Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - So you want to be... an assassin?

It's been a busy six weeks here at Bark and Byte Towers, so apologies for the recent lack of updates. Other than just the standard travails of work keeping me away from the blog, I've also been pouring my energies into an Elite: Dangerous novella. The first draft is done (what's this? a FINISHED creative writing project? HERESY!) and is currently out for creative consultation and feedback with a few friends on the E:D Google+ community. It's going to be a little while before I let it out into the wild, but I'm mostly happy with it - I'd describe it as an energetic romp through the E:D universe, rather than highfalutin' SF literature - though it will need a bit of editing for typos and a good re-write before I publish it in some form or another. Anyway, I presume you're here because you want some tips and ship builds on how to be an assassin in the Elite: Dangerous universe, rather than listen to me witter on about why I haven't been posting lately. Or maybe you're just here to stare wistfully at pretty pictures of spaceships, like this one... (Ice White, incidentally, is my new favourite colour for ship paint jobs, as you'll see on my Flickr account)
I'll assume that you're really here to learn about the assassin's trade, however. The pretty pictures will just be a bonus. Assassination, then. It's a profitable, high-risk business that's marginally legal, if a tad unethical. Space-murder for profit and political influence, essentially. There are plenty of groups out there who will pay you a handsome fee for boiling people that have become too troublesome or have simply outlived their usefulness to a particular faction. Assassination missions are now limited-access, by which I mean that there are Combat ranking restrictions. If you're a Novice with only 100 kills to your name, you're not going to be able to be trusted to take on a 250,000 Credit mission to whack a Federation General flying around in an Elite Anaconda with a couple of Cobra Mark IIIs in tow. So you'll need to have proved yourself in combat before you can undertake the most profitable assassination missions. Other than money, the best reason for being an assassin is that it's a good way of earning reputation and influence with factions that can help you progress upwards in the Naval rankings. Assassination missions are also more challenging than regular combat, so it's quite a fun profession, too. (AND IN THE GAME!!!!1!LOL)
In terms of the kind of modules you're looking for, you really need shield cell banks and/or hull reinforcement modules to give you more durability in combat (especially since you might be flying up against multiple opponents), plus a good balance of thermal and kinetic weapons to take down targets and subsystems quickly. Also useful are frame shift interdictor and frame shift wake scanner modules, just in case your quarry decides to make a run for hyperspace. In terms of combat tactics, you need to be wary that assassination targets very often carry missiles (so point defence turrets or ECM modules are quite handy), and the big ships pretty much always use turrets, so if you have enough utility slots, bring a chaff launcher. And always, ALWAYS, kill the wasps before going for the hornet. (That's a metaphor. No matter how tempting it is to focus on the Big Bad, get rid the little guys first, because if you don't the cumulative affect of those little guns will still kill you.)
Assassin Eagle - 2,070,257Cr
Weighing in at a smidge over 2MCr, this is not exactly a cheap starter kit, but since most assassination mission require you to be have a Combat rating of at least Novice, this is about the standard of ship you should be flying by then. There are several advantages of using the Eagle as an assassin's knife. One, it is the most manoeuvrable ship of all, which makes you very hard to hit, if you've learned how to dodge turret tracking: full throttle at all times, use yaw and the strafing thrusters at random to throw the turrets off the scent, and if at all possible, stay within 200m, right on their tail thrusters - if the turrets can't see you, they can't hit you. Put four pips to shields and two to weapons, and you should be able to hold out easily against most singleton targets. The second advantage is that if you do screw up and get boiled, at least the insurance is cheap... The disadvantages of the Eagle are obvious - the paper-thin shields and hull, plus the relative lack of stopping power from the three Class One hardpoints. The Eagle, even with hull reinforcement, will not hold out against an Elite Anaconda on its own (unless you are very smart about staying in the turret blindspots - trying to run away to recharge your shields is not a good strategy - they'll be gone again before you finish the closure manoeuvre to re-engage), let alone an Elite Anaconda with friends. Shield cell banks are also not really a feasible option for the Eagle, because of the power requirement - you'd have to skimp on your modules somewhere else, and the Eagle relies on having A-rated thrusters and shields to make it viable in this role. If you stick to contracts that only have you facing a single target, however, the Eagle will make you a lot of money and provide you with a good reputation boost.
Assassin Vulture - 25,659,922Cr
The aspiring mid-level assassin is probably going to want to be flying around in something like this. The Vulture's not my favourite ship - I find it a bit too functional, and like the Eagle, it suffers from an undersized power plant, which severely limits your ability to bring everything you'd like up to A-spec. You're always compromising somewhere with the Vulture, but I think this build is about as good as you'll get for assassination missions. The FSD range is a little on the skinny side, but you can compensate for that by targeting the frame shift drive of your target to stop them running away. An alternative at the mid-tier level would be an Imperial Courier. It's a lot cheaper (10MCr), has slightly better shields, is much faster than the Vulture and you can A-spec everything that matters (FSD, thrusters, power distributor, shields) without going over your power budget (provided you only run one shield cell bank at a time - which is normal practice anyway). Of course, it does require you to have a Naval rank with the Empire to buy one, which may be a deal-breaker for some, but I do like the Courier - for its size, the shield strength is just ridiculous.
Python Selfie Cam
Assassin Python - 172,251,447Cr
At the high end, unless you're really on a mega-budget (in which case, see below), the Python is undoubtedly the ship of choice. Big, powerful and well-armed, this is a ship to be reckoned with. You can even haul a little cargo on the side while you're taking down your target... You could fill the space with hull reinforcements or extra shield cells or hull reinforcements, but you'd have to be wary of the hit you'd take to your FSD range, should you have to chase targets down across hyperspace. The power plant is capacious enough to run with rail guns instead of cannons, so this spec is ideal for popping power plants nice and quickly. You don't really get that much of a boost in shield strength compared to the Courier or the Vulture, but you do get a massive increase in stopping power. An angry Python is truly something to behold in combat.
Assassin Anaconda 688,305,340Cr
What better ship to take down Elite Anacondas with, than another Elite Anaconda? The ultimate assassin's ship is the one you're trying to kill. Don't expect it to come cheap, though...

Monday, June 01, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - So you want to be... a trader?

