What am I playing this week? Paths of Free-To-Play in Path of Exile

As we begin our second week into a month of free-to-play, I just have to change directions from FPS, one of the most common Free-to-play models out there, to the action-rpg genre, which still is generally underrepresented in the FTP model. That is because there’s one game designer out there that’s proven how to do it right, and very few want to try to compete at their level. I’m referring to, of course, Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile. In a world where the Isometric action RPG is dominated by the big boys in the form of Diablo, and Torchlight, Path of Exile takes what is traditionally a pay-model and shows that your fans will reward you when you do something right.

Path of Exile came out right during the sweet spot, though their official release was October 23, 2013, their major public beta released right when dissatisfaction with the problems displayed in Diablo 3 were at their highest. People were annoyed at the always-on connection, the cash marketplace, and the skill progression in what most people thought was a relatively shallow return to a favored franchise. Grinding Gear hits the scene with a game that is darker, grittier, has more in-depth gameplay and a developer that most fans generally consider more responsive to bugs and balance issues, while maintaining a good relationship with their customers.

So, what sort of game is Path of Exile? Well, the easiest way to put it is to call it a Diablo clone for the base gameplay, but expanded way beyond anything Blizzard imagined. Like most games of this type it is a point and click interaction to do pretty much anything. The map is isometric; you kill things by putting your mouse on them and clicking them, and as your character levels you put together items, skills and talents to let you kill things even more easily. As a game style goes, the actual way you play is very very simple, and quite repetitive, what makes it interesting and really enhances the experience is the immense amount of customization Grinding Gear Games has expanded the character customization and skill trees to almost insane levels. You can take any character class in the game, and pretty much make it do whatever you want. Want a melee archer? You can do that; a sneaky necromancer, sure, go ahead, you can find a way to make it happen. Not only are the options incredible, but they keep expanding them. This game is constantly in development, and they are always dropping new content.

Graphically, they kept the game simple. Isometric hack and slashers don’t really need the highest end graphics, but they are done well, for the most part. I think they did fall into the ‘gritty world’ trap of quite a few games though, which can sometimes make it hard for you to navigate as the grey, brown, and dark color palates can make it hard to differentiate paths from terrain from monsters. Once you start killing things though, the game’s effects shine. Lots of blasts, bright colors, and mayhem of all kinds fill the screen, giving your abilities a satisfying ‘crunch’ as you destroy the enemies around you. They made a real effort to make the powers distinctive, so as you customize your character, you also know that your powers will show off your character to any other players that join you.

Grinding Gear Games stated at the beginning that players would never be able to pay for power in Path of Exile. No kind of stat advantage, no exp boosts, nothing. Like many games that are free-to-pay, the primary source of income is cosmetic enhancements for the players, and vanity tweaks. Unlike many free-to-play games though, Grinding Gear Games actually modeled their business like that from the very beginning. Players that want to contribute enough can actually have items customized for their characters in game. They have to build these custom items from a standard item within the game, but it is another way to get that little bit of prestige for supporting the game. So far, Grinding Gears has shown a profit every year, so they are obviously doing something right with this model.

There are many free-to-play games out there with varying levels of polish. Some companies go for the quick buck to get out, while others really have their model in mind for the future and expansions of their games. Grinding Gear Games shows what a polished, well-done, and fun to play experience can bring to the free-to-play scene. If you like RPG Hack and slash, there’s definitely no better way to drop your no dollars then to dive into Path of Exile.

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