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.

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Ship Comparison Guide - Part 2; Asp Explorer, Imperial Clipper, Federal Dropship, Orca, Python, Vulture & Fer-de-Lance

Well, hello there. It's been a while. I've been very busy working since the turn of the new year, and also in some quite substantial back pain for the last couple of months, which has made keeping up with the blog a bit difficult. This whole "getting old" thing... It's a pisser. However, I was able to take advantage of the recent 1.2 Wings beta to try out the vast majority of the ships I've not been able to fly in the game so far. The only ship I didn't test drive was the Type 7, mainly because after all of the hours I spent trading my way up to an Anaconda in Premium Beta, I have no desire to fly another trading box ever again. Here's my review of the Type 7, completely uninformed by not having flown it at all: It's bigger than a Type 6, smaller than a Type 9, about as worthless in combat, and about as exciting as watching a puddle of distilled water evaporate. I hope that was helpful. Anyway, forget the Type 7... We've got much more interesting ships to talk about.

I've slightly altered the format of my ship guide to previous installments, thanks to the revision of the module system and the introduction of new module classes in the 1.2 release. They're worth a separate guide all of their own, and I'll be getting around to writing that over the course of the next week or so. Anyway. Onward! I have new ships to tell you about!

Asp Explorer:
Cost: 6,135,658 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (Explorer): x2 Class 2 Gimballed Beam Lasers (Optional: plus x4 Class 1 Gimballed Multicannons)
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (Bounty Hunter): x2 Class 2 Gimballed Multicannons, x4 Class 1 Gimballed Beam Lasers
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (Assassin): x2 Class 2 Gimballed Beam Lasers, x4 Class 1 Gimballed Cannons
Why you should fly it: The Asp Explorer has to be one of my favourite ships in the Elite universe. In the original Elite, they were absolute bastards to kill, and I still remember the moment that I managed to kill the Asp with the Cloaking Device when I turned Deadly and the Imperial Navy/The Dark Wheel (I forget who's supposed to have been responsible in the lore) tried to have me killed. In Frontier and First Encounters, the Asp is a fabulous ship to fly, because you can equip it with military drives to get an epic hyperspace range, yet still pack it to the gills with a 4MW beam laser, laser cooling booster and enough shield generator units to make it practically invulnerable to anything other than a plasma accelerator.
In Elite: Dangerous, the Asp is identified as an Explorer-class vessel, and it does excel in this role. Currently, I'm flying an Asp with an A-rated Frame Shift Drive, carrying out star-by-star tours of my favourite constellations. With an FSD range in excess of 30 light years, the Asp is the only ship big enough and resilient enough, and with long enough hyperspace legs, to reach the parts of the Milky Way other ships cannot reach. It's the Heineken of ships. Completely stripped down to the bare bones, you'll get 33.5 light years out of it with a full fuel tank, but it's worth sacrificing a few light years of range to put in basic weapons, a shield generator and a Field Maintenance Unit to give you some protection against random NPC encounters and navigation mishaps when refuelling. If you're gripped by wanderlust to see the sights of the galaxy, then the Asp is the ship to have.
It's also passably good fulfilling other general purpose roles. It has large enough internal compartments to be a decent trading vessel (especially a Rare Commodities trader), plus it has a whopping six weapon hardpoints (four Class 1, two Class 2), giving the Asp decent combat power. The Asp's agility isn't fantastic - I found that it's high hull mass works against it in a dogfight against smaller opponents - but its relative lack of mobility can be compensated for by gimballed weapons. The Asp's high power plant capacity is also helpful in taking advantage of the new Shield Booster units and being able to equip high-tier, power-hungry weapons and modules without worrying about having things shut down when you deploy your hardpoints. The view from the cockpit is also one of the best in the game, so if you've got headtracking (such as TrackIR or Oculus Rift), combat becomes a lot easier, thanks to your ability to padlock-view the target. It's an excellent ship, that will be the mainstay for many a player wanting a single ship to fulfil various roles, without having to break the bank.
Why you should ditch it: Unless your raison d'etre is trying to find unexplored planets and star systems to stamp your name on for all eternity (and at the moment, mine is - I'll probably reach Elite in the Explorer path first), there are plenty of good reasons to trade up out of an Asp. The Type 7 and Type 9 can haul more cargo and are more profitable traders. The Vulture and the Python are more potent combatants, with much more stopping power than the Asp. Regardless, at some point, you'll want to have an Asp slithering around in your hangar.

Imperial Clipper:
Cost: 21,077,784 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (Trader): x2 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Lasers, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Multicannons
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (Bounty Hunter): x2 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Lasers, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Cannons
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (Large Ship Assassin): x2 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Lasers, x2 Class 2 Fixed Plasma Accelerators
Why you should fly it: LOOK AT IT... JUST LOOK AT IT. Do I really need to say more? I do? Really? REALLY?? Okay, then, suit you... SUIT YOU, SIR. OH! SUIT YOU!

