Some recent posts got me thinking about current game balance for the different races in 1.12. I have noticed many new players with general questions and most of the older players are more focused on debating fine points of the game, so I decided to do this overview for the newer population of players.
First, I think 1.12 is incredibly balanced between each race...and though I know many people complain carriers are overpowered (and they are slightly), the reason the game is so balanced currently is because carriers are pretty equally overpowered for everybody, while in the past one race always had a decisive advantage. For example, in 1.05, nobody had a good counter for massed Advent Illuminator and Repulsion, and nobody had a good answer for the Vasari Subverter or Returning Armada. TEC was pretty screwed in 1.05. Subverters and RA has been fixed, and while Illuminators are still plenty nasty, carriers are nasty too, and everyone has em, and fighters are a hard counter for Illuminators / LRFs. (You HAVE to MICROMANAGE them with the ALT key to target the Illuminators and not chase other strikecraft.)
That said, I think the Races do have different stages of the game where they excel, and I've detailed an overview of what I think some of those advantages are and what each race should be focusing on at each stage. This is specifically for MULTIPLAYER, and it is more for beginners -- experienced players should know most of this, or at least know enough to disagree with me. It is also a starting point....to give people ideas how to improve their game by telling them what to look into...I can't go into every strategy or mechanic in depth, thought I'm sure it will result in healthy discussion that could possibly prove enlightening.
The other thing that is worth mentioning is that skill trumps everything. You might do all the right things and be using the right counters, but your opponent is just playing faster and more efficiently than you, with better micro-management, and you'll lose. Sins is actually pretty forgiving in not requiring as much twitch, but the games are also longer, so someone who is faster has a small advantage that compounds over time. 30 minutes of more efficient playing has an advantage that breaks any rule...but assuming skill levels are very similiar, here is my assessment:
Early Game (roughly 1-2 labs)
Vasari are definately the most dangerous in the first stages of the game, and not by a little.
They have powerful capital ships that excel at 1v1 encounters...chiefly the Evacuator/Egg, which is both excellent at rapid expansion as well as winning 1v1 cap ship fights against unsupported enemy caps with the Nano bomb.
The Assailant also gives a distinct edge. Make no mistake, without upgrades, this is the crappiest of the LRF's FOR THE COST, but you can have it out almost immediately with 1 military lab and they have twice the firepower of a Skirmisher, so there is almost no reason to build Skirmishers early game unless someone is using scouts on you. The money you would have spent on basic frigs thereby buys you more firepower. This aids in rapid expansion, or if you are near an enemy you can be knocking on their door while they still have basic frigs.
Finally, the biggest factor is the Neutral Extractor advantage....Vasari scouts are turbo-charging the startup Vasari war machine by grabbing all the neutral extractors that are out of reach to the other races. On a map with no neutrals, Vasari have only a slight early advantage, and that is only when they are close enough to rush you.
Advent get my vote for 2nd place.
They have good early game capital ship options, and their caps also have powerful fleet supporting abilities to boot. The Progen is an excellent expander that gives an economic boost through discounted planet upgrades, which is where a chunk of your money is going at this stage. With Shield Recharge it is also very hard to be killed by most other cap ships, with a couple exceptions, chiefly the Egg, Kortul, or another Advent's Radiance -- and it keeps your frigates alive to boot. The Radiance is a good capital ship killer with its Antimatter burn.
Counters!! You don't have your workhorse ships out yet, BUT you are good at countering everyone else if you are forced (many Advent don't realize this). You have the toughest Scout in the game, which is very effective at fighting off enemy LRF FOR THE COST (hint: make 3 scouts per Assailant / LRM). Your Disciples are 20% cheaper than cobalts and not much weaker -- perfect for fighting off enemy scouts. Other than making a handful to support your expansion, you don't normally want too many Disciples, but remember they are a good cheap counter when needed. You can deploy Carriers before everyone else and they are extremely powerful and critical to fight off other players LRF/Assailant rushes, however they are too expensive to have enough to go on offense just yet.
Since a strong Advent is so reliant on their midgame ships, they are probably going military, but assuming they are in a totally safe position, it isn't too hard to get culture started and reach for tradeports to get a economic advantage for midgame.
TEC are very much last.