For the love of custard creams, why? WHY? The only thing more boring than trading is mining! What do you mean, it's a low risk, low stress way of making vast amounts of money that you can invest in cooler, more exciting ships? Okay... well, you... BE LIKE THAT, with your fancy logic and reason... Must I? Really? Well, I suppose I did promise. Even if it was against my better judgment. FINE. I'll write your bloody traders guide. I HOPE YOU'RE HAPPY.
Trading is a profession that appeals to the Commander with a certain type of personality. That is, the type of Commander whose fancy is tickled more by spreadsheets than torpedo spreads. The type of Commander that would prefer the slow, steady accumulation of wealth at regular intervals to the high octane thrills of RES hunting, or the deadly struggle for the meagre returns from the collection of combat bonds in conflict zones. The kind of Commander where numbers are king. Specifically, the numbers of your balance with the Bank of Zaonce... There isn't really that much of a secret as to how to be successful as a commodities trader: buy low and sell high. There are plenty of online tools out there - the best of which is probably Thrudd's - that can help you find those fabled 2.5kCr+ profit trade routes, so I'm not going to go into the details of where to trade here. I'm just going to suggest which ships you should be doing it in. And as career paths go, this one is probably the most straightforward in terms of ship progression. I'm probably insulting your intelligence by making these suggestions, so please forgive me in advance. For the most part, as a trader, you're going to want to find two systems as close together as possible to trade between, so that you're spending as much of your time as possible trading and making profits, rather than pootling about in transit. Maximising your credit income per hour is what it's all about in the trader role. Your trade route needs to be of three jumps (or less), so that you don't have to give over one of your internal compartments to a fuel scoop. For the hardcore trader, niceties like weapons and shields are also dead mass, but you don't want to skimp on your power distributor, frame shift drive or your thrusters - because if you do get interdicted by a pirate after your cargo, you're going to want be able to engage the GTFM* as soon as possible and minimise any potential damage to your ship. Recent advances in the AI of the docking computer (if you've not seen them in the 1.3 update yet, you're in for a pleasant surprise) means that they're no longer a complete waste of cargo space, particularly for big ships - but unless you're really terrible at docking, you're probably going to want to save the internal compartment space for another cargo rack.
Hauler - 253,806Cr
With a meagre 22 tonnes of cargo space, the Hauler isn't really that great a trading vessel, but everyone has to start somewhere. You can fully kit out a Hauler as a trading vessel for less than the hull cost of a Cobra (and it should be noted that this spec makes a great taxi vessel to get you between activity hubs where you have ships parked, too). It won't make you money as quickly as a Sidewinder in a decent RES, but if your priority is to progress in the Trader rankings at the beginning of the game, this is the ship you'll become Mostly Penniless in.
Sucker Squadron Leader at Jameson Memorial
Cobra Mark III - 9,228,913Cr
Once you've made a bit of money, your next port of call on the Trader ladder is Rare Commodity trading. Of course, you're much more likely to start Rares trading in a ship like this (2.45MCr), but everyone should really aim to have an A-spec Cobra in their hangar at some point, if only for nostaglia value for that Cobra Mark III you had in the original Elite with the four Military Lasers, ECM Jammer, Cloaking Device, Energy Bomb and Galactic Hyperdrive... Ah, those were the days...
An alternative to the Cobra would be the venerable Lakon Type 6 - 3,054,711Cr
The Type 6 Transporter is a deeply unexciting ship I've felt utterly uncompelled to fly since Beta 1.03 (as you can tell from the screenshot). But it is capable of hauling more than double the cargo of the Cobra and has a longer FSD range when fully laden, giving it a lot of earning power in the early/mid game. It's also considerably cheaper than the only other ship able to haul comparable amounts of cargo for under 10MCr (the Asp), so most pilots on the Trader path will fly one of these at some point. Just don't expect it to be fun. And never, ever, try taking it into combat. You have been warned...
Space Cow Junior - 23,684,489Cr
By the time you get up to the Type 6 and the Type 7, while you might still want to forgo shields for extra cargo space, a docking computer is a good investment, because by this stage you're going to be running around with cargoes that are worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of credits. Once you buy a Type 7 (or as I call them, a Space Cow Junior), the extra mass of running weapons doesn't seriously detract from your FSD range, so it's worth stacking on a few turrets to deal with any pirates that get too close to comfort. With something like the Type 7, turrets are your only viable combat option - the ship is far too sluggish for even gimballed weapons to be effective. Your shields will be gone before you can haul the mass of the ship around to bring the weapons to bear on a smaller, more nimble assailant. Pulse turrets, however, will give potential enemies something to think about as you Sir Robin off into the distance.
Space Cow - 184,662,362Cr
The Type 9 Heavy, the fabled Space Cow, is the ultimate trading machine in all but one respect. It's just so freaking SLOW. The only thing that can rival a Space Cow for hauling space is a fully stripped down Anaconda, but the hull of that alone would almost set you back as much as buying the spec I've linked to above. You could eke out a bit more cargo capacity by dumping the shield generator, and a bit more FSD range by getting rid of the weapons and the docking computer, but when you're hauling around 460+ tonnes of palladium, it's really not worth the extra risk. The Type 9 is actually a little bit better in a fight than the Type 7, but you're not going to want to push your luck too much, especially now that NPC pirates tend to come in wings of 3 or more. Just boost like heck, and hope that your shields and life support hold out if you do start to take a few hits. If you find a good trade route for your Space Cow, you'll be earning millions of credits every hour. A Type 9 is a necessary evil, unless you want to spend a couple of years earning your way into an Anaconda. It'll all be worth it when you make your billionth credit, earn your Elite trader ranking and you have enough money to buy that Iron Ass Anaconda that you always wanted...

*For the uninitiated, the GTFM is the Get To Fuck Maneouvre...

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Imperial Courier & Lakon Diamondback review

I've been spending a bit of time with the 1.3 Powerplay Beta, and I've been taking advantage of the 1% ship hull and equipment costs to play with the latest ships to be added to the menagerie of vessels: the Imperial Courier and the Lakon Diamondback.
[Edit: 16/07/15 - I posted this before Frontier decided to put out two versions of the Diamondback, so I've added in an extra section to highlight the differences between the Diamondback Scout and the Diamondback Explorer.]
Imperial Courier
Cost: 2,479,400 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (Courier/Smuggler): x3 Class 2 Gimballed Pulse Lasers
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (RES Hunter): x2 Class 2 Gimballed Beam Lasers, x1 Class 2 Gimballed Cannon
Why you should fly it: On first inspection, the Imperial Courier seems like an odd little ship. It's a cross between a supercharged Eagle and a Viper. It has three medium-sized weapon hardpoints with good fields of fire, making it more combat effective than the Eagle or Viper, but the standout feature of the Courier is its shield strength. With a 3A shield generator and three 0A shield boosters, the Courier's shield strength rivals that of a Python, which is insane. In combat versus similar-sized ships, I've never lost more than a single ring of shields, even if I've been rammed by my target. The Courier is certainly a tough little ship. Allied with its high speed, it ought to be perfect for blockade running with precious or illegal cargoes. You can easily outrun interdicting ships, who'll never get through your shields by the time that your FSD has cooled down. It's also quick enough to avoid scans outside of stations to prevent you from getting fined on those missions where you have to recover contraband cargoes. The only problem is that the Courier has short legs, especially if it's laden down with cargo. So it's arguably more of use as a combat vessel in conflict zones and resource extraction sites. Provided that the shield strength isn't nerfed too badly when the 1.3 patch gets rolled out, it should be a good ship to take down top tier Anacondas with for Assassination missions, too - at least until you can afford a Vulture.
Why you should ditch it: At the time of writing, the Courier does have a couple of major problems. The FSD range is pitiful if you're intending to use the ship as a courier for faction missions and the ship is almost impossible to refuel from stars without taking heat damage. I'm assuming at this point that it's a bug that may get addressed before release, because currently, you start taking heat damage in around 10 seconds, unless you're right at the edge of a star's atmosphere, which slows down the scooping rate to a crawl. It's also relatively expensive, given that you can get twice the cargo capacity, more hyperspace range and an almost equivalent amount of combat power out of a Cobra. So you're really paying a premium for that third medium hardpoint. It appears that the Courier is intended to be a stopgap ship between the Viper and the Vulture in the combat-aligned professions, but it's hard to justify the extra cost, even given the Courier's amazing shield strength.

Lakon Diamondback Scout (DBS)
Screenshot_0395 Cost: 564,300 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 ("Combat" Explorer/Scout): x2 Class 2 Gimballed Pulse Lasers, x2 Class 1 Gimballed Burst Lasers
Recommended weapon loadout 2 ("Pure" Explorer): None!
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (Interdick): x2 Class 2 Gimballed Pulse Lasers, x2 Class 1 Gimballed Multicannon
Why you should fly it: "The Flea", as it has been affectionately nicknamed by the G+ community, is a poor man's Asp, or perhaps a rich man's Cobra, depending upon which way you want to look at it. The Diamondback is billed as a long range scouting vessel, or "combat explorer", which is a sure sign from Frontier Developments that the business of exploring may be about to become a whole lot more dangerous. Given that most explorers fly without shields or weapons and strip down their thrusters and power distributor to save mass, if the Thargoids do rear their chitinous, insectoid heads, there might very well be a slew of casualties amongst the more adventurous Commanders in the Elite: Dangerous community. With a long-range combat spec (i.e. laser weapons only), the Diamondback does give you an equivalent combat power to the Cobra, but has a slightly better hyperspace range. The weapon hardpoints on the Diamondback (as you'll see below) are well-placed to give you much more of an opportunity to bring all four of your weapons to bear on a target simultaneously, compared to a Cobra or Viper. The Diamondback is also more agile than either of those two ships, meaning that it's also a passable bounty hunter (against smaller ships) in RES combat. Being a Lakon ship, the cockpit view is great for both exploring and combat (something it has in common with the Courier, in fact), but the Diamondback is by far the best Lakon ship for battle, given that it's smaller and so much more maneouvrable than the Asp. Out of the two ships introduced in the Powerplay update, I'm of the opinion that this is the pick of the two of them. It has greater range and a similar combat power to the Courier for only a quarter of the cost. It's a viable alternative to the Cobra as both a combat ship and as a stopgap between the Adder and Asp in terms of exploration. It's good fun to fly, can hold its own in combat, and has a decent reach in terms of its hyperspace range. If you want a cheap, but robust ship to explore the hinterlands with that will give you a great panoramic view from the cockpit, then the Diamondback is your girl. I can see it being very popular with commanders that want a secondary ship for exploring that doesn't require the massive credit investment of a dedicated explorer ship, like an Asp. Another possible role that the Diamondback could be suited for is that of an Interdick - that is, an Interdiction Bounty Hunter. In 1.3, assassination targets will not just appear in Unidentified Signal Sources, but will also randomly spawn in the systems highlighted in the mission parameters, allowing you to hunt them down in SuperCruise. The Diamondback's good FSD jump range and fuel tank capacity means that you can put the ship's four utility hardpoints to good use, allowing you to scan and hunt down anyone who tried to flee from your wrath. The Diamondback is one of the smallest ships to give you this much flexibility with your utility options, so is a good ship for this kind of role.
Why you should ditch it: Even with a "pure" explorer specification, the Diamondback will only give you an FSD range of around 27.5ly, which isn't really that much of an improvement over what you can get from an Explori-Hauler. So the Asp is still the best option when it comes to giving you the best FSD range for your credits, and the Asp is far more versatile, thanks to its configuration of internal compartments. Like the Hauler, the Diamondback only has four internal compartments, which isn't really enough if you want to create an explorer-class vessel that still has a chance of survival in combat. You have to choose between either the security of a shield generator or the extra income potential of a detailed surface scanner, unless you're staying close enough to the Old Worlds that you don't need to fit an auto field-maintenance unit. One thing that the Diamondback is also singularly unsuited for is cargo hauling. A Cobra is a cheaper option, able to haul more than double the cargo of a Diamondback, and is arguably more robust in a fight, too. The Diamondback isn't a ship that's going to earn you a fortune, via any means, be they combat, trading or exploration, but it does fit a hitherto unfilled niche in the ship market. It's a good ship for new players on their way to bigger and better things, but for most people, I think that the Diamondback is going to be a secondary "leisure" ship to fly when you want to take a break from your primary game role.

