Hello! I've been playing this game for quite a long time, always trying to figure out the best way to order my wingmen to ensure maximal chance of success in my missions. I usually play in Insane difficulty, meaning this aspect is very important if I want to have a chance of ensuring the success of the mission.
While some missions have "already assigned" orders, most often it's quite suboptimal and will lead to either unefficiency, or wingmen premature death.
First off, what I'm writing all comes from in-game observations. I'm no FREDder, so I wouldn't be able to assess the 100% certainty of what I say. But I believe it to be at least a good approximation of how the AI works.Dogfighting in Freespace
A dogfight in Freespace has two major phases: closing in, and then the actual dogfight.Close in phase
During this phase you and your opponent stand face to face, but no one is yet in range. During this close-up phase, missiles are launched, and a phase of "dodge missile + retaliate" comes. During this phase, the range of the weapon is very important, but also the amount of gun points you have. The more gun points you have, the more you will be able to shred your opponent to pieces before it can even retaliate.
The missile banks also comes in handy, since missiles can force an opponent to dodge it, buying you more time to get closer to him and/or gunning him.
I have found Heavy Fighters are best at it - they can sustain some damage, but most importantly if they land all their shots, good chances are that the enemy will die before even entering the dogfight phase.
However, during this phase, you are quite vulnerable to attacks from other fighters. Typically, if another enemy fighter takes you in sandwich while you're closing on the other enemy fighter, and they end up both attacking you, you will have a very tough time since you will be in "dogfight" mode against the first ship, and will also have to avoid all the shots from the second ship who is in "close in" phase against you.Dogfight phase
This phase happens when both ships are close enough that neither of them have a clear shot on one. It's basically a game of "who will turns the fastest" to point the gun towards the enemy.
As a player against retail AI, this phase is very easy if you set your throttle to 0, the enemy AI will just circle around you. But your friendly AIs do not know that, so they'll end up turning at full speed too.
During this phase, the ship with the most manoeuverability prevails, and will always get to be behind the other ship ; in a 1v1 situation, manoeuverability wins. In a 1v2+ situation, the more manoeuverability you have, the longer you will survive the fight.The different possible orders in Freespace1 : destroy target
The pros : in engage phase, ships engage their afterburner, so they actually close in much faster on their target. But they tend to have blindfold and forget those who attack them until they're actually in danger. C-3-1 each ship one by one isn't a good idea because of this, and you will most likely end up with our squad taking unnecessary losses. It also diverts them from any other task (such as a Protect my Target), so it should be used only in specific situations.
I believe that once the target is destroyed, they go back to whatever task they had before, but I wouldn't put my hand on it.
I use Destroy Target when i want a wing to close on a target. As a player, you dynamically redirect energy to your Engine to be faster, and also use afterburner to get closer. AIs don't do that, and if you just order them to follow you, they won't engage their afterburner to follow. So the Destroy Target is a good way of forcing them to go faster, which can be critical in defense missions.2 & 3 : disable/disarm target
Disable target is very very specific, and I've never really used it in the context of a fight where Command doesn't order you to disable a target. It forces the ships to get close to the engine before attacking them - which can be hampered by turret fire, and all in all I think it's not that effective if turrets aren't disabled first.
In the Taranis capture mission on FS1, I tend to first order them to disable the Taranis since you really want to cut your losses.
Disarm target is actually a very effective tactic ; as a player, targetting turrets is a real chore, but AIs are just very good at it, since they will attack which ever turret is close to them. If a big cruiser is swarmed, he can get mostly disabled in a minute. But that's only good for big ones like the SD Demon ; for small ones, you can just destroy them once they're swarmed.
