Although railguns were designed by the Caldari, they're hybrid weapons just like blasters, and so they are the long-range weapon of choice for Gallente sniping and mission-running ships. They have good range and tracking speed but have always suffered from slightly worse damage output and alpha strike than beam lasers and artillery cannons of the same size. Countless suggestions for fixes to blasters and railguns have appeared on the forum over the years, but until now they've remained unchanged. As a Gallente pilot and avid Thorax and Dominix fan, I'm very excited by the hybrid balance changes coming this winter.
In this week's EVE Evolved, I take a break from the new player experience experiment to take a look at the impact of the upcoming hybrid balance patch and why the announced changes are needed.
The problem with blasters
Part of the reason I think we haven't seen a blaster buff over the years is that on paper it looks like there's nothing wrong. If you put together a graph showing how turret damage decreases as a measure of distance and compare blasters to autocannons and pulse lasers, blasters could be considered competitive. At point-blank range, they deal more damage than any other turret, and though that damage falls off quickly beyond the turret's optimal range, that trade-off could be seen as worthwhile. Unfortunately, as much as we often joke about EVE being the world's biggest interactive spreadsheet, real battles don't take place on graphs.
Combat in EVE happens on scales as small as one-on-one fights and as large as thousand-player territorial wars, and the terms of engagement change the further up that scale you go. Pirates picking targets carefully can make full use of blasters by warping directly on top of a surprised pilot, and in small-scale skirmishes, the extra few seconds it takes to close into optimal range won't usually make a huge difference. When you start to get dozens or even hundreds of players involved, however, the ability to focus fire immediately on one target is essential and called targets tend to die very quickly. Taking a few more seconds to get in range of a target after having locked him is completely unacceptable in a fight of that scale.
The blaster fix
Rather than homogenising turret types by giving blasters a larger optimal range, huge falloff or better long-range ammo, CCP seems to be aiming to keep blasters as the top damage-dealing turret in the game if you can get close enough to use them. The increased damage of blaster-based ships over autocannon or pulse laser ships was always meant to be balanced out by the additional difficulty of getting in range, but right now the damage isn't high enough to make using blasters worth it in all but the smallest-scale fights.
This seems to be where the majority of the balancing effort is focused, by helping the ship to get into range faster and increasing the maximum damage obtainable once you get there. When the patch hits, all blasters will have their CPU and powergrid requirements decreased, which should allow most setups to swap a few electron blasters for ion blasters or a few ion blasters for neutron blasters. This will increase damage, optimal range, falloff and alpha strike across the board. A massive 20% increase to tracking speed corrects for the lower tracking speed of ion and neutron blasters and should help blaster ships hit targets more easily once they've closed in to point blank range.
Railguns have always suffered from a low base damage, having neither the alpha strike potential of artillery nor the sustained damage output of beam lasers. The Gallente Megathron has trouble getting its range high enough to snipe without having to hit targets beyond optimal range for reduced damage. The Caldari Rokh, in comparison, can easily reach the 250km optimal range mark but has no damage bonus. As a result, in a mixed sniping fleet of Rokhs, Apocalypses, Megathrons and Tempests, the railgun-toting Megathrons and Rokhs will be dealing less damage than their Minmatar and Amarr counterparts.
CCP plans to increase all railgun damage by a straight 10% to compensate, which should be enough to put all long-range weapon systems on equal footing. As they were designed to be used on Caldari ships, railguns have horrendously large CPU requirements but low powergrid usage. This has been both a blessing and a curse for Gallente pilots, as the extra powergrid allows us to fit some buffer tank to ships, but the CPU requirements make most setups a very tight fit. In active-tanking setups like the popular mission-running Dominix, the extra powergrid is also eaten up by armour repairers, and we've had to compromise by fitting smaller 350mm railguns instead of 425mms. Railguns will be getting the same CPU and powergrid reduction as blasters, which should help us fit a full rack of railguns without sacrificing much tank.
A matter of speed
Ships that are primarily used as blaster boats will be getting speed increases and inertia decreases to help them get into range faster. Speed has typically always been associated with Minmatar autocannon ships, which actually have a much smaller optimal range than blasters. However, the huge falloff range and zero capacitor usage of autocannons makes them a much more forgiving weapon for pilots fighting outside optimal range. While a Stabber pilot can rig his ship for increased falloff and then fight outside web range, for example, Gallente blaster ships don't really have that option and have to get dangerously close to the target.
An acceleration increase was certainly needed to help blaster ships close the gap with a target and help railgun ships dictate the range of engagement. Rather than decreasing the mass of ships that use hybrids, CCP has opted to modify the ships' inertia modifier directly. This will reduce the effect of not only the ship's base mass on acceleration but also the mass of any armour plates fitted. This is a big deal for Gallente ships, which typically use an armour buffer tank for PvP.
The new tier 3 battlecruisers will be able to fit large turrets, and after these balance changes, I have the feeling that the Gallente Talos and Caldari Naga will be absolute monsters in PvP. Both ships will be able to fit large railguns to snipe at distances no other battlecruiser can or fit blasters to dish out some close-range pain.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.