1) Fighters rock. Sure they seem puny, and take up tons of pilots, and can’t seem to damage cruiser shields, and die in droves to anti-fighter weapons. But they can take down frigates and cruisers by shooting from inside their shield radius or once the shields are down and the armour is sufficiently dented (from fighter torpedos or your bigger ships’ attacks) faster than anything else – literally in seconds! As well as fend off enemy fighters that are trying to do the same to you. Speed is usually better than armour on fighters, as it still takes just one or two shots from heavy frigate or cruiser weapons to smash even an armoured fighter – whereas speedy un-armoured fighters almost never can be hit by big weapons. On the other hand, if two squads of fighters with about similar speeds are sparring, the ones with armor will usually wipe the deck with the unarmoured ones due to their higher hitpoints.
2) If you want fighters to return to a carrier bay for repairs, you need to give them the ‘Cautious’ command. Set it to a low % so that they break off as soon as they’re damaged – they may not make it even then, as more shots will be thrown their way while they limp back with damaged engines. Note however, that if they’re set to Cautious but there aren’t anymore carrier bays with supplies left, your lightly damaged fighters will just go hide at the side of the map instead of going for that last attack run. Lame. Avoid this by having enough carrier bays for the fight. However, just one is usually more than enough for the entire battle.
3) Speed is an odd animal, affected by your overall ship weight as well as engine power. Try out different combinations of engines and powerplants on a fighter and you’ll see what I mean – two fighter engines with no powerplant may be faster, or one fighter engine + engine II with a powerplant. I find trial and error comparisons of the few possible combinations is quick enough to find the max speed obtainable.
4) Cloaking is teh suck. Sure your big ships can hide out for a while, but I’d rather they keep firing away with their big guns while soaking up damage with their shields, instead of leaving the fight for a few seconds.
5) Frigates seem to die instantly and are targeted first by fighters no matter where you try and hide them, but they have their purposes. As in the Brighthub links below, you can specialize them for stopping enemy missiles, EMP-paralysing, or blitz attacks. My own particular fave is Imperial Weapons Platform (8 hardpoints for weapons!) outfitted with max range missiles, hanging way back from the front lines.
6) Antifighter missiles slaughter fighters in sufficient concentrations. The trick is – as they are being frigate-mounted – keeping your frigates alive long enough to use them.
7) Due to different ship speeds, letting the enemy come to you is usually a good bet – the first few to reach your effective ranges will receive a full onslaught while the rest crawl into position. In fact, some of my fleets rely on engineless missile launchers waiting for the enemy to foolishly come within the 1200 range mark. On the other hand, long-range weapons have a minimum range – they can’t fire on ships that are closer than that range. You can take advantage of this by designing your ship with high speed to rush into this minimum range, and open fire with close-range weapons. Long-range enemies (e.g. missiles) will be helpless after the first few free shots at your charging ship. Close range weapons also generally have better damage-per-second rates than long range weapons.
8.) Shields seem superior to armor – the latter doesn’t regenerate on its own, and once it is sufficiently damaged by some good (or lucky) hits, all the other small shots suddenly have an effect. But don’t neglect it entirely – as long as the armor is intact, all small attacks will bounce off with No Effect. Fighters also can fly in to shoot under the shield radius. Test this out by pitting cruisers against waves of enemy fighters – a cruiser with high armor will be untouched by the little beams, while the shields-only one will have its hull gradually pinged away by shots under the shield radius. More than once, the fight degenerated into a bunch of speedy, weak-weaponed fighters buzzing around large cruisers, their shots having No Effect on the cruiser armour… But every once in a while, a Lucky Shot reduces the armour ever so slightly, until finally the armour is whittled away enough for the swarm of fighter weapons to suddenly explode the cruiser in seconds! And if you pile on enough armor (especially on cruisers with bonus % to armor), almost all weapons – even the biggest cruiser ones – will bounce off, meaning you can neglect shields entirely! Very cheesy but effective.
