Thursday, February 13, 2014

Path of Clunkiness

Ha. Someone reading my last few post titles may think I have a grudge against Path of Exile. While there are elements I still actively dislike, I have overall enjoyed the game quite a bit. Far too much, one might say, having now put in over 250 hours and leveled a 75 ranger. I haven't been using silly build names in Path of Exile like I was doing in Diablo 3. If I was, I would probably call the ranger's build something lame like "Hailstorm" as it focuses on lightning and cold damage for the most part. I guess I would call my Marauder's build "Zero Fucks" and my Duelist's build "Epilepsy" as well.

There isn't really much to say about the ranger's build itself as I feel it is relatively generic. She uses Lightning Arrow and Frenzy for her AoE and single target damage, Lightning Warp for mobility and kiting and a single, straightforward Cast When Damage Taken combination. Probably the most interesting aspect of the CWDT combination is the use of Frostwall. It spawns short wall segments which both block and push back enemies, allowing more room for kiting and adding some automatic crowd control to the mix. The walls also combo well with Lightning Arrow as Lightning Arrows do considerably more focused damage when they detonate on walls. If an enemy happens to be immediately behind a Frostwall, the arrows will detonate on the wall and do AoE damage, but also Fork (support gem) through the wall hitting targets behind. Should a target be immediately in front of a Frostwall, the Lightning arrows will detonate on the the target, fork and detonate on the Frostwall behind. When your positioning is right, the mobile wall you carry with you can be used to do massive AoE and single target damage at varying ranges, all the while staying relatively safe. This concept is demonstrated in the picture below.

Besides the Frostwall + Lightning Arrow mechanic I have been abusing, the bow user has some interesting game play aspects. Resembling a (much) tamer Demon Hunter, you have the potential to avoid 75% of the game's damage output by virtue of being ranged. Especially boss melee abilities. Because of this you are rarely affected by dangerous status ailments such as stacked poison charges, poison clouds, stuns and stacked shock charges. The abilities given to bow users have a high focus on AoE usage, especially when combined with appropriate gems. These abilities frequently have some elemental damage conversion allowing access to elemental damage builds. As you will primarily stack dexterity to use these abilities, accuracy is not something you need to worry about running around with 90%+ hit chance all the time. A ranger's early game passive nodes are also very potent, with considerable damage bonuses.

There are some tradeoffs however, the most noticeable being a distinct falloff in damage output as you level should you not pay it sufficient attention. Unless you stack strength and use Iron Grip (something I did not do), your damage scaling is very much dependent on your gear and passive nodes. As strength also gives you miniscule amounts of health, the staggered upgrade effect of the game is much more pronounced. As you naturally become squishier over time, making sure your gear is on par with the content you are facing is critical for success. Because of this, you are forced (though perhaps not unwillingly) into employing kiting tactics against your foes. The squishy but mobile, 'glass cannon' concept is perfectly fine, though it is somewhat problematic in execution in Path of Exile. I say this as I again draw attention to the clunkiness of the game's combat and how stutter stepping, dodging and casting spells is a slow and broken affair. Coming off the heels of Demon Hunter game play in Diablo 3, I find myself annoyed at the lack of response the game needs to make the play style truly work in this game.

Nevertheless, I did manage to get to 75 without issue. Of my three 75's it was probably the least enjoyable to level, though not by much. I think going from the madness of Flicker Strike to the mediocrity of Lightning Arrow will do that. The video below shows the ranger in action. I have intentionally facetanked some sections just to show how Lightning Arrow and Frost Wall compliment each other. Recommend watching in 1080p.

As I am pretty sure I will not be playing Path of Exile seriously for a long while, I will also leave some comments about realisations I have regarding the game's mechanics. Hopefully they are useful to someone.

Armour and Evasion Comparisons:
The most important thing to realize about armour in Path of Exile is that, for the most part, it sucks. You may naturally think that armour makes encounters with hard hitting melee dudes trivial, but in actuality it barely makes a difference. In short, the harder a mob hits you, the less percentage of that damage will be mitigated through armour. If something is capable of one-shotting you with 0 armour, it will still likely do a huge amount of damage even if you HAVE armour. Where armour really shines is against attacks that do little damage. Individually these attacks are meaningless, but en masse (e.g. against large packs of light enemies), armour comes into play very effectively.

Evasion on the other hand is great in theory, but makes you very susceptible to taking random damage spikes from attacks, hard hitting or not. These spikes are unpredictable and uncontrollable, creating scenarios where you can just randomly die in normally 'safe' situations due to bad luck. Personally I have never been a fan of evasion/dodge in games as it has always felt like dice-rolled karma. It is unreliable and I feel it can encourage bad playstyle habits such as ignoring other critical defenses (health, block, movement speed, resists, buffs, manually avoiding stuff etc) in favour of more evasion and more damage. There is also very little involved in relying on high evasion rating to 'tank' for you, as well as very little you can do when it fails.