Lakon Diamondback Explorer (DBX)
Cost: 1,635,691 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 ("Pure" Explorer): None!
Recommended weapon loadout 2: (Thargoid Hunter) x1 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Laser, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Pulse Laser
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (Combateer): x1 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Laser, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Cannons
Why you should fly it: The biggest problem with the Scout, as an exploration vessel, is the lack of space in its internal compartments. The Explorer goes a long way to addressing this, but is still rather skinny on internal space for true, long-range exploring beyond the galactic centre. It should see you to Sag A* and back, provided you're careful, but the ship could really do with a larger fuel scoop. However, it is a lot cheaper than an Asp, so I guess you get what you pay for. The DBX does have the hyperspace range to reach the parts of the galaxy lesser ships cannot reach (i.e. requiring a 30ly jump range), so it is a good option for your first serious forays into the deeper parts of the galaxy. It's also quite handy in a fight, too. The DBX gives you the cheapest access to a Class 3 weapon hardpoint, so as a combat explorer (a.k.a. Thargoid Hunter), the DBX gives you better range than a fully-kitted Asp and better firepower against big ships, as well. You can do a surprising amount of damage with one in a RES too, so as long as you don't want to haul cargo, the DBX is a pretty decent multi-role ship, at a price that won't break the bank.
Why you should ditch it: The Diamondback Explorer is a multi-tasker. I describe multi-tasking as doing several things at once, badly. It's not quite a great explorer ship and it's not quite a great combat ship, either. It's not terrible. It's not a waste of space like the Federal Dropship is, for example, but it is clearly going to be either a stopgap ship, or a leisure ship you bring out every now and again for some fun in a RES. The lack of internal compartment space means that as soon as you can afford one, you'll want an Asp for exploring. The low shield strength means that you're going to want to switch up to a Vulture as soon as you can afford one of those, too. The jump range of the Diamondbacks does mean that it's going to be a desireable ship in the early game for new commanders, but once you've gotten a few months of flying and a few dozen million in your Bank of Zaonce account, the DBX is a ship that will inevitably get parked for something bigger and better.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bark: X-Wing Miniatures Tabletop Game

In recent weeks, I have gotten majorly into Fantasy Flight's X-Wing Miniatures Game. I'm lucky enough to have a couple of friends at work who, like me, are veteran gamers (in both the video and the tabletop form) and have been collecting the ships and playing the game for a year or two now. My love of all things Star Wars (excepting Jar-Jar, obviously) is the stuff of legend, so it's surprising that I've taken quite this long to get into it. But get into it I have, very badly indeed, as the pictures dotted throughout this post will show.
With the extra ships I have incoming from the Amazon System, due to arrive out of hyperspace later this morning, I'll have a large enough fleet to have a significant 100+ point battle between three factions. That's some pretty epic tabletop gaming, right there. Added to all the other ships owned by the other guys at work (the Decimator, Falcon, Outrider, Lambda-class shuttle and more fighters than an evening at the UFC), we've got practically everything the game can currently offer: the only ship we're missing is the Tantive IV, and I may very well pick that up next month. On Thursday night this week, we played a 2v2 battle: Rebels versus an alliance between the Empire and the Scum & Villany ships I picked up at Orc's Nest in Covent Garden earlier in the day; 100 points for each player. I'm still very much feeling my way around the game a bit, but the game couldn't have been closer: the final two ships were both down to one hull strength each going into the final round, and my team only lost because in a previous round I'd suffered a critical hit to my cockpit, dropping my pilot skill to zero... and he who shoots last invariably dies first. Well, that and Boba Fett (i.e. me) rolled like Wil Wheaton in an episode of Tabletop all night whenever Slave One had a shot at the Millennium Falcon... But that's sometimes what you get with dice games. Guri in the StarViper, on the other hand, was an absolute demon for damage rolls - I only lost the ship because my teammate had the Ruthlessness card for the Decimator, and I was caught up in the collateral damage.
I'm impressed with how much fun the game is, even when you lose, but probably the most impressive thing is just how easy the game is to pick up. The rules are simple enough to remember after a simple skirmish game with a couple of ships each, but the ship upgrades, abilities and customisations add a lot of tactical depth to the combat. Knowing what modifications and upgrades to choose for each ship takes some experimentation, as does getting a feel for when you should focus, evade, boost, barrel roll or target lock. There's more to the game than the random chance of the dice rolling for attack and defence, too. There's a real skill in being able to out-think or anticipate the next move of your opponent, as well as judgment in knocking whether your next maneouvre is going to leave you stranded against an asteroid or piece of debris (I've been there a couple of times, both with fatal results), or whether it will bring you into the blind spot behind an enemy ship's fire arc. The game has a bit of everything: skill, chance, excitement, tactics, psychology... and a lot of good design. Not least with the actual ships themselves.
There's no getting away from it (despite my awful photography) - the models are gorgeous things in their own right. Overpriced? Maybe, but they are pre-painted and exquisitely detailed. Slave One takes pride of place next to my Boba Fett action figurine on the boom box of my speaker system, next to my monitor. The rest of my fleet stand on overwatch atop the bookshelves in my office. I think that the Scum and Villany faction ships are going to be my go-to faction, since some of the ships are just a little bit out of the ordinary (the IG-2000, which is coming in the morning, looks fabulous), and I've always had a soft spot for the Z-95 Headhunter, too. The Black Sun models are slinky little numbers - I love the Black Sun crest on them to make them stand out from the standard Rebel colour scheme.

On our next games night we're going to try out Medium Transport in a three faction free-for-all game: the Rebels have to defend the Transport, the Imperials have to destroy it, and the Scum and Villany have to capture it... That, my dear readers, will be a night to look forward to.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - So you want to be... an explorer?

So, you want to get away from it all? See the sights? Get away from the tedious politics of the Old Worlds? Then becoming an Explorer is the career for you. One of the things that most attracted me to Elite: Dangerous was the fact that the entire galaxy has been modelled for you to wander at your leisure. I've spent a lot of time doing exactly that, mainly visiting the nebulae nearest to the Old Worlds, as well as doing tours of my favourite constellations, which are slightly less trodden paths out into the galaxy at large. I'm about a million creds short of gaining my Ranger's rank, but that shouldn't be a problem by the time I return back to civilisation following my latest jaunt into the undiscovered hinterlands between Sol and Sagittarius A*. My ultimate aim for exploration would be to travel all the way past Sagittarius A* to the other side of the galaxy and back - but I'm not sure whether that will be achievable, even in the most lavishly-equipped exploration ship. It would also be a huge time investment - at best you can make around 1000 light years per hour of travel, when you take into account route planning and refuelling, so it would require a couple of months of game time, at my current level of available gaming time - and I'm not sure I'm that patient. If I had a secondary save slot (which I'm sure we were supposed to have, at some point) I could have a dedicated explorer commander to give it a go with as an ongoing, long-term project, but as it is, I think I'll have to limit my ambitions to the regions around Sagittarius A*, which is a bit of a pilgrimage point for people pursuing the explorer path.

