Thursday, January 23, 2014

Path of Desync

So I come to it at last. Level 75 of, at least for the moment, the only other class I really had any interest in playing in Path of Exile. The Duelist. Having taken what I learnt from my Marauder and applied it to a more offensive class, I feel I have stumbled upon something that could almost be described as broken. A literal killing machine when rolling, the build I theorized being possible only truly came into affect around level 30. Funnily enough this is about the same level I changed to Spectral Throw on my Marauder. This level of epiphany is probably a combination of getting access to higher level gear (read: more gem slots), higher level gems and generally having more points to throw around your skill tree.

Anyway, I was originally planning on using Cyclone, Path of Exile's equivalent to Whirlwind from Diablo 2. While it wasn't ranged, it was both AOE and mobile. However, while attempting to become accustomed to the ability, I realised very quickly it was terrible. A huge mana cost coupled with adverse scaling with movement speed meant it would never be an ideal ability for most situations. Forcibly dropping Cyclone for something else was, however, problematic. Without resorting to a ranged/AOE ability for ... well ranged or AOE circumstances meant that viable ability options were rather limited. My experiences with my Marauder showed that using purely melee abilities in dangerous circumstances (outnumbered, mobs that charge/shock, bosses etc) was a death wish unless you were geared to the teeth.

So, I returned to the drawing board. It is probably no surprise I was drawn to the ability Flicker Strike, which, provided you are within a short range, teleports you to a chosen/random enemy and attacks them for small amount of damage. While this addressed the mobility issue, it did nothing for AOE purposes and unfortunately had a habit of putting you right in the middle of large packs of enemies. Additionally, it has a cooldown of 2 seconds, preventing it from innately being spammed. Why would anyone want to make such a crappy, unreliable ability the focus of their build?

Without going in to too much detail, the answer is quite simple: frenzy charges. More specifically, its keeping frenzy charges generating constantly. While Frenzy, a single target ability capable of generating frenzy charges is used in the build, it really only acts as the keys to the engine. Why frenzy charges are necessary is because they can be consumed to bypass Flicker Strike's cooldown. While you could continuously generate frenzy charges with Frenzy and burn them all with Flicker Strike, the process would be laborious, inefficient and dangerous in melee. Generating frenzy charges without needing to constantly Frenzy would be ideal.

Blood Rage allows you to do this, but has a negative side effect of killing you slowly, removing 4% of maximum health per second. In Normal difficulty, this self-induced damage is laughable. In Merciless however, without Chaos resistance, it becomes incredibly taxing. You can counter this Chaos damage by either getting some Chaos resistance (hard to get) or stacking life regen passively. Ideally you would do both. Additionally, you can improve the efficiency of Flicker Strike by combining it with both Multi-strike (3 Flicker strikes per Frenzy charge) and Melee Splash Damage, allowing the ability to do some decent AOE damage. Unfortunately these gem combinations make this ability chew mana ridiculously, with no feasible amount of regen, mana leech or pot chugging able to keep up with it.

While unnecessary, uniques such as this one can enhance the build further
Using Bloodmagic gems or the Bloodmagic Keystone will unlock your healthpool as a resource for casting abilities. Considering your health is already decaying from Blood Rage, significant Life Leech is necessary to retain any health at all, especially in combat. As you are of course melee and because Flicker Strike doesn't make you untargettable, you will still take damage and often considerable amounts of it. Having a high effective health sustain through regen and leech, achieved through high armour and elemental resists but not not so high on actual hit points makes this more effective and further negates the %health damage caused by Blood Rage. Finally, using the Warlord's Mark curse will give you additional life leech and a chance to gain endurance charges, further adding to your finely tuned effective health pool. Throw in Whirling Blades for defensive mobility, a couple of CWDT combinations, some extra single target Frenzy damage and some minor Life Leech gear and you can pretty much handle any situation. The end results are as follows:

Recommend watching in 1080p.

I have to say, the build is quite strong and a bit better at farming than my Marauder currently is. While it took some extensive theorycrafting and attention to detail regarding specific gems and stats, the end result is worth it. This is not to say the build isn't without its weaknesses. Running out of Frenzy charges still occurs, albeit infrequently, but has the habit of putting you in some ghastly situations. Most significantly though, the build is incredibly susceptible to desyncs and is usually the reason for the former problem. The speed and frenetic damage output of the build seems to tie up a busy server more than normal. However, it is something I have grown accustomed to and built my character to handle. Deaths are infrequent and far, far apart, if at all. Death dealing, however, is brutal and surprisingly fun. However, the satisfaction comes more from the visual result of the build and the conscious effort taken to get it working and less from the execution of the build itself.

In any case, the Diablo III expansion Reaper of Souls is on the horizon, so it is likely I will return to it in preparation. After soloing 180 levels (75 Marauder, 75 Duelist, 33 Scion) and just as many hours in Path of Exile, I think a decent break from it is in order.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Path of RNG

I have been playing a bit of Path of Exile lately. I have apparently racked up over 100 hours, far more than I ever intended to, but a few hundred shy of my Diablo III playtime. I bring that up because there is (for some bizarre reason) a lot of competition between Path of Exile and Diablo III, despite being vastly different games. While they may both be listed as Action RPGs, the similarities between the two stop abruptly there.

