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My take on proposed 1.9 changes so far
A lot of discussion has been had on this topic already, and its very polarising, but I'd like to throw my hat into the ring on how I see this affecting Stellaris, and to address some of what I've seen floating around during this discussion.
This is a damned long post, so TL;DR:
-FTL change negatively affects flavour of the game, but does improve gameplay in the most polished way
-Fortresses provide the start of economic targets in space for raiding, and increase the potential utilization of weapon variety
-Fleet cap shouldn't be a mechanical hardcap meant to stop doomstacks, should instead just encourage players to keep fleets separate so its more intuitive, with other mechanics doing the heavy lifting
-Armour is a good change to start with, however altering it so that it isn't a simple EHP equation would be optimal.
Anyway, first up, let's start with the real controversy;
The FTL change
There's no two ways about it; this is a move to increase the strategic side of the game, over the roleplay fantasy side. This is what makes the move so unexpected; Stellaris, and indeed Paradox in general, have a reputation for focusing on the opposite in their games; the flavour, the roleplay, the fantasy. Seeing gameplay take precedence shows a shift in direction I for one wasn't anticipating.
Because of this, Stellaris is going to lose some of its flavour. Many proclaim that roleplay isn't affected unless you REALLY wanted to be the Vulcans or the Empire, but that's not really true. It removes variety and flavour from what you can play as. Skyrim wouldn't be the same if the only sword style was single handed sword and board, and the same applies here. Roleplaying can be about putting yourself into one set, specific role, it can be about just rolling with what an RNG gives you, or it can be about exploring the world you're given with a customised race, and removing options from what you can play affects all of them.
At the same time, strategic gameplay will be strengthened. Was this the only way to do this? Probably not. Various other changes could be layered on top of each other to create a more strategic experience, and I'd already started designing around many issues with the hard code to try and improve war in personal mods, though I hadn't had time to implement and test yet. That being said, I do believe this is the most realistic and polished way to achieve deeper strategic depth. The dev diary explaining it gives reasons why; complexity quickly adds up, while you slowly increase depth. This results in a game that is hard to learn, relatively easy to master. From 1.0, Stellaris was trying to head in the opposite direction. In general, good game design is to head in the opposite direction as well. You want a game that is easy to learn, hard to master. That is done by reducing complexity, and increasing depth. The two are not one and the same.
With regards to this change, there is decidedly no way to make everyone happy. Whether it were implemented or not, some people would lose out. With that said, here are my thoughts on how it could affect a few parts of the game, with some response to opinions I've seen around;
Lets start off with something different, since combat's been talked about to hell and back. Exploration. The FTL changes honestly stand to make exploration more meaningful than at current, even if the total freedom of direction isn't kept.
There are a few main factors that tie into this. First up, galactic topology. At current, there are only two things that matter with galactic topology; Are you on the rim, or are you nearer the core?
If you're on the rim, you're fucked. Fewer expansion options, fewer exploration options, and a much higher chance of being blocked in by a Fallen Empire. If you're closer to the core, things are reversed. You have complete freedom as to where to go, with lots of expansion options. If one side is blocked by a Fallen Empire, you have up to three other directions to look around in. You get a pretty tangible advantage from this.
With the FTL changes, this galactic topology stands to be flipped. Wormholes or Gateways could be common on the outer edge of the galaxy, with pairs spread among the inner area. This would alter the dynamic of rim empires being easily boxed in, as they are able to find alternate routes to the core. Additionally, separate sections of the galaxy can be set up. There could be an area only accessible via a gateway or wormhole, with treasures and danger within. There could be a section of space where no empires are spawned, with strong Leviathans guarding its entrance, providing a mid game frontier that opens up to exploration. Hell, you could split the galaxy in half, and only have them interact mid game through wormholes/gateways. None of these options were possible with the prior FTL system; either Hyperlanes would never get access to some of these things, or Warp and Wormhole would completely bypass the design and be able to do whatever they wanted. This made exploration one dimensional and simplistic, while now there is the potential for a tangible sense of discovery.
