Okay, so now that I've had a chance to play the game a little more I'm marginally hooked. And I'm taking the time to explain why here because everywhere I look, the perception of the game is almost always, "I bought it off Steam when it was on sale but I just can't get into it..."
I finally upgraded to a new ship. I'm not kidding when I say I had 12+ hours invested in the game before I had the currency on hand to do so. For that entire time I was flying around in a medium interceptor class ship with extremely limited missile capability and only one choice in terms of the kinds of guns I could equip. In terms of combat, small fighters were easy to kill. Medium fighters were not at all hard, but you could easily get swarmed under. Large fighters were sometimes difficult for two reasons. First because they took a while to kill and you almost never encountered them by themselves, which often meant that while you were trying to lead a large fighter and get enough shots to land to destroy it, his pals were lining up to do the same to you. Also, they had better weapons than me which meant that if they got a good bead on me, I could go boom in a hurry.
Also, missiles. Missiles in this game are devastating. One hit from a Banshee missile was enough to obliterate me. But the interesting part is that when someone fires a missile at you, it tells you and you often have a chance to find it and shoot it before it gets to you. I actually saved a friendly NPC ship today by picking off the swarm of missile a heavy fighter had shot at it. Tricky part to remember is that missiles have a blast radius and if you can shoot down enemy missiles, guess what the enemy can do to yours? I got blown up tonight when I fired a very large missile at a large ship and it shot the missile as soon as I fired it. Kinda funny in a sick and twisted sort of way...
Back on the topic of upgrading to a new ship and why it took so long...rewards from missions are slow to ramp up. Keep in mind that there's an entire trading meta game that you can get into that would probably be a good way to start out to improve your earning capacity, but I shoved that off to the side in favor of the pewpew. When you start a new game you can pick a number of different scenarios that determine how you start out the game. I started with one of the combat scenarios which is why I had a medium interceptor and hardly any credits. If you start out with a trader scenario, you get a larger ship and more credits.
So to start out you fly around and do missions and you're seeing rewards like 20k here and 35k there and you think, "Wow, that's a lot!" until you show up at a shipyard and oggle the next ship you want to buy and see (in my case) that it costs 2.4mil. And it's not like I skipped a bunch of tiers of ships. The ship I chose was the first step up that was worth doing.
One option to improve your earnings as a combat pilot is to pick up your police license for whatever faction controls the sectors you work out of. You gain reputation by shooting down enemy ships and completing missions in sectors that faction controls. When you get your police license, you earn a bounty on every enemy ship you shoot down in sectors that faction controls, which you get immediately and independently of any mission rewards. The things is, you don't earn a lot. A small fighter will earn you 500 credits, medium 1000, large 5000. But every little bit helps...
As I got more familiar with the controls and enhanced my space combat pilot kung-fu, I was able to take on tougher missions. There are certain tricks you learn like drawing enemies that would normally melt your face into friendly battlegroups, or patiently waiting for them to engage someone else before you attack so that they don't all turn on you at once. I've had to reload after dying a lot. An awful lot. But eventually you learn and progress until that brilliant moment when you get to step into your shiny new ship...
To give you an idea, I went from one ship with two guns (it could hold four, but the only guns that I could equip cost 330k credits each.) I could use one or two puny types of missiles. Bumping into a small freighter was enough to blow up my ship. A direct hit from a frigate class ship was enough to send me back to the loading screen.
My new ship can hold up to 8 guns in the primary battery and also a tail gun (although it turns fast enough that I can't see the use for a tail gun right now.) Some of the guns available to me are not only better than the one on my first ship, but half the price. So I got 4 of the ones that appealed to me the most, and four smaller guns with a very specific purpose (more on that a little later). I can use all but they very largest of missiles. I have roughly 5 times the shielding that I had on my old ship as well. I can still get blown up quickly but it doesn't happen nearly so often.
