Exploring the viability of XL400 — Banshee edition

Back to the old trusty
About three weeks ago, I was happily streaming and hopping from one 'Mech to another like I usually do when I'm not grinding a specific chassis. Towards the end of the stream, I decided it's time I brought my walking fortresses out of hibernation and started playing with my Banshees. I was talking about how I loved using bigger STD engines in my Banshees when a viewer(Sproiet) jokingly suggested that I put a STD400 in it.

Now, everyone with some MWO experience knows that it's a silly idea. Weighing at 59.5 tons and almost as much as a heavy 'Mech, it's one of the worst things you can do to handicap yourself. However, when it comes to stuff regarded as silly, I try not to form an opinion without trying it out. All I knew was that my Banshees performed the better the faster they were, and that I had absolutely zero experience with "silly" STD/XL400 assaults. In the end, that suggestion actually made me curious.

Living on the edge
I immediately hopped into smurfy's Mechlab and checked tonnages. With decent armor, Endo and Ferro, the 3M has 15 tons left for equipment. To put it into context, a STD300 engine BNC has 47.5 tons and a relatively speedy STD325 version has 42 tons left for weapons with the same amount of armor, still a scary amount. Banshees have a lot of hardpoints so they absolutely need this tonnage to make use of those. Even so, science needed to be made and I cobbled together a STD400 BNC-3M build and hit the launch button.

The first thing you notice is the increased torso responsiveness. If your Banshee is elited, I'd say it feels on-par with an XL300 Shadowhawk. The second thing you notice is the ludicrous speed, at 75KPH this is as fast as you can get with 13 tons of armor. The turning radius is still a problem though. The third and best thing you notice is the durability gained by this speed. If you read my Banshee review, I'm not a fan of its hitboxes. I believe they're a bit too CT heavy, and that kind of relegates it to a support role and builds that require less "face time". Now, when you stick a 400 engine in a Banshee, suddenly it's very easy to torso twist and spread damage. So much that I could reliably protect my CT and lose side torsos, an incredible feat with a BNC. In addition to torso twisting, I don't know if you know the term "speed tanking" from EVE Online, but it's also a thing in MWO. By going fast, not only you're evading more shots but the damage you receive spreads significantly more. Combine this with the longer duration of Clan weapons in numbers out there and as long as you're on the move, you're less vulnerable than a slow STD Banshee. I played three matches that day and honestly did OK with absurdly undergunned builds.

After this brief run, two things were clear to me; running around in an Assault with almost medium mobility was fun and that there was room for experimentation and improvement.


Humble beginnings

Fast forward a few days, I started having perverted thoughts about the viability of XL400 on the same chassis. XL400 is a still a monstrous engine at 33.5 tons and this means only the heavy end of Assaults can mount them comfortably. However, mixing an XL engine and an Assault chassis is probably an even worse sin than bringing a STD400 in many MechWarriors' eyes. That's true for a good reason too — by equipping an XL engine, you're making your Assault a glass cannon that is easily dealt with. It's a platform that is supposed to be slow, tanky and full of big guns. It's the Alamo that your team hides falls back to when the enemy wave crashes on your frontlines. Many Boar's Head users paid the iron price when they made the mistake of using the stock build. Yet in this case, my thought was "Why not?" Hitboxes dictate what you can or can't do with a 'Mech, and in this case I was convinced that going faster actually gave the Banshee better durability through better torso twisting and the ability to disengage easily — a perk that many Assaults lack.


The real fun begins —the 3M and 3E


After parting with 6.5M of C-Bills, in comes the XL400 and out goes the STD400. The room for equipment jumps to 39 tons with Endo with 27 critical slots to spare, still plenty considering the XL400 comes with 6 internal heatsink slots. 3M stands to gain the most from this since energy weapons don't need many slots to begin with. The first thing I did was to go all out on pulses, something I haven't tried on my Banshees after numerous pulse laser buffs. Here's the result:



21 DHS cooling 2xLPL and 6xMPL and you get to avoid ghost-heat too. That's 57.20 alpha than you can unleash two times before you shutdown or three times with a 9 by 9 coolant flush, enough to heavily cripple assaults or outright kill anything smaller with minimal face time. I had a lot of fun with this build. It's easy to operate too, you just need a very steady aim so that you can dump every bit of that damage on a single component. All you have to do is to twist, alpha, twist, alpha, twist, flush, alpha and you have a kill. It's especially great at coring out rear-CTs of unsuspecting or painfully slow 'Mechs —*ahem* Dire Wolves *ahem*. On the other hand, after you alpha and if there are still enemies standing, the heat becomes very annoying because of the pulses. You'll be presented with the dilemma of either chaining those MPLs and spreading what little damage you do all over the enemy, or wait 3-5 seconds and alpha another 3-4 MPL group, giving your enemy a chance to twist, disengage or outright kill you.

The logical improvement over this build was to remove Endo, replace MPLs with MLs and get two more DHS for an even more alpha-friendly build. The result is probably my favourite Assault laser boat ever. Take a look:
This build runs extremely cool and dishes out a 51.2 damage alpha. It can alpha 3 times without overheating, with a little pause between the second and third one. Heat management is also much easier thanks to the lower heat output of MLs. If you have a steady aim, these two builds above are very efficient killers.



Set phasers to melt!

