I was one of the many users who felt a touch let down by Diablo III. Blizzard had every tool necessary in its arsenal to create one of the best dungeon-crawlers ever made, something which was in every way a worthy successor to the first game. What we got instead wasn't a terrible game by any stretch, but it certainly wasn't the legendary sequel it should have been.
What we got was a melodramatic story, severe launch issues, and an always-online requirement that to this day still causes problems for many. That Blizzard later addressed the problem with a launch of the game on the PS3 is largely irrelevant. The damage was already done.
Because of all the brouhaha surrounding Diablo III, a lot of review outlets have become fond of using the phrase "it's what the game should have been" when referring to competitors. I'm always leery of doing so myself, but in this case, it actually feels warranted. Path of Exile feels a lot like what everyone was hoping for with Diablo III. As a matter of fact, I'd actually go so far to say that it's the superior title.
The game puts you in control of one of seven different "Exiles," each with either one or two Primary Stats out of Intelligence, Strength, and Dexterity. These stats determine both what talents are available to the character as well as what Gems they are capable of using effectively. Speaking of Gems...they're probably one of the most unique elements of the game.
In Diablo and other games of its ilk, certain items contained slots into which you could insert a myriad selection of different gems and relics. These items gave a number of different bonuses, ranging from additional damage to life-steal to stat increases. In Path of Exile, things are a bit more complex. Gems come in three different colors, representing the three different primary stats. Every item you pick up contains sockets into which these gems can be inserted, but only if they match the socket's color.
Each gem levels up alongside your character, gaining a small amount of experience as you use it in battle and becoming more effective as time passes. What this ultimately means is that you've a nearly unprecedented level of freedom as far as customizing how your character plays is concerned; if you want to make use of gems primarily tied to the Intelligence stat as a Warrior, you've free reign (you just won't be able to level them up after a certain point).
Another way in which Path of Exile differs from traditional dungeon crawlers lies in its use of the barter system. Instead of picking up gold, players find a number of scrolls and stones which can be traded to merchants for items (or used by the player to upgrade and identify gear). Consequently, trading items to merchants also grants a certain number of scrolls, scroll fragments, stones, or shards. The system feels a bit cumbersome at first, but now that I've gotten used to it, I almost prefer it to a more traditional gold-based economy.
Multiplayer is integrated seamlessly into the experience, with players able to switch easily between single-player, party-based, and open-world. Grinding Gears Games has further added a new competitive element, adding in a series of 'leagues' players can join with their character. These leagues introduce rules as simple as permanent death and as complex as the inability to use potions or purchase items from merchants. Even better, any player who chooses to can toss some money towards Grinding Gears to run their own league.
Oh, I haven't gotten to the best part yet, either. Path of Exile is free to play. You can pick it up on Steam (or from the developer's website) at no charge.