I recommend to take out all fighter escort (or drastically reduce their number) before attacking a ship of class Cruiser or bigger. You really want to keep your forces alive ; unless you have heavy time constraint, but in most of the missions the window is large enough.4 : destroy subsystem
From what I've seen, this tactic is only effective if the ships are already close to the subsystem. If you want to do a surgical strike against a particular component of a vessel, it's not a bad idea to first regroup them with a 7, lead them to the subsystem, and then ordering the strike. As for the other situations, do it only if the area is clear or almost clear of enemy fighters.5 : protect target
This might be the order the most used in all missions. The good thing is that it's completely autonomous, and it forces the wingmen to stick together (they won't chase an enemy that is 5000 m away). It also makes them target asteroids and enemy bombs, which is incredibly useful, since it's hard to do so as a player. However, sometimes you'd like them to start striking sooner.. I think they engage only within 2000m of the protected ship, which is just too short of a distance.
Note that even though it forces them to stay under the "friendly cruiser protection", it also makes them privilege bombers over fighters ; if no one takes care of the fighters, they can lose a significant advantage and start taking losses.6 : ignore my target
I don't think I would be able to play Freespace on Insane without that one. You really don't want your wingmen to start attacking a big cruiser before all the enemy fighters are first defeated ; this command ensures that they won't until you order them to.
Usually at the start of each mission I just target all ships of type cruiser or bigger, and C-3-6 them all. Yes, I do this even for the bombers. If they head straight on for the big ship, they will die like flies ; better ensure they defend themselves as best as possible against the enemy fighters, before they start dumping their bombs against the cruiser. Bombers might not be that great against fighters, but the occasional 1.5v1 can really turn the tide of the dogfights.
Obviously each bomber should have anti-fighter missiles, too. The only exception for this is for very long range weapons like Maxim - it's best if the bombers attack the target as soon as possible while closing in in that situation.7 : form on my wing
I love that one. When you finish the mission and order them to leave, it's really cool when they're also in formation under your wing. It also makes you feel badass when you turn the external view on.
But other than that, it allows you to get them close to you, and regroup them. It can be good to do this right before an assault. Don't ever do this while they're dogfighting though - they are really suicidal when you order them this command, and won't replicate against enemy fire.
This command is an absolute must have in the FS2 mission where you have to take out the enemy fighters out of the beam range.8 : cover me
This is a loosened 7 basically.
The ships will stick with you at all time. It's really great to make sure you all stay in one place, and no one gets clicks away from you.
They will attack the ships you attack. Will attack those that attack you. Absolutely awesome when you want to take out a specific bomber wing, and you want them to focus on whoever you attack.
However, the big con is that they tend to not retaliate against other fighters until they're attacked. It's best to give this order to ships with high manoeuverability, otherwise you will suffer too big losses.9 : engage them all
In terms of survivability, this is the command that is the best one. They engage whoever is best to engage, and will engage enemy fighters in priority. However they tend to scatter that way, if an enemy is clicks away they will go towards him.
As long as you keep an eye on that, it's a great command that will ensure most of your fighters will stay alive.The strats
It's all good to be able to command your ships, but there's a couple of things you should be aware of.
You're a human, not an AI. As such, you can only be focused in only a handful of tasks at a time. It would be nice to just stand there and order them like in a RTS, but in practice the game needs you and your firepower ; the orders should take you no more than a couple of seconds to perform, you must absolutely give a hand in the battles.
I tend to view the orders into two categories : the "fire & forget" ones that you set up once and then you're done ; and the "active" ones that you have to monitor often.
Fire & forget : Protect my target
Active ones : everything else
You can issue Protect my Target orders to several wings independently ; once it's done, it's all set up and it's one less worry. For everything else, if you C-2-.. them, it's gonna be really painful to keep track of them all and still be efficient.
In the case of a defensive mission (multiple targets to protect - perhaps the most complex type of missions), by favorite tactic is the following :
One wing of heavy fighters stays in "protect my target". Heavy Fighters have great firepower, they can take out whatever comes at them quickly, until they get swarmed. One wing per target to protect is not necessarily best though - consider reordering their to-be-protected fellows dynamically as the battle changes its pace.
