Could it actually be better than you know what?
In the absence of a Diablo and Baldur's Gate, there has been a PC void in the hack-'n'-slash Western action RPG genre, now temporarily filled with free-to-play action MMORPGs, Borderlands, and other loot grinders. Grinding Gear Games, a small independent studio based in New Zealand, has watched intently and almost silently through this lull since 2006, anxiously developing their own action RPG and waiting for the right time to unveil their project. What they have shown in their brief one-hour demonstration of the pre-alpha build for Path of Exile might make some people whisper the words "Diablo Killer".
[image1]Those are strong words for sure, but this modern, free-to-play, Diablo-inspired title has all the ingredients for a sleeper hit. Calling it "Diablo-inspired" might sound too modest at first, since it looks likes Diablo, feels like Diablo, and plays like Diablo - health bar for enemies at the top, red and blue orbs for health and mana, classes (only the warrior and ranger classes have been unveiled so far), the grid-based inventory system, randomly generated dungeons, item rarity color scheme, the list goes on and on. Apart from the story which has your character washing ashore on a cursed continent as punishment for a crime, the inspiration couldn't be clearer.
But where Path of Exile innovates is in an unlikely place: gem sockets. Taking a cue from the materia system in Final Fantasy VII, gems give players active skills and can level up with experience, while weapons and armor have color-specific sockets, some of which are linked together. So if you were to combine a red power gem that lets you fire ice arrows and combine it with a blue support gem that fires multiple projectiles, your character suddenly becomes an uber-powerful Gauntlet Legends-esque warrior capable of sniping down hordes of whatever comes in its path.
The potential for mixing and matching gems is practically endless. Would you like a buff that effects your entire party? Go ahead. Want magical spells to turn into traps? Why the hell not? What about fireballs that do ice damage? Shazaam!
[image2]As you might suspect then, you will see players trading these premium gems with other players, especially since half of the gems can only be found through random drops. But this fits in with what the developers noticed in other action RPGs: gold is rarely traded between players. Yes, there is gold in the game to purchase basic necessities, but getting anything of superior worth requires bartering items with NPCs and other players. While collecting all the items a character wants may be a hassle, the system is commendable for its understanding of the multiplayer space.
In another allusion to Final Fantasy, the familiar skill tree follows the general concept of the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X, except that it's divided into five sections, each with a separate focus like strength or defense. Every level up garners you another node up the tree of your choice, and since the developers are planning to create a tree with almost 1000 nodes, you'll have plenty of options and character builds to experiment with. The range of customization is epically immense.
And that's not the only good ideas it has. Microtransactions are be restricted to alternate skins, like making fireballs look like a dragon's head, so players can't simply buy their way into the game. Potions hold charges and refill automatically, lessening item management and making exploration much easier. Story is told through visual clues in the environment, instead of long, boring blobs of text.
Path of Exile is a win-win situation. It will either whet your appetite for Diablo III or satisfy it completely. And on the off chance that it does neither, it's going to be free. The beta has been scheduled to open early 2011.