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!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Video frenzy

Now that I'm back at work, things have been a little quiet around here lately, but rest assured that I'll be writing a whole new round of guides, ship and equipment reviews and tutorials as soon as I can after Beta 2 is released on the 30th of September. I certainly can't wait to get my hands on an Asp Explorer (I've always been partial to a nice Asp!), and I'm hoping that the larger bubble of explorable space will yield up some interesting sights in the new release.

In the meantime, I've been playing a bit more with Fraps and Moviemaker to create a few E:D videos of my hopefully watchable exploits. When I have a bit more time at my disposal, I hope to be able to do some proper post-production voiceovers, rather than the flavour text captions I'm currently using, but for now, I hope that what I'm posting is at least mildly interesting and entertaining, as well as giving the viewer a flavour of just how awesome this game really is.

I uploaded a couple of videos over the weekend, the first of which documents one of my epic-ist fails I've ever had playing the game, as I monumentally misjudge an engine boost, closing in for the kill on an otherwise helpless and mortally wounded Federation Anaconda at Eranin 2, with hilariously tragic consequences. Just as well this happened on a solo instance, right? God forbid that anyone in the outside world should see my mistake.... Whoops!

In an effort to somewhat reclaim my credibility as an authority on how to play Elite: Dangerous, I also posted a video of myself and a friend similarly raiding the High Intensity warzone at Eranin 2, only with more success, barring the odd server glitch. Here I get to demonstrate the awesome badassitude of an "Iron Ass" Anaconda, fully specced out with no less than seven cannons (three Class 6, two Class 4 and two Class 2). As my buddy Ol points out in the video, I'm taking down enemy Anacondas like they're fighters. Behold the awesome awesomeness of cannons!

Hope you enjoyed the videos. More updates will be incoming soon, after I've had a chance to play with the new pieces of ship equipment, and had the opportunity to fully evaluate the potential of the Asp Explorer, which was always my favourite ship in Elite 2: Frontier. Good hunting, Commanders!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Byte: Elite 30th Anniversary

As part of the celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the release of the original Elite on the BBC B Micro, Frontier Developments have released a limited edition Cobra Mark III skin for Elite: Dangerous. At £10/€13/$15, it's massively overpriced for what it is, but you know what they say about fools and their gold...


They are easily parted, if it means that you can fly TOTALLY COOL-LOOKING VIRTUAL SPACE SHIPS.


Hey, at least they're a fraction of the price of what you'd pay in That Other Space Game...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Equal Opportunity Space Murder

Just to prove that I'm not totally anti-Fed, I join the fight against the dastardly Eranin independent insurgents in my trusty Anaconda. And totally kick ass, natch.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Anaconda Hunt

A few days ago I stumbled across this awesome video of an Anaconda pilot kicking serious bottom using a loadout of seven rail guns.

Suitably inspired, I thought that I absolutely had to try this out with my own Anaconda. The only caveat was that the wonderfully-named Fruchtpudding's video was recorded in Premium Beta, and there have been some significant changes to the heat generation and power usage mechanics, plus a few tweaks to weapon damage. As you'll see below, rail guns look super-spectacular when they hit, but generate far too much heat for the damage they provide. So, like any good scientist, I perform a little experiment to see what loadout will actually turn my Annie into an ultimate death gunboat. I think the experiment was a success, but see what you think. Enjoy, and Good Hunting, Commanders!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bark/Byte: "There is no gravity in space." "Oh, yeah? Try telling that to Andromeda."

I'm hoping that my efforts to embrace the power of the internets into my teaching for the next year won't be met with the usual teenage response of "Yeah, right... whatever."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Who needs docking computers?

I've previously spoken a little bit about how useless the docking computers are, unless you want to go and make a cup of tea while your ship pirouettes its merry way to the docking bay. After my brief foray into open play last night, I rebought an Anaconda in LHS 3262 and headed over to Aulin Enterprise to see if they had a Plasma Accelerator and any Class 6 Cannons (they did). Just to prove that a) I do normally fly an Anaconda, and b) that docking computers aren't necessary for even the big ships, I thought I'd record the evidence.

The video runs from just after the supercruise exit to touchdown - all done in the time it takes for the docking computer to mangle its way through the docking port from 1km, and nary a scratched shield. Not bad considering it was my first Anaconda landing after I'd spent the whole of my previous E:D gaming session in a Cobra. Sometimes, I amaze even myself...

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Wolf Pack Hunting

Last night I downsized my Anaconda for a Cobra, as I was playing on an open server with an old gamer buddy of mine, Dr Barnowl. I mainly fanny about accidentally colliding with things, hitting wrong controls on my new joystick, and generally wish that I hadn't bothered swapping out one of my C4 cannons for a C3 Gimballed multi-cannon. Oh, and there's no commentary, because I recorded this at 1am in the morning and I didn't want my girlfriend to think I was developing a mental illness. This is my first gaming video ever, so y'know, be nice. Eventually some sort of (incredibly amateur) post-production will happen to my videos in the future, as I will probably make a few of these from now on. Because, that's just what the internet needs, isn't it? Another Scottish Physicist making Youtube videos about space games...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous Combat Guide - Or: How Not To Die In Elite: Dangerous

Whether you choose to play Elite: Dangerous solo, in private groups, or in open play, at some point you're going to end up in combat. As I've mentioned before in my posts about the game, Elite: Dangerous has quite a steep learning curve in general, and the ship-to-ship combat is no exception. What makes the combat in E:D so challenging (and fun) is the fact that the flight dynamics model is more sophisticated than you'd find in your average flight combat simulator, or even a space combat simulator, such as X-Wing, TIE Fighter or Freespace 2.

Tip #1: Sort out your control method Frontier Developments have done a great job in giving the player a plethora of control options to choose from, including mouse and keyboard, gamepad and flight controller - plus just about any configurable combination of all of the above. Players of the original Elite on the ZX Spectrum will doubtless recall the keyboard overlay: this has never been a simple game, and even back in 1984 Elite required key bindings for about 80% of the keys, there were so many individual commands and controls. For a generation of gamers used to the streamlined control sets in console games, Elite: Dangerous will seem overly complex and unwieldy, but for someone of my gaming vintage, this level of depth in the controls is relatively normal. I've tried playing Elite: Dangerous with an Xbox 360 controller and with my venerable Saitek Cyborg 3D Force Feedback stick, and I have to say that I absolutely recommend using a specialised flight controller to play the game.
While the game is definitely playable with mouse and keyboard or with a gamepad, if you want to get the most out of the flight dynamics model, you really need a dedicated flight stick. This is because of the full six degrees of freedom in the flight model: nothing other than a true flight controller will give you the precision control needed across all six axes of motion in the flight model to enable you to survive the most challenging of combat engagements. A high degree of finesse and sensitivity is required in dogfights, and if you're as old, slow and hamfisted as me, you're just not going to get that with a gamepad or with mouse and keyboard control. A good joystick, in my opinion, is essential to get the best out of Elite: Dangerous - so much so that I've even gone to the lengths of purchasing what appears to be the last Saitek X52 from (they weren't out of stock when I ordered the stick on Saturday night - so if you were after one, sorry about that!), given that it's the flight stick Frontier Developments based their in-cockpit models on and has a pre-set control profile within the game.

