Prestige. Money. Elite ratings. These things are what draw many people to combateering. The galaxy is literally awash with combat pilots. However, the standard of non-military combat pilots is utterly lamentable. The 3294 Combateer's Almanack has some statistics that bear this out. You would expect that the Elite rating 'Average' would represent just that. However, since the Elite rating system was devised, when only a few had combat capable ships, 'Average' has become a misnomer. The sad fact is that the average life expectancy of a new combat pilot is currently eight weeks, and only 20% of all combat pilots make it past the 'Poor' Elite rating! Only 11% make it to 'Average'. The good news is for those that make it that far, they stand a good chance of dying of natural causes instead of at the end of a pirate's laser. Only 0.2% of combateers make it to Elite. This is mainly because the 11% that do make it past Average normally give up not long afterwards due to the stress.
Why is this? The most common fault is that would-be combateers try and enter the game with a ship that's simply not suitable for anything but occasionally defending itself. Anything smaller than a Viper will generally not survive a hit from a missile, nor will it survive an attack by multiple enemies. Next on the list is the problem that most combateers are behind the game, or have insufficient situational awareness. The final major cause of combateer loss is that few people seem to know when to run away.
The good news for you is that since you're reading this, you take combat seriously and are trying to learn how you can survive the experience. Virtually all of the 80% who don't make it past 'Poor' have not read or practised any combat whatsoever before embarking on their fatal vocation. The other thing working in your favour is the fact that 80% of the people you'll come up against will be largely unskilled combateers!
A highly significant (ooh, let's say 99.5%) of would-be pirates and combateers come to grief not because they lack the potential to become good combateers - it's because they basically don't understand space travel. I'm constantly amazed at how much patient teaching it can take to teach an otherwise intelligent person Newton's laws of motion. The majority of cadets that come through the academy have lived planet-side all their lives, and are used to the way stuff works when you're close to the ground with a nice thick atmosphere around you. Basic schooling seems to be completely inadequate preparation for space travel. Not surprisingly, the students that "get it" the quickest with regards to space combat, are the kids that were brought up in space.
Having lived on the surface of a nice warm planet with a breathable atmosphere, most people seem to just expect flying in space to be the same as flying in an atmosphere. Nearly everyone comments after their first introduction to space combat that "I was just stuck there and the other ship was buzzing around me. The meter shows I was just hurtling towards Gateway at 600 km/s, and I couldn't change speed".
The first thing you have to do is ignore that speed meter. It really does not matter one whit what your speed relative to your nearest stellar body is. What matters is your speed relative to your opponent. Just ignore the speed meter because it's really irrelevant at this stage. To help with that, make sure you turn off the generation of "space dust" on the HUD. Nearly everyone who comes here at first has "space dust" (that gives a kind of star field animation, the 'stars' stationary relative to whatever your speed meter is locked onto) turned on. It's a bad idea. It just confuses your subconscious mind and makes it much harder to make that mental switch to thinking relative to your opponent. A good exercise to learn how to manoever relative to another object is this:
- Find a convenient object: asteroids are good, space stations are good
(but stay out of the control zone!), and parked deep-space cruisers are good
The second big thing is to learn to anticipate. We'll cover anticipation of your opponent's move in the Strategy Guide below. For more detailed information on exercises to help you fly in space with the engines set to "off", see the Flying Relative tutorial.
Taking on a single ship of equal/less armament than yourself.
One thing I'm always hearing from bounty hunters who take instruction at TSCA is that combat always seems to be like a medieval "jousting" match. Typically what happens is the two ships engaged in combat will come towards each other in a high speed head-on run, lasers firing. Usually one will manouevre to miss the other, but both ships will hurtle past each other with a high relative speed. Both ships will turn around their longitudinal axis to face each other with lasers once more, hit the power, and the process will repeat itself until one of them runs away, or one of them is destroyed. This kind of jousting exposes the combateer to not only the risk of being shot up by the other party, but actually colliding at high speed. A not insignificant number of smaller ships are destroyed when they impact the forward shields of a larger ship.
To improve your chances of winning by many orders of magnitude, what you have to do is to not have your enemy shooting at you. This means you MUST get on the opponent's six o'clock position. How do you do that? Firstly, there will almost be an initial 'joust' as both of you come towards each other, lasers blasting. To avoid this process repeating, you must anticipate what's going to happen next. I have found that almost always the other ship will begin to turn a little before passing you to start the next "joust". This is what you need to anticipate.
Start the initial run by moving towards the opponent in the "joust", using full main thrusters to limit the time spent in the joust. As the opponent nears, hit the retros hard. Then you must anticipate the way which the opponent turn. This is not always possible, but with practise you can see any slight deviation in course the opponent will make. This will indicate the turn direction. Start turning so you maintain an intercept course. As soon as you can see any significant direction change in your opponent's flight path, keep him in your sights and use full main thrusters. What this will do is put you on your opponent's six as he tries to set up the next "joust". Even if your ship is slightly slower than your opponent, you can maintain position for long enough to seriously weaken or destroy your opponent. If your opponent is slower than you, you can keep on his six indefinitely.
