Not So Massively: Comparing online ARPGs, from Wolcen and Diablo to Grim Dawn and Path of Exile

    
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A while back in the Not So Massively column, I did a piece comparing the pros and cons of some of the biggest names in the realm of looter shooters. Today I’d like to do something similar for another genre of game that is near and dear to this column: online ARPGs.

This is a genre that likes to stay very true to its traditional paradigms of game design and aesthetics, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Differences that seem subtle at first can make all the difference, especially for die-hard fans.

Diablo III

Diablo III is, in many ways, the gold standard for what an ARPG should be. The problems it had at launch have nearly all been fixed. It has a great story, memorable characters, flawlessly smooth combat, rich lore, a broad and rewarding endgame, and a flexible build system that actually encourages adaptation and experimentation rather than punishing it.

The only serious fundamental flaw it still has are its graphics. The developers tried for a stylized look, but it just didn’t quite work out, and in practice everything just looks muddy and blurred. It is a game that looked dated when it released, and the ensuing years have not helped matters.

The only other problem is that is it has been all but abandoned by its developers.

For reasons that are unclear at best, developer Blizzard Entertainment effectively gave up after the Reaper of Souls expansion. The story has been left unfinished with multiple major plot threads left unresolved, and it is by now clear that the game is effectively on maintenance mode, with only minor updates at best in the works. All effort has now been diverted to Diablo IV, which thus far seems to determined to do everything it can to pretend its predecessor never happened — a strange attitude to take to one of the best and most successful ARPGs of all time.

Blizzard’s abandonment makes it hard to recommend Diablo III, which is regrettable because otherwise I would say this is a game that is more than worth the purchase. I myself have sunk hundreds of hours into it over the years.

Grim Dawn

Grim Dawn is probably the most traditional of the major ARPG titles on the market right now. If you want a spiritual successor to Diablo II, this is probably your best bet. Its most unique feature is the way it allows players to choose two classes and invest equally in both their skill trees.

As I’ve written before, Grim Dawn is an exercise in the difference between story and lore. Its lore is great. It’s built a rich and unique setting by combining elements of fantasy, steampunk, and Gothic horror. However, the best thing that could be said about the storyline is that it does, technically, exist.

It also suffers from very slow and unrewarding character progress past the early levels — a relic of its old school methodology — and the requirement that all members of a party own exactly the same expansions and DLC can make playing with friends challenging. It is however free of other micro-transactions, for those who are concerned with such things.

Overall, Grim Dawn is a solid ARPG experience, and traditionalists will love it, but for those looking for something more unique, it doesn’t have much to offer beyond a fresh setting.

Path of Exile

Unlike the other entries on this list, Path of Exile is free to play, with no cost to try it. Its business model is based on an extensive but mostly cosmetic focused cash shop generally regarded as one of the better in the industry.

Beyond that, PoE is notable for lacking classes in the traditional sense. Instead your build is based on a sprawling skill tree as well as skill gems inserted into gear. It’s quite complex, and takes some getting used to. The game also suffers from a fairly clunky and unintuitive interface, especially around menus and inventory, which further increases the learning curve.

Ironically, though, when I played PoE I found the actual moment to moment gameplay extremely simple and easy — much more so than any other game on this list. It strikes me then that this is a game where the complexity largely comes from learning its systems and navigating its UI rather than what happens on the field of battle. It’s not a design paradigm I favor, but some prefer it that way.

Artistically, PoE is good-looking but not top of the line, and when it comes to story it hews pretty close to standard tropes for this genre but executes them well, especially nailing the grim ambiance so many ARPG fans crave.

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem

Wolcen is a newcomer in the field, but it has the potential to be a strong contender. Its combat is both fluid and visceral — exactly what you want from this kind of game — and it has a deep and fulfilling build system that combines many of the best aspects from its various competitors.

With no classes and few limitations on what skills can be used with which builds, not to mention many ways to modify existing skills and items that can open up new options still, the sky is the limit for theory-crafting here. If you’re the sort of person who likes building new characters just for the sake of trying new things, Wolcen could just about be your Nirvana.

Wolcen also boasts gorgeous graphics, rich world-building, and a competent if somewhat generic story. It’s currently buy to play with plans for a cosmetic cash shop, but adding micro-transactions is not currently a priority for the developers.

Wolcen had a bit of a rough launch, and some lingering game balance issues remain, but the developers have been aggressive about patching in fixes, and they have a roadmap for the future that seems to hit a good balance of ambition and realism. I think there’s cause for optimism here.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.

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CryptoTrippin

Recommend trying Last Epoch if you haven’t already. An early-access-Steam game with tons of potential and activity from devs/community. Cheers 🍻

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jaif13

I like the setting for grim dawn, but the gameplay is pretty slow and thoughtless. I always get bored in the 40s and stop. Since friends were playing, I recently finished the campaign, moved on to the expansion…and got bored again. I also think the character depth is largely illusion. Show me the shout Barb, hammerdin, blizzard sorc, etc with the wide range of gameplay.