Next in the line is the infamous BNC-3E. Since we have to bring a ballistic weapon and ammo along with it, 39 tons suddenly doesn't sound too much. Even so, going by the "less is more" philosophy, this build is possible:



Unlike the 3M above, this is an endurance fighter. Its firepower is puny for an Assault, but it's so heat efficient that it can keep firing for a long time while your enemies start to manage their heat. The downside is that the ACs force you to stare at your opponent to apply damage. This is counteracted a bit by the suppression effect of your ACs, constant explosions and bangs force most opponents to torso twist and seek cover. If they're not turning away, then you just core them in a few seconds. This is also the build with the most damage potential just because of the sheer heat efficiency(and range) it has.

My thanks goes to the designers of the new solo queue for making this video possible


Bonus Chapter: Not for the faint-hearted — the 3S


3E and 3M are wonderful with the XL400, yet I had to push the boundaries and continue my XL spree. 3S is an odd 'Mech, which is capped at 345 engine rating to offset its 10 hardpoints. It runs extremely hot with all the hardpoints used(8 of which is energy) and when you start ignoring some of those hardpoints, then you realize maybe a 3E is a better choice after all. The missile hardpoint also goes mostly unused with STD engines, since the usual ballistic and PPC combos used on this 'Mech leave little tonnage for LRMs and a single SRM doesn't make sense. With an XL, can we finally make the 3S the monster it was meant to be?

A total of 5$ was saved
during the design of this pod
Well, I know it's underwhelming after that intro, the short answer is not quite. 3S doesn't feel much improved with an XL345 engine. It still feels slow, and the torso twist and speed is slightly improved, but not enough to reliably protect a specific part. What's worse, the missile hardpoint on the 3S is just atrocious. As soon as you mount something bigger than an LRM 5, a giant missile pod appears on your right shoulder. This LRM 20 sized pod does not change in size even if you equip an LRM 10 instead, just like the Catapult's iconic fixed missile pods. It increases your side and front profile(the BNC actually becomes the tallest mech in MWO with this pod), and even with mild torso twisting this results in your RT getting easily cored. So, LRM usage is still restricted with an XL engine.

Another concern is the utilization of its single ballistic slot. This being an Assault 'Mech, you naturally gravitate towards heavier heavier ACs. With an XL, AC20 can not be mounted and the only alternatives are the medicore AC10 and the Gauss. 3E can get away with using dual ballistics, but unfortunately 3S can not. AC10 is pretty much a brawler weapon and doesn't have its old synergy with PPCs. Gauss on the other hand, has excellent synergy with PPCs but is simply too dangerous to mount on an Assault with XL engine.

With these in mind, can we still make something workable? Let's remember what I wrote in a previous post:
What I realized is that you absolutely have to mount big ballistics and in numbers. You should be able to dump huge alphas in short time, capable of severely crippling any 'Mech that dares to expose itself to you. You make up for your limited mobility and targeting with raw firepower and armor.
Basically, in a sub 370-380 rating engine Banshee we can't torso twist effectively. So the idea is to have ridiculous rapid-fire alphas to make our enemies look away or simply disengage. Dire Wolves are the prime example of this "scare tank". You are guaranteed to take more damage or even die first if you engage one head-on. Now, this is something we can improve on with an XL345 thanks to the freed tonnage. The result is what I call a "PPC machinegun". It's something I found while messing with my Awesomes after the ghost heat implementation and incorporated into my 3S. It especially works great on this 3S and interestingly, this build is only possible on the 3S.




"The answer . . . is a gun.
And if that don't work, use more gun!
"
. . . yes those are 4xPPC's and a UAC5. "But, but, what about ghost heat? Ghost heat will make this build unusable!" Well, screw ghost heat. We're going to be firing all of these babies in their own single groups, grouped together with an UAC5. That means if you get lucky with UAC5 dice rolls, that's 60 damage dished out in rapid succession. It has a weird effect on your enemies, much like being suppressed by LRMs. Imagine peeking out of cover to check out what out there on Canyons, and getting hit in rapid succession: "BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM". Suddenly you're at 84% health and you have no idea what the hell happened. Would you be willing to peek out again? Probably not. That's what this build does, it pushes the victims into being passive. It establishes battlefield dominance.

Normally I play this build with a STD325 engine, but XL345 allows for one more PPC for the same amount of heat sinks and added mobility. Its heat efficiency is not terrible either, you can put out about 120 damage(8 volleys) before shutting down on a normal temperature map, enough to outright kill a Heavy or bring an Assault to cherry red CT terroritory. Don't expect to be taking down mechs left and right though. Staggering those PPCs also means the damage is spread out more. You can do groups of 2xPPC+UAC5 to alleviate this somewhat. Lastly, I don't need to remind you that this build is horrible at close range. Stay with your group and don't let enemy brawlers close in!

In the end, yes, XL345 does not make the 3S more durable or mobile but it still manages to improve upon the tactic behind typical STD engine builds.

Conclusion

Phew! Look what a single suggestion caused. Not only it made me pick up my Banshees again(and remind me of how fun they are), but it also made them viable for me in a whole another role. I guess what you should take away from this article is (apart from how underappreciated Banshees are), do not brand something as "wrong" or "useless" until you actually try it. MWO is a game of different gameplay styles and mindsets, and one persons "horrible" could be another persons "fun".

I think this is a good end to my Banshee quadrilogy. If you haven't read the others yet, and if you enjoyed this article, you might want to check them out.


Note: This article took about 2 weeks to complete, due to my time constraints(I'm working hard on my thesis) and because my laptop is giving me a lot of problems. I'm aiming for Battlemasters next but that may take an ever longer time. However, if you happen to have experiences with the Battlemaster and XL400, post them in the comments. I will gladly write an article based on your experiences!
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About Rak

I'm an engineer who likes to write extremely long articles about games that border simulation and mainstream.
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