The most critical thing you need to decide when configuring your controls is how you will set up your roll and yaw control axes. In a traditional flight simulator, the x-axis was always set to roll and the z-axis to yaw. Ever since X-Wing, it has been more common in space combat simulators to set the x-axis to yaw and z-axis to roll, and this is how I initially tried playing Elite: Dangerous. In Premium Beta, this setup was fine, but subsequently, Frontier have made a few tweaks to the rate of yaw and roll, substantially reducing the rate of yaw, which has had a profound effect on the way I prefer to set up my control axes. I now fly my ships with a traditional flight sim control axis setup, with roll set to the x-axis and yaw to the y-axis. It's simply much faster to roll and pitch to target enemies than rely on the yaw axis to bring targets into your sights. This is, no doubt, a very personal preference in the control method - there has been plenty of disagreement on the forums as to which is the "best" method - you will simply have to find what is most natural for your flying style. Experiment with the controls in the offline combat scenarios to discover which method works best for you, as some contol methods (such as mouse and keyboard) work better if you map the x-axis to yaw, rather than roll. Be prepared to die a lot while you experiment and discover which setup is the best match for your controller and combat brain.
It's also rather critical that you take the time to learn and memorise the subtleties of the control set, as you do want to be able to remember which keyboard shortcut launches a heat sink to spoof a heat-seeking missile, while you're in the middle of a "furball" engagement with multiple pirates. Take time out to personalise and memorise your control setup - it might save your life in the heat of battle. Here is where a good flight controller really comes into its own, as the ability to have ten to twenty instant commands at your fingertips, without taking your hands off the flight controller to press a key on the keyboard, can prove invaluable. Controllers like the X52, X55 Rhino or the Thrustmaster Warthog might cost small fortunes, but it's in the subtlety and depth of control where they truly prove their worth.