I enjoy wolcen’s combat and character development much more – my toxic summoner is very different from my railgunner, and so on. The game looks fantastic, too. They need to fix the legion of bugs, add a huge amount of descriptions to the nodes and abilities so we know what’s happening, balance the stats, armors, nodes, one-shots, and probably add a 4th ring to enhance late game build diversity.

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Kickstarter Donor
Jeeshman70

I’ve played Grim Dawn and am 1/3 of the way through Wolcen, and so far I have to admit I like Wolcen better. It seems more “Diablo-ish” and so far is less grind-ey than GD. (Now I’ve probably jinxed myself, lol.)

I liked Diablo III but didn’t love it. I think it was a bit of a mistake plot-wise to

Spoiler
kill Deckard Cain
in the first Act. It’s a tough story beat to top.

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Chosenxeno .

The 1st time through Grim Dawn is long if you search every corner( like you should in any ARPG). If you have your build lined up properly you will Blaze through Elite. It took me around 50 hours to beat the 1st playthrough on Veteran(Pre-Expanson Content alone). I’m now playing on Elite from the start(Opens after Pre-Expanion Content). Because of Movement Speed increases and being a Fire God, basically(hehe) I’m past Act 2 after like 10-12 hours.

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Kickstarter Donor
Jeeshman70

Wow, that’s fast! Good to know.

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Chosenxeno .

I forgot to mention that it’s 10-12 hours with me still filling in all the Fog of War.

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Castagere Shaikura

Grim Dawn will always be my first pick from that list. POE will always be my pick for one of the most overrated games of all time.

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Chosenxeno .

Just put 50 Hours in Grim Dawn this Week. I have 450 hours in POE. 200 maybe in Diablo. I like Grim Dawn the best as well. I finished Vet earlier and I’m already most of the way through Act 1 on Elite.

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angrakhan

The biggest problem with Wolcen is end game. The loot is very unrewarding and the way they coded the loot levels being based of some percentage of your actual level you can go days or weeks without finding an upgrade worth equipping. It is pure grind hell. All there is to do is run randomly generated levels of all the same content you already beat during the campaign. Without meaningful gear to go hunt it’s very pointless. Since you can’t replay the campaign the replay value is very low.

I’ll check it out if they release a proper expansion, but until then… Meh.

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jaif13

They just added higher level uniques. Also, I think you’re supposed to use the crafting system to modify and upgrade your loot to “perfection”.

kjempff
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kjempff

A few arrows hit the mark, while many of them not only missed but were off by 180 degrees.

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Oleg Milyaev

Ye Olde Titan Quest is worth mentioning with its two expansions from 2017 and 2019.

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

I just came here to give the obligatory RIP Marvel Heroes.

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Chosenxeno .

I would have been playin the Sh*t out of Marvel Heroes during this outbreak. I caught the ARPG bug. Finished Trchlight 2 and Vanila Grim Dawn over the last 2 weeks.

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Kanbe

Oh MH, how I miss thee. Ultimate Alliance is the closest we have now and that’s a very poor compassion unfortunately

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Hekinsieden

Should have mentioned the new Path of Exile leagues that introduce new game mechanics and items and stuff every 3 months. So much more than the seasons Diabo 3 does.

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Dug From The Earth

yeah, this should really be the standard for any game like this.

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Kanbe

Actually for me, PoE’s leagues have been more of a deterrent than anything. I only play here and there so I never get very far bedore I need to start all over again. I should try the non league portion but from what I’ve heard the majority of the players are in the leagues.

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Dug From The Earth

its not so much the time restricted league, but the fact that they add pretty decent amounts of new content and mechanics WITH each league.

All that content rolls into the base, non-league game.

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Anstalt

I still cannot comprehend the love for Diablo 3. It’s one of the worst designed games I’ve ever played!

Story?!?! Lol, some barebones generic dialogue is not what I’d call story.

Flawless combat?!?! It’s the shallowest combat I’ve ever experienced. There is zero skill involved, you either have the gear to win or you don’t. Even the community hates the combat – it’s all about the meta, how fast / efficient you can be whilst grinding gear. Worse, once you start getting the endgame gear, the combat becomes even more trivial as you are pushed down just one way of playing the game.

Memorable characters? If you say so. There are some people who give me loot every now and again.

The only reason I can see for the game having any popularity is that it is psychologically manipulative (bright colours, big numbers, never ending rewards) and trivially easy, so it’s a game that is easy to relax to.

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Dug From The Earth

” it’s all about the meta, how fast / efficient you can be whilst grinding gear”

You have just described every ARPG end game out there, as well as many other looter gamers.

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Chosenxeno .

Some guy made a thread on Grim Dawn Steam Forums saying: “All these Games are the same”. The Developer trolled him then locked the Thread lol.

What was he expecting? Every Genre has conventions. Did he buy the game and think: “Hey.. this isn’t a racing game AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!”

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Hekinsieden

Exploding palm monk was a lot of fun in the early days.