TEC has a hard choice of which capital to pick. The Akkan colony cap is good for expansion, but not as good as other colony caps (unless you just happen to love Armistice hijinks late game). The Kol and Marza are solid choices, but only the Marza can hold its own against other capital killers like an early Kortul, Evacuator, or Radiance, which is very important in early game fights. Sova is very powerful if you know you can rush Embargo, but not otherwise.
You can have LRM's out fairly quickly, especially if you forgo Infrastructure level 4 on your Homeworld, and they are definately a good early game workhorse, but they are also easily killed, either by enemy caps or counters, and require a fair amount of attention. Still, they are cheap, and provide needed firepower in mass. You can also use your Scouts and Cobalts as counters if you need to, but like Advent, you otherwise don't want to build more than you need for early scouting and expansion.
Yes, you can have trade up faster than anyone else, but it still takes about 15 minutes to start reaping an advantage from a tradeport. In fact, the temptation to build trade is the kiss of death for many beginners who are waiting for returns on their economic investment when suddenly the first wave of attackers arrives to burn the tradeports down. Make sure you are safe before you invest in trade, because the only other advantage you have at this stage of the game is cheap LRMs, and they are mediocre at best.
Mid-Game (roughly 3-6 labs)
I am probably going to catch a lot of flak for this...
TEC are most competitive midgame if you know what you are doing....
Yes, your warships are generally inferior....but you have more of them, and you have cheaply upgraded the armor and structure on them. Cheap masses of LRM's and soon the relatively cheap and hard to kill Kodiaks start rolling off the line. Your bane is the dreaded Illuminator, but you don't let those near your LRM's..you kill them with carrier based fighters. And your ace in the hole.....
HOSHIKOS! Probably a good 20-25% of your fleet should be made up of these dirt cheap, repair spamming, invaluable support cruisers. They keep your hordes of craptastic ships alive, prevent your gravwell circling carriers from having to retreat when damaged, and protect your reasonably hard to kill capitals while they continue to level up. While micro helps, Hoshikos don't even need it much, you just group packs of them in the fleets of ships you expect to be taking fire, and have a few escort your capitals. Are they shooting at your Hoshiko's? Good...that means they aren't shooting at your caps or squishy LRMs! Besides, they repair each other too, and you were making more anyhow.
Finally, you are probably going to get a strong econ up sooner than most other players. You are most likely to be able to get it going even if you have been doing some fighting. If you had the luxury of going all out econ and building tradeports early game, your economy makes you a force to be reckoned with right now.
Advent are VERY close behind TEC...
You have deployed your powerful midgame arsenal. Illuminators backed by Iconus Guardians and Drone Hosts make you an extremely tough opponent. With proper micro, Illuminators destroy other LRFs by moving into their lines where they can also employ their side strafing turrets. You still have to pick your battles...your ships are expensive, and while Guardians and a Progen in fleet increase your survivability immensely, you have to fight smart to minimize your losses and watch out for counters (or Assailants that are headhunting for your Progen with phase missiles). Your carriers are the best in the game, and while hard to kill, they are expensive enough to make you wince whenever you lose one at this stage. Disciples with drain antimatter can be an invaluable counter, but they often die fast unless the enemy has no LRF / HC's. Destras have great firepower and are not too expensive...assuming you even need them.
You have to make a choice, do you start building capitals for more of the powerful Advent synergies, or invest in more fleet to exploit a weak opponent's vulnerabilities now. Each of your capital ships adds nasty abilities to your arsenal and amplifies the power and survivability of your fleet, but they are expensive to build and level up.
It is not too hard to get a good economy going with Advent, given half a chance. As a further perk, with research and upgrades to your Progen's colonization ability, you can start to explore new planets for reduced cost, or free with level 3 colonization on your Progen. (The only race where it becomes economically worthwhile to actually explore your worlds.)
Vasari fall behind in midgame.....any advantage you have in mid-game as the Vasari is purely an extension of advantages you are coasting on from the Early game. Make no mistake, if you DIDN'T SECURE an early game advantage, you could have a very tough game on your hands. You may in fact be in great shape because you rapidly expanded with the Evacuator and assailants, or no one is countering you for neutral extractors, or maybe you even crushed a neighboring opponent early and are taking over his worlds. For people who maximized early game, you now and have a moment to catch your breath....this is how a lot of good Vasari players survive-- we use our considerable early game advantages to grab a GREAT head start, and that gets us through mid-game quite nicely.....but otherwise...
