What makes Path of Exile such a long lasting game? It surely isn’t its crippling technology which after all these years has improved but still hides plenty of annoyances. It’s the replay value that makes a Hack & Slash succeed and that’s usually the result of a solid gameplay. Stiff animations and a poor netcode might factor into the quality. But it’s the mechanics that entangle players into spending hundreds or thousands of hours doing mostly the same thing, grinding, and Path of Exile got that right.
The developers at Grinding Gear Games have seen the gameplay potential of Diablo 2 way before its legacy was tainted by a misguided son. But replicating without innovating isn’t the path to greatness and GGG chose to expand on Diablo 2’s core with new ideas. Years of continuous development has brought us the true successor to the father of the Hack & Slash subgenre. And just before its biggest expansion I returned to the game with a meatier article than I ever did in the past.
Path of Exile’s strengths come from a mechanically complex gameplay with the kind of built-in difficulty that made MMOs not so accessible yet highly popular and addictive back in their early days. This concept of hardcore difficulty has been lost with time and its rarity has made it all the more valuable. It’s one of the reasons Dark Souls has become such a renowned series and it’s now the power behind some of the more popular survival games out there. It isn’t something that’s meant for everybody, but the popularity of hardcore games has grown a lot as a reactionary move against a market oversaturated with handholders (come on! we are forcefully guided even in RTS games nowadays). Path of Exile is one of the games that went quite early against the trend, having a ruthless and unforgiving gameplay that requires time and patience to get the hang of it. It’s a game that opens up the more you play it, becoming more challenging and rewarding at the same time. This trial and error mix gives the game a mysterious appeal that has you pushing onwards despite countless deaths and levels worthy of experience lost in the process. The concept of loss hasn’t been lost even after many content updates, staying strong as one of the base concepts in an attempt to make the players more aware of the gameplay. But all the talk about difficulty aside, I would be lying if I said that the developer’s commitment to the game isn’t one of the factors for its popularity. It’s just that without these core ideas the game might not have had a chance against bigger competitors. And this commitment to complexity and challenge has been rewarded by the players who have gone against extreme lag and performance problems not to give up on the game. After all, Path of Exile does have its issues, some dating back to its design stages.
What Path of Exile got right, besides ridding on Diablo 2’s success, is the progression system. The progression starts with the leveling that’s capped at 100 giving the players something to strive for, achievable, yet not easy to reach when factoring the experience lost with each death. Each level up provides one skill point, a limited yet valuable reward meant to be carefully spent because refunding it isn’t easy. These points buy your way through an imposing labyrinth of passive and active skills allowing for countless possibilities to create personalized builds in this overwhelming marvel of character progression. But leveling doesn’t count as end game content, the lack of which has been the problem for most Hack & Slash games. Past a certain point in the story (yes, there is a story) and character progression the maps come into play to provide the end game grinding experience for those willing to continue the hunt for unique items. After all, the rush for better items is one of the biggest incentives to continue slashing through mostly a repetitive content. Path of Exile is at the top of the game with its unique item design with the help of the community that has brought in some interesting concepts for items as part of the rewards for the supporter packs. The game has now dozens of unique items which open up paths to ever new and peculiar builds that somehow work wonders in the hands of some of the most dedicated players out there. Ultimately the whole grinding experience has been enhanced with the Atlas of Worlds which has expanded the end game content with a nicely designed UI that’s keeping track of the maps progress that’s leading to an actual end point.
All these elements put together add a lot of complexity into a game dedicated to grinding. But despite having activities like PvP or timed races for various rewards, Path of Exile isn’t and probably will never be a properly balanced game. The sheer amount of skills and items with the builds born out of the two make it impossible to have equality. It’s up to the players to find the strengths and the weaknesses in what they like to play and juggle around those. Not everything might be killable straight on and not everything will be rewarding, but that’s part of the beauty of this experience, to pick your battles and progress in spite of your misfortune. The good gear isn’t easy to acquire and the unconventional currency system split between dozens of orbs without a proper trading system does make things even harder. So true satisfaction is not achieved through luck but through the dedication of making your builds work with what you got and that’s truly what makes all the effort worth it. But if you are the kind of player with an inclination for trading and economy, you can surely thrive in this game.
It saddens me that after all these years of content updates and gameplay improvements, Path of Exile still suffers from the same old problems. The graphics aren’t all that important for a Hack & Slash as long as they serve their purpose and the artistic direction is mostly about taste. But this is an old game and while the grim visuals and atmosphere do play to the game’s strengths, the overall visuals are quite technically dated. Visual improvements have been teased, but I doubt Path of Exile will ever have the fluency of motion or visual appeal of Diablo 3. It’s true that the slight clunkyness in animation makes things somewhat more difficult, asking more from the players than just rushing heedlessly. But this bizarre sync between gameplay and technical components isn’t something really worth praising and when the lag hits (and it will) there’s really no defense left for the game.
Then there is the weird problem stemming from the increase in numbers of items and currency which makes it hard to continue playing without premium payments for those sweet stash slots. The almost tribal trading system doesn’t make things any easier. The players are required to keep a constant tap on the in-game chat channels if they want to buy or sell something or go the extra miles (plural) to make forum posts and browse through dedicated trading sites which only circle back to the in-game trading. Some players might not have the patience to do all this and that’s totally understandable as a lot of time is wasted on this rudimentary system that doesn’t do any good for the game.
These have been real issues since before the game’s full release but never really got addressed. In this industry the development priorities don’t always match the desires of the consumers and I’m afraid even GGG is somewhat guilty of this sin. Then again, we are talking about a content rich free to play game that was built from scratch as the studio’s first title. It’s flawed, but it got so many things right.
My return to Path of Exile had me adding a few more dozen hours to the thousands I already sunk into this frustratingly addictive game since I got invited to the Beta more than 5 years ago (if my memory doesn’t trick me). The game has grown wider and stronger since then and I’ve been around to see that happening with almost each update. Yet never before the developers have been set on accomplishing such a great feat as they are about to do now with The Fall of Oriath expansion. It’s not a coincidence that I’ve started playing Path of Exile now. I’m just getting ready for the 6 new acts and the revamped story progression that are coming together with many additions on all fronts. Bring it on Path of Exile, I’m (almost) ready!