Tip #2: You have six degrees of freedom - use 'em!
Probably the most challenging aspect of Elite: Dangerous's combat is implementation of six degrees of freedom in the flight dynamics model. Most flight simulators only use four: pitch, roll, yaw and velocity. Elite: Dangerous adds an extra two degrees of freedom in the ability to get your ship to strafe in the vertical and lateral planes. This vertical and lateral strafing can prove essential in fine-tuning your targeting of an enemy ship, but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the full range of options you have as a pilot to outmaneouvre your enemy.
Space combat simulators like X-Wing and Freepace 2 gave you the easy option of being able to match speeds with your enemy, but I hope that Frontier resist the demands by the player community to implement a similar feature, as it could make ship-to-ship combat against NPCs even more of a walkover than it already is. Even though the NPC AIs do come in a full range of qualities (from Piss Poor to Actually Not That Bad), as evidenced by the size of their credit bounty, they do only tend to employ a limited range of tactics when engaged at close quarters. Badly overmatched NPCs also have no problem with simply running for it, if they think your ship is too big or too well-equipped, which is eminently sensible, but a tad annoying if you've just been interdicted in your Anaconda and then the pirate won't come to play.
If you do get into a fight, however, there are a few simple tactics to remember that will up your survival rate significantly, especially when you're getting to grips with the game in the free Sidewinder. Firstly, remember that your ship is most maneouvrable when you have the throttle setting in the blue band on the right hand of the radar dial. Secondly, putting more power pips into Engines also increases the maneouvrability of your ship as well as your top speed, so if you find that you're losing the turning battle in a dogfight, try adding more power to your engines. As the radar is not always terribly great at distinguishing where an enemy ship is when it's at a range of less than 1000 metres from you, you will need to pay much closer attention to the orientation of the target wireframe on the left hand side of the radar to give you an idea of how the enemy is changing direction when it is out of view, and use this to help orientate your ship accordingly. You should also try to pick up the visual trail of the exhaust from the target ship, and try to keep it in a consistent 12 o'clock position on your point of view. If you are able to do this, now you can try using the strafe controls in the vertical plane to either elongate the radius of your turn to drop in behind the target (if it is too close and turning inside you) by strafing down, or cutting off the corner of the turn strafing up (if your ship is more agile than your target). These techniques alone should help you see off most NPCs. You will inevitably encounter some difficulty when fighting off Vipers or Cobras when you're in a Sidewinder or Eagle, simply because those ships are so much faster than yours, and the AI will bug out to top up their shields, turning dogfights into long battles of attrition. The key to winning these fights is avoiding direct head-to-head reengagements, as Cobras and Vipers vastly out-gun a Sidewinder or Eagle. Here's where making use of the six degrees of freedom becomes really important. When the enemy ship barrels back in for the head-to-head, use your lateral and vertical thrusters to jink randomly out of a direct line of fire - this is particularly effective if the enemy is equipped with fixed weapons. You should also try to keep some lateral separation between your velocity vector and that of the incoming ship, as you can sidestrafe away from the target in one direction, simultaneously yawing back towards the target in the opposite direction, allowing you to keep your weapons aimed at the enemy, while reducing your own likelihood of being hit. This technique is particularly good if you have gimballed weapons, though slightly more risky if you have fixed weapons, as you need to fly closer to your target's velocity vector. In that case, it's generally much better to try and reengage as quickly as possible, boosting to minimise the duration of the closure maneouvre.
In any battle, it is important to manage the way you use the lateral and vertical strafing to fine-tune your aiming (especially with fixed weapons) and don't forget that you can use yaw and roll simultaneously with pitch and your speed to get the upper hand of the turning battle in a dogfight. If you are being consistently out-turned by an opponent, create more space either by boosting away from your opponent or by flying backwards, again using the vertical and lateral strafing thrusters to avoid being a literal sitting duck. Ship-to-ship combat in Elite: Dangerous confers a high level of workload on the pilot, with so many different directions of motion to worry about, which is another reason why I recommend a flight stick. It's not impossible to manage all six degrees of freedom with mouse and keyboard or a joypad, but it is a lot harder than using a good flight stick. If you don't quite have the budget for an X52, X55 or Warthog stick, the Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas X does come highly recommended by many people on the forums and is arguably the best budget flight stick available right now.
Tip #3: Target subsystems for victoly!
This technique will already be familiar to anyone who's played Freespace 2 or any of the X-Wing games, but make sure you bind one of your controls to cycle through the systems on an enemy ship. Not only is it great for seeing what weapons an opponent is armed with (and avoiding ambushing someone armed with two banks of Class 4 heat seeking missiles!), but targeting subsystems gives you more tactical options than simply hammering the hull into catastrophic decompression. For example, targeting the cargo hatch on a vessel and destroying it will get the ship to drop its cargo, a handy technique for a pirate who only wants to pay off Assault bounties, rather than Murder bounties. Targeting weapons subsystems can also be used to hobble the combat power of an enemy ship, which is handy if you're flying against a larger ship and you know that the fight is going to last quite a long time (go for the missile launchers first!). It is also worth remembering that some subsystems confer specialised damage onto the target. For example, if you want to prevent a juicy cargo ship from running off into supercruise, you can take out its frameshift drive, preventing it from escaping. Bounty hunters or assassins on the other hand will instead want to target the power plant of enemy ships, as critical hits on the power plant of a ship will result in the instant destruction of the vessel, regardless of the overall hull percentage, which is quite handy to know if you're trying to take down an Anaconda in a Sidewinder. Gimballed multi-cannons are especially good at destroying subsystems, though you do have to be mindful that you will only be able to hit certain subsystems from discrete angles (from above and behind for the power plant of an Anaconda, for example), so pay attention to the position of the subsystem target crosses on the HUD.
Tip #4: Manage your power systems
As if you didn't have enough to keep you occupied during a dogfight, depending upon what ship you're flying, what ship you're fighting and what weapons you're using, you will frequently need to manage the power distribution between Systems (shields), Engines and Weapons. Get the balance right, and you're laughing. Get it wrong, and you're either going to take a real beating or end up dead. Each power node can support a maximum of four power pips, and while it's generally pretty obvious where you should be prioritising power between your subsystems, there are a few things you can do to help streamline this power manangement.
Most obviously, if your shields have just taken a beating, you want to put four pips into Systems to reduce the length of time it takes for your shields to recharge. Bear in mind that this time varies considerably from ship to ship. The shield recharge time in a Sidewinder is a fraction of that for an Anaconda, so a lot of the time in an Anaconda, it's not worth bothering recharging your shields: simply divert power to Engines and Weapons instead to kill your opponent (or opponents!) as quickly as possible and let your shields recharge while in supercruise. In smaller, less durable ships however, such as the Sidewinder, Eagle or Viper, this would be a bad idea, and you are much better off sacrificing speed and weapon power to get your shields back.
If you are finding that your weapons are going into thermal overload a lot during fights, you need to add more power pips to weapons, as this increases their efficiency. Certain weapons, particularly rail guns plus beam and burst lasers, have a very high heat generation overhead, so if you prefer using beam lasers, you will have to prioritise weapon power in your distribution mix to delay them overloading at inopportune moments in the middle of a battle. Multi-cannons and cannons generate much less heat and can be fired for longer at lower weapon power settings, freeing up more power pips to boost your engine and shield settings. This makes them very popular with more experienced players, particularly those who like taking on other player-pilots in open play. The fact that cannons and multi-cannons are much harder to spot if they miss their unsuspecting target might also have something to do with this! Cannons are great ambush weapons, if you can aim them properly. A four cannon loadout on a Viper is especially evil, as the weapons require almost no power allocation, allowing you to pack your power pips into Systems and Engines, making you almost invulnerable due to your speed, maneouvrability and the reinforced strength of your shields.
Taking large ships, such as the Anaconda, into combat is probably the greatest challenge in power management, as the Anaconda is so slow and immobile compared to even a Sidewinder. A lot of the time in an Anaconda, you will need to keep four power pips in Engines to keep up with your quarry, though even then you have no hope of keeping pace with a Cobra or Viper on the run. This means that a lot of the time you will only have limited power to devote to your shields and weapons, so a weapon loadout that generates little heat is a good option. My currently preferred combat loadout for the Anaconda is a C8 Plasma Accelerator (for maximum damage!), x3 C6 Cannons (expensive at 200k credits each, but utterly worth it!), x2 C3 Gimballed Multi-cannons and x2 C1 Burst Lasers (G). It's rare that a single enemy will live long enough to get through my shields, versus that lot, and keeping the Plasma Accelerator in its own fire group minimises the heat generation, so you only need a pip and a half in Weapons to keep them ticking over quite happily. However, there is still a big risk of running an Anaconda with no power devoted to Systems. I lost an Anaconda to a collision with an unseen asteroid in the Anahit Ring, even though I had full shield strength. I might have cried a little bit when that happened. (435,000Cr wiped out in an instant. *Sob*) So do be careful with your Annie...
When in smaller ships, other than trying to keep up with Vipers or Cobras, the only other times you really want to devote maximum power to your engines are a) when you get that delightful "Incoming Missile" warning, or b) you are employing the GTFM (the Get To Fuck Maneouvre) and abandoning combat for supercruise, because you're down to your last 10% of hull strength, have no shields and you can't afford the insurance for a new ship. Though that should never happen. ALWAYS be able to afford the insurance!
Incoming missiles, as I may have mentioned before in one of my diary pieces, are absolute bastards. If you don't have a heat sink launcher to decoy them or a working point defence turret (bear in mind that these only work if you can see them on your active weapons list on the HUD, are not in thermal overload and you actually have the incoming missile targeted - use the 'most hostile' target selector to quickly find incoming missiles), you can still evade missiles, if your timing is good. When the dreaded signal sounds and pops up on your HUD, use the radar to put the missiles on your 3 or 9 o'clock, and try to roll and/or pitch to get them level with your velocity vector. Smack all your system power into engines, wait until the missiles get to within 500 metres or so, boost and then turn TOWARDS the missile. If you do it correctly, the missile will overshoot, allowing you to boost away again, at which point the missiles will not be able to turn around quickly enough to catch you. Use this maneouvre with a heat sink launcher (dump the heat sink at the same time you boost), and you should reliably be able to spoof missiles. A word of warning, though - get the timing wrong and turn too early, well, you'd better hope your shields hold! Also, don't try this with the three Cobras who come in at gold traps in anarchy systems. They carry too many missiles and fire from too many different positions to make this technique effective. If you're in an Anaconda, you can try to evade and absorb the rest of the missile damage with full power to shields, but any ship smaller than that is better off just using the GTFM as soon as they jump in.
Tip #5: Experiment with turning off the Flight Assistance
My final tip is for players more confident with the flight model, or for those who want to take on other player-pilots in open play. As I said earlier, the quality of the NPC AI is variable and even at its best can be fairly easily defeated by a pilot of a reasonable standard (at least for now!), without making 100% use of the potential of the flight dynamics available in the game. The standard setup for your ships is to have 'Flight Assistance' on. What this means is that the ships handle like they would in a game like X-Wing or Freespace 2 - if you turn off the throttle, you will eventually come to a stop, and applying pitch, roll and yaw works in much the same manner as having flight control surfaces on an aeroplane. Real spaceships (and other objects in space) do not handle like this, as anyone who's watched Babylon 5, Gravity or the rebooted Battlestar Galactica will know. This kind of fully Newtonian combat hasn't made it into many space sims, with the i-War series and the excellent BSG-themed Diaspora mod for Freespace 2 being notable exceptions. The advantage of a fully Newtonian flight model is that it allows you to pull such tricks as being able to shoot in a completely different orientation to your velocity vector. Got an enemy flying on your tail? No problem! Boost away, flick off the Flight Assistance, flip around and fire back down their throat! Flying without Flight Assistance is definitely way more challenging than with it on, as it takes a lot more time and finesse to kill your velocity vector when you want to change direction, but if you do want to get involved in PvP and don't want to die all the time, it's something you're going to have to master. There are certain times when you will probably want to avoid turning off Flight Assistance, say inside docking stations and asteroid fields (unless you're very brave or a very good pilot!), but it can prove useful under certain circumstances, as you can see in this incredible video of a player making use of the stealth mechanics (not something I've really experimented with yet) and disabling Flight Assistance on a smuggling run. When my X52 arrives tomorrow, I'll have to have a bit more of a play without the Flight Assistance on, as it's not something I've really had to worry about in Solo mode against NPCs. Though you can be sure that if I do start flying around with no Flight Assistance, it'll be in a nice, cheap and disposable ship until I get used to it!