So what does it take to be a good explorer? Patience, primarily. As I alluded to earlier, exploration is quite a serene (if not outright lonely) occupation, as once you've travelled a few hundred light years away from the Old Worlds, you're very unlikely to encounter other ships, which is why most explorers tend to run without shields or weapons: since the extra mass cuts down on your hyperspace range, most explorers consider them to be unnecessary dead weight to be hauling around. I'm a little more risk adverse, so I rarely fly without a shield generator (because you never know when you're going to have a docking accident) or at least a gimballed beam laser (because if some NPC punk in a Sidewinder pulls me over when I'm about to dock with several million creds worth of exploration data on board, I'm going to show them exactly why I have a Dangerous combat ranking!). There's also the 1.3 Power Play update to consider, as well. The Lakon Diamondback is touted as a "combat explorer", which I'm taking as a sign that a certain insectoid species is going to make exploration a rather more perilous profession sometime soon. I will try out the Diamondback at the first available opportunity and let you know what I think of it. Other than an ability to tolerate your own company for hundreds of hours at a time, the other trait that can be useful for a would-be explorer is an obsessive compulsive disorder. Until recently, I took the Pokémon approach to exploring ("Gotta scan 'em all!"), and while that's great for getting your name plastered over stellar bodies if they're first discoveries (that come hand in hand with a minor cash bonus), being obsessive compulsive about scanning everything in every system you encounter can be incredibly time consuming (not to mention expensive for your wear and tear bill!), though if you're in for the long haul and don't mind spending an hour in every system you jump into, perhaps that's not so much of a problem. For normal mortals, though, doing detailed scans of absolutely everything you find is probably a good way of driving yourself nuts, so perhaps you'll want to do what I do now instead:

1) Jump in and "honk" the system with your discovery scanner. And if you want to make any kind of money at all from exploration, then you'll have to invest in an Advanced Discovery Scanner. An Intermediate Scanner isn't worth the money, since if only gives you twice the range of the 1,000Cr basic scanner (approximately 2AU as opposed to 1AU). Spend the extra 500kCr, because it will pay itself back relatively quickly.
2) Check the system map for anything worth going out of your way to get detailed scans of. These objects include neutron stars, black holes, water worlds, earth-like worlds, ammonia worlds and gas giants with life (these can usually be identified by the atmospheric markings, though I am repeatedly told that if you zoom in on a gas giant in the system map, you'll hear a sonic clue if the gas giant has life on it - I can't say I've ever heard this myself... maybe my ears aren't good enough).
3) Scan any object within immediate sensor range of the primary star - this depends widely on the object's radius and mass. Some planets require you to be within 10ls to get a scan, but larger terrestrial worlds may be scanned at up to 100ls. Class 1 gas giants are usually scannable if you're within 250ls and Class 3 gas giants can be scanned up to 1000ls away. You need to be within 2000ls to get a scan from a Brown Dwarf, whereas an M-class star can be scanned from around 4000ls away. Neutron stars and black holes are tricky, as they need you to get within 20ls (unless the black hole is super-huge), and they can yank you out of supercruise for bonus hull damage if you're not careful about your approach. Finally, don't bother doing detailed scans of asteroid fields. You don't get any money for them.
4) Once you've scanned everything worth scanning, move on to the next system, using economical routes to take in as many systems as possible and minimise the risk that you'll run out of fuel. It would be a shame to go all that way just to have to self-destruct...

As an explorer, there's only really one thing that can kill you, and that's your own stupidity and carelessness. Never, ever, try to shoot the gap between two binary stars when refuelling. Never, ever try to refuel from a T Tauri or neutron star. If you do, then you deserve that hull damage. Use the galactic map to check how close the stars are together in binary, trinary or other systems with multiple stars, and if it looks like they're close, make sure you come out of hyperspace with your throttle set to zero. Also, never fly tired. Or after a couple of Lavian Brandies. Falling asleep when in supercruise is a good way of getting yourself destroyed or running out of fuel. I've had a few close calls, saved only by getting dropped by the matchmaking server, or by waking up at my desk to find that I'm 2,000,000ls away from the star I jumped in at.
Explorer Adder - 3.6MCr
It was tempting to recommend an Explori-Hauler for the budget exploration option, since it gives you a smidge more range and is only two-thirds of the cost of the Adder, but the Adder is more durable, which despite the awful cockpit visibility (which is not something you really want as an explorer) makes the Adder my budget choice. The extra internal compartment the Adder has over the Hauler also means that you can keep a shield generator on board to protect yourself from docking scrapes when you come back with your precious cargo of data. A lot of the cost also comes from the 3A Fuel Scoop, which is certainly worth the money, as keeping the amount of time you spend in the atmosphere of stars refuelling to an absolute minimum helps reduce the risk of getting heat damaged. The heat sink launcher is for emergencies, for those times when you get dropped out into the middle of a contact binary and need to cool down before all of your modules expire. For an extra half million you could also add a Class 2 gimballed beam laser onto the dorsal mount, which is more than adequate to see off most NPCs that might interdict you during your transit between civilised and wild space, but for the most part, it's not worth the loss of hyperspace range, not when you can simply Sir Robin to safety and let your shields take the damage if they do get into firing range.
Explorer Type-6 - 9.2MCr
This might initially seem like an odd-choice for an explorer ship, but in this role, the Type-6 does actually have quite a lot going for it. Firstly, with an A-rated frame shift drive and the rest of the modules pared down to the lightest options, this gives you the best hyperspace range you'll get for under 10 million creds. Secondly, it has lots of large internal comparments, which means a honking great fuel scoop and lots of auto-maintenance units, so the Type-6 can take you on a massive tour into the tens of thousands of light years with no trouble at all. Also, like all of the Lakon ships, the canopy is fantastic for getting those lovely views of stars and nebulae - which shouldn't be a factor to underestimate, since you're going to be living off the pleasure of those views for many, many hours of playing time. Lakon do pretty much have the market sewn up when it comes to exploration.
Explorer Asp - 24.5MCr
This is the specification I'm currently running on my explorer Asp, the Culture-inspired Couldn't Find His Gravitas With Both Hands. It's not kitted out for ultimate jump range (I'd take off the beam laser and the shield generator for that), but if you're going to take exploration seriously, you need an Asp. It's got enough legs in hyperspace to reach just about anywhere in the the galactic plane, and isn't going to be as prohibitively costly as a 40ly Anaconda in terms of wear and tear, either. Plus, the Asp is nimble enough to maneouvre adroitly between stars and around planets in supercruise, and the lovely Lakon canopy gives you those all important picturesque views. You could argue that the three auto-repair units are a bit excessive, but better to have them and not need them, than need them and not have them... And at a smidge under 25 million creds (more like 20, if you have access to the shipyard at Shinrarta Dezhra), it's good value, too.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Bark: Mostly Harmless

A couple of days ago I finished reading Mostly Harmless, by Kate Russell.

I'd not read any Elite universe fiction since The Dark Wheel, the original novella that came with Elite way back in 1984, and I picked Kate's book mainly because I knew that she was an avid player of the game and had a certain familiarity and respect for the game world. I also bought it because it was the novelisation that sounded most interesting to me and I thought it would be a good yardstick to use to see if I would pick up any of the other books in the future.

First things first: I enjoyed the book. The story was entertaining and it felt suitably grounded in the Elite universe to come across convincingly as an "Elite" story. It stuck well enough to the Vonnegut principle (i.e. do horrible things to your characters to see what they're truly made of) to make the narrative interesting and dramatic. The writing also has a sense of humour and Commander Angel Rose's character was well-drawn, suitably flawed and had just enough hubris about her to be a likeable protagonist. I would not be unhappy to read about her further exploits in the future.


A few things about the book did annoy me.

Number one, by the rings of Asellus Primus, this book needed the attention of an editor who knows how punctuation works. There were so many little typesetting and punctuation errors in the first couple of chapters (and this did not improve throughout the rest of the book), that I almost stopped reading. I don't blame the author for this (unless, of course, the author did their own editing, in which case, they really should have known better!) - after all, the author's job is to write the story, the editor's job is to do the editing and iron out the author's inevitable mistakes. Honestly, you try writing 80,000-120,000 words without screwing up on spelling or adding in a space too many in a sentence somewhere... it's impossible - and no matter how much you proof-read it as an author, you won't find them all, because you're too close to the material - your eyes bypass the mistakes because you see what you had meant to write in your head, not what you actually wrote. That's why editors have a job - to be an extra pair of eyes on the manuscript that will see the flaws the author will never find.

Two, it was a little too easy to tell in the text that the novel had been crowdfunded. Some of the character and ship names were absolutely awful - I think that even in the 34th century people would have more class than to call ships Chandnør Waffoospark the Mad Swede, for example. Perhaps I'm missing out on some HILARIOUS pop culture reference here, but the obvious crowdfunding insertions did grate with me as both a reader and a writer. I know that this is how Kickstarter works with the reward levels and such, but I don't think I'd ever be happy with the idea of ceding over creative control over my work to some wonk on the internet, even if they were helping fund the novel. In my opinion, that's taking crowdfunding too far. If I don't have 100% creative control, it's not my piece of work, at the end of the day. And, crucially, it made the whole thing feel a little forced in some areas, rather than having a more organic, natural feel to the characterisation and the writing. If I was ever to crowdfund a novel (and I don't think I ever would), this would be one aspect where I'd retain control. If you want your own characters in a book, write your own fecking novel! Don't pay someone to crowbar them into theirs...

Three. I called the twist. I won't spoil it here, but I guessed it about a third of the way through. Maybe I've just watched too many thrillers and read too many mystery novels, but there wasn't enough depth to the personalities of the other supporting characters to provide enough misdirection to stop me from guessing where the twist would come from. It was still quite a fun twist, and the ultimate sting in the tail for the twister was an enjoyable one, but it was pretty obviously signposted very early on.

