Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Path of Exile - Beta Weekend Thoughts

Path of Exile is an online action RPG for Windows, being developed by Grinding Gear Games. They recently held an open beta weekend, and since my friends have been playing, I decided to check it out. I didn't have a huge amount of time to play, so this is really a quick look, not a detailed review.

PoE is built from the ground up as a free to play plus cash shop game. GGG has a pretty conservative approach to their cash shop, which is appealing to me. They're avoiding pay-to-win and limiting most cash shop transactions to aesthetic items, with a few mechanical purchases (character transfers, stash size, character renames). My overall impression of the game is positive, though there are some rough spots. Still, the game is fairly fun, and free, so who am I to argue?
The Terraces - Early Act I beach area.
The game is set in a grim-dark fantasy world, where you take on the role of an exile, dumped on a hostile continent and left to fend for yourself. There are six character classes based around three primary stats. The pure classes are Marauder (strength), Ranger (dexterity), and Witch (intelligence). The three hybrid classes are Duelist (strength/dexterity), Templar (strength/intelligence), and Shadow (dexterity/intelligence). Given my limited play time, I focused on playing the Marauder -- fighter types are my idiom.

Character development comes in two forms: passive skills and skill gems. Passive skills are built by spending skill points (earned by questing and leveling) in the passive skill tree, a monstrous web of attributes, bonuses, and options for your character. Seriously. It's monstrous. Skill gems are special items you find or are given as quest rewards. They grant you the specific abilities you use to do things in the game. Gems are tied to attributes. For example my strength-based Marauder used quite a few red / strength gems, since those skills were the best match for his attributes. Skill gems are placed in special slots in your equipped items, and as you gain experience, the gems improve too. Items can also have linked slots, allowing you to link skill gems to support gems, which alter / improve effects. It's really quite a clever system, allowing you to develop the exact skills you want.
The Prison - Act I dungeon (HA!)
From my forum browsing and friends's experiences, the classes all seem pretty well done, though the lack of character customization is a bit of a disappointment. Gender and appearance is totally determined by class choice, though given the in-game camera view, this isn't that big a deal, since you don't really see much of your character's face.

The game world is fully instanced, with each character or party getting their own private zones to play in. Town zones are the exception, with characters sharing these. The towns I saw (act I / act II) were tiny, and felt very cramped, but after I got used to the idea, it didn't really matter, as all you do in town is sell loot and dump stuff in your stash.
Outdoors in Act II - Nice stonework detail.
Non-town zones are huge, some are too big, and they're all full of monsters. Zone design is quite varied, beaches and cliffs, forests, rocky plains, ruins, caverns and caves, dungeon complexes, wasteland, etc. The art direction takes a quasi-realistic approach, which isn't my personal favorite, but overall, it is consistent and well executed. I would have liked to have some of the levels reduced in size, particularly the sea caves in act I, as they felt repetitive. There are also some issues with walls obscuring your character and foes, a significant problem in some of the cave and dungeon areas. Some transparency would really help here.

Of course as you kill monsters you get loot, and this is another place PoE shines. There's lots of loot, with tons of interesting modifiers and bonuses, but that's just the beginning. There are also items that modify other items, turning mundane items into magical items, randomly changing magical properties, altering skill gem slots, improving the base quality of the item, and so on. There are a lot of these items. As with many action RPG games, you get a lot of loot, and quite a bit of it isn't useful to your character. PoE fixes this in a very clever way. There is no gold in the game (beyond the cash shop currency). Vendors pay for the items you sell with the above-mentioned alteration items. It's quite a nice system, allowing you to tweak the items you can use into something useful by selling the items that are not useful to gain alteration items.
Weaver's Lair - Act II Caves. Note the obstructing walls.
So you have monsters in the wilderness, items as loot, skills from gems, and a bunch of characters running around killing things. What drives play? There is a quest / story line running through the game, but honestly, it's fairly light. There's some dialog, but this is not a cut scene and deep story game, and that's OK. It's clear the story is there as framing for the action portion of the game, not as a centerpiece.