Yes, Vasari have some mean 1v1 caps, but this advantage is much less clear when fighting lots of other ships. Most Vasari ships are not that hard to kill with focus fire. Overseers are great ships for keeping caps alive if microed and managed properly, but they are also higher in the tech tree and much more expensive than Hoshikos...but again, they need micro for best results since they are directional. Most players don't even get around to building them because it is so critical to field enough fighting ships.
Yes, you have the vaunted phase missile, and while it is very powerful against Advent, it is also pretty effective against TEC too, since the missiles bypassing mitigation hit for full damage. Yes, they kill caps very effectively (except the Kol). But anyone who has had their capital chased down by a pack of Illuminators or wandered too far into the gravwell near a horde of LRM knows that other LRFs are pretty good at focusing capitals to death too. The truth is Assailants need phase missiles to be competive. Even with phase missiles, they get killed by equal numbers of baseline Illuminators. Without phase missiles, they are like a hard to kill LRM for 50% more cost. And while the Enforcer HC is extremely tough, it is also priced accordingly, so it actually has the least firepower FOR THE COST of the HCs.
If your enemies are smart, they have cut you off from the neutral extractors in their territory by now. While your ships are all respectably tough, they are also more expensive. If you were an unlucky Vasari and didn't even get neutrals to begin with, things are especially tight and it will take all your wits to survive. Unless you can attain victory now through force of military, you must plan for the future and get your economy going, and it is the hardest to get kickstarted while under pressure from an enemy. You have to make hard choices about whether to go for your powerful, but expensive, support ships on the military tree....or try and divert funds to build a phase gate network so your inevitably smaller fleet can move rapidly to reinforce worlds against your enemies. The Vasari has powerful tools to keep them competitive late game, but but they have to spend mid-game bridging the gap. Unless they had a large early game headstart, Vasari can not reasonably expect to outbuild their opponents fleets, which rapidly become more dangerous through either force of numbers and cheap repair(TEC), or firepower and shield regeneration(Advent).
Balance is so close now, it comes down to player skill -- no race is significantly better. Skilled players surviving this long will be using the best options their race has available to them and will be trying to build out their fleets to best counter the strategy they think their opponent will be using. So I'm going to pick an order of who is toughest to fight and talk about some of those advantages, but I want to stress, it is very close between the races as a whole.
Anyone who has seen the dreaded battleball in action knows how hard it is to fight a late game Advent fleet controlled by a skilled player with great micro. Expect to see at least 5 or 6 capitals in the middle, surrounded by Illuminators, Guardians, carriers, and maybe some Destras and Dominas for spice. Depending on what enemy is being faced, the caps may differ a bit, but with two (or more!) Progens restoring shields, Halcyons providing strikecraft cover and boosting damage, Radiance / Rapture doing a Vengeance combo, and Revelation countering other capitals (like Marza) and eventually eating worlds with Hysteria, this fleet can handle just about any condition it faces -- as long as you remember to tailor it a little bit depending on your enemy fleets lineup.
Advent fleets have to be careful of phase missiles knocking out a cap or two, but this is why it keeps fighter cover and uses tons of Illuminators. You will not want to wander deep into a gravwell near too many assailants, instead pick them apart from the edge and engage with your Illuminators, and run your capitals if threatened. While it is possible for them to get a capital now and then, you should be able to inflict tons of losses on the enemy, possibly with a well timed Vengeance. You then use your level 6 Progen to promote a newly built cap to the level of the lost one. I did mention, 2 Progens are handy...especially if one is spamming shield restore and the other is spamming Malice.
You can pretty much take TEC head on, though you have to be careful of Dunov's EMP. Add Disciples with antimatter drain to the mix, make sure they stay under the Guardian umbrella, and sic them on the Hoshiko's when the battleball engages...that combined with withering firepower and powerful cap ship synergies should overwhelm the enemy repair capabilities.
