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.

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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 Scan.co.uk (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.

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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