Based on my weekend of play, that's about all I managed to cull of the overall game experience. From browsing the web site, it appears there's much more too it, but I'm not going to talk about things I didn't experience. Instead let me give you the bullet list of things that stood out for me, good and bad:
  • Server reliability - pretty solid for a stress test weekend. I had a few disconnects during the weekend, but I expect that in beta. I had maybe two or three instances of rubber-banding / lag-induced glitches. The network side of things was better than Diablo III, which is a released AAA title built by a company with very deep pockets and vast experience with network games. 
  • Inventory - it's too damn small. I spent far too much time messing with loot and running back and forth trying to sell stuff off. The developers seem to feel this is a way to throttle items in the game, but it's one that produced quite a bit of frustration while I was playing.
  • Zones are too big - the caves, in particular, seemed to go on forever. The interior zones are very cramped feeling, which makes them feel even larger than they are. Zone size issues amplify the problem of tiny inventory, since...
  • Not enough waypoints - waypoints are instant transport back to town or to other zones. Given the size of the zones, the amount of loot, and the tiny inventory, every zone needs a waypoint, and not every zone has one. There are portal scrolls that work around this, but...
  • Portals vanish - there's a timer on portals, tied to the life cycle of instances. It's too short. Popping back to town, selling loot, messing with your stash for a minute, then getting a cup of coffee or taking a stretch break? Odds are your portal is gone when you get back. That means you're stuck using the nearest waypoint, and re-clearing the zone. Frustrating.
  • The skill gems / passive tree - these two systems work really well together. The gems add a level of complexity to item choice and the passive system gives you a way to make your character yours. If I had to gripe about anything here, it's the fact that the passive tree is too big. There are too many +10 attribute nodes that are effectively speed bumps. I think rolling some of the attribute boosts into the level up process and simplifying the passive tree would really help here.
  • Combat felt off-pace - part of this may have been caused by my chosen build, a two-handed weapon Marauder, which is naturally slow to attack, but it felt like there was consistent button lag everywhere. A few skills, Leap Slam, and Sweep in particular, just felt off.
  • Graphics - though not exactly my favorite style, the graphics are well done, and consistent. Some of the zones were very nicely handled, particularly the crossroads area and nearby ruins in Act II. Some of the underground levels were too dark, though I may have missed brightness settings in the client. 
  • Too constrained - underground caves / tunnels are so narrow that walls get in the way of vision. I really hope this gets addressed, because more than once I found myself fighting foes I couldn't see while my character was obscured by a wall.
  • Items are cool - there are tons of items, and they seem more interesting than most action RPGs (certainly better than the useless junk you find in Diablo III). The whole item alteration system is brilliant. I wish I had had more time to mess around with this aspect of the game.
  • Minor control gripe - the devs have given you five keyboard buttons plus three mouse buttons for skills, try as I might, I can't find a mouse button that actually works with my fairly standard Logitech mouse, and there wasn't a way to rebind the mouse buttons.
There were quite a few things I didn't get to try. I didn't get to play in a group, so I can't comment on that. I haven't tried out anything in the cash shop. No gold, remember? I only made it part way through act II with one class, so other classes may be very different.

My final impression: positive, but with a couple significant issues that really bug me. Chief among these are the limited waypoints, timed portals, and tiny inventory. Any one of these would be fine, but taken as a whole they conspire to create significant frustration for me. This is offset somewhat by the absolutely brilliant skill gems and item alteration system. Compared to my Torchlight 2 beta experience, Path of Exile falls a bit short, but I think it has quite a bit of potential, and I had a lot of fun playing it, more fun than Diablo III, though comparing PoE to D3 does highlight just how good Blizzard is at polish (even if what they're applying polish to is not that good a game).
Act II - Outdoor church ruins.
PoE is free to play. I'll definitely be playing it when it goes live, because even with the flaws the beta was still enjoyable. With some tweaks and polish it could make the jump from fun to really fun. Here's hoping the well-done beta is a precursor to a great game.

Screen shots courtesy my gaming buddy Joe Moore, who was kind enough to take them after I spaced on that over the weekend.

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