PREVIEW: Path of Exile [PC Beta]

Looking at screenshots and videos of Grinding Gear GamesPath of Exile, it’s easy to draw the comparison to Diablo and others of its ilk. Path of Exile is a third-person fantasy action RPG with randomised dungeons, monsters and vast oceans of shiny lootz.

But unlike many other knockoffs, Exile has actually brought something new and interesting to the table. In most of the other games you have a skill tree into which you assign points gained from levelling up and that’s still present here, but rather than have you pick your attack skills from the tree you’re selecting a series of passive boosts for your character. Extra strength, faster attack speed, better defenses and many more options are presented in a giant spiderweb you can advance through as you choose.

Selecting which skills you can fire off in combat is done in a rather unique fashion. The game contains special skill gems you can find as loot from monsters and treasure chests or receive as reward for completing quests. Find a Fireball skill gem, socket it into an appropriate slot in your character’s gear and gain access to the Fireball skill. Tired of throwing Fireballs? Replace it with a Lightning Bolt gem. Want to get in the face of monsters before you fry them? Put a Shield Charge gem into another socket so you can charge into battle before unleashing your lightning bolts.

That alone would qualify as “pretty neat” in my books, but that is just scratching the surface of the system.

Each skill gem has its own unique experience level, separate to your character’s, which increases as you kill monsters while the gem is equipped. Slaughter enough things and you can raise the level of the gem, making your Fireball more powerful, giving your Multi-Shot even more arrows or magnifying the effects of a Curse spell.

This puts the game into “super nifty” territory, with so many options available to your character and the ability to just swap skills out if they’re not working for you. But they haven’t stopped there.

Some items have multiple sockets in which you could place gems. Early in the game this typically just means one item can hold more than one skill gem, offering access to more skills or just letting you level up a gem before using it. Once you venture further into the game you’ll start finding items with linked sockets and gems that don’t directly provide you with a new skill. These are support sockets and support gems that can modify the way the linked skill functions.
Put a Fireball gem in the first socket of an item and add a Multiple Projectiles support gem in a linked socket and instead of firing off one Fireball you’re now firing two! Add an Increased Splash Radius to an Ice Nova skill and it hits a larger area. Give your warrior’s Cleave some extra oomph with an Overpower gem.

And yes, each of the support gems has its own experience level, too. There’s often a tradeoff involved, such as a lowered damage output, but increasing the level of your support gems can reduce this downside or offset it by increasing the benefit you receive.

[img_big]center,6847,2012-03-27/path_of_exile_3.jpg,Path of Exile[/img_big]

You’re not stuck with just that version of a skill, either. You can always swap the support gem out for a different kind, or even have multiple items providing the same base skill but with two different kinds of enhancement from support gems. You might have a high power, single shot lightning bolt to deal with particularly tough monsters and a lightning bolt that can jump between enemies to deal with groups, for example.

The possible combinations, even for just one skill, are impressive. Couple that with a wide variety of skills and no class restriction on who can use them and the chances of running into another character with the exact same setup as you are remote, to say the least.

There’s a lot more to the game than just the skill system, but if you’re into Diablo style games you owe it to yourself to check Path of Exile out on the basis of the skill system alone.

The game is having a Public Stress Test Weekend from March 30 to April 1 (that’s this weekend!), so if you’re looking for something to play over the weekend I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s a refreshing break from the usual Diablo clone blueprint and deserves a look.

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