9) Within each ‘Attack’ command (e.g. Attack Cruisers) is a range value. The ship will try and move to this range in order to shoot at the enemy (assuming you even put engines on the ship). This is by default set to just under the range of the shortest-range weapon on the ship, so that all weapons can fire eventually. If you set the range too high, some (or all) of the weapons will be sitting idle as the enemy will be out of range. On the other hand, you don’t want certain ships to hurry into enemy-effective ranges – your anti-missile specialized ships, for instance. You can select your ships and choose ‘Save Orders’ so you don’t need to set the ranges every time you fight.
10) Park a high defense cruiser out in front of your other ships, maybe with anti-missile gear. It will draw most non-fighter fire while your longer-range attackers volley from behind it.
11) Don’t overlook the fact that you can put non-weapons into hardpoints! Depending on your build, you may be looking for more space for shields and engines. Too bad there isn’t a kamikaze-type weapon, I’d build high-speed ships laden with them and send them to their mutually assured doom.
12) Not sure how radiation works (e.g. nuclear missile) – an extra hit after the first successful hull damage? If you have a clearer picture, do comment below.
13) The ‘Escort’ command makes ships hover around another ship. You can set fighters to Escort a ship so they don’t fly off and run headlong into the enemy fleet unsupported. But be sure to set the range on the Escort command properly – too low, and the fighters will orbit close around your ship without being able to move out to attack longer-ranged enemies. If you just want your fighters to focus on enemies that are targeting your cruisers or frigates, but also want them to attack the bigger enemy ships after killing the enemy fighters, use Protect (chooses one particular vessel) or Rescuer (go to the aid of any vessel getting attacked) instead. Escort will just make them orbit around, sometimes too far away to engage enemy vessels that are hanging back (such as missile volleyers).
14) If there are enemy fighters, a better way to keep your fighters from running off too early is to prioritize them to ‘Attack Fighters’ (100%, why not), and start them way back in a corner. Even your torpedo and rocket fighters. This way they will dogfight the enemy fighters – which in all likelihood have orders to go straight for your frigates and cruisers – in your zone. Once every last enemy fighter is swatted, your fighters will head towards the remaining enemy ships en masse. However, sometimes this causes your entire fighter squadron to chase a few last fighters in circles, trying to kill them, when they would be better put to use swarming enemy frigates and cruisers. Ah well, that’s no-commands-on-the-fly for you.
15) Missiles have the longest ranges, but they move slowly and your ships don’t launch another volley until the current one hits, expires or is stopped. This gives them a low firing rate, especially nerve-wracking when the enemy ships move into their own weapon range.
16) I prefer starting out my ships all in one corner of the map – usually at the bottom. This way, enemy ships which were placed near the top take longer to reach the main slugfest at the bottom.
17) Apart from a Damage stat, weapons also have Shield Penetration, Armour Penetration and rate of fire (forget the specific term, the higher it is the slower to shoot). If the Penetration is low, you will see No Effect – even from your cruiser big weapons – because the enemy Shield or Armour rating is higher than your Penetration. Make sure you have weapons that can punch through high Shields or Armour. Plasma Launchers (normal or Heavy variety) are a good bet with high scores for both Penetration.
18.) In campaign, your fleet is going to get carried forward to the next battles – so any losses will gradually begin to stack up and affect your overall progress. You can get more Fighters to survive with at least one carrier bay-equipped cruiser (remember the Cautious orders as per tip 2). Also, you can only repair damaged bigger ships at a repair yard or shipyard. If you don’t have any at the system your ships are in, a Repair System helps – it will kick in and begin repairs during each battle.
19) Apart from that, killing all enemy cruisers usually causes the enemy fleet to surrender and the surviving ships to join you. Thus it may be advantageous to target the cruisers first, so that more fighters and frigates end up on your team for free.
20) Retreating is a sneaky way to land some blows and soften up a too-tough enemy. Send only fighters to attack a system to gauge its defenders, kill some stuff, then retreat.
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PS. Other game tips post at Plants vs Zombies Survival: Endless – Scott’s Setup and The Most Embarassing Ways to Die in Alien Swarm.