So, all things considered, Mostly Harmless is a decent enough book, and if you're remotely interested in Elite: Dangerous it's worth a punt. It's not going to win the Nebula Award for its style or originality, but it's perfectly servicable and enjoyable as a work of science fiction. Given this experience, then, will I now swoop down upon the Elite store and snaffle up the rest of the Elite: Dangerous novelisations? I don't think so. Not unless I'm given a personal recommendation by someone whose opinion in sci-fi books is known to be impeccable. Why settle for serviceable when there are so many books out there to be read that are better than that?

I'm out of here... I've got Time Of Contempt and Baptism of Fire to finish reading before The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt comes out...

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - So you want to be... a bounty hunter? (Part 2: RES Prowler)

This is the role I've spent most of my gaming time in, while playing Elite: Dangerous. Last night I claimed my 2500th bounty - a figure that even Boba Fett would be proud of. Somehow, despite having more than 53MCr of bounties claimed, I'm still a Master and not quite yet Dangerous, but it's only a matter of time... Soon! Soon! I'm going to flag up a slight caveat here before I get into the three ships and their loadouts. Normally, I play in Solo or Private Group mode, which means that generally the only thing I have to worry about is either my own tiredness or a marauding NPC. With this as the case, I eschew the loadout of Shield Cell Banks and prefer Hull Reinforcement Packages (because they give you extra combat endurance without a power plant overhead), though if you're playing in Open, you might want to consider a balance between the two. NPCs very rarely get through my shields anyway, but on the rare occasions they do, I usually want extra armour, since FSD range isn't something you have to worry about if you're raiding a Resource Extraction Site (RES) for big game, I'm more than happy to sacrifice the FSD range for the extra durability that mass gives you. It should also be noted that these setups will work equally well for hunting at Nav Points, though I usually don't bother too much with Nav Point hunting unless I'm in an Anarchy (where everyone is fair game), as the frequency of Wanted ships at Nav Points is usually vastly outweighed by those you'll find in a RES. If you're going to be a dedicated RES Prowler, however, there is one thing you need to bear in mind, which is that eventually you're going to piss a faction or two off. Make sure that it's not the one in charge of the local space station, or you're going to have a lot of fun trying to dock for reloads and repairs... Once you're Hostile with a faction you do have to be wary of three Vipers in a Wing rocking up while you're already under fire from an Anaconda or another ship you're hunting. It can make things lively, to say the least. But that's what you get for being a hunter. Sometimes, you become the prey.
Prowler Eagle - 1.5MCr
If you've found a nice, productive RES site (Nu Tauri for the Federation and Beta-1 Tucanae for the Empire are good places), the one thing you really don't have to worry about is hyperspace range. Strip that FSD back to the bare minimum to get you into Supercruise, and save that power plant capacity for something useful, like thrusters, shields or weapons. I've flown the Eagle a lot with this spec and made millions with it. Even though the Eagle is relatively slow, it can still use its agility to run rings around larger opponents. Putting the gimballed beam laser on the dorsal mount gives you a massive field of fire, so you can keep laying down laser fire almost constantly on your target as they twist and turn to get out of your gunsights. Once their shields are down and your beam laser is drained, you can start laying into them with the low-power-draw multicannons, whittling away the hull percentage or sub-system health of a large ship's power plant. I've even stuck it out with Clippers, Dubsteps, Pythons and Anacondas when I've run out of multicannon ammo, and while it takes a little bit longer, the Eagle is still more than a match for large NPC ships at Master ranks or lower. This is definitely one of the best pound-for-pound fighter craft you'll fly for combat potency versus capital investment.
Prowler Vulture - 26.4MCr
I'm starting to warm a little bit to the Vulture. It's an unrefined brute and a bully, but it's almost peerless as a combat vessel. The FSD range isn't great to begin with, but if you find a good RES and don't need to fly it anywhere else, the low power plant capacity of the Vulture becomes somewhat less of an issue if you can downgrade the FSD to the absolute minimum. The Class 3 gimballed cannon is absolutely vicious and will rip through the power plant of an Anaconda in a single reload (provided you get direct hits each time) and you can dispatch opponents smaller than a Type 9 with just the Class 3 gimballed beam laser alone. You should be able to reclaim the insurance cost of this ship in under an hour, provided the RES you're in is being kind with drops of large Wanted vessels. I was averaging about 2MCr between reloads, when I was using a spec almost identical to this at Beta-1 Tucanae.
Prowler Anaconda - 616.3MCr
I wasn't sure whether to plump for a Python or an Anaconda as my ultimate RES Prowler, but upon reflection, it could only be an Anaconda. The Anaconda is an incredible ship - with enough power to blast anything out of the sky. When flown to its potential, nothing can touch an Anaconda. This spec has more cannons and armour than the USS Missouri, and is more than capable of reducing another Anaconda to scrap in a couple of shots. It doesn't come cheap, but if you can afford an Anaconda in the first place, that's not likely to worry you. The Class 1 and Class 2 hardpoints alone have the combat power of a Viper or Cobra and will handle most targets you'll find in a RES comfortably, but add in the delicious power of those gimballed cannons and you'll be turning a RES into a scrap yard in no time at all, because it'd take a small fleet of Vultures to get through those shields and armour plating... If you've never had the pleasure of flying an Anaconda in a combat zone, make sure you can afford a loadout like this before you do and you'll be in for one heck of a treat.

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - So you want to be... a bounty hunter? (Part 1: FSD Interdictor)

My preferred playstyle in Elite: Dangerous is that of a bounty hunter. I suppose this is mainly because of a childhood (mis?)spent watching the original Star Wars trilogy and idolising Boba Fett. That said, the role of a bounty hunter in Elite: Dangerous isn't clear cut, but can be broadly categorised into two sub-types of bounty hunter: the FSD Interdictor and the RES Hunter. I'll write more specifically about RES Hunters in my next guide, as even though the roles might appear superficially similar in that they both kill crims for cash, they do require distinct loadouts and potentially different classes of ship.
An Interdictor Bounty Hunter (or as I like to call them, an Interdick) needs two key pieces of equipment in their loadout: a Frame Shift Drive Interdictor module (well, duh!) and a Frame Shift Wake Scanner. A Kill Warrant Scanner is useful, but arguably not essential. If you're flying with a ship that only has one Utility hardpoint (i.e. an Eagle) you will have to make a judgment call as to whether loading out with a Frame Shift Wake Scanner or Kill Warrant Scanner will earn you more money, since you can't fly with both. Personally, I'd take the FSW scanner. Also essential for the burgeoning Interdick is a ship with good firepower and long-ranged hyperspace legs, because more often than not, the suckers you yank out of Supercruise will try to run. Therefore, you either need to be able to blow their Frame Shift Drive out from under them before they escape, or simply be able to out-range their hyperspace jumps. The latter of these two options is decidedly easier than the former.
In each of these guides I'll post three ship specs for the role, each one in a different ship model, for three budgets. The "low cost" option will not exactly be bargain basement, but will cost less than 2 million credits, so I am assuming you've had a little time with the game to build up some working capital. After all, it's not hard to get yourself over to E:D Shipyard and spec your own minimum cost Sidewinder for each of the roles. The "mid range" option will assume a budget of between 10-15 million credits, for those established players who want to try out something a little bit different, and the "high end" option will assume that money is no object at all, and that you've got 50 million credits and upwards just burning a hole in your account with the Bank of Zaonce.
Iron Eagle
Interdick Eagle - 1.9MCr
I've undoubtedly mentioned this before, but I love the Eagle. It's a lovely little ship, and if you don't mind the fragility of the hull and the power management required to keep the modules up and running at the right time, then this spec is ideal for NPC interdicting. The only real issue with the Eagle is the lack of a second utility mount for a Kill Warrant Scanner. This can be a problem if your quarry jumps out into an anarchy, because that juicy bounty they had in civilised space will disappear faster than a plateful of cake in a high school staff room. The gimballed beam on the dorsal turret will strip your target's shields hopefully before they can return the favour (just remember to pop your shield cells nice and early - don't wait for the warning beeps), and the cannons can target and pound the hell out of the FSD of the target, hopefully before they can spin up into hyperdrive, so they you can take them to pieces at your leisure. And if your mark does get away, a hyperspace range of almost 18 light years should allow you to catch up with most NPCs. The Eagle's maneouvrability is key to making sure the enemy doesn't lay too many gloves on you, and also ensuring that those cannon rounds hit the required subsystem, rather than do too much hull damage. I first tested out the game's interdiction mechanics using an Eagle with a loadout similar to this, and I was taking down NPC Pythons pretty much with impugnity. Just on general principle, you should keep an Eagle in your starship hangar - they're just too much fun, and cheap to replace if you boil one.
Interdick Cobra Mark III - 12.8MCr
I agonised a bit over the weapons loadout here. I did consider plasma accelerators (briefly), but I think the projectiles are a little too slow and easy to evade to be used effectively for an interdiction vessel, where your target may be on the run. The gimballed Class 2 beams do good damage against both shields and subsystems, and the rail guns can be used to get critical hits on either the FSD or power plant of your target, ideal for quick kills. The 22 light years of FSD range is adequate for just about any NPC you'll encounter and the A-rated Shield Generator and array of Shield Banks should keep your hull out of trouble. You will, however, need to actively manage and restrict your module use, because with everything turned on, you're going to be significantly over your power budget. However, it is possible to keep all the vital combat systems running, provided you only use the scanners when you need to and only have one shield bank activated at a time. Likewise, the fuel scoop is only required in supercruise if you need to top up before chasing down your target, so will not affect combat. Also, if you ever get bored of bounty hunting, the Cobra is really easy (and relatively cheap) to re-spec into another role.
Interdick Asp - 44.75MCr
A lot of people underestimate the combat potential of the Asp, probably because it comes from the same stable as the venerable Space Cow. With a grand total of no less than six weapon hardpoints, however, the Asp does have a lot of stopping power. Its other great advantage as an interdiction vessel is a large power plant capacity, the longest hyperspace legs of all (barring a bare-bones Anaconda) and lots of space for utility and combat support hardware. Even with the big power plant, this spec does still require a bit of active module power management, provided you don't want everything to shut down when you deploy your hardpoints (because we all know how much fun that is in the middle of a firefight!). In combat, an Asp with four gimballed beam lasers on the Class 1 mounts is really something to behold - beware the laser fingers of death lancing out to grasp your target! Then you've got the dual gimballed Class 2 cannons to pulverise the FSD or power plant from close range. And it doesn't really matter if your quarry jumps away, because with 27.5 light years of hyperspace range, nothing's going to be outrunning you (not if it's an NPC, at any rate). And the kicker? You've even got a little bit of cargo rack space to scoop up anything juicy the target space poops out of their cargo bay to sell on the nearest handy black market, too. The Asp is a really versatile ship and I like it a lot - you're going to be seeing it rather a lot in the guides to come.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - So you want to be... a role-playing game guide series