Not convinced yet? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?
Sigh. Okay, I get it. You need a rational argument. Here goes, then. It's gorgeous in just about every way. Visually, sonically, this is a supermodel of a ship. Every design aspect of the Clipper practically screams "CLASSY!". Stodgy handling aside, the Clipper represents amazing bang for your buck in terms of trading capacity and combat ability. It's arguably the best of the multi-role ships to date in the game, and it's certainly going to give you the most elegant screenshots. With two Class 3 and two Class 2 weapon hardpoints, the Imperial Clipper is immensely potent in combat, especially given that its powerful thruster engines give it a higher top speed backwards than most ships can travel forwards. Put gimballed weapons on your Clipper and Sir Robin your way to victory against small opponents like Sidewinders and Eagles, who will simply wither away under the weight of your fire. Its speed is also a telling factor against larger ships, such as Anaconda, against whom you can employ fixed weapons to smash vulnerable subsystems into obliviion, without having to whittle down their hull first. If you want the versatility of being able to make significant amounts of money trading, while still being able to more than hold your own against any ship in the game, then you want an Imperial Clipper. It really is that good.
Clipper Eclipse
Why you should ditch it: Obviously, the biggest problem with the Imperial Clipper is that you have to achieve the rank of Baron in the Imperial Navy to be able to buy one. For some players (i.e. the ones that like to roleplay), this will be anathema, due to certain ethical issues with the Empire's stance with regard to slavery, etc. For morally unscrupulous commanders (like me), on the other hand, other - more practical - considerations will come into play. Firstly, there's the issue of cost. To kit out an Imperial Clipper to its ultimate potential is not cheap. Admittedly, it's only about a tenth of the cost of maxing out an Anaconda, but the difference between being able to afford a Clipper and being able to make it resilient enough to take out into Open Play is rather substantial. Another problem I have with the Imperial Clipper is the relatively short hyperspace range. It might make a decent enough explorer vessel towards the core of the galaxy, but if you want to reach the fringes of the outer spiral arms, the Clipper simply doesn't have the FSD legs, which is unfortunate, because it's exactly the kind of ship you'd picture the Empire wanting to use to plant their flag on valuable fringe systems on the frontier. Finally, there is one significant flaw in the design of the ship. Those lovely, elegant wings and engine nacelles have one unfortunate consequence. The Clipper is only able to land on Large pads, meaning that you won't be able to land at Outposts, only Coriolis, Ocellus and Orbis starports. Not so much a problem if you're sticking to the core systems, but it does mean that you have to be careful picking up cargo transport and courier missions. There is also a secondary consequence in terms of the design with the weapon placement. The wide spacing of the weapon hardpoints limits the utility of fixed weapons, especially on the large, Class 3 hardpoints on the engine nacelles. So be careful when equipping the ship, otherwise you might find yourself being picked to pieces by smaller, more maneouvrable ships.

Federal Dropship:
Cost: 18,969,990 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout (General Purpose): x1 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Laser, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Beam Lasers, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Multicannons
Why you should fly it: If you're going to side with the Feds rather than the Imperials, then this is your version of the Imperial Clipper. Except that it's not quite so good. Other than the fact that it's a little bit cheaper (well, it is now, thanks to a price update in the 1.2 release - it used to cost around 36 MCr). I can't honestly say that I'm a big fan of the Federal Dubstep (It's a big DROP-ship... Do you see? Oh, please yourselves...) - while it may be bristling with weapon hardpoints, including a Large, Class 3 hardpoint, its flabby handling negates its high shield and armour stats. At least the view from the cockpit is good - but there are more inspiring ships out there. It might make a half-decent stopgap for the budding assassin or bounty hunter on their way to a Python or Fer-de-Lance, but it's not a keeper.
Why you should ditch it: If you're after a stepping stone to bigger and badder ships, a Type 7 is a cheaper, more profitable option if you're trading your way to wealth, the Asp is peerless as an explorer-class vessel (with practically double the range of an equivalently equipped Dubstep), and the Vulture outperforms the Dubstep in almost all aspects, when it comes to combat. The only niche I really see the Dubstep filling is that of a status ship for the Federally-aligned. It's a bit rubbish, frankly.
Even the holograph projectors look like cheap Nespresso machines. The Federal Dropship: Sponsored by George Clooney - though even that can't make them appear any sexier. Avoid.

Cost: 47,798,079 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout (General Purpose): x1 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Laser, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Multicannons
Why you should fly it: Right now, it's hard to think of a compelling reason. It... looks nice?
Why you should ditch it: It's not a good combat vessel, it's not a good trader and it's relatively expensive. The Orca (and its smaller sibling, the yet to be introduced Dolphin) will come into their own once Frontier Developments implement the passenger transport mechanics in a future patch/expansion, but right now, I really can't think why you'd want to fly an Orca other than to say that you have done, or so that you can take arty screeshots of its sleek, shiny hull.

Python Outfitting
Cost: 55,171,395 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout (Multi-role): x3 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Laser, x2 Class 2 Gimballed Cannons
Why you should fly it: The Python is a BEAST. Three large, Class 3 hardpoints. Two medium, Class 2 hardpoints. Four utility mounts. Three Class 6, two Class 5, one Class 4, two Class 3 and one Class 2 internal compartments. While it may be double the price of the more exclusive Imperial Clipper, the Python really packs a punch. In the original Elite, the Python was prey for your Cobra. Now, it's a ruthless, vicious predator, capable of stripping any opponent to the bone in one-on-one combat.

In a multi-role specification, the Python is capable of hauling over 200 tonnes of cargo respectable distances, while still packing enough combat power to fend off marauding wings of smaller vessels. The Python is a fantastic ship, if a little on the slow side.
Why you should ditch it: It's not the best ship for exploring, since its FSD legs are a long way short of parity with the Asp, though it is more than capable of taking you inwards toward the core of the galaxy and back. The Python also requires a significant amount of cash to be a real money-spinner as a multi-role trader/combat vessel, but if you can afford one in the first place, I don't imagine that will pose too much of an issue in the long run. The only other reason to ditch your Python is that you can finally afford to buy an Anaconda...