First of all, Path of Exile is a very decent game, especially for something that is free. However, that doesn't mean I don't have some major criticism of it, but I will get to that later. One of the grape-vine comments you will hear, especially with regards to "why it is so much better than Diablo III", is that it is a complex game, with a much deeper ability system and has meaningful consequences to how you build your character. For the most part, the game does have an interesting skill tree and ability gems that can combine, support and rely on each other that does create some interesting offensive/defensive combinations. However, that is as far as I would take the point of view. Skill trees have always been a naivety trap in games, fooling people into thinking they have meaningful choices when, really, they do not. Admittedly PoE's passive skill tree is an impressive design, but it is still capable of restricting game play more than you would think. The illusion of choice, when you are still technically limited by your level/class/stats, is as much of a barrier to game play mechanics as traditional point/level restriction systems.

The skill gem system is also unique. While it borrows some basic ideas from Diablo II's rune system, it is a much more intricate beast, capable of changing how you think, build and play. You could turn a spell you would otherwise use for mobility into a damage dealing rapid fire nuke, provided you synergise the right gems together. With the right combination of abilities and gems you can have an immensely powerful and useful arsenal at your disposal. Getting gems as quest rewards or as drops can be problematic at first, especially when you realise you don't want to or cant use a skill anymore. Leveling gems is dangerous as their str/int/dex requirements are not based on your current base stats. Replacing gear with crucial base stats can completely disable abilities from being used as they don't downgrade to their lower level versions. It is a harsh newbie trap, but one that you will never repeat again. Additionally, gem use is controlled by a system of gem slot colours and links in main pieces of gear. It is a system I have grown to despise. Not so much the system itself, but the 'crafting' of gear to attain colours and links has been the most frustrating thing in gaming for me for a long, long time.

To explain as simply as possible: crafting isn't crafting. Everything involved in upgrading gear is based on randomness and therefore luck. While you have some incredibly MINOR control over this luck with orbs that can increase item quality, it will cost you and is not guaranteed. Despite the spawn of random mobs with the chance of dropping random gear that will have random stats controlled by random item quality, the random number of gems, colours and links on that gear that are compatible with your build result in a situation where finding straight upgrades becomes impossible. Realistically, you will need to make some modification to a non-ideal piece of gear, usually a white item with the correct number of slots and possibility of rolling colours. You will likely save hours worth of crafting materials for such a venture, spending all of it in an attempt to make an item compatible. You throw all your resources at this item, and end up with ...

... absolute fuck all. 40 chromatic (gem slot colour changing) and 10 fusing orbs (fuse links between gem slots) later and you have nothing to show. Basically the dice-roll did not favour you. Even if you did get the colours/fusings, you were still susceptible to the RNG of item stats, usually with very finite rerolls. While you could go and farm some more materials, by the time you have them you would probably have found something else anyway. It may not be as good as what you were intending to craft, but it was better than the thing you were using. This process happened over and over for me to the point where I was using gear 30 levels lower than I should have. From what I hear, this experience is normal for most players. In my opinion, it is an incredibly asinine and outdated method of upgrading gear, coming from a time where RNG systems were favourable over more difficult to implement upgrade systems. Such a system, where you spend ever increasing amounts of resources to upgrade your gear should really be designed instead. RNG being RNG aside, when you consider that so much power (i.e. ability combinations) can be granted from the simple click of a button, rewarding players with progress for being lucky instead of resourceful, committed or patient is a very big problem.

10 x fusing failure - fml...
Overall, Path of Exile's systems can initially be seen as complex, but once you wrap your head around how things work and get seated properly, the intricacy falls away. This is not a bad thing, it is just important that people do not confuse complexity with greatness, nor argue that a game is better or more skillful because of complexity. Complexity is a hurdle, nothing more. Perhaps for more casual gamers, blissfully ignorant amongst the confusion and marvelling at the sheer overwhelming (initial) complexity of a game, the desire to pick favourites is more prevalent. A "I have no idea what I am doing, but it seems complex and therefore I am playing a better, more complex game. GG-lol" mentality. I am not sure.

Nevertheless, I played the game for over 100 hours, during which I managed to get myself a level 75 Marauder. Leveling further seems to be rather inefficient so it is likely I will park him there until Act 4 comes out. While his gear is particularly awful, I would like to think the 'build' I am running is rather strong. It is a build I have devised myself, taking no heed to the idea of copying an existing one from somewhere. I figure if you don't have a grasp on what you are doing, an understanding of the abilities and mechanics you are putting on your toolbar, you won't know how to use a pre-made build anyway. After much effort I have managed to maintain a balance between tankiness, damage and speed that I am comfortable with. While I still think Path of Exile is an incredibly clunky ARPG game, I have at least managed to get my Marauder leaping around the battlefield with some manner of efficiency. The combat can have its moments, feeling rather satisfying when you outmaneuver a large horde of dangerous enemies. Spectral Throw is a fun ability to use and Heavy Strike a strong offensive and defensive tool. Overall, without doing too much research, I feel I did a pretty good job for a first Path of Exile character. Whether or not I will make another one remains to be seen.

Recommend watching in 1080p.