A few days ago on Google Hangouts I received a request from a Elite: Dangerous Commander to who'd read some of my other guides to suggest a few ship loadouts for the Eagle, Viper and Cobra for a budding bounty hunter. After I'd finished being flattered by the concept that some random stranger on the internets would actively seek out my opinion on the matter, Commander Gnasher Slasher's request seeded the thought of an idea for a new series of E:D game guides. It's a bit more of a traditional extension of the Your Dream Ship guides I wrote over Easter.
The beauty of Elite: Dangerous is that there isn't one "right" way to play the game. You can find your own niche and play in a way that suits your personality and playstyle. In many ways, sandbox games like E:D are the purest form of role-playing games, because you're not straightjacketed into a single restrictive playstyle by a character class - you can really mix it up and even change the way you play over time. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to post role-playing guides for the main character archetypes you can assume in playing Elite: Dangerous. If you think I've missed any potential roles you'd like me to write about, please feel free to make suggestions in the comments. Here are the game roles I'm going to write about - though not necessarily in the order I'll publish them:

Bounty Hunter (FSD Interdictor)
Bounty Hunter (RES Prowler)


So keep your eyes peeled over the next couple of weeks - I'm going to start writing the first guide tonight, so it should be online before the end of the long weekend. As ever, thanks for reading - my traffic stats continue to amaze me (35,900+ hits last month, alone) and the kind comments really are appreciated.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Bark: The Writing Bug

I've been a bit quiet here lately, considering that it's the holidays, but there's a very good reason for that. I'm about 47,000 words into writing a fantasy novel, and I've been ploughing a lot of my free time over the holidays into that, rather than doing the usual kind of instant gratification activities I'd normally do on holiday, like playing a lot of videogames (you know the one), watching films, and so on.

Writing and creating stories has been something I've done for almost as long as I can remember. Creative story writing was one of the few aspects of studying English that I enjoyed (the other parts I just saw as a necessary evil that allowed me to be better at the good bits) and I suprised my parents one year (I think I was about 16) at Christmas by asking for a typewriter, rather than the usual crap I would normally ask for. I really wanted a PC, since I'd been captivated by playing UFO: Enemy Unknown on my brother's computer when he came home from University, but recognising my parents' rather constrained financial situation at the time, I asked for a typewriter instead, since they were a whole lot cheaper and what I was really interested in was writing my own stories about the game world, rather than playing the game itself.

I'm not entirely sure what became of the typewriter itself, or the reams of undoubtedly horrifically bad fanfic that I wrote with it. The history of literature, certainly, has not suffered due to their loss...

In any respect, I'm a far more creative and experienced writer now than I was then, though I'm still probably well short of the 1,000,000 words of written fiction that the received wisdom in narrative literature states you have to surpass before what you're writing has a chance of being any good. I think that by now I'm about three-quarters of the way there - and while I would normally thumb my nose to such prescriptive "rules" as elitist poppycock, this one, I feel, does have at least some merit to it. Like most skilled activities, writing is a skill that needs to be learned, practiced and constantly refined. And I also think that there is an element of truth in that no-one really writes because they want to. I don't write because I want to. I write because I need to - and that's a big, crucial difference.

I'm a good communicator - in my job, I have to be. Otherwise I'd have thirty bored kids making their own entertainment by hurling stools and blowing things up in my science lab (and if anyone's going to blow stuff up in my lab, it's me... as the ceiling tiles will testify!) But I've always had more of an affinity with communication through the written word, rather than the spoken word. After all, my academic background is scientific, not the humanities. It's only more recently that I've had to train up and hone my verbal communications skills, but one of the beneficial side effects of that is that it's slightly refocussed the emphasis of my writing. I used to write purely descriptively, building worlds and recounting sequences of events. While there are a great many novels (in all genres) that do precisely this, since I became a teacher I've been exposed to thousands of different people from a huge range of social, economic and cultural backgrounds, which has led me to the realisation of one key idea: people are fascinating.

I didn't always think that. In fact, as your typical, teenaged, introverted Physics student, I wasn't terribly good with people. Fairly awful, in fact. (Some might say that I'm not much improved now, and they're living with me!)

The upshot of this realisation is that now I'm much more interested in the characters than the world building in my writing. I still like trying to create new, unique worlds - which is surprisingly difficult, given the diversity of influences and variety of ways images and ideas can get subconsciously imprinted into your brain these days - but now I seem to spend more time in creating interesting characters. This is also a remarkably difficult process, because you're trying to find character hooks that are unique, whilst simultaneously avoiding cliché, which also allow you to make the characters act and behave in a consistent, believable way.

So while I was in London earlier this week to meet up with a friend, I paid a visit to Foyles and perused their creative writing section (writers, of course, love to write about writing). There I found a fascinating and very informative book: Writer's Guide To Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein. I've spent a lot of time with the book this week, and it's been reassuringly enlightening to find that the character traits I would ascribe to the characters are consistent with the psychological personality types described in the book. The book I'm writing is an adaptation of one of my own scripts (which itself started out as an adaptation of an unfinished short story) that I wrote for the now sadly defunct Script Frenzy three years ago. The story originally started out as a traditional "High Fantasy" story in the J.R.R. Tolkein mould, but Game of Thrones (and me reading my way through the entire series in about eight months) changed all that. The script is almost certainly never going to see the light of day or ever leave the safety of my "Ravings" USB Flash drive, but I have hopes that the novel will. Whether it will be any good is a question that remains to be resolved (I'm far too paranoid and self-critical to be an objective judge of my own work - hence why the sci-fi book I finished last year needs to go through at least one more re-write before I even consider letting it out into the wild) - but when you look at a lot of the other crap on the shelves these days that sell by the hundreds of thousands, you do think "why not?"... I'm not under any illusions about ever having the talent to earn Pulitzer, Man Booker or Nobel prizes for literature... but an actual physical book on a shelf with my name on it? Why not?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - 1.2 Wings Beta Test Flight Video Uploading Frenzy!

CALL ME CRAZY. But, for you, dear reader, I've used an entire afternoon abusing the upload channel on my fibre optic broadband to free up a huge amount of space on my hard drive (instead clogging up Youtube), posting all the footage I took trialling the ships I'd not gotten around to flying yet, thanks to the cheap access I had to them in the 1.2 Wings Beta.

My priority was to fly the Imperial Clipper, because I've been wanting to fly that since they put it into the game at the end of the initial Beta test. Gosh, it's a beauty. WANT.

I also got reacquianted with an old friend, the Anaconda, whom I miss dearly. Such a good ship... such a fortune to amass to make buying one worthwhile... It'll be a long time before I fly one again.

The Python test flight video I actually uploaded a while ago, but I've not gotten around to posting the link here yet. So here you are. I like the Python. I'll definitely get one in the future.

Likewise with the Vulture test flight video. That's also been online for a little while, but I'm still just as ambivalent about the ship now as I was then. And this is despite me having about 10 million credits invested in one at Jameson Memorial...