Cost: 4,689,629 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (Frugal): x2 Class 3 Gimballed Pulse Lasers
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (Banzai!): x1 Class 3 Gimballed Beam Laser, x1 Class 3 Fixed Cannon
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (THIS! IS! SPARTA!): x1 Class 3 Fixed Beam Laser, x1 Class 3 Fixed Plasma Accelerator
Why you should fly it: Oh, MAN. What can I say about the Vulture? It's the ship you want to fly if you want to give a big FUCK YOU to the universe. The Vulture is an unsubtle bully. While I can't dispute its efficacy as a combat ship, I'm not convinced that I like it. It lacks... subtlety. Finesse. It's a dumb brute of a ship. It's cheaper and more maneouvrable and more combat effective than an Asp. With its two large, Class 3 weapons, the Vulture will scavenge its way happily through a combat zone, devouring even Elite Anacondas with relative ease (provided that you've uprated the ship's hull and shield generators). If you pick your battles carefully in a resource extraction site, you'll be able to recoup your insurance cost in under an hour. The Vulture almost matches the Eagle in terms of its agility, easily offsetting the ship's limited number of hardpoints. The Vulture's ability to turn on the head of a pin, allied with the potency of its weapons, goes a long way towards compensating for the other shortcomings in its design.
Why you should ditch it: There are only really two main flaws with the design of the Vulture, but they're significant ones. Firstly, like its stable-mate, the Eagle, the Vulture lacks power plant capacity. No matter how you want to equip your Vulture, you'll inevitably have to compromise somewhere, as it's simply not possible to A-rate every module and equip the most powerful weapons to the ship. So you're going to have to sacrifice weapon power, shield power, thruster power or FSD range; you can't have the best of all worlds. The second flaw with the Vulture is its hyperspace range. Even with a maxed out FSD and a decent fuel scoop, you will have to plan your path around the core worlds carefully, as the Class 3 fuel store will only allow 3-4 jumps at maximum FSD range, limiting the Vulture's potential as an exploration vessel - even in the more densely populated coreward regions of the galaxy.

Locked and loaded
Cost: 51,232,230 Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (SPARRRRRRRRRRTA!): x1 Class 4 Plasma Accelerator, x4 Class 2 Gimballed Cannons
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (Say hello to my little friend!): x1 Class 4 Gimballed Cannon, x4 Class 2 Gimballed Beam Lasers
Why you should fly it: I've been waiting 30 years to fly a Fer-de-Lance. Broadly speaking, it was worth the wait. I'm glad that Frontier Developments had a bit of a rethink on the pricing. Initially it was over 100 million credits (more than two-thirds the cost of an Anaconda), which was fairly laughable. Now, the "Ferdel" (or "FdL") is about 10% cheaper than a Python, which still feels a little steep. I suppose the justification for the premium pricing comes from the fact that the FdL is currently the only other ship than an Anaconda that packs a Class 4 weapon hardpoint. While this does give the FdL a potentially significant step up in combat power relative to other ships of its size, I'm in two minds as to whether that makes it worth the premium you have to pay to take advantage of it. The FdL is more agile than a Python, but would you rather have 3 large and 2 medium hardpoints or 1 huge and 4 medium? It's a personal judgment call, but I think the Python edges it.
Why you should ditch it: If combat's your thing and you've found a nice, profitable RES, it's a close call as to whether you should be flying an FdL or a Python. But if you want to spread your wings and go further afield, the pitiful FSD range of the FdL is a big black mark against its ledger book. A Python will give you almost double the range of a Fer-de-Lance, and the Python is a more profitable trading vessel, with more than four times the cargo capacity of the FdL in a trading configuration.
[Edit:] In case you're looking for my original guides, you can find my Adder review here, my overview of the Anaconda and Type 9 here, and my verdicts on the Sidewinder, Eagle, Hauler, Viper, Cobra and Type 6 here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bark: In defence of offence

Some of you might find what I'm about to write offensive. This post will not be granny-friendly. If you're easily offended, you might want to stop reading. In fact, you might want to fuck off to somewhere else on the internet to watch My Little Pony videos. Here's a link, now fuck off... Still here? Don't say you weren't warned.

No matter what your age, creed or religion, if you're even remotely right-minded and sane, you were probably horrified by the brutal, cowardly attack by fundamentalist murderers on the Charlie Hebdo offices and kosher supermarket in Paris last week. Note that I'm not calling them "terrorists" or "Islamic", because they don't deserve the false legitimacy the label brings. The three gunmen were criminals and were no more representative of the religion of Islam than I am - and I'm a big, white, Glaswegian atheist with a Physics degree.

No matter how much the idiots and racists on Fox News would like you to believe otherwise, the Kouachi brothers and their accomplices, Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene, weren't striking a blow for Islam, or seeking to avenge a perceived slight against the Prophet, they were simply using that an excuse to commit cold-blooded murder against defenceless journalists and civilians. They were trying to exercise power and impose their barbaric, medieval values on a global society that's left them behind. I'd go so far to say that it wasn't even an attack against free speech or liberty. No, this was an attack on independent thought and civilisation. From the response that I've seen from the politicians, religious leaders, journalists and people of not just France, but the entire civilised world, I'm glad that their attack failed so miserably.

I'm no friend of organised religion - or more specifically, monotheism. The reason why is because I'm a scientist, and in science, it doesn't matter who you are, whether you're an undergraduate student, a professor, a teacher or even one of the "prophets" of science (as popular mainstream media like to portray them) such as Einstein, Galileo or Newton, no idea is sacrosanct or unchallengeable. In fact, if you're a scientist, your ideas are there to be shot at (metaphorically, not with AK-47s) and challenged. The problem with monotheism, and particularly fundamentalist interpretations of monotheistic religions, is that THESE IDEAS ARE THE ONLY RIGHT ONES, AND IF YOU CHALLENGE OR RIDICULE THEM, WE TRUE BELIEVERS WILL KILL YOU, BECAUSE INFIDELS ARE NOT TRULY HUMAN... Now, I don't give a flying fuck what particular brand of religious claptrap you choose to believe in. You can believe in what you like - but you don't get to try and tell me what to think and what I'm free to say and do - especially at the threat of a barrel of a gun. All fundamentalist religion requires is faith, preferably an unthinking, unquestioning one. It takes ancient texts hundreds, if not thousands, of years old and tells you BELIEVE IN THIS, THIS IS THE ONLY KNOWLEDGE YOU WILL EVER NEED. For a scientist, this very concept is anathema. To quote Richard Feynman, it's better to have questions you cannot answer than answers that cannot be questioned. If you take away the ability to think freely, speak freely and question freely, you don't have a civilisation. You have a group of bipedal sheep, able to be bullied around by a handful of maniacs with machine guns.