Good luck out there and good hunting, Commanders!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Lakon Type 9 Heavy & Anaconda review

Okay, so last night I "won" the Elite: Dangerous Beta 1. Being a sandbox game, any win conditions are obviously going to be self-imposed, so my main goal of Beta 1 was to buy an Anaconda, equip it with the finest weapons known to mankind (including the Class 8 Plasma Accelerator) and have enough money left over to afford the insurance cost to replace it all if I got boiled. I managed that last night, though I needn't have worried about the insurance cost, because against single NPCs, you're practically invincible in a plasma accelerator-armed Anaconda. I popped 20 ships in quick succession with barely a scratch on my shields. The Eagle that tried docking when I was in the middle of coming out of the spaceport at Chango did more damage. Which was to say, none at all...

Now, then, would appear to be the ideal opportunity to provide you with a review and comparison of the final two ships currently available within the game, along with the reasons why you'd want (or not want) to fly them, along with a final judgment as to which ship is my favourite of the eight you can fly in Beta 1.

Lakon Type 9 Heavy
Cost: Approximately 3.5 million Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (Trader): x3 C4 Missile Launchers, x2 C2 Missile Launchers
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (Pirate): x1 C4 Missile Launcher (Ventral mount), x2 C3 Gimballed Multi-cannons (Dorsal mounts), x2 C1 Multi-cannons (G)
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (Imbecile): x3 C4 Cannons, x2 C2 Cannons
Recommended modules: Heat sink launcher, Point Defence Turret (when they're not bugged), Cargo Scanner (if you fancy being a pirate)
Why you should fly it: With a whopping 440 tonnes of cargo capacity, it's not called 'Heavy' for nothing. At three and a half million credits, the Type 9 is a very large investment, but if you can find a good trade route, you'll have doubled that money in an evening. In true capitalist fashion, nothing makes money quicker than already having money, so if you've got capital to invest in a profitable trade route (yielding on average 1000Cr profit per tonne, per trip), you're going to be making well over a million credits an hour, no problem at all. Having spent an evening flying it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's actually relatively easy to fly and dock, once you get used to the inertia. Unlike the AI, which regularly splatters Type 9s across the inside of Coriolis stations, I barely even bruised my shields once and was able to quickly dispense with the dubious luxury of the docking computer. I didn't get into combat with it much, as NPC pirates seemed somewhat reluctant to push their luck with a Type 9 bristling with gimballed multi-cannons and a Class 4 missile launcher (even when I had 440 tonnes of gold on board), but flown well, the Type 9 can easily brush off another Type 9 and smaller craft like Sidewinders and Eagles. I wouldn't like to go up against another player flying a Viper in one, but it's more than capable enough to deal with casual NPC piracy. So if you want to make more money than Scrooge McDuck, this is the ship for you. Pure traders, especially those in open play online will want to make a potent defensive statement with an all-missile launcher loadout - not even the most hardened player-pirate in a Viper is going to want to mess with five missile launchers. A full reload will cost 80,000Cr (10k each for the C2s, 20k each for the C4s), but that's going to be chump change by the time you've spent a few days doing trading runs in this puppy. With five weapon hardpoints and plenty of cargo capacity, the Type 9 will make a passable vessel for any player wanting to indulge in some piracy of NPC civilian vessels (at least until the Python, Imperial Courier and Panther Clipper come along), so if you want to try your hand at piracy, you will want to have a weapon loadout that is able to do significant amounts of damage very quickly, without compromising any cargo on board. The missile rack could be used to crack the shields of particularly large ships, before using an all-gimballed multi-cannon loadout to shred subsystems or open up the cargo hatch on your target. The gimbals will also compensate for the Type 9's greatest flaw as a combat vessel: a chronic lack of speed and mobility. An all-cannon loadout could also do a lot of damage, but good luck trying to hit anything with those fixed mountings!
Why you should ditch it: As I've just alluded to, the Heavy is not really a vessel suited to combat. You'll be easy picking for player-pilots in smaller, faster, more manoeuvrable ships. You'd have to be very brave (or very rich) to try taking a Type 9 into Freeport on an open play server. The other problem with the Type 9 is that it is SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW. SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW. It's the only ship I've wanted to go back into supercruise with to travel those last 20km to the space station after you've come out of supercruise. It's just as well that it carries more than four times the cargo of a Type 6, because it'll take you twice as long to get to the station after you've come out of supercruise, and that's with all four energy pips to the engines and boosting all the way (dropping heat sinks to avoid power plant meltdowns). The only consolation is that you are flying the ship that's the quickest money-making machine in the game. Get a solid five or six million in the bank with it, and then trade it in for...