Taking on a single ship of greater armament than yourself.
Picture the situation. You are nearing La Soeur du Dan Ham in the anarchy system, Reidquat. You've done well against all the opponents you've met so far because you anticipated their movements well, and took them out before they could deplete your shields. You only have 0.5 AU to go, and the Attack alarm goes off. Going to the scanner, you see a big white return. Looking out, you see the awesome sight of an Imperial Explorer letting loose a plasma accelerator in your direction.
This is a nightmare situation, and it will greet all bounty hunters sooner or later. The rules change when this happens. A plasma accelerator will destroy most ships in a fraction of a second, so you must avoid it. This means that the traditional straight run in (or "joust") before anticipating and getting on the enemy's six is a recipe for disaster. Jousting in on an Imperial Explorer will mean you have little relative movement in his gunsight. All he needs to do is home that beam in on you, and you're dead pretty much straight away.
You do have one thing on your side - manoeverability. Should you decide to stay and fight, you should move as unpredictably as possible. Something the size of an Explorer won't be able to keep up. Keep moving towards your opponent, using the scanner to see his position, whilst keeping your flight path as unpredictable as possible. As you pass behind him, quickly turn and get on his six. Once on his six, you will easily be able to stay with him (just make sure you don't ram an Explorer; even an Explorer with depleted shields will not yield to the hull of an Asp). The only way something this big can escape you at this point is to either eject or hyperspace. Once you're on the tail of a large slow-mover, there's nothing they can do to turn around and shoot at you.
Taking on multiple attackers.
As common sense suggests, as the number of opponents goes up, the risk increases. If you are to go anywhere where there is a significant risk of an attack by multiples, you must make sure you have a well-shielded ship because you WILL be hit by some weaponry, regardless of how good your technique is. The basic strategy for dealing with multiple attackers is this. First, when you first see the attackers (luck would have this that you normally get pulled from the stardreamer with all attackers within laser range), you must quickly identify the most dangerous of the attackers - if there is one who is most dangerous. Ship size on the scanner is the best way to do this. Whilst you are doing this, you must take on the most unpredictable flight path you can, so not all the attackers can hit you at once. Remember that the lighter the colour on the scanner, the bigger the ship, so go for the whites/yellows/oranges as a matter of priority. They usually have the biggest guns.
Once you have identified who to hit first, start your attack using the appropriate technique for attacking a single ship of this type (you may want to throw in a little extra unpredictability to your flight path). It is best to know who will be your next target before you've finished with the first one, so you can quickly engage the next most dangerous attacker once your initial target has been dispatched. Repeat the process until you have defeated your attackers.
There are other general tactics you can employ whilst taking on multiples. Quite often, during an attack, your attackers will not be in formation and often you'll see one running in whilst you attack your main target. If you can get a few hits on another target without risking losing your current target, quickly swing your gunsights over the secondary target and get a few hits in. You have to make a quick judgement call on whether to do this. Most importantly, don't allow a secondary target distract you from your current primary objective. Also, quite often, multiple attackers will all be using the same class of ship. In this case, simply go for the easiest one to hit first.
This piece of equipment is seldom used to its full potential. The missile has more uses than to just defeat an opponent who you're having difficulty hitting with the laser. True; it can be and often is put to good use in this role, but the missile can be strategically important when taking on multiple attackers.
When I carry missiles, I always carry NN500 naval missiles because no ECM has been developed which can combat these. I have found the best use of the missile is in a difficult combat situation with multiple attackers. A strategy that works well is to target your second highest priority target (ie the second most dangerous), fire the missile, then go after your primary with guns. What this will do is keep the second most dangerous ship from attacking you. Invariably, the ship your missile is homing in on will be trying to either outrun the missile or will be trying to shoot it down instead of attacking you. This is of course a good thing! More often than not, the missile will hit the target, by which time you've destroyed your primary target and you can now move on to your secondary target...who has already been severely weakened by the missile.
This strategy can be expanded with more than one missile when neccesary.
One reason for the lamentable risk levels associated with combateers is the fact that the vast majority of new combateers either have a gross lack of judgement when it comes to detecting that they are unlikely to win an engagement, or that most combateers are simply too proud to retreat. I see it in a great number of people who come through TSCA. Although in the case of defending one's homeland it is often a heroic act to risk or lose your life so others may live, in the case of lone-wolf combateering, not retreating when you'll be killed is seen as plain stupidity. Trust me: there is no glory in dying to make the Above Average rating.
Of course knowing when to run is a judgement call only you can make to fit the particular situation you're in. However, there are some general situations in which retreat should be uppermost on your mind:
Commonly, only hyperspacing or ejecting is practical. If you're already damaged, it's unlikely you can simply run for it because your enemies will gun you down before you can get outside of laser range. Of course, ejection is only available if you have an escape capsule.
I always leave myself with an 'out' - even when equipped with an escape capsule, when I enter a dangerous system I always have a relatively safe system set before I even set the navigation computer for my destination. That way, if I get into something I can't handle I can hyperspace without delay, and this has saved me on numerous occasions.