And this is why, no matter what the personal threat to any individual, we cannot and must not let these barbarians, who number only a few thousand - perhaps only a hundred thousand at most - intimidate us into self-censorship, for fear of causing them offence.

Offence is necessary. Intellectually, it is vital. Every preconception and blindly-held belief must be challenged and affronted. The unsayable must be said - the forbidden and the taboo must be viewed and confronted, because not to do so leads to intellectual stagnation and the death of ideas and civilisation. We cannot and must not let a few thousand backwards barbarians dictate the global agenda and limit the freedoms of billions of people worldwide, just because they have a few guns and make shiny videos on what's laughably called "social media". And they cannot, unless we let them - because while the fundamentalists might have the weapons of fear, intimidation, guns and bombs, we - civilised people - have better weapons: education, culture, logic, reason, tolerance and forgiveness.

Let us not be fooled into thinking that this is a "war" on Islam or a "war" on Terror - that's exactly what the fundamentalists want, because it allows them to carry on in the misguided belief that they haven't already lost. This is a debate between the values that we want to respect and abide by in future generations. Do you want those values to be ones that allow people to be murdered if they are perceived to be threatened? Or do you want them to be the values that enrich everyone's lives by allowing people to freely explore all the possibilities that unrestricted thought can discover? I know which world I want to live in.

And I've always thought that if your values, faith, belief and ideology is so easily threatened by say, a teenage girl speaking up for the educational rights of women, or a bunch of geeks drawing cartoons, maybe you need a better class of ideology. And if that offends you, remember that I didn't make you read it. I didn't hold a gun to your head and make you think. And maybe if you're offended by what I've written here, maybe you should consider the idea that a fat, Scottish geek typing at an Ikea desk on a computer has more power than a thousand so-called "terrorists" with assault rifles in terms of changing the way you should think about and look at the world.

Some people have called Charlie Hebdo's response to the attack on their offices "irresponsible" and "provocative". In case you've not seen that response, it's at the bottom of this post. I call bullshit on that. The best response to an atrocity such as this is to not apologise, to not pull your punches and show the world that we will not be cowed and that we will not submit to the base manipulation of fear and intimidation. By all means, be offended by it, but think about WHY you're offended. And do not believe for a second that your offence has more value than the life of the person who offended you, nor their right to have done it. I'm a teacher, I get offended by what people say to me on an almost daily basis, but I don't go around chopping the heads off the people who said something distasteful to me (though I imagine that would be a very effective behaviour management technique...). If God, Allah, Jehovah (or whatever God or god you choose to believe in) really exists (and we're not going to go into the "evidence" debate here - suffice to say that my opinion on this matter strongly agrees with Russell's Teapot), and is, in fact, omnipotent and omniscient, He doesn't really need His "honour" "defended" by a fleshy meatbag with an RPG launcher...

But if the fundamentalists really do want a "war", they should just name the time and place. Seriously, fundamentalists. Get yourselves all together into a nice desert somewhere, and we can duke it out. Except they'd never do that, because I forgot to mention one of our better weapons: nukes. We really could bomb them back into the Stone Age that they so clearly want to live in... Though you know what? We wouldn't do that, either - because we're better than them. Even crackpot, fundamentalist life has an intrinsic value, so these people don't deserve your hatred and fear. They deserve your pity, empathy and forgiveness. No matter how many innocents they try to kill or subdue, we need to continue to challenge their barbaric doctrine with education and reason, until they can finally see that their values are not wanted by us, are not tolerable by us, and that they were never worth fighting for to begin with. And finally, we certainly must not do their job for them by voluntarily ceding the freedoms that the Charlie Hebdo staff died for by taking them away with "security" legislation. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, any society willing to trade a little freedom for a little security will lose both and deserve neither - a lesson that's been forgotten all too often in the last fourteen years.

I'm going to leave you with a few of my favourite responses from the peers of the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. They sum the whole thing up pretty well.

Nous sommes tous Charlie. Fuck fundamentalism and fundamentalists. And fuck their mothers, too. (But only if they're MILFs...)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Byte: A plug for the Elite Shipyard

In case you've not seen this yet, taleden on the Elite: Dangerous forums has put together a brilliant tool - the Elite Shipyard. Currently, it's still a bit of a work in progress, but if you want to find out how much that top-spec Imperial Clipper is going to set you back, and how much cash you need in reserve on the off-chance that you wreck it, well, now you can do exactly that.

It's 146.78 million credits, incidentally. The insurance alone is 5.4 million, and that's with the Beta discount. I'm going to have to get saving...

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Adder review

Screenshot_0133 Adder
Cost: 87,808Cr (As of v1.00)
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (Trader): x1 C2 Beam Laser (Gimballed) x2 C1 Beam Lasers (Turreted)
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (Explorer): x1 C2 Pulse Laser (Gimballed), x2 C1 Beam Lasers (Fixed)
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (Multi-role): x1 C2 Multi-cannon (Gimballed), x2 C1 Beam Lasers (Fixed)
Recommended modules: Chaff Launcher, Point Defence Turret