The Advent economy is fairly strong, just keep building tradeports with the money you save by not losing as many ships as your opponent. Use your powerful culture to pressure neighboring enemies, hurt their economies, and give your fleet a culture advantage when it does attack...not to mention free vision in worlds where you have a culture advantage. Any good opponent will act to counter your culture...if you give them that chance.
While holding off the enemy you have researched up to Pervasive Economy and Industrial Juggernaught. You have also researched the tech for additional logistics slots and built an extra tradeport everywhere. Your economic advantage is now clear, and you build 3 or more frigate factories on worlds near the front line and churn out an endless number of your cheaper, yet sturdy ships, remembering to build lots of fully upgraded Hoshiko's. Cielos are also handy for focusing enemy caps, with some micro.
A high level Marza can tip a battle in your favor with the level 6 barrage ability, just be careful not to lose it, it is also extremely valuable for razing worlds. Kols are very hard to kill, and provide excellent anti-strikecraft support with Flak Burst...so try to position them where enemy strikecraft are targetting your fleet.
Probably the hardest thing to fight is an Advent battleball.....so don't fight it head on if it is too big. If you are feeling lucky and have superior numbers, you can fight it with massed Kodiaks, backed by repair, Dunov EMP, and a lurking Marza, otherwise pick it to pieces with massed carriers, make them fight you near your superior repair bays, and maybe open up another front somewhere with a smaller fleet. Advent generally doesn't like to split fleets, while most of what you have is expendable as long as it can cause its share of damage before it dies. Meanwhile you build Phase Jump Inhibitors everywhere (PJI) to slow down the enemy progress and rebuild anything they destroy somewhere else...your economy can take losses...can theirs?
If the enemy digs in on defense and you have a hard time making headway, make a few big space cannons and start shooting worlds out from under them. Time is now on your side.
Vasari that either dominated early game, or planned carefully in middle game, will survive to reap the rewards at end game. While your economy is weaker, you have a phase gate network up so you can rapidly move your ships around, and since you have a phase gate network in place, you have researched Returning Armada. RA is being backed by your economy, and suddenly you are getting deep discounts (I've heard about 40%, though I haven't tried to work it out myself) on carriers and Enforcer HC's, with some skirmishers, sentinels (flak), and assailants thrown in for good measure. It pays for itself very quickly, because at this stage of the game, you need a lot of ships. You use the money you save to afford to buy plenty of your excellent Subverters, or some additional capitals backed by plenty of Overseers to keep them alive. While some people say 1.12 RA is junk, I disagree. Early game RA rushing is junk, but the longer the game goes on, the more important RA becomes to regain ground against the TEC players economy, or to replace attrition caused by an Advent late game fleet.
The Evacuator is now capable of sucking up non-fortified worlds in seconds, not minutes, giving you a big econ boost in the process. This is no longer a fighting ship, it is too easily killed by a fleet, instead you use it boost your economy by draining enemy worlds as much as possible, killing and colonizing them if you can. The Kortul becomes a powerhouse, and is great at fighting caps, but you still have to watch out for focus fire which can kill any ship easily at this stage of the game.
Without a strong anti-fighter ability, you have more trouble than others in dealing with Strikecraft. The Kortul can jam strikecraft weapons, and Micro-phasing auro on Skirantras gives your strikecraft an edge, but it is generally inferior to enemy strikecraft counters (Halcyons, Kols, and Dunovs). You can also group a Skirantra cap carrier with your carrier group and use its repair aura to keep the carriers AND any strikecraft in range repaired.
If you get the enemy on the defensive, but you need that little something extra, build your Kostura cannon...or three. Fire them at worlds you attack, but stagger the shots by a little bit. The defenses and repair bays will become useless during your invasion, but the staggered shots will each damage and briefly stun enemy ships in the gravwell, giving you a big head start at crushing the critical ships in the defensive line up. (Hoshiko's...Guardians...enemy capitals...)
So hopefully the newer players find this analysis helpful and are encouraged to get online and do some Multiplayer. The great thing about the current balance is that each person can generally find a race that suits their playstyle....whether it is a more aggressive player (Vasari), a perfectionistic micro manager (Advent), or someone who prefers to play a late-blooming industrial juggernaught (TEC).
1/30/09 Corrected Statement that early game Marza could not hold its own against other anti-capital capital ships. This perception was based on my favoring Raze Planet over other builds.