If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent more time than you’d like to admit delving into the depths and dungeons of Diablo 2. With the coming release of Path of Exile, you’ll have a reason to love that hack & slash action once more.

If you’re not familiar to the genre, Path of Exile is an isometric 3D RPG with randomly generated, instanced zones and loot. You choose a character and build him or her up with the acquisition of skills, refinement of stats, and sweet, sweet gear. Simple, right? Path of Exile takes this basic concept and sets a new spin on it. With equipment you can hone and modify, skills you trade and level independently of your character, and an attribute tree to truly customize your character’s development, you’ll find yourself seeking new avenues for advancement and enjoying a new gaming experience in a brilliant re-imaging of an old genre.[singlepic id=5517 w=320 h=240 float=left]

Gameplay consists of you entering instances and fighting down swaths of enemies with a wide variety of skills and equipment. Some enemies are empowered with additional effects, like fire damage or health regeneration, and a few elite creatures roam each area, each possessing a plethora of resistances and abilities. You’ll find equipment and new skills as you progress. It’s how PoE interprets this gameplay formula if you will that makes it fun.

There’s more to your skills than simply unlocking them and using them. Instead of “skill points,” you have skill gems you can insert and remove from your equipment at will. On top of that, you can modify your skills with support gems if your armor has the proper links in its sockets. These gems can add damage types, increase the skill’s area of effect, duration, projectiles fired, and so forth. All gems level up independently with you, receiving a portion of the experience you do. You can mix, match, and trade skill gems at any time.

Path of Exile changes how you seek gear. All pieces of equipment have quality levels, which can be increased via special items. They also possess sockets of three colors, some linked to others, dictating which skill gems can be worn at a time. Not only will you find mundane, magic, rare, and unique equipment, but also special orbs. With these orbs, you can turn your mundane equipment into magic or rare counterparts, reroll its magical modifications, change the number or color of sockets in the equipment, improve its quality, and so on. Because there is no in-game currency, much of trading is centered around the exchange of these orbs.

Oh yeah, there’s no actual currency. Instead, when you “sell” items to merchants, you get orbs or orb fragments in return. You make purchases from merchants with the same materials. The effect of this is twofold- the economy among players is driven around haggling for these orbs instead of specific gear, and there’s less impetus to pawn off everything¬† and anything you find to merchants. On top of that, magical equipment must be identified prior to being used, and that requires scrolls of wisdom which are [singlepic id=5518 w=320 h=240 float=right]fairly limited themselves- there’s no merchant or NPC to identify your stuff for you. You may have to think twice before identifying those boots you may not end up using.

Gone too are the generic potions of healing or mana. Instead, you get vials which fill up as you slay enemies and can be used for their restorative properties. These too can be magical, granting you additional knockback or extinguishing you if you’re on fire among other neat features.

You’ll gain levels as you venture deeper into hostile territory, of course. Each level grants you one attribute point, which you can use in the passive skill tree. Calling it a tree does not do it justice, however. If you’ve played Final Fantasy X, you’ll find the passive attribute table rather resembles its Sphere Grid. If you haven’t, it works like this: You have a massive table full of nodes, each of which grant you additional stats (strength, intelligence, agility), other enhancements (health, mana, damage with weapon types, movement speed, attack speed, and more), and special nodes that modify your character significantly, like converting all of your evasion points into armor or making you draw from your life pool instead of mana. These nodes are distributed in a rather organized fashion, so you’ll find armor and health nodes in one place and axe damage nodes in another, for example. You gain one passive attribute point per level and gain a few per quest. Choose your passive attributes carefully, however- if you’re dissatisfied with an attribute investment, you’ll have to work to undo your choices. Shown below is but a small fraction of the whole passive attribute grid.

[singlepic id=5519 w=320 h=240 float=left]There are six planned classes for PoE. Most of their differences rest with their starting locations on this passive attribute grid. On top of that, all classes can use any skill they find, so long as they have the necessary stats. If you really wanted to, you could have a spellcasting Duelist or a berserking Witch- the choice is yours.

Graphically, the game is gorgeous. Its dark, gritty theme is well represented in the caves and ruins you can explore. Lush environments full of color and plant growth contrast these moodier zones, but in a way that preserves the serious theme of the game. Shadows fall from jungle flora and fauna, light glows from the fireballs and torches, caves sport winding tunnels and flowing water alike, dense fog looms over the sandy graveyard of sea vessels, the details go on and on. This quality of graphics runs smoothly even on middling computers.

Soundwise, Path of Exile doesn’t set any new standards. The ambience is great, bows twang, staves make satisfying thwack noises when striking things. It’s quite good, actually, but it won’t leave you whistling any tunes when you’re done.

For all of the new ideas Path of Exile holds, it clings almost religiously to some of the basic ideas of its inspiration, Diablo 2, and suffers slightly as a result. We see again acts, waypoints,difficulty levels, champion and boss monsters, and a similar item rarity system. If you’ve played Diablo 2, you’ll transition into Path of Exile without [singlepic id=5514 w=320 h=240 float=right]blinking.

All things taken together, Path of Exile is a game that’s familiar to hack and slash fans and brings new and intriguing ideas to the original formula.
The best part?

It’ll be free. Free, supported by microtransactions for cosmetics and other non-gameplay-affecting perks.

Because it’s still in beta, the game will continue to change and develop. It’s great already, and will only get better. Path of Exile will go open beta some time later this year (early 2012, according to their website).