Why you should fly it: Essentially, the Adder is a poor man's Cobra Mark III. The Adder provides the player with the cheapest access to a Medium weapon hardpoint, making the ship a halfway house between the Eagle and the Cobra in terms of combat power. It's probably fair to say that the Adder isn't going to win any beauty contests, though the upturned, gullwing wingtips that come into play when you're landing the ship do add a smidgeon of coolness factor. Aesthetically, the Adder is very much a big brother to the Hauler - that is, ugly as sin. Fortunately, the Adder is second only to the Eagle in terms of its combat agility, so while it may not have durability of a Cobra, the combat power of a Viper, nor the sleek profile of an Eagle or Sidewinder, the Adder is still easily capable of handing an Asp's ass back to itself on a silver platter - provided that its pilot is mildly competent. As you can see in the video above, I didn't have too much trouble with that Cobra, and that was with basic weapons and vanilla E-rated thrusters and shields. It's probably not worth kitting one out as a combat vessel, as the money required to give an Adder the chance to compete with Pythons, Imperial Clippers, Federal Dropships and Anacondas for those lucrative asassination contracts would be more wisely invested in a bigger ship. If combat's not your thing and you simply want to use it as a stripped-down cargo shifter, it's a little bit better than a Hauler, as you can cram in 26 tonnes' worth of cargo racks, which might only be a handful more than the Hauler, but the fact that it's faster and more manoeuvrable will not only help you evade those pesky interdictions more easily, but will also speed up your turnaround time as you're docking and launching - all good for improving your profit margin in terms of cargo runs per hour. Another good use for the Adder would be as a mining vessel, as it has enough internal compartments to fit a decent-sized refinery and a few cargo racks, without having to completely sacrifice the ability to defend yourself from those unscrupulous Commanders who like to prey on asteroid grinders.
The stated design purpose of the Adder is to act as entry-tier exploration craft, and in this respect, the Adder is perfectly suited to its job. With an ultimate hyperspace range of between 22 and 25 light years, the Adder is perhaps a little short on hyperspace range to explore outwards towards the real fringes of the galaxy, but will comfortably handle exploratory forays inwards towards the galactic core. I've invested well over 2 million credits in my explori-Adder, most of that simply for the Detailed Surface and Advanced Discovery scanner, which are essential pieces of kit if you're going to make the most out of exploring. The 500 light second range on the Basic Discovery scanner is fine if you're just interested in scanning the system primary and maybe a few objects in the locality of it, but the Intermediate Discovery scanner isn't really worth the money. Over a million credits to just double the scanning range to 1000 light seconds seems a bit steep to me, as if you're a Pokemon Explorer like me (GOTTA SCAN THEM ALL!), you still have to do a lot of scrabbling around trying to find objects using visual parallax against the background stars, which is not something you want to be doing in an Adder. Save up the extra 500,000 credits and go the whole hog to get the Advanced Discovery Scanner - it detects everything in the system and makes the whole process much more straightforward and profitable. Another advantage of the Adder being a smaller ship is that the wear and tear running costs compared to an Asp are far more manageable. Overall, I really like the Adder and will be keeping mine for whenever I'm overcome by the wanderlust to pay a visit to the galactic core and some of the prettier, more easily reachable nebulae. Oh, and another thing - the Adder really sounds great. I love the sound the frame shift drive makes as it's winding down. It perhaps doesn't have the awe-inspiring sense of power and finesse that you get from the Viper, but still - Frontier's sound designers really deserve a lot of credit for giving each ship such a distinct sonic personality. It would have been so easy for them to make every ship sound the same, but each ship does have a unique character, and the Adder's a real charmer, despite the ugly duckling looks.
Why you should ditch it: The relative flimsiness of the hull and slight lack of combat power means that an Adder isn't really the ship you want to be flying if you're bounty hunting, though it is slightly more resilient than an Eagle. It's arguably a stepping stone from the Eagle up to a Viper or Cobra for the nascent bounty hunter and combateer, but there's one massive reason why you should stick with the Eagle if you're going to earn your early cash in combat, and that's the view from the cockpit.
There's no point mincing words here.
It's awful. Terrible. Execrable. Shit.
It's the single worst thing about the Adder. Hang up your TrackIR headset, or take off your Oculus Rift DK2 if you're lucky enough to have one, because in this you won't need it. Unless you like looking at the quality of the workmanship on the bulkheads, that is. This is not a ship to fly if you're claustrophobic. Combat in the Adder is mildly terrifying due to the lack of peripheral vision. You've got very little awareness of the space around you, making it very easy to collect stray ships or asteroids in the middle of a furball in a combat zone or resource gathering site. The greater combat power of the medium hardpoint on the upper hull doesn't entirely compensate for the restricted view, so you're really better off sticking with the Eagle until you can afford a Viper or Cobra. As I alluded to earlier, the poor vision from the cockpit also a disadvantage if you're using the Adder for exploring. If you can't afford an Advanced Discovery Scanner, trying to find distant objects using visual parallax is not easy with such a small view out of the canopy. A Sidewinder or Eagle, with their lovely open-top canopies, are much better for early game exploring, as you're much more likely to be able to pick up those tell-tale movements against the sky if you've got more of it to look at. The Advanced Discovery Scanner negates this disadvantage, of course, but it's not a cheap solution to the problem.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Byte: Flying Home For Christmas

With abject apologies to Chris Rea, Driving Home For Christmas, the Elite: Dangerous version.

I'm flying home for christmas
Oh, I can't wait to see those docking spaces
I'm flying home for christmas, yeah
Well I'm moving through witchspace
And it's been so long
But I will be there
I sing this song
To pass the time away
Flying in my Co-bra
Flying home for christmas

It's gonna take some time
But I'll get there
Top to toe fuel scoopin’
Oh, I got interdictions all around
But soon there'll be a frame shift
Get my feet on Founders’ ground

So I sing for you
Though you can't hear me
In this vacuum
Avoiding the pirates near me
I am flying home for christmas
Flying home for christmas
With ten tonnes of Lavian Brandy

I take look at the commander next to me
He's just the same
Just the same

Top to toe fuel scoopin’
Oh, I got interdictions all around
I'm flying home for christmas, yeah
Get my feet on Founders’ ground
So I sing for you
Though you can't hear me
In this vacuum
Avoiding the pirates near me
Flying in my Co-bra
Flying home for christmas
Flying home for christmas
With ten tonnes of Lavian Brandy

Monday, December 01, 2014

Bark: Movember 2014 - The final beg for donations begins

Now that we're into December, Movember might be officially over, but now the real work starts. You've guessed it, I want your donations. I've grown this fabulous, furry, facial furniture for the last thirty days to get lots and lots of money for a very good cause, but now it's starting to frighten my students. For their sakes, please donate so I can get rid of it!

