Sunday, August 03, 2014

Byte: And the sky full of stars...

Yes, it's a Babylon 5 reference. I liked Babylon 5 (dammit!!) and no amount of revisionist propaganda on The Big Bang Theory is going to change that. So why the reference? Well, seeing as this in now the "Iain's Elite: Dangerous Diary" blog, I thought I'd report in about the very pleasant afternoon I had getting to grips with Elite: Dangerous's combat yesterday afternoon. Using the strategy I described yesterday, something I like to call The Super-Coward's Revenge, I took my tooled-up Sidewinder to the LP 98-132 system, which is an anarchist refinery world, just beyond Eranin. Having tweaked my module power settings - as bizarrely, the first time I tried combat with the Sidewinder, the power reactor and main drive turned themselves off, leaving me a sitting duck, trying to figure out what the hell was going on; just as well that it happened in a cheap, disposable ship, right? I still don't know whether it was a bug or whether I'd tripped something using an unknown keyboard shortcut, but anyways... - I decided to head out into the wider system to try and scare up some trouble. It didn't take long, as soon I was being marauded by some terribly vicious and threatening cargo canisters. You've got to be wary about that bauxite, you know. Aggressive stuff.

Since bauxite is pretty much utterly worthless (less than 50Cr a tonne - it's the ore you get aluminium from via the wonders of dissolving it in acid and electrolysing the metal out), I didn't see the point in picking it up and used the canisters as target practice. I'm pretty sure that if it wasn't for the gimballing on the two burst lasers I'd equipped the ship with, I'd probably still be there trying to destroy the little buggers. I really am a quite terrible shot, or at least I am when the deadzone of my joystick is not quite as sensitive as it should be. I ought to invest in a new Saitek X-52 at some point. With the target practice successfully concluded, I thought it would be more interesting to head over to the resource extraction site at the Anahit Ring. On my way there I got intercepted by a Cobra Mark III piloted by one Eleanor Zero. Catchy name, thinks I, getting ready to engage in mortal combat. Taking on a Cobra in a Sidewinder is pretty tricky, especially when you don't have much experience of the flight model in balls-out combat. They're big (which is good, as it makes them slightly easier to hit), well armed (which is bad, because they do a lot of damage) and fast as a thief (which is bad, because they can easily outrange you to top up their shields). All things considered, for a while I was doing pretty well.

The Sidewinder is more maneouvrable than the Cobra, so after a while I had gotten used to strafe-yawing in the closure maneouvres to dodge her fixed lasers, while still allowing my gimballed weapons to score hits. After a few minutes of this, I've whittled down the Cobra's hull to around 50%, and I still had 75% hull, which was okay. In a pure battle of attrition, I was probably going to win. And then, on another head-to-head pass (after the Cobra's has buggered off to recharge their shields again), I'm racking up a few good hits and my shields are holding, despite taking a slight beating, and about 500m away, the Cobra drops three missiles on my head. The point defence system only manages to get one and my hull goes KABOOM. Nasty little surprise there, Eleanor. Well played. So it's back to Freeport, 3000Cr and one shiny new Sidewinder later, I head on over to the Anahit Ring, stumbling across two Cobra Mark IIIs along the way.

It's an anarchy, so I try to keep my distance and watch, because I'm not going to pick a scrap with two Cobras, not after just having had my ass handed to me by one. It doesn't take long for the two Cobras to start having a go at each other, and I'm glad I kept my distance, because one of them has dual railguns on board and the other Cobra gets boiled in just one hit. A definite "wow!" moment. So I frameshift out of there pronto and continue on my way to the Anahit Ring, which is billed as a "resource extraction area", but is essentially a free-for-all combat arena in an asteroid field. And it is quite staggering pretty.

It is also what might be called a "target rich environment", an ideal place to practice (or learn!) combat piloting skills. As it's a free-for-all anarchy, pretty much anything goes. You don't break any laws for picking on a poor asteroid miner and boiling them, but contrariwise, you don't get any bounties for killing people either, so you're there either just to practice your piloting or boost your kill count (or both). Liz Gundalf was the first victim to go down, after I ambushed her at close range.