When it comes to the argument of armour or evasion, I am naturally inclined to say both. However, given only a single option, something you are somewhat forced into when playing Path of Exile (lest you have the best of no worlds), I would likely go for the reliability of armour. While it is going to do little for you against heavy hitting physical damage dealers (e.g. bosses), you have a greater sense of your own survivability and likely a balanced effective health pool to back you up should trouble arise. These elements can contribute to a more reactive, enlightening and controlled play experience.

The mana and attack speed trap:
I have always preached that you don't do any damage when you are dead, whether it be a MOBA, ARPG or MMO. In Path of Exile, I have a new one, that being you don't do any damage when you are oom (out of mana). This issue is related directly to attack speed, and the potential mechanical trap it creates if you are using it solely to increase your damage. I have always considered attack speed as little more than gravy when it comes to doing damage in these games. Unless you are benefiting from Life on Hit, hitting harder usually scales much better than hitting faster. In Path of Exile, the mana cost of spells, supported by gems or not, is static. Whether or not you level them up, they will cost the same amount of mana whether you are level 1 or level 75. This can be problematic, especially early on. The majority of abilities in the game are cast depending on your attack (or casting) speed. A fast attack speed means you deplete your mana pool much quicker, leaving you oom sooner. At this point, if you are waiting on mana regen or needing to flask excessively, you are already playing far less efficiently than if you had mana. Essentially, attack speed has destroyed your ability to do reliable, consistent damage. It only functions as artificial sheet damage that has no meaning in actual game play.

The answer is to not stack attack speed overly excessively and, to a lesser extent, even mana regen. What you want is mana leech, whether via gem (all damage) or gear/passive (only physical damage), and you want to hit like an absolute truck. Doing this early on is somewhat difficult, unless you have incredible gear. One way around this is to buff ability damage using gems that have a positive tradeoff for the damage they deal vs the additional mana they cost. An excellent example of this is Multi-strike, a gem I use on both my Marauder and Duelist.  Eventually you will hit a point where your ability can potentially return the mana it costs within a SLOWER time-frame of you spamming the ability, a time frame you are never oom in. With 4 to 5 linked ability combinations, this becomes increasingly possible. It will only get better from there, as increases in damage (i.e. NOT from attack speed) will only restore more mana faster, potentially at a profit! It is at THIS point you could consider getting some additional attack speed, to normalise your mana leech rate. Not before it.

Cast When Damage Taken combinations:
A few people have asked me why the characters in my previous two videos seem to explode randomly, with symbols and buffs appearing around them all the time. The answer is a gem called Cast When Damage Taken. It is a gem that makes life easier, but with some rather harsh limitations. First of all, it will only cast gems that are of a equivalent or lower level requirement than itself. For the base gem this is about levels 5-7, which, in Merciless difficulty and with the massive damage scaling reduction the gem imposes, results in almost nothing. Raising the level of the CWDT gem increases the level of gems that it can support, but requires you to take much more damage for them to be cast. So essentially your options are to cast crappy spells that do almost nothing frequently, or effective spells that actually do stuff albeit infrequently.

If you are clever you will realise the potential for this gem to do damage for you. That potential can be summarized as the following: Fuck All. Instead, this gem should be used purely for status effects, whether it be on yourself or on enemy targets. Probably the most effective combination I have devised uses a combination of two CWDT gems working in tandem. One is left at level 1, the other I levelled to 15 or so. The first CWDT  gem has an Enduring Cry gem attached that generates Endurance charges every 400 damage or so (within 4 seconds). The second CWDT activates at around 1600 damage taken, one of the attached spells being Immortal Call. Immortal Call uses all current Endurance Charges (currently max of 4) to make you immune to physical damage for a short duration. This duration is increased with an Increased Duration gem, as is a Molten Shell gem for additional armour. With a Warlord's Mark gem attached to the lvl 1 CWDT, you can generate additional Endurance Charges on kill as well.

Together, this system creates a loop of Endurance Charge generation to Immortal Call expenditure that, assuming the damage you are taking is not excessive, can be maintained in a timely fashion. As the damage from CWDT is mitigated by your defences (armour, evasion, resists etc), you can further funnel the amount of damage you take so as to have some control over this process. Overall, CWDT combinations such as this are a good example of how your Effective Health Pool can be used for more than just staying alive, rewarding creative players with timely status bonuses for their effort.