Editorial | 8/1/2013 at 9:00 AM

Path of Exile Co-Op Impressions

Hmm. Needs more skill trees.

As the resident Action-RPG expert around these parts, I felt it was my duty to cover Path of Exile during Free to Play Week, so here we are. Grinding Gear Games, an independent outfit from New Zealand got tired of the dearth of ARPGs being released at the time (back in 2010) and decided to put together one of their own. Of course, the moment they started development, a thousand new ARPGs started hitting the scene. In any case, they've come up with one of the most player-friendly F2P games out there on top of tossing together a solid game. 

To be reductive, Path of Exile is basically a more modern take on Diablo 2. So, basically what the majority of early Diablo 3 haters were asking for. From an isometric perspective, you'll click on enemies repeatedly until they die and explode in showers of gibs and loot. Rinse and repeat until your rag-wearing exile turns into a godly warrior slinging white-hot death.

Character building is the name of this game.

What really sets Path of Exile apart is its character development. The game centers on three core attributes: Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence. The six character classes each represent a dependency on either one of these skills (e.g. Marauder to Strength) or a hybrid of two of them (Templar to Strength/Intelligence), and all have different starting stats. In addition, each character starts in a different spot on the Passive Skill tree (more on this in a bit).

The classes are essentially blank slates. Provided you have the stats, all characters can equip whatever items they choose - so while you're probably better served making a Witch that relies on magical skills, it's entirely possible to route her skills to two-handed weapons if you want.

Rather than learn them by gaining levels, all action skills in PoE are equippable, color-coded gems. Their color is determined by whatever core attribute they derive power from, and can only be socketed in a gear with sockets of the same color. Socket colors in gear are randomized, but higher weight is given to the colors that match the gear's theme (Plate armor will tend to have more red/strength sockets). Skill gems gain levels independently of your character as long as you have them equipped, and you can resocket them whenever you like.

Some sockets are linked to others, which allows the use of a Support gem, which adds special effects to the skill they're linked to. For instance, you could link a Stun gem to your Fireball, which gives that spell a chance to stun whatever it hits. Link a Multishot gem to it, and it'll spew extra projectiles. You get the drill. Creating good support combos with your core abilities is a great way to experiment.

The other way to grow a character is by putting points into the Passive Skill tree, a monstrous labyrinth of 1,350 nodes that closely resembles the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Gaining levels and completing quests give you points to put into the tree, and each node you activate grants you (you guessed it) a passive bonus to your stats or certain skills. Bonuses range from your standard 20 to Dexterity to Attack Speed modifiers to converting all of your available Dexterity to bonus Armor. It's daunting, but luckily you can "buy back" the last few points if you make a mistake.

Combat is standard for an Action RPG, so if the sound of a million mouse clicks is soothing to your soul, you should be happy. However, I've had a little trouble playing melee characters since there's just the vaguest hint of unresponsiveness to physical attacks. Attacks and melee abilities that seem like they should connect sometimes just don't. Oddly, I never really have this issue with the ranged classes so perhaps this one's on me (or perhaps my connection). Still, it's worth noting.

This is just the tip of the iceberg - if you ever go down the rabbit hole of researching builds in PoE, expect about ten times the theorycrafting you get out of other games of this type. Whether you like to min/max or come up with ridiculous character builds there's something for you here.



One of the more unique features of PoE is its economy. Rather than hoarding gold dropped by enemies, it uses a bartering system. There are many consumable items that grant special effects (e.g., increasing the quality of gear, identifying items, etc.), but you also have to trade those items to merchants to purchase anything. It seems to keep inflation down as far as I can tell, and makes it a little harder to just outright grind for stuff.


Path of Exile contains a fairly solid three-act campaign, and as you might expect with its inspiration, completing it unlocks a higher tier of difficulty. Cruel and Merciless difficulties up the ante slightly, since death now carries an XP penalty. Once you've cleared Merciless mode, you'll unlock the Eternal Library - granting you access to Maps.

Maps are randomized bonus zones that carry a high degree of difficulty, and they drop from monsters above a certain level. Right now, maps are considered PoE's endgame, but there's a lot of variety and challenge, so they can keep players busy.

League of what now?