Every ship starts out as a neutral contact and there are no factions, so you can pick a fight with anyone you like, usually when they're busy mining or preoccupied in combat with another vessel (since the AI ships will have scraps between themselves quite readily). Though you do have to keep an eye on your combat scanner, as occasionally an AI ship will try to ambush you, which is where the combat gets rather more exciting and challenging. Having shot down around ten Sidewinders, with no damage (those gimballed burst lasers are brilliant, incidentally - I prefer them to beam lasers, as they don't overheat so quickly), I get a little braver and start taking on Cobras. As it happens, if you ambush a Cobra and score some really good hits before they can make use of their better weapons and speed, they're actually not so bad to fight in a Sidewinder.

The appropriately named Dallas Flame was the first Cobra to go down in flames at my hand. I should mention the AI pilot names, because since I'm a serial punner, my girlfriend must have thought I was mad as I was gloating at the names of each of my victims: "Ash, that's an appropriate name, because that's what I'm about to turn you into!" "Kane Burst? You will when I rupture your hull!" Whole minutes of fun to be had there. After about an hour of this, and my kill count is getting up into the mid-twenties, I notice an Anaconda is having a ding dong battle with a couple of Cobras and Sidewinders. I pick off the Sidewinders, because they're distracted and easy prey, but the Cobra is doing quite well against the Anaconda, having carved its hull down to about 25%. This is going to be a close run thing, thinks I, until the Anaconda wipes out the Cobra with its plasma accelerator.

KABOOM. Definite WOW. I'm thinking to myself, can this game get any more awesome? Well, let's see, because that's a wounded Anaconda, I have a tooled up Sidewinder with 96% hull left. Why the hell not? And I swoop in to attack, because remember, swooping is bad. I must have been feeling pretty cocky, because this is not a good idea. I'm trying to get in behind the Anaconda, because that's where its blind spot is in terms of its weapons hardpoints, but I've misjudged just quite how powerful and fast this Anaconda is and HOLY SHIT HE'S GOING TO RAM ME TO DEATH.

I barely manage to strafe out of the way, but Phoenix does re-employ the tactic again later in the fight, wiping me down to 46% hull integrity. One solid hit without shields from any of the Anaconda's weapons, and I'm toast.

The Anaconda is an amazing looking ship - I really want to fly one, but that'll have to wait until I've spent about a week trading to scrape up enough money, and I'm having too much fun with the combat to think about going back to trading runs right now. I'm definitely getting a lot better at using the strafe and yawing controls to avoid enemy fire, and using my throttle and vertical strafing to cut the corners off my turns, allowing me to make sure that the pointy end of my ship is aimed at the enemy more often than not. Getting to grips with the whole six degrees of freedom in the combat model is a bit of a learning curve, as the pilot workload is very high. You've got all the traditional dogfighting axes of pitch, yaw, roll and throttle to worry about, plus strafing in the vertical and horizontal planes PLUS you have to actively manage your shield, engine and weapons systems, AND (if you want to be really fancy about it) manage subsystem targetting on the enemy ships, too. I've played a lot of space sims, and the combat in Elite: Dangerous is the best and most rewarding that I've played. And the game's not even finished yet. After a few minutes of combat, it becomes apparent that if I can steer clear of the ventral turrets of the Anaconda and its fore-mounted fixed weapons, I'm going to win the war of attrition, even though the Anaconda can power out of range to top up its shields. I redirect all power to my weapons and engines to keep within range as much as possible and constantly hammer the Anaconda's shields and hull. And it works.

I have you now!

Down you go! My first (and so far, only) Anaconda kill.

Feeling pretty darned pleased with myself, I go back to scragging Sidewinders and Cobras for a while, before I notice another Anaconda beating up on a Cobra.

I follow on after them, thinking that I might as well see how well I can do against a healthy Anaconda, as it'll only cost me 3000Cr to replace my wounded Sidewinder at most. I'm about to get stuck in when the game senses that I'm having too much fun and crashes, wiping out all the progress I'd made on my kill count. BUGGER. Still, it is a Beta, and that's the only crash I've had in three days, so I'm not going to moan. And anyway, I just relogged on later in the afternoon and scored more kills. Though it didn't give me any Anacondas to play with, which was a disappointment, but never mind. There's always today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And...
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