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.
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