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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Game Review #1: Path of Exile

I've been wanting to do this for awhile, so here goes. I hope you find my reviews of games informative and entertaining.

Abelhawk's Game Review of
 Path of Exile 
 
My multiplayer character, Bezzoan the Marauder, in Lioneye's Watch.
Platform: PC
Genre: Fantasy, Dark
Style: Hack-and-slash, RPG, Online
Price: Free to Play w/ cosmetic microtransactions
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I found Path of Exile purely by chance a couple of weeks ago, while looking for a free-to-play online RPG I could play with my friends. It caught my attention because it reminded me of one of my favorite hack-and-slash RPG's, Titan Quest, and it was free to play. Even though there are microtransactions available, there's nothing that players can buy that influences their gameplay. They're available simply to add horns to your helmet or make your sword glow. I admired this, because almost nothing makes me more disgusted than Free-to-Play Pay-to-Win games, such as Age of Empires Online, and I like the option to show your pride for the game by purchasing outwardly visible effects. In fact, a lot of things impressed me about Path of Exile and the developers at Grinding Gear Games.

My duellist, Aelthur, watches over the sea.
GRAPHICS
 

 I'm not only surprised at the quality of PoE's graphics given the system requirements, but I'm also hugely surprised at the optimization of the game. My laptop's almost three years old and can't play Titan Quest anymore, much less more powerful games such as Magicka and StarCraft II. But at least it can run StarCraft II. Blizzard had enough resources to hire engineers to optimize the performance, allowing various degrees of graphics detail to configure. PoE is the same way. With the graphics set on Medium setting, I can still run the game comparitively smoothly while still being able to enjoy the sunlight on the ocean waves, the gleam of mud and spilled guts, and flashy spell effects. The graphics also reflect the dark feel of the game. The enemies are all disfigured mistakes of nature, and it make you feel only too ready to defeat them as you hack your way through the game.

The first moments after creating my mage archer Moeki the Shadow
PLOT

I haven't played the entire game through yet, but my opinion of the plot as it stands so far may interest you. Like I said, the plot is dark. You are a prisoner on a ship, framed or otherwise sentenced to exile on the dismal island of Wraeclast. The game begins when you are thrown overboard and wake up on the shore. From the beginning, you can tell the island is a bleak and horrifying place. You begin in an area awash with rain with flashing lightning, with zombies running amuck. Your first quest is nothing more than a brief conversation with another surviving exile who is then brutally cannibalized before your eyes. You can tell right off that you have been abandoned by all the forces of hope into a nightmare. Or have you? You soon come upon a humble settlement called Lioneye's Watch, which consists of all of the exiles from the mainland who have banded together to make the best of their new life. There is no currency in the game, which not only prevents the servers from monetary inflation, but also adds to this feeling of cooperation among the sane ones on the island. Instead, there is a crude barter system consisting mostly of useful items like scrolls, tools and orbs in exchange for the weapons and armor you buy and sell. You are sent off on quests to help the settlement by recovering a medicine chest, defeating threatening monsters, and paving a way for the exiles toward the more civilized part of the continent. The enemies are all brutish monsters or pathetic scavengers. Rather than having to kill animals or a dragon for my quests, I literally felt like I was doing my part for Lioneye's Watch in exchange for their hospitality. I was very impressed with this outside-the-box approach to Path of Exile's plot, and can't wait to unravel the mysterious strands of fate I've been given.
Aelthur using his Cleave ability against some shadow spawn
CONTROLS
 

For the most part I love the gameplay of Path of Exile. It may not be orthodox for those new to hack-and-slash RPG's, but if you've played Diablo or Titan Quest, you feel pretty much at home. Since you have to click on enemies you want to fight, I sometimes find my melee fighter running in circles because I wasn't clicking directly on the enemy's sprite. I've also wasted mana sometimes when I've tried to cast an ability on a fast-moving target. The game would probably have benefited from some sort of a targeting system, but because of the sheer number of enemies, you never worry about it too much. That's another thing that can get a bit iffy about PoE: the ratio of monster difficulty. Rather than having a spectrum of monsters with varying strengths, there seem to be hordes of two- or three-shot enemies (aside from special abilities, anyway) and then the occasional rare mob with good drops that takes a good 20 or 30 hits to kill. Bosses are the same way. Still, I think it's better than Titan Quest, and for the style of game PoE is, I think the developers did the best they could. Also, the dungeons are randomized. So at least things don't get too stale playing through with separate characters!

My witch character, Ezrima, using the Cold Snap spell
GAME MECHANICS
 
 
There are a number of mechanics on Path of Exile I found revolutionary and exciting. The skill system is based on an array of gem socketing, with one gem equalling one skill. If the gem is socketed, it levels along with you, depending on how many kills you rack up. This makes it interesting when choosing new gear, because you have to decide whether to get more armor or attack if the gear doesn't have the right color of sockets for your gems.
The classes themselves are built on a simple but unique system. There are only three main stats, Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity, which benefit armor and weapons differently. There is a class representing each main stat, as well as three hybrids. The talent or "passive skill" tree is huge and extensive, and allows for a lot of customization for almost any build you can think of. The Strength branch can focus on either damage or armor and health, and at length connects with other branches of the other stats.
Bezzoan playing with my two best friends, Asrenim and Jarockajule.
I was also intrigued by the items in the game. The game does a good job at describing quality through the imagery of the items. On the beach you fight with weapons made of driftwood and glass, which are gradually replaced by actual copper and steel armaments. The game uses Diablo and Titan Quest's same style of inventory system, based on a grid system of the varying sizes of the items.
There are lots of other aspects of PoE I have never found in any other game, including aspects I haven't even tried yet, such as the wealth of alternate game mode leagues available. The game is also massively multiplayer! In towns you can trade with anyone else who happens to be there, but the battle zones are instanced, so only the friends you have in your party with you can be in the same place as you. I've had a blast playing multiplayer with my friends, and multiplayer raises the difficulty and the value of dropped items!

SOUND/MUSIC
  ★★

For being made by a little-known game developer, I am very impressed with the sound score of Path of Exile. Everything just sounds like it should—fireballs whoosh and explode, enemies yell realistically, corpses squish, and the main characters each have personality in their voice acting comments. The music, however, is for the most part unnoticeable. From the moment you enter the title screen, you feel like you're entering a dangerous and gloomy realm, which is great, but during the game and even during boss fights you don't really notice the music. For what it's worth, however, caves have cavelike music, sunny mountain paths have a hopeful serenade, and the main town's music fits well with the drudgery of a forgotten people trying to survive. Music just doesn't play as big a part as in other games I've played.

OVERALL SCORE: 

I am very impressed with Path of Exile, and look forward to beating the entire game, solo and alongside my friends. I enjoy exploring the dreary island of Wraeclast, the dull thumping sound it makes when I clobber monsters with a club, and the humorous satisfaction of the spell "Corpse Detonation." I was fortunate to stumble upon the game, which is in open beta as of a few weeks ago. A game seven years in the making is available for free play, and I heartily recommend it. Try out Path of Exile!

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