I have become a magpie.
More precisely, I've become some sort of hybrid creature blending the qualities of a magpie and an economist. I collect and I hoard, and what I collect and hoard are essentially numbers. Numbers of all sizes, in all sorts of combinations. When I find more numbers, larger numbers or unusual combinations of numbers then I add those to my collection, too.
I'm supposed to be a man who loves role-playing, someone with a great appreciation for world-building and storytelling and complexity of character, but I couldn't tell you a thing about the plot of Path of Exile, nor the names of any of the thousands of things I've killed in just this last week alone. I could tell you that, back home in my stash, I have a bow that fires arrows of ice (adding elemental damage), an old pair of boots that help me regenerate health and a massive sword that I can't even use with any of my characters, but which I still just had to have.
Some of the numbers on the items I have found are very big. Others come in particularly unusual combinations. A hat that makes me both feel better and find more interesting loot. Gloves that protect me from lightning. A rather useful glass vial which improves the potency of anything I pour into it.
Path of Exile knows exactly what action RPGs are all about: the gear, the rewards and the endless recombining of these items as you hone an ever more effective killing machine. In the same way that sharks have evolved over millions of years to become deadly predators, ARPG characters are progressively sharpened by their owners over hundreds of hours, transformed, item by item, stat by stat, into magnificent murderers.
It's terrifying how compelling this can be, even though it's not always very exciting. Much as I would in any action RPG, I sally forth into a dungeon or jungle somewhere and, depending upon proficiency, batter, shoot or zap my way through the dozens, hundreds, thousands of monsters. At first, I collected everything their dead hands dropped, but in time I learned to pick through the corpses for loot and take only the most valuable finds. The best items end up on my person, while the rest are traded, sold or occasionally kept for posterity. Then I do it all again.
There's a very particular sort of familiarity here, beyond just the traits that are shared with the Diablo and Torchlight series. Path of Exile harks back to Diablo 2, with its grim, Gothic aspect, creepy mood music and the importance of customising equipment by slipping gems into sockets. These gems don't simply boost stats, they act as skills, offering you new ways to fight. A sword can give out a blast of energy, or a bow launch a triple shot, and these gems gain experience in a similar way to their owners, improving their stats over time. Some gems don't function alone, but instead compliment others, improving the effectiveness of those they're socketed beside.
Then there's the skill tree, which isn't so much a tree as a labyrinth, a sprawling web of thousands of nodes occasionally dotted with faces that peek out at you like a cheeky David Bowie. Each represents the starting point for one of the game's classes (see 'The magnificent seven', left), and from these seeds unique characters can be grown, blooming their way through nodes both dramatic and mundane. The next node you claim might bee Mastery of the Necromantic Aegis, or it could be a 3% increase to your attack speed. One is exciting, the other sounds like an interest rate.
But it turns out this is where the most important decisions are made, where the biggest challenges are faced - in all this customisation of characters and equipment. Path of Exile is a game that challenges you most while you aren't in the action, and while combat can be fast, it could certainly be a lot more difficult. Much of the time, it feels like a means to an end.
Even screenfuls of enemies can be beaten back without much of a sweat and they don't boast enough special attacks or unusual powers to really keep you on your toes, often being variations on a theme. Bosses are better, and a welcome change of pace, but battlefield business can sometimes become a slog, your opponents failing to keep pace with your ever-improving character. The game only really bites back when you join parties with other players, inflating the number of monsters you'll have to tackle.
This is Path of Exile at its most fun: the screen jammed with skeletons, a necromancer at their back raising the fallen ones just about as fast as you can kill them. Fortunately, finding friends is easy, which also makes trading simple, offering even more opportunities to find new gear.
The developers have chosen to forgo in-game currency, encouraging players to barter, while vendors only offer further customisation tools as rewards. Try to trade something in and you'll be presented with identify scrolls or fragments towards an orb that will modify something you already own. Players are trading all the time and the only problem you'll have with it is keeping up with the chat log.
Path of Exile is free-to-play. I haven't mentioned this yet because it keeps slipping my mind, something I take as a very good sign. As usual, there's money to be spent on the cosmetic side of things, buying yourself a pet that will follow you about, modifying the look of your character or treating yourself to a new character animation. Players can pay to contribute custom content to the game and you'll also find your wallet grants you the opportunity to increase your personal stash and character limit. The game doesn't press you on any of these, nor is it interested in asking you to pay to make your character more powerful or to take shortcuts.
It's free-to-play done well and it's not at all invasive, so I'm a little sad to say I'm unsure how effective a revenue generator it will be. Though it's not an unattractive game, Path of Exile doesn't have Torchlight 2's sense of style or Diablo 3's polish. Its cosmetics are fairly expensive, with $30 getting you a pet, a soundtrack and 200 points. 200 points might buy one or two customisations, but it won't even stretch to some of the weapon effects. You could blow it all on just expanding your stash, or one piece of headgear.
But how you choose to spend your money is your business. If this payment model works out for the developer Grinding Gear, I'll be very pleased. Path of Exile isn't a great action RPG, but it's a pretty good one, it's off to a promising start and the developer says it has a lot planned for the months and years ahead.
I can't say what their future holds as I'm not much of an economist (nor am I really a magpie). But I can say I've had many, many hours of fun in a game that still has much more to show me and which all of us, right now, can play for nothing at all. We're being spoiled.
This game was played for review in the open beta version immediately prior to launch. You can find information on the features of the game's launch update on the Path of Exile site.