Cost: Approximately 7 million Cr
Recommended weapon loadout 1 (Trader): x2 C4 Missile Launchers, x4 C5 Pulse Laser (T) (on the Class 8 and Class 6 mounts), x2 C1 Multi-cannons (G)
Recommended weapon loadout 2 (Bounty Hunter/Assassin/Pirate): x1 C8 Plasma Accelerator, x3 C5 Pulse Laser (G), x2 C3 Gimballed Multi-cannons, x2 C1 Multi-cannons (G)
Recommended weapon loadout 3 (Explorer): x1 C8 Plasma Accelerator, x3 C5 Pulse Laser (G), x3 C3 Pulse Lasers (G), x2 C1 Burst Lasers (G)
Recommended weapon loadout 4 (Ultimate Badass): x1 C8 Plasma Accelerator, x3 C6 Cannons, x2 C4 Cannons, x2 C2 Cannons
Recommended modules: Heat sink launcher, Point Defence Turret (when they're not bugged), Kill Warrant Scanner, Cargo Scanner, Fuel Scoop (eventually?)
Why you should fly it: OH-EM-GEE. How good is the Anaconda? It's got to be my favourite ship that I've flown so far. It has incredible damage potential, a long hyperspace range, and also enough cargo tonnage to make serious money on the commodities market, too. The Anaconda is a true multi-role vessel and will be the ideal ship to go exploring the galaxy with, once it all opens up and you're able to install a fuel scoop. I definitely prefer it to the Cobra, even though it's a fair bit slower and less agile, as even with a full cargo and combat load, it still has a hyperspace range of 16 light years, opening up trade routes unavailable to the Cobra and allows you to make some trade trips with a single hyperspace jump, rather than two, saving you time (and therefore making you more money, as you spend less of it in transit). Whatever weapon loadout you put on an Anaconda, it's going to be a handful for any player (NPC or otherwise), but you only really need to use turrets or missiles if you're defensively-minded. I'm still not convinced by the turrets, even on an Anaconda, as their tracking systems seem more adept at hitting System Security craft by accident, rather than the Wanted ships you actually want to kill. The Pulse turrets are the pick of the bunch, as they are less expensive and more heat efficient, but I'd still pick a gimbal-mounted weapon over a turret any day, for the greater fire control they give you. If you want to make full use of the Anaconda's damage potential, then it's a must for you to put a Plasma Accelerator on the Class 8 hardpoint. They're almost 800,000Cr, but the ammo is relatively cheap (especially compared to missiles) and with 105 rounds to play with, that's 105 destroyed Sidewinders before you've even unleashed your other weapons systems. In fact, with four power pips to weapons, I was able to one-shot a Cobra Mark III at a range of about 500 metres, which was terribly impressive. At slightly longer ranges and three pips to weapons, I was still able to regularly take a fully-shielded Cobra down to 14% hull in one hit from the plasma accelerator. It is quite difficult to aim, since your target disappears slightly under the nose when you're lining up the hardpoint, but with practice and good timing, wow... what a weapon! Link that up with a mix of gimballed pulse lasers and multi-cannons and you're not going to really have to worry about insurance costs when you're flying against NPCs. They'll be long dead before they make much of a dent on your shields. When the game does open out to the full galaxy, I will spec my Annie with an all gimballed laser setup, along with the plasma accelerator as a last resort weapon (for any passing Thargoids!), as in the wilds beyond the galactic core, I don't think there'll be many places to stop off for multi-cannon ammunition. If I was ever brave (or stupidly rich) enough to bring an Anaconda onto an open play server, I would be tempted to go for maximum kill power, as I could simply put all my power pips in Systems and Engines and simply wait for any poor victims to cross my bow, since no-one in a Viper or Cobra would be able to withstand a full load of cannons with a side salad of plasma... It would also make a very decent Anaconda-hunting specification, too. Heck, you could probably have a decent go at taking down a fecking space station with that loadout... Oh, and I must mention the sound it makes... pure power. The Cobra and Viper sound pretty awesome when you wind up the engine boost, but the Anaconda is just sublime. I was initially wary of trying to land the thing, as it's possibly even a little bit more unwieldy to fly at low docking speeds than the Type 9, but once you get used to that huge long nose and the sheer momentum of the thing, it's not that bad. Again, docking computers are not required (they just scrape your shields on the entry port anyway!) - you just have to treat her gently and be careful. I always put full power into Systems to boost my shields and bump my way through, if I've not quite got the starport alignment perfect. You'll just smash anything smaller than a Type 6 out of the way with no damage at all (though the other ship might not be so lucky!), and it's way quicker than leaving it to the docking computer.

Why you should ditch it: I'm trying not to get too attached to Annie, because I know that all my progress is going to get wiped when the game goes to Gamma, but why would you ditch it for another ship? Well, in open play, you're going to be a target for other players if you fly one of these (another reason I mostly play solo - I don't want other people getting in the way of my fun), so you should either be prepared for that, or fly something a bit more disposable. I haven't lost an Anaconda yet (and don't intend to!), but the insurance cost for the hull alone is of the order of 350,000Cr. So you will want to work up a big fighting fund beforehand if you're going to be risking a ship this big and expensive in an environment with other players in it. Another reason you might not want to keep an Anaconda for the long term is because it's just so good - combat against NPCs will hold absolutely no challenge at all, unless you want to intentionally spring gold traps in anarchy systems to see if you can fend off three Cobras at once. The lack of speed and mobility of the Anaconda might also get a little tiresome after a while, but at least you'll always be able to easily afford to downgrade into something zippy like a Viper, though you will miss the hyperspace range! The only other reason I can think of for ditching your Annie is that it's the only way you'll be able to try out the other ships that will be introduced in future patches. I'm most looking forward to the Fer-de-lance and the Imperial Courier. But until then, I won't be getting rid of my Anaconda anytime soon. After all, Annie has a date with Colossus, and this time Colossus had better watch out...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Byte: No-one wants to play with Annie

Last night I finally traded my way up to a Lakon Type 9 Heavy and subsequently into an Anaconda. Ever since, no NPC pirates seem to want to try and take my cargo. I wonder why?

Honestly, I'm not compensating...

Plasma Accelerator

Monday, August 18, 2014

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Modules Guide

This will be my penultimate guide for the time being (I will upload the final piece on combat tactics a little later), but having given an overview of the ships and the weapons, I thought it would be a good idea to have a look at the ship modules as well, to let you know which ones I've found most useful and which ones are worth avoiding, at least until they've fixed the bugs!

Ship modules come in four varieties: the weapons I've already discussed at length, so we won't cover those here; there are also utility modules, armoured bulkheads and support modules.

I'll start with the support modules, as there's currently only one of them, the Standard Docking Computer. At only 4500Cr, it's relatively cheap and supposedly takes the difficulty out of landing your ship. In practice, it makes your ship behave like a drunken ballerina during the docking cycle, makes docking take at least twice as long as it should do, and has a habit of making your ship land disturbingly heavily, which is rather scary if you have 100 tonnes of gold on board. It does, however, at least let you listen to Strauss's Blue Danube and give you a few minutes off to check the forums, go get a drink, or go to the toilet while you dock. So if you like having periodic little breaks during game play, then by all means, get one. There have been a few rumblings on the E:D forums about them being bugged and causing ship crashes. Personally, I've never encountered this on the few times I've used them with my Type 6, but there may be issues using it with larger ships. I don't recommend using one, because any half-decent pilot doesn't need them on a Type 6 or anything smaller, as you don't even need to bother matching the rotation of the station to get these ships through the docking port, and if you've spent enough time playing the game to have made enough money to fly a Type 9 or an Anaconda, you should have had enough practice at manually docking to not need one. Manually docking is quicker and arguably safer, so while listening to a bit of Strauss while landing is nice and relaxing, you can always have that running in the background on your media player of choice anyway. I recommend saving the slot for the other support equipment types that will become available in future game versions. The Field Maintenance Unit that fixed subsystems has been taken out of the game between Premium Beta and Beta 1, presumably for game balancing, so might make a triumphant return in future patches.

