Developer Grinding Gears struck gold years ago with its release of Path of Exile, and its success is in many ways rooted in the numerous failings of Diablo 3. Many even consider Path of Exile to be a spiritual successor to Diablo 2, thanks to its darker plotlines, gothic environments, and its complex gear itemization and character skill progression.
David Brevik, a lead developer for Diablo 2, recently moved over to help steer Path of Exile, and fans of both games could not have been more thrilled to see the man in charge of an old favorite game now working on their new favorite. So, what exactly is it that makes Path of Exile the sequel to Diablo 2 that Blizzard could not deliver with Diablo 3?
A Darker World
Discussing the storyline of Diablo 3 is a controversial subject for several reasons. One topic that instantly generates unanimous complaints on forums is the treatment of Deckard Cain, a beloved, integral part of the series whose death in the third game many feel was an insult to the character.
As for the story arcs, many disliked the bland plot, monotonous goody-goody angels, predictable betrayal by Adria, the overhyping of the importance of Azmodan and Ghom, and more. Considering how long the game was in development, the story felt like an afterthought.
On the other hand, Path of Exile is far darker in its premise and does not shy away from strong themes and interesting plot development. More importantly, playing Path of Exile feels more like playing a sequel to Diablo 2 than Diablo 3 ever has. Beyond this, it is more than just nostalgia for a of a story from the 1990s that has players captivated, its also the gameplay and the loot.
Loot Systems – Is It Better To Be Complex, Or Trivial?
At their core, Diablo games and Path of Exile are all about looting gear. Of course, players are sent to save the world from total annihilation, but at the end of the day, getting a new piece of gear and an incremental power increase are often what keep players coming back to save the world over and over again.
When we think of Diablo 3, we should distinguish between the time before and after the launch of the Loot 2.0 system, which released in 2014. Before this point, players would feel frustration at finding items with stats not relevant to their builds or class. Demon Hunters, who need Dexterity, might find weapons with Intellect and Strength, which made them useless.
Loot 2.0 rebalanced gear found from enemies, with the most notable changes being smart drops: items would finally drop with an appropriate mainstat for the class that finds it. This means that when a Demon Hunter found a weapon like a bow, it always had Dexterity. Players also saw fewer drops, but greater quality and rarity.
Farming loot was expanded with the creation of Torment difficulties, which gradually increases drop rates as the difficulty increases exponentially, which is still increased every so often to deal with character power creep to this day. At the time, the move was a monumental positive change for the game, though since then some players think acquiring gear has gone too far in the other direction, and is now too easy, outside of grinding for hours on end in search of the rarest Primal Ancient drops.
Path of Exile meanwhile has also undergone adjustments in how it doles out loot, but at its core has always been true to its unique currency system that does not use any kind of gold or real cash currency. When your character defeats an opponent, drops can be traded to vendors for progressively more valuable currency, beginning with Scrolls of Wisdom. As you progress through the game, you continue to acquire items to trade for currency, but the currency become more valuable. Orbs of Transmutation, Regal Orbs, and more are all useful for buying and selling, as well as for having practical effects on gear, such as providing stats.
From here, unique items can be found by players, or traded with others. Divination Cards stack for turn-ins to acquire other rewards. Whether or not you like the loot system in Path of Exile is a matter of preference, but there is no doubt in saying that it is complex, and many players of Diablo 2 embrace that complexity over the now trivial way in which we find gear in Diablo 3.
In Game Economy
For an in-depth look at how the auction house affected Diablo 3, both with gold and real money, click here. In sum, the result of the auction house was that players were able to get the best items in the game not by fighting demons and looting, but from buying it from the listings that could be tailored in a search for an optimal roll. Then, many players also found that they could flip loot on the auction house to get even more gold for their own gear. Soon, Diablo 3 was far more about playing the economy than fighting demons.
Although Path of Exile has a rich, complex looting and trading system, it does not suffer in the same way that Diablo 3 did during its initial launch. Mainly, gear in Path of Exile is more similar in theme to gear in Diablo 2 than in Diablo 3, which is to say, not immediately evident as a straight upgrade, but more of an opportunity to laterally shift in performance based on what one wishes to accomplish. In both Diablo 2 and in Path of Exile, comparing gear is a far more subjective task. Is it better to increase attack power with cumulative strikes, or bypass an opponent’s armor? The way gear is handled makes all the difference in the world, and fans of Path of Exile love their complexity.
Diablo 3 occupies the other end of the spectrum with a simple, clear cut presentation of how gear affects a character, with a % comparison of an increase or decrease in life, damage, and protection. While skill modifiers also need to be considered, one is usually able to make a snap decision regarding the viability of a new item as an upgrade, which removes almost all strategy in selecting items.
The trading economy in Path of Exile is like the Matrix, you need to see it to believe, or rather, understand its complexities. Item prefix combinations are random and number in the thousands of combinations. Thanks to this, one is always able to look for new items through trade and find an innovative build for their character.
Skill Tree And End Game Content
Diablo 2 was known for its iconic skill trees, but Diablo 3 went in a direction that favored simplification over creativity with its Rune system. Path of Exile chose again to embrace complexity in its sprawling, wide-open constellation skill tree. Developer Grinding Gear has encouraged players to find the best, most powerful skill combos, and have even gone out of their way to highlight them for the community, as seen in this video from 2012. Today they still maintain the same attitude of player experimentation.
Thanks to a ever-present trading community in Path of Exile, along with the previously mentioned numerous affixes on items, there is so much more one can do in the endgame. Players have the option to farm certain maps like Harbour Bridge and have the option to incorporate map modifiers to add the rarest upgrades. This means that while the core gameplay is hack and slash, the variety of content in Path of Exile trumps Greater Rifts in Diablo 3, which are random, and leads to rift fishing among those trying to hit the highest world records. Take a look at the skill tree for Path of Exile below. The path taken is entirely up to you, and provides for endless customization.
Since 2013, Path of Exile has been successful and maintains a strong, healthy community. Grinding Gears Games is constantly updating the game with new content, and its fans relish the game in a way that fans of Diablo 3 wish they could. Perhaps Diablo 4 will return to its roots after seeing how well complexity can do in the video game market today, but considering Blizzard’s overall theme of simplicity to maximize its player base, this is an unlikely outcome.