One of the things I noticed when I first bought the ship is that after you buy it, you still have to outfit it. I had to fly several sectors away just to find a station that had the main guns I wanted in stock, and another several sectors to find the smaller ones. Then another several sectors to get the shield batteries... Once I was squared away I was eager to try it out in a mission and as soon as it was done, I noticed a friendly fighter with the combat mission icon so I hailed him and he had a special mission for me. By special, I mean the interface was different (more dialogue options), and the pilot had a unique name and voice compared to the generic selection you come across. He wanted me to follow him to a nearby sector and join up with a fleet to drive out some bad guys, so I went with him. When we got there, the bad guys we were after weren't there but another fleet of bad guys were so the mission updated to clear those out. This is the part where I died a lot trying to learn how to make the best use of my new ship. The enemy fighters weren't bad...it was the capital ship that had me reloading several times.
The best part, though, was when I lobbed a couple of banshee missiles at it and it went boom. 400k credits appended to my mission reward, and I don't even know what I got for the bounty. That mission alone paid out over 1.1mil credits. That was pretty neat.
So then I decided that I had a decent ship and it was time to extend my influence and start working towards my police license with other factions. Off I went on a tour of the known universe, stopping to do combat missions wherever I could find them and messing around to see what I could do with my smaller guns. I read a tip that suggested that if you want to force enemy pilots to eject so that you can capture their ship, one of the best ways to do so is to burst down their shields as fast as you can and then switch to smaller guns and whittle away at their hull. You don't want have a stream of projectiles already on their way to the target that will destroy the ship after the pilot announces that they're ejecting. I was having decent success with this, though most of the ships I was claiming were of the small/medium fighter variety.
Then I picked up a mission to protect a station. These are fairly common and are one of my favorite kinds of missions because the enemy ships tend to focus on the station and you can just fly around and pick them off. What I wasn't expecting was the bomber-class frigate that came through the gate as part of the enemy fleet. Here's the thing with big ships and missions like that: if you fly around picking off the little ships and then the big one blows you up, you just wasted a ton of time for nothing. So I decided to ignore the small ships and just go after the big guy. I linked all four of my main guns and swung around behind him...pewpewpew...his shields are gone and...he ejects. And there, sitting adrift in the emptiness of space was my first "bigger than any fighter" ship. According to the wiki, it's worth just over 5mil...
Okay, okay, enough with the silly stories. Aside from hitting the jackpot with a big honkin' ship, there was something that was kind of bothering me about the game and that's the fact that it was listed on Steam as a strategy game. Something that's very easy to overlook when you're flying around in a single ship is that there is a rather powerful scripting engine built into the game that allows you to issue commands to ships that you own even if you're not flying them personally. For example, when I capture an enemy ship, I fly up to it and eject from my ship (necessary to use the "Claim" command that transfers ownership to you) to claim my new prize. Now Ive got two ships floating in space. Instead of having to spend a lot of time flying around in my space suit, I can just hop back into my main ship and then tell my new ship to dock at whatever station I want. It will fly off on auto-pilot and as long as it doesn't get attacked it will go where I told it to go and dock.
It goes way beyond that, though. You can send ships across sectors. You can form multiple ships up into a wing and order them around. You can order them to protect you, attack a specific target, whatever. With the appropriate upgrades, you can tell them to patrol or explore. You can set up automated mining operations with a fleet of ships gathering ore and a hauler moving between them and grabbing that ore and taking it from them and then hauling it to a station to sell...all fully automated. You can even set up trade ships that will scan sectors for commodities you choose, find the lowest sell price, fly to the station and buy it, and then haul it to the station with the highest buy price. Again, fully automated.
I've now captured a total of 17 enemy ships. I was originally going to sell them until I realized I can repair them, outfit them, and send them off to the far corners of the universe to do a variety of different things. Once you get enough ships doing enough different things, all of a sudden you spend less time playing from the point of view of a space shooter and more playing through the sector map and station menus.
And then once the credits start flowing in, I can look into assembling a fleet of my own. Instead of flying a fighter, I'll be able to fly a capital ship, with wings of destroyers and bombers and carriers launching wings of fighters and...
Who knew I'd get so much from a $20 game?