Armoured bulkheads are more varied and come in the following flavours: lightweight, reinforced, military, mirrored and reactive.
Lightweight bulkheads come as standard with the ship and offer only basic protection against damage, but do not carry a mass penalty that would reduce your ships hyperspace range. In most cases, these are the bulkheads you'll want to stick with, as either the upgraded bulkheads are prohibitively expensive (e.g. Viper and Type 6), or they reduce your hyperspace range too much to be useful (e.g. Eagle and Viper).
Reinforced alloy bulkheads come in at half the mass and around half the price of the military version, and give upgraded damage ablation against all weapon types (the precise values are lurking on the Beta Discussion forum here). They're probably the best compromise between cost, hyperspace range loss and damage resistance, so if you want to upgrade the armour on your Cobra or Sidewinder, use this.
Military grade composite bulkheads are slightly more effective at reducing all damage types than reinforced bulkheads, but do come at twice the price and twice the mass, so will seriously hobble the hyperspace capabilities of an Eagle or a Viper. You can get away with them on a Cobra and still have a hyperspace range of a smidge over 7 light years with no cargo, which may be sufficient for you to carry out localised combat and assassination missions, but isn't enough to go exploring. I'd only use them if you're going to do some heavy-duty bounty hunting in anarchy systems or system destabilisation in Independent/Federation combat zones. Cobras are also the ship you get best value for in terms of armour, as military bulkheads "only" cost about as much as the actual ship itself. For ships like the Eagle and Viper, they'll set you back four times the base cost of the ship, but for the Type 6, it's more than ten times the cost of the ship (two million credits, which is more than half the cost of a Type 9!). You should only really use them if you have the budget.
Mirrored composite and Reactive composite bulkheads both add on an extra 20% over the cost of military grade armour, but are more specialised in their damage resistance. Mirrored armour is the most effective at ablating laser damage, whilst reactive armour is the best at providing damage reduction to projectile-based weapons. Are they worth it? Probably not? You'll have to make that decision for yourself, as you're basically taking a punt in predicting that you're going to be taking hull damage predominantly from laser or cannon-based weapons and want to give yourself preferential damage resistance against that weapon type. They will give you a 50% reduction in damage for their specialised weapon type compared to military grade armour (for the same mass penalty), but they do leave you more vulnerable to the other weapon type - so it's a tricky judgment call for whether it's worth forking out the extra 20% in terms of install cost. Personally, I don't use them, as I mostly play solo and you can't always reasonably guarantee that you're going to be mainly fighting against a specific weapon type. This equation might change if you play online and want to be fighting other players, who are slightly easier to predict - as most veteran combateers will pick cannons or multi-cannons.

You also have several options to consider for your utility mount module slots, which are: Kill Warrant Scanner, Cargo Scanner, Chaff Launcher, Point Defence Turret and Heat Sink Launcher.
The Heat Sink Launcher is the cheapest utility module that you can buy, costing just 3500Cr, but is arguably the most useful. Heat sinks can be used in two ways: 1) to dump heat from your power plant to prevent it from exploding, allowing you to keep fighting in long combat engagements or boost away from danger continuously without overheating, and 2) as a decoy for heat-seeking missiles. Heat sink launchers are almost essential, no matter what ship you fly, because at some point you're either going to want to spoof an incoming missile, or want to dump heat from your power plant to prevent it from overloading. Heat sinks also allegedly slow down the rate of heat buildup on your ship, but I've not explicitly tested that, or seen any figures on it. I might test it in the coming few days - but my impressions from using them is that your ships is slightly more heat-efficient with heat sink launchers installed. The tl;dr version: buy one.
The Point Defence Turret is, on paper at least, the utility module that you'll most want to buy, as it's relatively cheap (around 8500Cr), does not have a mass penalty on your hyperspace range, and is tailor-made to shoot down missiles homing in on your precious space chariot. It's unfortunate then, that they're badly bugged at this point of game development - I'll explain how in a minute. More fundamentally, they also have a wee bit of a design flaw that users will want to be wary of. As the Point Defence Turret is classed as a weapons system, it is subject to thermal overload, just like your regular weapons. This is a bit of a problem, because enemies will invariably wait for your weapons to overheat before dropping missiles on your head - and an overheating Point Defence Turret can't shoot down missiles, which makes them rather useless. So do bear that in mind if you ever get them working. In Beta 1.03, that's a big 'if', as they have a really bad habit of screwing up your weapon fire groups. Point Defence Turrets should auto-deploy and should not be assigned to a fire group, but depending upon the order in which you add them on to your ship, they can royally screw with your fire groups. The best method of trying to get them working is to buy all your other equipment first, launch, sort out your fire groups and power priority settings, redock and then add on the turrets. At which point the fire groups will probably screw up again, necessitating you launch, shut down your Point Defence Turret in the Modules screen, reset your fire groups AGAIN, land and reactivate the turret. And pray that it works this time. Players with Type 9s and Anacondas have reported all sorts of issues with trying to use the Point Defence Turrets, so they're probably worth leaving until the next patch, when hopefully all the bugs have been ironed out.
Also somewhat problematic is the Chaff Launcher. If you've played any flight simulations, you might think that you use a chaff launcher to decoy missiles. It's a reasonable assumption, but in this case, you'd be totally wrong. The chaff launcher is supposed to provide a radar-reflective screen between you and an enemy to prevent auto-targeting systems, such as turrets, gimbals and missile targeting systems (that is, BEFORE they are launched) from tracking properly, delaying the point at which an enemy can lock onto your ship. I've not seen any figures quantifying just how effective the chaff screens are at delaying lock-ons, and I've not really seen any players using them either, so they can't be that great. It also suffers from a couple of issues, similar to the Point Defence Turret, in that it can screw up your weapon grouping, and if you do assign it explicitly to your secondary fire group, for example, chaff loads will mysteriously disappear between instances of you deploying and putting away your hard points. This is most certainly a bug, and what makes things even more baffling is that you don't appear to be able to replenish your chaff supply in the module on the munitions screen - so if you run out of chaff, your only option is to sell the module and rebuy one, which strikes me as rather bizarre. If they sort the bugs in a future patch, I can imagine the chaff launcher being useful for cowardly traders, who just want to run away from pirates after their cargo, but I can't really see a use for it if you're more interested in a more active combat role.
Much more useful is the Kill Warrant Scanner, or K-scanner. It's the most expensive of the modules, at just over 18,000Cr, and I was initially sceptical as to whether it was worth it or not, as it does have a few limitations. Firstly, it does require binding to a weapon fire group, meaning that you might have to set up multiple fire groups, depending on what kind of weapon loadout you use, but that's only a minor annoyance. Slightly more annoying is the K-scanner's range and limited scanning cone. For the K-Scanner to work, you need to be within one kilometre of the ship you're trying to find bounties on. As you might expect, most ships don't sit still for the eight seconds or so it takes for the scan to complete, and the very limited gimballing range on the scanner (it only gives you a leeway of a few degrees from the centre of your targeting reticule) does make getting successful scans rather challenging. Another issue is the lack of instant feedback you get as to whether the scanner has found bounties or not - there's no visual cue on your HUD, so you currently you have to check the ship's status on your Contacts list on your left-hand dashboard. Not really something you want to be doing in the middle of an asteroid field... I almost lost a Viper colliding with an unseen asteroid as I was checking the bounty value on a Cobra I was hunting. At least the player concerns (including mine!) have been picked up on by the designers and will be addressed to make the system a little more immediate in future versions. Having used the K-scanner more extensively now, I have less of a problem with the long scan time, short range and narrow focus of the scanner - you just need to become a better pilot, as it should be difficult for you to scan another player or NPC, since it's a fundamentally hostile act, even if it's not an outright attack, you are advertising to the other pilot 'I'm going to murder you if you're worth it'. A slightly shorter scan time (around 5 seconds would be nice), plus a range extension from 1000m to 1500m and a slightly wider scanning beam would make it even better, but even as it is, the K-scanner is an essential piece of kit if you want to make serious money from bounty hunting. You absolutely need one if you want to be able to claim bounties in anarchist systems (since they don't have local bounty warrants to tip you off that a pilot is dirty), and you should be able to make back the install cost of one in a couple of hours. Along with the heat sink launcher, this is my most-used piece of utility hardware.
Finally, there is the Cargo Scanner, which operates in almost exactly the same manner and has exactly the same flaws as the K-scanner, only this time, it's giving you information on the cargo carried by ships, rather than information on pilot bounties. I'll be honest - I haven't actually personally bothered using one, as I can only see them being worth the 13,000Cr investment if you're going to be an unscrupulous pirate, and that's not a mode of game play that I'm interested in exploring right now (though maybe when the playing volume of the galaxy opens up a bit more, you never know!). Is it an essential piece of kit for a pirate? Not really?? It's almost quicker just to pop the cargo hatch on your victim and let them poo their cargo into space for you to survey and scoop up later. With some future refinement, such as being able to state whether cargo on board a ship is stolen or not, a bounty hunter might want to use one in tandem with a K-scanner, but I don't personally see much use for them.