Get yourself over to my Mo Space and please give whatever you can - even a few quid has the potential to make a big difference. If you take a bit of time to look over some of the statistics as to why we should be raising awareness about the health risks posed by testicular cancer, prostate cancer and mental health issues in men, they're almost as terrifying as my Mo. In the UK alone, the number of men diagnosed with prostate cancer each year would fill a football stadium. Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men under 50. The suicide rate in UK men is highest in the age range of 30-44 and 75% of all suicide deaths in the UK alone in 2011 were male, which is way beyond what you'd expect from the balance of men and women in the general population.

Hardly anyone talks about these diseases, because they're "embarassing" - there's a massive stigma surrounding mental health issues in particular. 1 in 8 men have a mental health issue, such as depression, but no-one talks about it because they're afraid of being seen as "weak". We shouldn't let outdated taboos and sheer ignorance or denial of these problems send people needlessly to their graves. Get talking, get donating, and we can change the face of men's health, one bristle at a time. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Byte: The only game in town (Elite: Dangerous Beta 3)

I realise that I must sound like a one track record by now, but the more I play with Elite: Dangerous, the more I realise that this is the space game that I've been wanting to play ever since the original Elite, back when I first played it in 1985. With each new beta release the game is adding in new layers of complexity and functionality, which gives players many more options of how to approach the game - there's no one "right" way to play it, and that's what I find most exciting about the game.
I haven't been able to play the game enough to scrape up the cash for one of the new ships (Asp, Imperial Clipper, Federation Dropship) yet, nor have I had the opportunity to muck around with all the new pieces of kit yet (more on that later), but one thing I have been able to do is take advantage of the multiple ship ownership mechanic. I now have three ships, my Shinywinder (which you can see above), a fully pimped out Eagle (at the bottom of the post) and a moderately upgraded Cobra Mark III. Both the Eagle and the Cobra have a money value of about 1.5 million credits each, so they would take me halfway to buying an Asp if I cashed them in, but rather than putting all my monetary eggs in one basket (so to speak), I've decided to do something a little bit different with each ship. The Shinywinder I'm currently using for short-range courier runs until I can afford A-rated equipment in the important upgrade slots (power plant, shields, thrusters, frame shift drive and power distributor), and then I'm going to swap out the cargo racks for a frame shift interdictor module and fuel scoop. In the utility hardpoints I'm going to put in a frame shift wake scanner and kill warrant scanner (or possibly a point defence turret) and use the craft for bounty hunting/assassination contracts and generally griefing pirates. The FSD wake scanner will allow me to follow cowardly NPCs who run from fights across different star systems - there will be no escape from my righteous fury! I may even take it into Open Play, as if I get boiled by another player, at least the insurance costs aren't prohibitive.
The Cobra is a slightly longer-term project (it's currently stashed away at Beagle 2 Landing in Asellus Primus), as I want to use that as a long-range exploration ship. An A-rated frame shift drive for the Cobra will set me back 1.6 million credits, however, and I don't want to sacrifice the Eagle for that, even if they did slightly nerf the hyperspace range between Beta 2.06 and Beta 3.00 (my Eagle only gets 20 light years with an A-rated FSD, compared to nearly 25 in Beta 2), as the Eagle's my primary combat ship - at least until I can afford something devestating, like an Imperial Clipper. I'm going to keep the Eagle in mothballs until I have enough money tucked away to upgrade into an Asp, assuming I'm able to earn sufficient money between now and the full wipe anticipated at Gamma (though I hope we keep our kills and Elite rating - I've only just made it to Mostly Harmless, with "just" 1350 kills on the board!) and cash in all my ships to try out the Asp - as I've not flown one since, oooh, 1997, when I last played Frontier: First Encounters! The Asp is big enough to act as a genuine multi-role craft, as it has enough utility hardpoints and internal compartments to be a jack of all trades (though perhaps combining mining with bounty hunting wouldn't be the best idea!). Otherwise, I'm going to invest the cash I make from courier running, combat contracts and bounty hunting to upgrade the living heck out of the ships I do have, and maybe even buy a Hauler to do some mining.
I have briefly tried the mining mechanics and they seem potentially profitable, but dull. You're going to want a ship with a lot of cargo space, and potentially want to invest in a top-tier Refinery module, otherwise you have to be very selective about which metals and ores you keep when you're mining the A-ring asteroids. I was a little put out to see that in Beta 3 the A-rings seem to have replaced the asteroid field resource gathering sites in planetary rings that were such a happy bounty hunting ground for me in Beta 2. I'm not sure if that's a permanent shift, or a temporary block by the developers to test out the new mechanics. I would be disappointed if the resource gathering sites (in their old form) dropped out of the game entirely - though I did see last night that there's still one at Dahan 3, though you're no longer flying within the asteroid field itself.
Briefly, going back to multiple ship ownership, some of the costs of ships have leapt through the roof, giving them real exclusivity. A Type 9 was pretty pricey back in Beta 1, but now it's a staggering 32.6 million - I daren't think what the insurance costs would be for boiling one of those, but that's nothing compared to the cost of an Anaconda - 146 million! I don't think I'll be flying my dear Annie again anytime soon! Even the luscious Imperial Clipper (see below) seems like a bargain at just 22 million in comparison. In the final game, they're going to restrict access to the Clipper to people allied to the Empire (and likewise for the rather more functional-looking Federation Dropship - a snip at 37 million credits!), though currently anyone can buy one, if you have the cash (again, presumably for playtesting purposes). I'll talk a little more about faction reputations a bit later. Fuel Scooping