It was also a bit of a priority for me to get my hands on a Fer-de-Lance. Having been cruelly denied flying one in either Frontier or First Encounters (some tosh in the lore about it being "too powerful" to be trusted in the hands of private pilots, as I recall), I've been waiting for 30 years to fly one. It's not bad at all, but it's a bit of a "luxury player" of a ship. By that I mean that it costs too much, doesn't track back and thinks it looks and performs better than it actually does... Would I buy one? Maybe...? The Python is the better all-rounder, though.

Lastly, and the less I say about this the better, is the Federal Dubstep. Let's just say that I'm glad to have purged the hard drive of all evidence that I ever flew it... It's so crap, even Youtube thinks that the video should have been stabilised...

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Your Dream Ship, Part 3: Orca to Anaconda

If you've been reading the other two parts of this guide - here and here, if you missed them - today I'm going to deal with the big beasts of the Elite: Dangerous pantheon of ships. As before, assume finding upgrades is no problem and that money is no restriction, either. We'll start with the trickiest ship to find a role for, the Orca.
Orca - Role: Combat Zone/RES Tank
Why is it tricky to find a role for the Orca? Well, it's billed as a passenger ship, and Frontier haven't put in the passenger modules or missions yet, so it's difficult to really see why you'd go about flying one at the moment. No doubt I'll come back to this ship once the passenger mechanics have been added to the game, but I had a think and tried to find a niche for it. My initial thoughts were for it to be a sightseeing ship, but even pared back to the bone, you're only getting 18 light years of jump range from it; not really enough to visit distant nebulae. So that's not going to work. Right now, the only possible role I can see for an Orca is acting as a 'Tank' with a Wing of smaller fighters in a combat zone or RES. Stick on board high damage, high aggro weapons, attract the attention of something big, like an Anaconda or a Python, let your A-rated shields and upgraded hull soak up the damage, while your little friends do the real damage. Alternatively, just wait until Frontier put out the passenger modules...
Fer-de-Lance - Role: Space Bastard
The only real flaw with the Fer-de-Lance is a relative lack of FSD range, meaning that you've realistically got to stick to civilised space. 'Civilised', of course, is a relative term, because that's where all the pirates, criminal gangs, squabbling factions and defenseless traders are. This specification gives you options. You could swap out the hull reinforcement packages for a couple of cargo racks if you wanted to indulge in a bit of piracy, but the FdL is better suited to dealing damage than scooping cargo. If you're going to do that kind of thing, it's better to have a Wingmate on standby to scoop everything up, while you intimidate the target into space-pooping out their cargo with your hideously powerful weapon loadout. Otherwise, as long as you stay within a couple of jumps of a space station, you could use this spec to bounty hunt in resource sites, assassinate high value targets or simply clean up a star system of Wanted pilots while pootling around in SuperCruise. A good ship, then - but I still think it's overpriced for what it is.
Python Selfie Cam
Python - Role: Pirate Lord
Seriously, no-one in their right mind is going to mess with you if you're flying this. To keep the power requirements down, I've had to sacrifice the beam weaponry, so despite the decent jump range and the fuel scoop, you won't be able to stray too far off the beaten track, because you're going to have to reload your cannons quite a lot - but as discussed earlier, all the best targets are in core space, anyway. This spec should also handle PVP quite well, though you would probably want to swap out the cargo racks for hull reinforcements if you intend on taking on a Wing of player-flown Vultures. I like the Python a lot, as it's big, powerful and versatile. Personally, this probably isn't how I'd kit it out myself, (I'd fly a more multi-purpose loadout like this), but if you're the kind of player who'd rather be notorious than famous, the Python is ship for you.
Type 9 Heavy - Role: Combat Zone Gunship
A cargo-hauling Space Cow spec would have been too obvious. Based on the assumption that you want to have fun, rather than just make huge virtual piles of virtual money, try turning the Type 9 into a mobile fortress. You will, of course, want to bring friends to those high intensity combat zones, but decked out like this, you could do some serious damage and still make a lot of money in community goal combat zones, where you have to scoop up cargo from destroyed convoys. Just be careful trying to deliver those illicit goods into the station! The Type 9 doesn't make the best smuggling ship...
Anaconda - Role: Thargoid Hunter
If you've made the 500 to 1000 MCr required to seriously kit out an Anaconda, undoubtedly you don't need advice from me. However, if the Anaconda is a distant dream for you (and it is for me right now, because I don't want to spent a few weeks trading in dull cargo boxes to grind up the cash), here's a potential role you might want to consider for your Anaconda, in that distant future: Thargoid and alien artefact hunter... I would put fairly decent money on Frontier reintroducing the Thargoids in a future expansion pack. I also imagine that once planetary landings become a reality, we'll be able to go searching/surveying planetary surfaces for interesting tchotchkes left behind by long-dead alien civilisations. Which I also imagine would be worth a considerable amount of money in human colonised space. So you're going to want cargo space. You're going to want a decent fuel scoop and field maintenance module. You're going to want a decent hyperspace range to get out into those unexplored hinterlands. And you're going to want some pretty bloody powerful weapons, just in case you stumble across a Thargoid warship. The large gimballed beams will handle just about any challenge posed to you by human pilots, allowing you to conserve that precious plasma and multicannon ammo for close encounters. When I do eventually return to the welcoming bosom of Annie, this is how I'll kit her out. Because I know one thing... If I were to meet an angry Thargoid, I wouldn't want to be flying anything else!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Your Dream Ship, Part 2: Type 6 Transporter to Imperial Clipper

Last night I posted an outfitting guide for the first half dozen ships you can fly in Elite: Dangerous. Here I'll post suggested roles and loadouts for the next six ships (in order of expense), hopefully giving you an idea of how each ship can be used to fulfil a specific role within the game, and hopefully tomorrow I will complete the trilogy of guides, taking us all the way up to the mighty Anaconda. The same rules apply: money is no object, and we're assuming that all upgrades are easily found. So without further ado and needless waffling on, dangerously and uselessly testing the patience and forebearance of my readership, here's what I'd do with a Type 6, if I had one in my ship hangar.
Type 6 Transporter - Role: Cargo Box
The Type 6 is a trader, not a fighter. If you want to make solid money trading, you're going to want those 100 tonnes of cargo space, but you're also going to want to make it as difficult as possible for people to take them away from you. An A-rated shield booster and shield generator should give you a precious few seconds to allow your uprated thrusters to boost you out of harm's way, and the defensive weaponry and modules should discourage pirates from trying to chase you down too hard, while the A-rated FSD should give you the range to out-jump the majority of pursuers, provided you're not fully loaded. If your preferred route to wealth and bigger ships lies on the trading path, then at some point you'll fly a Type 6. If I absolutely had to fly one again (and thank goodness I don't!), this is how I'd kit it out.
Vulture - Role: Assassin
The Vulture is one of the new kids on the block in the 1.2 release and it has quickly won the hearts and minds of a significant number of combat-minded Commanders. It is brutally efficient at what it does - which is Space Murder ships of all sizes with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of fuss. The price of such an unsubtle projection of combat power, however, is that like its smaller Core Dynamics stablemate and sibling - the Eagle - the Vulture's poor power plant capacity requires you to make compromises on the broader loadout of the ship - you can't simple A-rate everything, because the ship would end up practically invincible. Even as it is, the Vulture is arguably on the overpowered side, and will no doubt be on the receiving end of a few swipes of the Nerf Bat in short order. As it is, however, you're best off utilising those two Class 3 weapon hardpoints either smashing your way through combat zones or pursuing those lucrative assassination contracts. You can more than double your armour rating using hull reinforcement packages, which goes some way to compensating for the ship's slightly underpowered shield generators - especially against Elite Anacondas or Federal Dropships. Assassination contracts usually take place within occupied space, so you needn't worry too much about a fuel scoop or the ship's limited FSD range, so you can dedicate your power plant budget and internal compartment space to modules that will make you harder to kill, while killing your targets as quickly as possible. From an objective point of view, it's a great little ship, and I do have one stashed at Jameson Memorial for combat giggles - but I still don't like it in the same way I like my Eagle or Cobra.
Asp Explorer - Role: Explorer (well, duh!)
The Asp is my current ship of choice. I don't quite have it decked out to this degree (yet!), but this is a "money no object" exercise. At first, it might appear that we're well over power budget here, but it's worth remembering that you don't need to have those Field Maintenance Units powered up - and, indeed, that they should be deactivated unless you're pootling about in real space in a safe place to repair modules. You could eke out a few extra light years of FSD range by trimming off the shields, defensive modules and the weapons, but if you've just circumnavigated all the way to Sagittarius A* or the Eagle Nebula and back, you're probably going to want to feel the sensation of extra security those modules are going to give you, should you happen to get interdicted one jump short of civilisation, when you've got 10 million credits' worth of exploration data sitting in your ship's navigation computer banks. For long range trips into the unknown, the Asp is really the best option, with its resilient hull, peerless jump range and a great view from the cockpit. The cheaper Vulture has nullified the Asp's utility as a combat vessel, and the Type 6 represents better value for money (and certainly less of a financial risk on your insurance costs) than the Asp, should you be tempted to strip one down to act as a cargo box. If you're going to fly an Asp, take it out into the hinterlands, where it belongs (but don't forget to take a couple of big guns and a shield generator in case of emergencies).
Type 7 Transport - Role: Pirate Bait
That picture above represents the closest I've come to actually buying a Type 7. I can appreciate the value of a Type 7 as a cargo carrier, and if that's how you like to make your money, fair play to you. But I thought it would be a bit obvious to suggest a trading configuration, so as an intellectual exercise, I thought, how would I play with a Type 7? Well, I wouldn't, frankly, but that's not terribly helpful for the purposes of this guide, so if I absolutely HAD to fly a Type 7, I'm grateful for the advent of the Wings update, because I'd use the Type 7 to bait Player Pirates in Open play, particularly the ones with rather large "Top 5" bounties. Bimble along in supercruise looking vulnerable (and crucially, not in a Wing) while your mates in Vultures await your signal on voice comms to Wing Up and steam in to support you as you keep the would-be pirate(s) distracted with your curiously resilient shields and hull, plus your annoyance turrets. Well, that's what I'd do. But then, I'm mean and evil.
Federal Dropship - Role: Pirate Corsair
Speaking of being mean and evil, both of the Faction ships seem uniquely suited to being kitted out for a bit of piracy. Overall, I'd prefer the Clipper to the Dubstep (I'm going to keep calling that, just in case it catches on), but if you're going to do piracy properly, you need a healthy amount of cargo space, A-rated equipment across the board as much as possible, plus lots of firepower to take out shields and subsystems of your victims quickly. The Dubstep is a little slow and short of FSD range, even with a top-tier drive, so you really are better off getting a Clipper.
Imperial Clipper Selfie Cam
Imperial Clipper - Role: Pirate Corsair
If you're going to plunder the spaceways for pirate booty, you might as well do it in style, right? Not only that, fulfilling the same role, the Clipper demonstrates the inherent superiority of the Empire over the Federation, given that you have more cargo space, better weapons, a faster ship and a longer FSD range than the Dubstep. Of course, this superiority doesn't come cheap, but that's just another reason why you're going to have to raid those rich, fat Federation transport ships for their decadent cargoes... ALL HAIL THE EMPEROR! BASK IN HIS GLORY!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Your Dream Ship, Part 1: Sidewinder to Cobra Mark III