If playing the standard campaign, you may (currently) create characters in one of four Leagues.

Standard: This is the default league with no additional conditions. Anarchy: Similar to the Standard league, the main difference is that there are 13 "Rogue Exiles" (basically, named NPCs with player skills) that can show up and beat you soundly. Hardcore: If you die, your character is permanently moved to the Standard league. Onslaught: Same as Hardcore, but enemies move 20% faster.

These primary Leagues are simply different ways to play the regular campaign, and rotate every so often. If you want a greater challenge, or want to get competitive, you'll want to enlist in the Race Leagues.

Race Leagues?

In addition to the standard campaign Leagues, you can also choose to join Race Leagues, which are Path of Exile's ladder system. A Race is basically a challenge, lasting anywhere from 12 minutes to 30 days, where players compete to meet conditions such as achieving a certain level, being the first player to clear out zones of monsters, or completing quests. Meeting the conditions of a race gives you ladder points, and at the end of each race the top players will receive special items.

Race Leagues also have their own special rule sets, such as the following:

Blood Magic: Instead of consuming Mana, all skills consume Health instead Cutthroat: You can enter other players' instances at will, and whenever a character dies, all of their equipment is dropped. Turbo: Monsters move 60% faster. Oh snap!

Combine this stuff with the Maps mechanic, and there's plenty of replayability to be found in PoE.


It's an F2P game, so what's going to take my hard-earned cash?

Thankfully, Path of Exile isn't a "pay-to-win" title by any stretch of the imagination. The only things you can spend cash on are cosmetic in nature (i.e., spell effects, non-combat pets, animations, etc.) or allow you to expand your account with extra character slots or extra tabs for your shared stash.

PoE uses a point system rather than making up moon-units or some other kind of silly currency. You can spend as little as $5 to buy points, but $20 gets you 200 points, making for easy conversions. I've gone ahead and just stated the following prices in real dollar amounts since it's easier for me.

Most of the microtransactions are priced fairly - the account features are generally priced in the $3-5 range. The alternate skill effects cost anywhere between $1.50 and $10, and item effects can cost as much as $25.

If you're insane, you can drop a cool grand (that's $1000) to design a unique item for the game. While I would really love for everybody to experience the "Billy Club" that looks like everybody's favorite red robot, I'm a little strapped for cash at the moment. Perhaps I should start a crowdfunding campaign to make it happen.

You can currently buy "Open Beta Supporter" packs, which give you microtransaction points, the game's soundtrack, and at higher tiers, unique pets, weapon skins, sticker sets and t-shirts. These start at around $30 and scale up from there.

If you're TRULY insane you can drop $12,500 on the top tier supporter pack which lets you design a monster to be used in the game, receive a physical model of it, and a combination of all of the lower tier supporter packs. I'm sure some sugar-daddy/mommas exist out there to buy this one, but for the life of me I can't think of a single game I've EVER played that would warrant me dropping that amount of cash.

All of the microtransactions currently help Grinding Gear fund development of the game, and since none of it is required to actually enjoy playing, I can't fault them for some of the prices - the supporter packs feel more akin to Kickstarter rewards anyway.

You've talked a lot. How's the co-op?

Solid. Chances are, if you've played Diablo 2, this will feel completely at home to you. You can invite friends to your game at any time (the maximum party size is 6 players), which in turn makes all of the monsters stronger and drop better loot. You're not tethered to other players in any way. Loot is shared between all players instead of dropping loot individually. Stop me if you've heard this before.

If you don't have friends on-hand, the central town in each act has a posting board where you can recruit players.

Progression is on a per-character basis, and if players are at different phases of quests, the game doesn't play catch-up for other characters. If one player is further along, their partners can still head to the appropriate area for their quest and complete it.

Since character builds can vary in extraordinary ways, building synergies can take some getting used to. Luckily, if you're willing to experiment with your skill loadouts a bit, you can find some solid co-op builds.

Let's wrap this up.

Out of the games we're discussing this week, Path of Exile arguably has the least barrier to entry. 100% of the game's content can be experienced without paying a dime, and you never really have to grind to get gear, despite the name of the developer. It may not be the most polished ARPG I've played lately, but the depth of character building, its unique economy, and variety of challenges makes for an excellent package.