In the long-term, post-gamma and in the full release, I really see myself working my way up into an explorer-class ship (either an Asp or Imperial Clipper) and going out into the hinterlands with an advanced discovery module and detailed surface scanner to prospect for profitable new systems. Ultimately, I want to try flying to the far side of the galaxy - but that's going to take a long time (100,000 Light Years is a LONG way!) - and to do that, you need a fuel scoop. I'm quite impressed with the new fuel scooping mechanics, as you have to balance the speed and proximity of your ship to the star to get the best fuel recovery rate, without frying your ship to a metal crisp. And then there's the almost incidental risk of being interdicted by a passing pirate while you're doing this... I'll get back to interdictions in a second, but a final word on fuel scooping. Gods, it's pretty. You have to get so close to the star and spend enough time there (especially on an empty fuel tank) that you can appreciate the work that has gone into the stellar modelling by the dev team. Those filaments and prominences you can see in the screenshot aren't static placeholders. They're dynamic and you can see the matter flowing around as the magnetic field fluctuates. As an astrophysicist, it irks me a little that every star seems to be actively throwing out prominences and flares all of the time (in reality, stars have their quiet moments with no activity at all), but you can't deny that it looks gorgeous. Screenshot_0007
One of the big things in the change log for beta 3 was player-player/player-NPC interdiction. The new interdiction modules are gold for a bounty hunter (or griefer!), as if you can get behind your target for long enough while it's active, you can yank other pilots out of supercruise, and if they're dirty, give them the spanking they deserve. The police seem to have overly powerful interdiction modules, however. More often than not you're yanked out of SC before you can even find the escape vector, and they do seem to be overly keen to use them, too. Last night I got interdicted three times (twice by the same Viper!) when I was within 5 light seconds of Azeban City. Being interdicted pulls you back through space to the site of the interdictor (surely destined to be called by all and sundry InterDicks), so each time I had to travel back over the final 20-30Ls to the station - I feared that I was actually going to end up in an infinite interdiction loop, never make it to the station and miss my courier delivery deadline... but I made it eventually. I do slightly fear for how this functionality is going to be used by other players (i.e. jerks) in Open Play, because coupled with the frame shift drive wake scanner, you could (if you were jerky enough) simply use the wake scanner and interdiction module to harass other player indefinitely. No doubt the mechanics are intended for use in assassination-style missions, but in the wrong hands they are player-griefing tools. Still, you don't have to play in the open and if you're a decent pilot, you can avoid interdictions by sticking close to the escape vector for long enough - and avoiding interdictions gives the InterDick damage to their frame shift drive, as they're the ones who end up being ripped out of SC. Even successful interdictions (not submissions) can give the InterDick FSD damage, so there is a bit of risk versus reward factored in there by the developers. Screenshot_0847
The other big major change in beta 3 has been the introduction of the faction reputation system. I've not really had time to experiment with it too much so far, but from what I've seen and read on the forums, there is definitely a big payoff for choosing to ally yourself with certain factions. If you get rated as "friendly" with a faction, missions become much more profitable, as you've "proven your worth" to the faction, and they reward you much more, to the point where stations and faction vessels automatically appear friendly on your scanner (which might prove interesting if you choose to go turncoat and fight for the opposite side, say in the Eranin combat zones, for example). It remains to be seen whether becoming friendly with one faction will cause automatic hostility from another, though I imagine it will - I doubt you'll be able to play both sides off the middle in the Imperial/Federation power struggle, which could make it interesting flying into i Bootis in an Imperial Clipper in the full game! Similarly, flying a Fed Dropship into the heart of the Empire, Achernar, might be a similarly interesting (and short-lived!) experience. If I don't stay independent, I will side with the Empire, if only because they have sexier ships. Yeah, I know, I'm shallow! Screenshot_0842
A final thought on the Beta 3 updates: One thing that has struck me is the improvement in the NPC AI. Combat is much more challenging now, particularly in Beta 3.03, the Elite ratings do make a very big difference to the quality of the NPC pilot now. Big ships that we easy pickings in Beta 2 are now much more of a test of your flying and power-management abilities. I've posted a couple of combat videos below of me fighting an Imperial Clipper and Anaconda (in my Eagle and Cobra, respectively) and the NPC AI is much more of a handful now. Higher quality opponents have much better armour and equipment on board - I was really lucky against the Clipper - if he'd had turrets or gimballed weapons, I would have been toast, but I was able to get my Eagle into the blind spots between his fixed hardpoints and barely took a hit. I had a very different experience last night with a turret-equipped Clipper in my Shinywinder!
The NPCs in combat zones are also well-armoured and smart, I was averaging almost five minutes per kill, as the Cobras could simply out-run my 'winder to top up their shields when they started taking hull damage. You have to work much harder for those bounties and combat bonds now, and that's no bad thing. "Deadly" Haulers or Type 6's are still mobile bounty vending machines, though, mainly because their shields might as well be made out of sugar paper (the reason for this with the Type 6 is that they slot their shield generator into a Class 3 internal compartment slot, when the size of their hull really warrants a Class 5 shield generator), but if you meet a "Deadly" Eagle or Cobra - watch out!
Even the lower quality pilots aren't idiots anymore - most will try to run if they're overmatched - you either have to kill them quick or track them using a FSD wake scanner to cash in on that bounty. My E:D community buddy Tim Wheatley has an innovative tactic for dealing with this issue, but it's not one I'd recommend for everyone!