As more modules become available in future releases, I will endeavour to post my thoughts on them, but that's it for now. Good hunting, commanders!

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - Weapons Guide

I was originally going to post this with the ship comparison guide, but was worried that it would get too long and into tl;dr territory, so instead separated it out into a shameless and easily Google-searchable attempt to fish for more hits before my blog goes back into enforced hiatus, when I have to go back to doing my real job in a couple of weeks. The real beauty of Elite: Dangerous is that there's no 'proper' way of playing the game - you just have to find out what works for you the best. But that's not to say that a little bit of help is unwelcome, so here's my take on the advantages, disadvantages and potential uses of the currently available ship weapons in the Elite: Dangerous beta. Make of my thoughts what you will - your mileage may vary (as the saying goes).

Endangered Cobra
I'll start by describing the weapon types themselves, as there's quite a lot of variety with what you can play with, both in terms of weapon type and also their hardpoint mounting type, all of which have profound implications on whether they are suited for you (as a pilot) or for the ship you are flying. The first question to answer when considering your weapon loadout for your ship is what type of ship murder hardware do you want to use?
The currently available weapon type are: laser, cannon, multi-cannon, rail gun, missile and plasma accelerator.
Lasers are available in pulse, burst, beam and stealth variants (though I have not seen stealth lasers for sale in Beta 1 - perhaps I've not been lucky enough to come across one on my travels.) Lasers are particularly effective against shields and less effective at causing hull damage, but have a advantage of being cheaper than the other forms of weapons, making lasers the default go-to weapon when equipping your ship.
Pulse lasers, as the name suggests, fire in short, high-powered stabs of coherent light. They have the advantage of concentrating the power of the weapon into pulses, rather than firing over an extended period of time, meaning that the power drain and heat generation of the weapon is low, while the relative damage done is high. Pulse lasers are therefore best used on ships where power plant capacity is low and where heat generation needs to be carefully managed, or where ships have many hardpoints that can be fired simultaneously. You will typically see pulse lasers being used by small fighters, such as Sidewinders, or in turret form on ships like the Type 9 and Anaconda. Pulse lasers are generally considered to be entry-tier weapons for pilots who aren't terribly adept at keeping enemies within their sights and require a weapon that can be fired repeatedly over a long period of time before making your power plant melt. Any pilot worth their salt, and able to afford it, will quickly ditch pulse lasers for more effective weapons.
Beam lasers are more advanced, yet also more difficult to use effectively than pulse lasers, as they are capable of firing in continuous beams for as long as you keep the trigger depressed. You might think that beam lasers would do more damage than pulse lasers, but this isn't necessarily true. Beam lasers (in the current build) seem to be underpowered in terms of inflicting hull damage, compared to pulse and burst lasers, yet generate heat far more quickly. A beam laser in thermal overload is a dead weight in a dogfight, and using beam lasers often requires you to constantly micromanage your weapon power setting, balancing and rebalancing it with the other systems, so that they don't conk out just when you're about to line up the killer shot. Admittedly, beam lasers look very sexy as you walk them over the hull of your target, but these aren't the beam lasers of Freespace 2 or Babylon 5 that carve off slices of your opponent - and more's the pity! I can't honestly recommend using beam lasers unless Frontier re-tweak the damage versus heat generation relationship. Turreted beam lasers in particular are an outright liability, thanks to their drunken targeting. They're more likely to cause you to blow up than your enemy. Avoid at all costs - at least for now.
Burst lasers are my personal favourite from the laser weapon pantheon, as they're a good halfway house between pulse and beam weapons. They operate by firing Hicks-style, potentially dealing more damage than pulse lasers, without the massive overhead of heat generation you have with beam lasers. They are also cheaper than beam lasers and multicannons, so if you're after a weapon to strip the shields from a target, while you have another weapon to take care of the hull, burst lasers are the way to go. Burst lasers are especially useful in gimballed form on Class Two mountings, so work especially well on Sidewinders and as secondary weapons on Vipers and Cobras. The power requirements, however, are too high to make them much use on Eagles, which is unfortunate.
Stealth lasers are weapons that were in Premium Beta, but I'm not entirely sure if they have been removed from the Standard Beta, as I've not seen one. Stealth lasers work in essentially the same manner as pulse lasers, but without the heat generation (or the sound effects), and as you might expect, are very rare and very expensive. If you can find one, or if you know for sure if they've been hit by the nerf cannon and been removed from the game, please feel free to let me know in the comments.

Pretty 'splodes!
If you have a Cobra, Viper or something smaller and want to make ships go 'splode!, then you're going to want to know about cannons. As you can see in the picture above, cannons make ships go 'splode! very, very well indeed. They're massively powerful, have a low power drain and heat generation rate, plus they're really cheap. They do have their shortcomings, however. One, they've only got a clip capacity of five shots prior to reloading and their reload rate is really quite slow, so you have to pick your time to shoot very carefully. This is doubly important, because cannons are currently only available on fixed mountings and it is unlikely that they will ever be available on gimballed or turret mountings, for game balancing reasons. This makes cannons a real skill-based weapon, as the low fire rate and aiming issues mean that a moderate pilot will have a lot of difficulty hitting targets with cannons at distances over 1000 metres, though it can be done, if you are good at anticipating the way an enemy will move. Cannons do so much damage that you don't even need to bother with a shield-stripping weapon like a laser. A cannon-equipped Viper will take down a small fighter in two volleys and larger ships like Type 9's and Anacondas can be taken down from full hull health with a triple cannon-equipped Eagle very easily indeed. The cannons will probably be tweaked in future patches, because they do make combat just that little bit too easy, if you're a good shot.

