As soon as I finished a playthrough of Torchlight 2 (TL2), I went over to the Path of Exile (PoE) site to check on its progress, finding closed beta had moved to open and they would no longer be doing character wipes. I couldn't resist downloading the game; being free, there was no reason not to, and I'm glad I did.
First of all, the passive talent system is PoE's greatest aspect. It's modeled after the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X, except a lot larger, and it doesn't include new spells or abilities. Sporting over 1300 passives and, eventually, a little over 100 points, the builds can be totally unique. In Final Fantasy, a player ended up filling every slot; in PoE, a player will end with roughly a twelfth of it empty. For my witch, I went with fire and minion boosts, but I've heard other players in chat talk about their builds. Some people are using wands and defensive abilities, others went with lightning or frost. Every time I level, I find myself plotting a course through the elaborate tree; I've recently realized I need to start taking resist and energy shield abilities, or I'll splatter the moment my minions die.
The talent system is just a part of what makes each character unique. There is also a gem system, each having spells on them, and support gems that alter those spells. It's similar to another Final Fantasy game, the materia system used in the seventh installment, where equipping a gem not only allows a player to use that spell, but the spell/ability levels up with usage. Right now, because I went the path of a Fire/Necro witch, I'm using gems with fire spells, rapid mana regeneration (Clarity is a must for casters), and minion health/damage boosts.
Combat is smooth and what one would expect from an ARPG: small action bar, a couple spells hotkeyed to mouse, and movement with the mouse. On my witch, I surround myself with zombies and a spectre, lay down some fire traps, then spam an area of effect (AOE) that does an outstanding job clearing rooms...so long as I'm not swarmed by mobs. And there are a lot of mobs. I've stepped on platforms and watched twenty to thirty spiders swarm from an abyss and surround me. Very rarely, even on boss fights, does a player go toe to toe with just one of anything.
I am enjoying the music and graphics. Unlike TL2 and Diablo 3 (D3), PoE went with a sense of realism from character design to the maps. Make no mistake, this is a game for adults. There's lots of blood, bones flying off skeletons, and genitalia. No joke, there are nude mobs with all their parts exposed.
Being online, a beta, and going through the server stress test with high traffic, I've experienced some disconnects, minor lag, but it's nothing close to what I experienced at the launch of D3, and when the servers have gone down, they have not gone down for long. I haven't grouped with anyone, as I don't see the point; when loot drops, it's a free-for-all. I don't want to experience the competition and lose a needed drop because I'm too slow to click my mouse.
As it is, gear is hard to come by (get ready to grind), and my witch hasn't found an upgrade in over ten levels. A running joke in chat are templars without pants. There is no auction house (I'm fine with that), and the currency is a barter system, rather than gold. It's a system I have never encountered before and took some getting used to. Basically, players get most of what they need from trading with other players. The free-to-play model is genuine, the store composed of vanity purchases such as pets and glowing weapons, nothing that is going boost a character's damage or defense. Things bought are purely aesthetic, not pay-to-win. After getting angry over Star Wars: The Old Republic's restrictive free-to-play model, I went into the game expecting to be nickle and dimed around every corner--it was refreshing to be wrong.
If I have one complaint, albeit not a gamebreaker, it's the waypoint system. Finding a waypoint can get annoying. There are some areas that delve more than five levels with no hint at what level the waypoint is on, and if no one in chat responds to an inquiry or can't remember, I am forced to clear every level until the waypoint is found. The reason this happens is because upon death a player is teleported back to town, and the kicker is after 8-15 minutes, areas reset. Since players can manually reset an area, I wish they would give us the option in the User Interface (UI) to either lengthen that time or turn off the automatic reset. More than once, I have done a trek of shame back to where I died through several areas, died again, and trekked back. In fact, I just logged off for a break, after dying on Act 2's boss and realizing it'd take me an hour or more to get back to where I was, having gone four levels deep after the waypoint. Getting so far meant everything from the waypoint to the boss would be reset by the time I reached each level, and, in essence, I would have to redo the entire dungeon--the maps are random and not small.
Anything can change in PoE from now till the official release. I know for certain there's another Act on the way and there are hotfixes several days a week, meaning PoE is going to continue to grow, improve, and iron out bugs via feedback. For Grinding Gear Games' first title, it's not only promising, it's a lot of fun.