I like to keep another wing at my disposal ; I will command very actively this wing, 1 to go fast, 8 once i've reached the target so that they focus on the same targets as i. Usually i take a wing of highly manoeuverable and fast fighters so they can keep up. The interception task is the most complex one to perform, so it's best if it's you + a wing commanded by you that does it. This way, the protecting heavy fighters will have fewer foes to deal with, and it will be much easier for them to defend. Also, since you're split between those defending and those intercepting, you're sure the fort stays defended in case something unexpected happens.
If you had ordered all your wingmen to defend, you wouldn't be able to do any interception reliably, and would end up taking bomb damage because the time frame to take the bombers down would be too short before they throw their bombs. The risk of getting overwhelmed is then higher. By intercepting, you actually increase the time window to take them down, and get less of them at a time = less overwhelming.
If a biggie comes, C-3-6 him ASAP ; once bomber/fighter threat is handled, C-3-1 him (or C-3-3 if he's too big), and then resume your previous orders. Bomber threat can be dealt with a lot quicker than the biggie threat ; and as long as there are still fighters around, you won't be able to take him down easily. So first things first - fighters/bombers, and only then the biggie.
If the mission is an offensive ones, the principle is the same, but here you can command all wings at once if you want to (since there's no need to protect anyone). There's nothing to intercept, so C-3-8 isn't that useful and will endanger your mates. Combinations of C-3-7 to gather and C-3-9 is definitely the way to go here, after having C-3-6 all big vessels. Then you order their destruction one by one. Easy.
Some missions will require you to experiment a bit more with the orders. Typically, the first mission of ST:R is an absolute nightmare to handle due to the time constraint, in addition to being short on resources. The final advice I can give is that if you absolutely struggle with a mission despite trying your best both in spacefight and in orders, it might not be your fault, and maybe the mission isn't balanced for Insane. Don't be afraid to tone the difficulty down and move on to the next if that happens. Determining ship/weapon loadout
Nature of ships : it depends on the mission. Heavy fighters are very good at C-3-9 and C-3-5 since they'll be the one engaging, they have way more firepower, but die if they're overwhelmed. If you have the numbers, they're a very good choice ; manoeuverable fighters are very good for C-3-8 and survive really well. If you don't have the numbers, they might be a better choice than Heavy Fighters since it will buy you more time to take down the enemies by yourself.
Weapons : the AI is very very bad at determining which primary weapon to fire. One would think "ok he's gonna fire the shield-breaker first, and then a hull-based weapon". Nope, que nenni. It's just going to fire both no matter what. If you equip them with Disruptor, it's even going to use them in battle, effectively halving the DPS they would normally have! Leave situational weapons for yourself, and equip them with whatever gives the best DPS per energy (or just straight out better DPS if fights are short).
One would think "but if i equip them with only one primary weapon they'll just use that one", but it's not true. The game always assigns a default weapon to empty banks, because the more the better, right ?
Believe me, you'd better have them have a Prometheus rather than a ML-16 mounted as primary bank.
Personally, I've always found that double Avenger or double Prometheus is better than Prometheus + Banshee. But I might be wrong on that one, I lack the precise numbers.
They are however smart for the missile banks (they won't launch Cyclops at fighters), so you can equip them with different missiles types if you want. Final words
What I said is beneficial in most of the missions - but keep in mind that some fan-made missions out there have specific goals in mind for the AI, and if you override them, it will only lead the mission to failure. I would have to replay it, but iirc a couple of missions in Blue Planet are so heavily scripted that if you change any order, you're almost guaranteed to lose the scenario. A good habit to have is to rapidly check out your wingmates order when you start the mission (usually F5, F6 etc.. Press F2 for more info and/or to reassign the hotkeys). If you see that a wing has very precise orders, it might not be a good idea to order it around.
Hopefully you enjoyed the read
It's very probable that most of you already knows all this.. But maybe it will be of some help for beginners, or those that didn't play that much with orders, and stick with the base mission settings.
I'm open to all critics, and I'd be glad to read your experience about ordering the AI around. Personally, I think this part of Freespace is surely what makes it stand out from all the other space titles out there.