Enjoy the videos and I'll post more thoughts soon, when I've had time to really muck around with things like the FSD wake scanner and the reputation system.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Bark: The Fifth Annual Movember Begging Bowl Notice

It's that time of year again.
Thirty long, hard, itchy days of generally being mocked by students, shunned by womenfolk, but generally admired by true gentlemen for the sheer manliness and foolhardy bravery for going out in public LOOKING LIKE THAT...
Right now I look like this:

In a month, I will look like this:

Or, who knows, maybe EVEN MORE AWESOME. I am, naturally going through this not only for the existential reward of contributing to raising awareness of the health risks posed by cancer, but I WANT YOUR MONEY. Not for me, for charity. Otherwise, all of that LOOKING AWESOME will have been for nothing... and we can't have that, can we?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Byte: This will be a day long remembered

Not only will it mark the release of Beta 3 in Elite: Dangerous, they've only just gone and released X-Wing and TIE-Fighter on GOG. BEST. DAY. EVER.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Easter Egg

I found an interesting Easter Egg while exploring an unexplored star system towards the far end of "the Pill". While on a particularly long super-cruise (over 500,000 Ls) I started playing about with my point of view, since the Eagle has a nice, panoramic canopy, and saw this.

Real purpose of cockpit lap-screen

A future tie-in, perhaps, to keep us entertained on long super-cruise journeys? I wasn't able to get the lap-screen to activate, but it would make sense for that otherwise redundant screen to do something in the final release.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Beta 2 thoughts incoming

Just a short post to reassure anyone looking for updates/tutorials about the new systems and features in Elite: Dangerous Beta 2, I will be writing about them soon. Things have been rather hectic here with the day (and, all too often, night) job - one of the disadvantages of being a teacher is that around certain crunch times (such as the UCAS application deadline) you have more work than can fit into a 70 hour week, let alone the 40 hour week that I'm paid for. Not that I'm moaning, you understand - I love my job, especially the work I get to do with Sixth Formers, trying to ensure that they make it into appropriate university courses or apprenticeships, but when you add that to all the lesson planning, admin and marking you have to do, boy, it cuts down on your gaming time. Unless, of course, you choose to sacrifice sleepy time, which is a bit of a false economy, anyway, because if I'm asleep, at least I could be dreaming about flying around in my Iron Ass Cobra Mark III...

Oh, yes. The in-game 3D engine dreams have started, which is a sure sign that I've been playing the game too much, but it has been one of the only ways I've been able to get flying time over the last week or two since Beta 2 was released. Tonight I downloaded the 2.06 patch, but I've not had chance to try it yet, but I'm hoping that it will give me a few more frames per second in the resource gathering sites, as between 2.03 and 2.05 I've noticed a big performance hit (up to 20fps) in the rings, which makes bounty hunting (my primary source of income at the moment) a risky proposition, particularly in terms of lag making you collide with asteroids, or (even worse) accidentally hitting Federation Eagles as they swoop into your line of fire in pursuit of a Wanted felon.

I've not checked all my stats recently, but I must be knocking on for over 200 hours played so far, and I've got over 850 kills on the board, but I'm just as taken with the game now as I was when I first started playing the Premium Beta. The Outposts add variety and make the galaxy feel a little more populated, plus the revised bulletin board mission system gives you an extra career path to build up the initial capital to allow you to ditch the Sidewinder for something rather more combat-worthy. I loved my time in the Eagle in Beta 2. It was a wretched little ship in Beta 1 - hobbled by a poor hyperspace range and a substandard power plant - but the ship upgrade system has transformed all that - it's a vicious little thug of a ship now, though unfortunately a little too fragile to try taking on Elite Anacondas... I'll talk more about the ship upgrades when I do a proper update summarising all the changes, but broadly speaking, I've found Beta 2 to be a bigger, richer, more vibrant place than Beta 1.
They all say that...

I probably won't be able to raise enough cash to trial the new Asp Explorer before Beta 3 is due at the end of the month, but it looks like an epic ship. Six weapon hardpoints, a bigger cargo capacity than a Type 6 Transporter and pretty agile in the hands of a good combateer, especially if you upgrade the power plant and thruster modules. I can't wait to fly one, but I'm going to have to, as I'm about 2.5 million credits short of being able to buy one, and finding good trade routes these days is much harder than it was in the 1,200Cr profit per tonne days of early Beta 1. Instead, the blood of many a Wanted NPC is going to have to lubricate my way into the cockpit of the Asp, and even with the much better bounties in Beta 2, that's going to take a while.

I have been able to spend some time exploring the outer reaches of "The Pill", the expanded region of space, containing over 550 systems (compared to Beta 1's 55 star systems), and it would appear that my ambition of being able to circumnavigate the Milky Way in the full release of the game is a) somewhat ambitious, and b) going to be a massive time sink. I'm still going to try it, though. As soon as they implement fuel scoops and I can find a frame shift drive that will increase the hyperspace range of my ship to something of the order of 20-25 light years. Currently, I can get 15 l.y. out of my Cobra, which is pretty good, but in the far recesses of the galactic arms, I suspect that some of the gaps between star systems might be a bit further than that. I guess I'll find out when I get there. Even with a relatively tiny fraction of the galaxy to play with so far, I've still managed to find some interesting features in the star systems you can reach now. I think my favourite so far is the sun-grazing ring system at Wunjo 1, which might possibly be the brightest ring system in the entire universe.
Lying in wait
A Convocation of Eagles
The brightest planetary ring in the universe

I've no idea what those rings are made of (surely too close to the star for them to be ice?), but, crikey, that's one hell of a view.

I've also been trying to keep up making a few combat videos, while I've been testing some of the new weapons in Beta 2 (again, more on those in future posts), so I thought I'd add in the widgets to my last two videos, where you can see me testing out the beastly overcharged gimballed multi-cannons, firstly using an Eagle, and then with my trusty, Sucker Squadron Classic Wireframe Cobra Mark III. Enjoy, and good hunting, Commanders!