Elite: Dangerous has gone through many changes since I wrote my original ship, weapon and module guides, back in the Beta phases. Rather than continually go back and modify the guides, I thought I'd take advantage of the wonderful Elite: Dangerous Shipyard website to perform a bit of a thought experiment.

Let's pretend that money is no object. Let's pretend that you have access to a shipyard where every single possible module and upgrade under the Sun (or should that be Sagittarius A*?) is available. How would you equip your dream ship?

It's not a trivial question, given that people have different playstyles and different ships are better at fulfilling different roles. So I'm going to take you through my vision of the perfect loadout for each of the ships currently available in Elite: Dangerous. It should be noted at this point that a) this is just my opinion - your mileage may vary (as the saying goes), and that b) while my experience with the game is extensive (probably knocking on for nearly 500-500 hours at this point), I won't have personally playtested every loadout I'm going to suggest. But I will have played with most of them.

I'm also only going to suggest one loadout for each ship, otherwise I'll be here for weeks suggesting different variants, and I'm sure that you can probably figure out things like stripped down cargo hauler specs for yourself. I will start where every Elite: Dangerous pilot generally does, with the Sidewinder.

Sidewinder - Role: Courier
One of the best, low-risk methods of earning money as soon as you start playing is running light cargo transport and courier missions in your Sidewinder. The majority of your investment in the equipment for this loadout is actually in the weapons, though as a courier, battle should really be your last resort (hence the chaff launcher and the point defence). With two gimballed beam lasers, the Sidewinder can give much larger ships a run for their money and a bloody nose, thanks to its high agility. Decent weapons, allied with an A-rated Power Distributor will give the Sidewinder good combat endurance when it comes to dealing out damage. Add that to an A-rated Frame Shift Drive (FSD) and lightweight D-rated equipment in the other internal bays, and you have a nippy, long-range courier able to ship up to half a dozen tonnes of cargo further than a stock Cobra for roughly the same amount of cash. While it's easy to dismiss the Sidewinder as a cheap, low-rent craft you want to get out of as soon as possible, in the right hands, and in the right role, it's actually a capable little ship.

Iron Eagle
Eagle - Role: Interdictor Hunter
I love the Eagle. It's a vicious little bastard of a ship. Other than being on the lightweight side and not being able to absorb much damage, the Eagle's maneouvrability, peerless cockpit view and three weapon hardpoints make it arguably the best dogfighter in the game. With A-rated shields, an A-rated power distributor and a good mix of gimballed beam and projectile weapons, the Eagle is ideal for interdicting Wanted ships much larger than itself and bringing them to justice. To fulfil this role properly, you want an A-rated FSD, which gives the Eagle the ability to out-jump most ships in the game, and a frame shift wake scanner plus a fuel scoop, so that you can hound targets across space until they have to face their inevitable doom. I still have an Eagle stashed away for combat giggles, not least because it allows me to make best use of my TrackIR 5.
Hauler - Role: Explorer
You may never have thought of the Hauler's potential as an explorer-class ship. I certainly hadn't, until I started mucking around with the options on E:D Shipyard. And then I tried it. Unarmed, unshielded, hull mass slashed to the bone with slimline D-rated modules, provided that you invest in a top-tier Advanced Discovery Scanner and Detailed Surface Scanner, you're actually far more likely to make more money in a Hauler exploring than you would from trading. Obviously, at the beginning of the game you're not going to have 2.5 MCr knocking around in your back pocket, but the investment costs are certainly a lot lower than those of an explorer-spec Asp, yet you get enough FSD range to take a serious tilt at the sparsely populated outer spiral arms, not just the dense galactic core. The A-rated power distributor (you've probably spotted a pattern by now - this is an essential purchase for ALL ships) is necessary to boost your engine recharge rate to Sir Robin bravely away, in the event of getting interdicted. And if it all does go wrong, at least the insurance costs aren't too prohibitive. If you've made your first couple of million trading or fighting and want to try your hand at exploration, but can't afford an Asp, then seriously consider the Hauler.
Black Hole III
Adder - Role: Explorer
I could have tried to come up with an off-the-wall role for the Adder, but it's too good an explorer vessel to make any other suggestion of how to fly it, just for the sake of being different. This specification is certainly high-risk and quite expensive (though still less than you'd pay for the basic Asp hull), and while it's a full 1.6ly short of the FSD range of the Hauler I posted above, there are a few reasons why you'd want to go for the Adder instead. Firstly, it's that little bit faster than the Hauler and more agile, so if you do get interdicted before you get out into the wilds, the Adder does give you a better chance of running away successfully. Additionally, the hull is rather more substantial as well, meaning that you're much more likely to survive navigation mishaps, say getting trapped between binary stars while refuelling in supercruise mode. The greater number of internal compartments (and their larger class) gives you more repair capacity for your modules, plus faster refuelling (handy when trying to avoid those navigation mishaps!), which all adds up to the potential for longer-ranged expeditions, deeper into the galaxy. Obviously, it's not quite as good as having an Asp, but you're getting a ship that can do almost as good a job for 10 MCr less... Sounds like a bargain to me. One disadvantage is that choosing one class down on the power plant and the power distributor does mean that you have to shut down the cargo hatch to stay beneath your power budget, but that's okay - you're not going to have any cargo racks installed anyway!
Viper - Role: Resource Gathering Site Hunter
If you're looking at the spec and thinking "what the hell is wrong with that FSD range?", well, it's simple. You're not going to be taking this ship out of the system. The Viper is only good for one thing: Killing stuff as quickly and efficiently as possible. Find a system with a nice, productive RES, and this ship will pay for itself in around two or three hours. And it will be fun. Screenshot_0752
Cobra Mark III - Role: Rare Commodities Trader
Following the 12.5 MCr cash windfall I received at Lugh, after getting into the Top 40% of pilots for the Spear of Lugh community goal, this is the current spec I have on my Cobra, sitting in its bay and waiting for action at Jameson Memorial. Fully A-rated, 40 tonnes of cargo racks, fully armed and armoured, with over 20ly of hyperspace range, this is a formidable ship for the price. A-rated sensors will help you see danger coming, the A-rated thrusters and power distributor will help you Sir Robin to safety, but if it does start to go fruit-shaped, the Military Composite Armour, A-rated shield generator, shield booster, plus the gimballed cannons and beam lasers will make just about anyone regret messing with you. Every pilot should have one of these in their hangar.