is also the game’s passive skill system which is simply daunting to look at first. It’s basically a gigantic grid of spheres that’s very reminiscent of the Sphere Grid system from Final Fantasy X. By leveling and doing quests, you can earn skill points which you can allocate into spheres that increase stats or provide passive bonuses to things like critical percentage or defense. Overall, the gem and skill systems are very open ended from what I can tell and it seems like that you can really customize your character any way you want. All of these mechanics I think work better than the ones in Diablo 3, but Path of Exile does falter in some areas.
For one, the game’s minimal story doesn’t hold a candle to what Blizzard has been crafting for over a decade; they simply have more interesting characters and plotlines. From the little I experienced in Path of Exile, it’s the standard fare. You’re an exile who’s proving to everyone how strong you are and it just seems like an excuse to go from point A to point B and slaughter hundreds of monsters. The quests aren’t helped by the reality that’s there’s pretty much no voice acting, something that I’ve always enjoyed about Diablo. But I can forgive these faults simply for the fact that the game has been created on a very small budget and team. However, the game’s biggest problem is also its most critical: the combat. While I found it alright at first, the combat in Path of Exile eventually started to really bore me for some reason.
It just lacks the punch and intensity that Diablo 3 manages to capture. It feels too clunky and slow paced, and it’s not helped by the fact that it’s sometimes very difficult to even click on an enemy to attack; something that needs some serious tweaking before release. Maybe partying with someone else would have helped, but I didn’t get a chance to do so during this preview. I hope that the developers start making some changes here based on the feedback from this event, though, as this right now this is the game’s Achilles’ heel. With the open beta phase starting in the next few months, I will definitely be jumping back in to see how it’s improved. So while Diablo 3 has better combat, there’s one area in which Path of Exile cant be beat, its price.
The game will be completely free-to-play when it comes out, supported by cosmetic micro-transactions that the developers promise will not give paying players an unfair advantage. Taking that into account, you have to give these guys some credit for providing such an expansive and innovative experience and charging absolutely nothing. As well as for all the dedication and respect that they have Diablo and this genre in general. Overall, Path of Exile is no Diablo killer, but after playing both I think that there’s enough room on the market for both.
They each excel at different things, Diablo in its rich storytelling, polish, and combat. And Path of Exile in its innovative changes on the old formula, deep character customization, price, and overall darker atmosphere. At the end of the day, they’re both great games and you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t at least give them both a shot.