Probably the best all-round weapon for the budding combateer is the multi-cannon. Originally, I wasn't much of a fan of the multi-cannon, due to the spin-up time before firing and I preferred the immediacy of laser weapons, but as I've had more practice using them (especially the gimballed versions), they're arguably the best balanced weapon in the game. While multi-cannons are more expensive than lasers or cannons, the extra cost is worth it, as nothing is better suited to ripping through the hull of some poor greenhorn in a Sidewinder than a multi-cannon. Nominally, projectile-based weapons such as the multi-cannon are supposed to be less effective on shields and more damaging to the hull of a ship, but in practice, an all projectile-based weapon loadout is just as quick at getting kills as a mix of multi-cannons and lasers. Having both weapon types in your loadout does ensure that your ship will never run out of ammunition, however! As with the cannon, multi-cannons require you to lead your target, as unlike a laser, it takes time for the projectile to travel the distance between your ship and the target, which means that if you're not a decent shot with a fixed mounting, a lot of your ammo is just going to sail off uselessly into space. Investing in the more expensive gimballed versions is a good idea, as the damage reduction in power loss is more than made up for by the enhanced target tracking ability of the weapon. Gimballed multi-cannons are especially effective at suppressing the regeneration of a target's shields, as well as getting the enemy pilot to gradually panic at the gradual erosion of their hull integrity, your bullets nibbling away percentage point after percentage point. The best thing about multi-cannons is that they have the best trade off between weapon damage and heat generation, so you can essentially keep firing until you run out of ammo, making extended, multiple target engagements far more manageable. The ammunition is plentiful (like the cannon, 2100 rounds per gun) and cheap to replace, so you should be able to rip through at least 15-20 targets before needing to head back to base for rearming. You will find multi-cannons on pretty much any ship within the game, and you will want to be wary of any Lakon Type 9 Heavy or Anaconda equipped with turreted multi-cannons: mess with them at your peril!

Rail guns are the next class of weapon you might want to consider, being one step up in both cost and damage from the multi-cannon. I've only really used the rail gun in the single player scenarios, and I've yet to be convinced by them. I have encountered other players (and, indeed NPCs) that use them, but they appear to be even more of an 'all or nothing' weapon than the cannon. Rail guns are capable of dealing massive amounts of damage (I've seen NPC Cobras been taken down in two double hits of rail guns from another Cobra or Anaconda), but that massive damage potential comes at the cost of huge amounts of heat generation. Rail guns on Eagles or Vipers are a singularly bad idea, because the power drain is so high that deploying them will likely shut down luxuries like your shield or drive system. I have seen many rail guns used on Sidewinders and Cobras, but the fixed mounting and the long time delay before firing reduces their effectiveness to slow moving ships at close range, and few enemies (even the low bounty, low quality NPCs) are so obliging. I'm sure there are people out there who will swear profusely by their love of the rail gun, but I'm not one of them. Definitely try before you buy in the single player scenarios.

As discussed in my ship comparison guide, missiles are highly damaging, yet massively expensive weapons that are most commonly used by players as 'worry about this while I bugger off into supercruise' weapons. The biggest problem with missiles isn't their limited ammo capacity (12 per rack for Class 2 launchers and 24 per rack for Class 4 launchers), it's the fact that they cost 10,000Cr per 12 missiles to reload. Financially they're unjustifiable for any pilot who wants to make their money through combat missions. As a last resort or deterrent weapon, I suppose missiles have their place, but you can get quicker kills on small ships with cannons, and unless you're flying an all-missile armed Anaconda, it's unlikely that you'll ever be able to kill an opponent with a single volley of missiles, reducing their utility as a 'fuck off and leave me alone' weapon. Unless Frontier reduce the cost of the missile reloads, I can't see too many combateers systematically making use of missiles as primary weapons.

Lastly, we have the Plasma Accelerator, which as a weapon requiring a Class 8 hardpoint, is currently only the preserve of players who have Anacondas. I'm not (yet!) one of these lucky people, so I can't comment directly on the user experience of having one. I can, however, comment on the experience of being on the wrong end of one (THANK YOU, COLOSSUS!) and that comment is "OW! FUCKING JESUS MOTHERFUCKING CHRIST, OW! WHY DID YOU DO THAT, YOU FUCKER?!?" I hope that was useful to you in some way. (Suffice to say, they're really rare, expensive and do lots and lots of damage)
[Edited Addendum: I've had a chance to use one for myself now, and while they might cost nearly 800,000Cr and be pretty hard to find, holy crap, it's worth it to be able to one-shot anything up to and including a Cobra Mark III. They're like cannons on steroids. Wow. Next time I meet Colossus, he's going down in plasma flames.]

This just leaves us with the quandary not even The Bard himself could resolve: To gimbal, or not to gimbal, that is the question. I'm paraphrasing, naturally...

'True' combateers (the type of people who like to call themselves 'hardcore' - you know, 12 year olds...) will extoll the virtues of fixed weapon mountings saying that they make the combat more challenging and that as fixed weapons are more powerful than their gimballed counterparts they can achieve faster kills. While it does pain me to admit it, they do have a point. Once you've flown a Viper with four cannons and seen how quickly and easily it can dispense with just about any ship in the game you will ask yourself 'why would I want to use anything else?'. This, however, is a position you can only adopt after you've put several dozen hours into the game truly mastering the flight model and controls, gaining a couple of hundred kills along the way. Give the same ship and loadout to a brand new player and their reaction is most likely to be 'How the bloody hell do you hit anything?'
I've got over 400 kills in the game and while I'm as vociferous an advocate for the all-cannon loadout on fighter-class vessels as you'll find, I still find gimballed weapons useful. I would have found getting into the combat far more demoralising and difficult had it not been for the gimballed weapons, and for a long while my preferred combat loadout on the Viper or Cobra was two C3 Gimballed Multi-cannons and two C1 Gimballed Burst Lasers. Even now, I'm experimenting with a mix of three fixed cannons and one C3 Gimballed Multi-cannon on my Cobra (or Viper) to finesse my damage output, suppress enemy shield recharging and get even quicker kills than with four cannons alone. There's so much depth in the combat model that you can't really say that there's one 'true' way of playing the game. In short, you gimbal if you want to.
I'll save commenting in detail about turrets until I've gotten enough money to kit out an Lakon Type 9 and I've used them more extensively, but I will say this: Don't use them on Cobras or anything smaller. Save yourself the insurance costs...

In summary, then:
1) In the beginning, use the fixed pulse lasers on your free Sidewinder to build up experience and confidence in combat and the flight model.
2) Try to avoid beam lasers, even if you're a very good shot - you'll get a better damage vs. heat return using cannons or multi-cannons.
3) Gimballed burst lasers are really effective - buy them as soon as you can afford them, so that you can get easier kills and approach combat with a feeling other than trepidation. Where possible, use them in tandem with gimballed multi-cannons to have an effective shield-hull double-whammy combo.
4) When you can afford a Cobra or a Viper, a mix of fixed multi-cannons and gimballed burst lasers will have you committing space murder faster than you can say 'Richard B. Riddick'.
5) Ultimate space badasses, though, only use cannons.

Good hunting, commanders!