Diablo has a lot to answer for, at least if you judge it by the amount of games that have released recently that appear to pay homage to Blizzard’s seminal title. In the recent past, we’ve had Victor Vran, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard and Van Helsing, all of which bear more than a passing resemblance to the gameplay style pioneered by the Diablo range of games. The latest to appear, in beta form at least, on the Xbox One is Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile. And if there’s a more appropriate name for a studio developing a Diablo style loot crawling game I don’t know what it might be!
Path of Exile has an interesting history of development. The game was started by a small group of action role playing game players who were annoyed by the lack of new releases in their preferred genre, and so took matters into their own hands and decided to make one. It underwent a three year development cycle before being announced to the public way back in September 2010, and then was finally released on the PC in October 2013. The response has been largely positive, with the game winning PC Game of the Year from Gamespot in 2013, and Best PC Role Playing Game from IGN also in 2013. The game has continued to be supported since release, with expansions and patches being released on a regular basis.
Now though, Path of Exile is available in beta form on the Xbox One, so how has the jump treated the game and can it compete with Diablo 3?
First impressions are good, with a suitably doom-laden story and intro to play through. You are an outcast from the island of Orliath, exiled to a place called Wraeclast for an unspecified sin against the powers that be, and now sent to the aforementioned continent which serves as a penal colony. Wraeclast appears to have once been a thriving place, and the seat of the Eternal Empire and a race known as the Vaal. But now everything lies in ruins – the dead don’t stay dead and the place is overrun with monsters. Club 18-30 this most certainly is not.
In the settlement of Lioneye’s Watch, a small band of exiles have banded together and formed a rough society; merchants and NPCs are dotted around to buy and sell gear from, and will also give your character missions to achieve that will benefit everyone struggling to survive. Lioneye’s Watch serves as a hub, and there are waypoints in the various levels that can be activated to allow fast travel back to town to sell gear, and maybe get the new stuff that you need to take down a troublesome enemy.
As the game begins, you are given the usual options; are you a boy or a girl, what is your name, and so on. Naming proved to be somewhat tricky, as the first five names I tried to create had already been taken. This struck me as a little odd, as a unique name is quite easy to come up with on the spot. Still, Derp LeGash was soon ready for action (yep, that’s my girl!) and I chose the class that shouldn’t ever be thought of as the Demon Hunter from Diablo… but is very very similar.
There are six basic classes to pick from; Duelist, Marauder, Ranger, Shadow, Templar, and Witch. My not Demon Hunter is the Ranger class, which is a Dexterity based character which relies on bows to deal damage from a distance. Duelists use rapiers, Mauraders are the tank class and so on. There is a good difference between each of the classes, and five minutes research on the ol’ interweb will reveal a plethora of character builds to aspire to.
Having chosen your class, you are thrust into the main part of the story, and if you’ve played Diablo you’ll be right at home. All the usual tropes are here; blue named enemies are stronger than regular ones, whilst gold named enemies are the strongest and have extra abilities or powers that make them very tough to take down. Running about filling enemies full of holes and arrows is great fun, and when you’ve finished Diablo 3 as many times as I have, it’s refreshing to see a different world and new enemies with the cosy feeling of familiarity from the gameplay.
There’s a good variety of environments to explore too. Starting on a beach, I’ve then worked my way up the coast, through caves, dungeons, into a dark prison and then out into sun-lit uplands. The enemies are a varied bunch as well, from basic shuffling zombie types to leaping Goatmen (yes, like in Diablo 3), and on to the large bosses that you have to take out in order to progress. It’s very much business as usual. Graphically the game looks very good, and the enemies are both animated well and imaginatively designed. A special mention has to go to the skeletal enemies, which to my ageing mind have a very pleasing Ray Harryhausen kind of jerkiness to their walk that makes me smile.
The multiplayer parts of Path of Exile play very nicely as well, as there is drop in, drop out co-op available if you have a few like minded friends. Luckily I have a few people on my friends list that also signed up for the beta, so we were able to indulge in a spot of co-op dungeon diving. Gear and loot sharing is also here, which is a relief, as having a friend who’s a higher level drop in and give you some higher level loot is always nice!
The enemies scale with the amount of players as well, so stronger enemies give better loot, which makes you stronger. The grind is all part of this style of game, and having to use scrolls to identify the stuff to pick up adds a whole new level of excitement to seeing what you get. There are even scrolls that open a portal back to town, so it’s entirely possible to fill the inventory, pop back to town and sell the stuff you don’t need, then pop back through the portal to the location you were and pick up even more loot.
Speaking of the inventory, and there has been an interesting design choice. Remember back in the days of Resident Evil when you could manoeuvre the items around to maximise the space and organise what went where? Well, those days are back here as the inventory is no longer just a number of items, it is down to the shape and size of the items and what will physically fit in the inventory. Do you take a few big things or a lot of little things? With PoE items ranging from two handed axes to little gems that can be socketed in armour and weapons to give extra powers, the choice is yours.
Path of Exile then is shaping up to a great addition to the Action RPG stable of games. With a great story, and environments ranging from an open beach to dark and dank caves, it’s looking very good and playing quite well too. I say quite well as the auto aiming for the Ranger class in particular is a little dumb sometimes and doesn’t target the enemy that is treading on your bunions, but other than that I’m really enjoying my time exploring Wraeclast.
This is shaping up to be a serious contender for Diablo 3’s crown, and I for one will be following developments with a keen interest.