Further, empire spawning algorithms can now be made to work much better. At the moment, spawning of Empires and Fallen Empires is based on distance from other empires. This, obviously, results in situations where, if you want them to spawn at all, they end up being relatively close to empires and completely boxing them in, while if you want to avoid that they simply don't spawn because the rules are too stringent. With the new system, a simple pathfinding algorithm could be used to spawn a Fallen Empire, Leviathan, or other obstacle either intentionally in the way of a given area of space, or to not be in anyone's way, ensuring that there is a path past them. The differences to territory control and scanning, which also only really make sense with the FTL changes, also contribute to this.
All around, its a net positive to the exploration aspect of the game, if handled correctly. Many new possibilities that were not around previously have been opened up. While total freedom of movement isn't a thing anymore, that ends up being a positive. It creates more meaningful exploration, and has the player make more interesting choices, rather than simply "The closest star to my capital", like at present.
A lot on this topic has already been said, so rather than simply re-hashing everything, I want to respond to some of the counter-arguments I've seen along these lines, and why I don't think they really hold up.
The main thrust is that this reduces strategy, by having defensive positions and chokepoints, whereas there is more strategy in the current system with complete freedom of movement. I don't agree.
Firstly, defensive installations. They don't remove strategy. They add potential for a play/counter-play system, and make for more interesting choices in gameplay. Ignoring the effects of chokepoints, which I'll cover next, it questions whether you want to put resources into defending your holdings, or expanding them. You should not be capable of doing both. At present the answer is always expansion. That's not a meaningful choice. It isn't a choice. 1.9 shouldn't have 'defend' be the only option either. If you defend, you can't expand as quickly. If you don't expand, your economy and fleet size falls behind. As that happens, your defenders advantage becomes eclipsed by the greater economy of your opponents. This keeps the question constantly relevant; if you've constantly defended yourself, at what point do you need to stop investing in defence, and start investing in offence, in order to not eventually end up eclipsed by other nations? If you're constantly expanding, at what point have you over-extended yourself, and lose as many planets as you gain from constant wars with your neighbours? It is not a once and done decision, like present. It is a constantly asked, meaningful question.
Chokepoints have seen more ire, and some of the points against them almost hold up. The arguments generally revolve around the fact that forcing chokepoints removes strategy, and results in thoughtless tactics of "Smash two doomstacks together in chokepoint", while the ability to freely bypass chokepoints increases the urge to split your fleets and gives you more meaningful choices in where to attack.
On the face of it, this makes some sense. The issue is, it doesn't quite work that way. The freedom of movement afforded by War and Wormhole mean fleets are able to near instantly reinforce any point in your empire, until you span more than half the galaxy. This means that there is no incentive to split your fleet. Its far too mobile. Further, you aren't afforded more meaningful choices in where to attack. In fact, I'd argue the mechanics from 1.9 actually do a better job of chokepoint bypassing for improving strategic depth.
To start with, without chokepoints, defences are meaningless, and any depth talked about above is lost. Why? Lets assume you have a very valuable system, and 5 other systems. You'll defend that valuable system, working as intended, defences aren't useless, right?
Wrong. Those defences are useless. Your enemy just conquers your other five planets. You can no longer sustain your fleet, or your system's defences. You are conquered, and they never had to think about where to attack. This will always be a problem, because either most colonies are 100% worthless, which comes with a huge swathe of its own problems, but defences are useful in the few systems that are useful, or all colonies actually have a use, and it no longer matters if you defend a MORE useful colony, because you've lost too much from your other colonies being conquered. The answer is always to increase your fleet size so you can defend all your colonies, rather than using any defences.
This is the exact situation we have at present. Even with very valuable systems like those containing dyson sphere's, its better to just not bother building defences for them, and instead increase your fleet size.
Further, the existence of chokepoints, if used correctly, does not force a mindless smash of doomstacks at a defended chokepoint. What this assumes, is that your empire will have one, maybe 2 chokepoints in its entirety. This is highly unlikely.
Instead, lets take a more realistic empire that has 5 chokepoints. Opportunity cost means you can only defend 2 of them with strong defences, 4 of them with middling/weak defences, or defend half as much for each, but maintain a reasonable navy. Lets say only two of those chokepoints border your enemy. You heavily reinforce them both. You have a weak navy, and your 3 other chokepoints are undefended. Congratulations, you now have the Maginot line, and one of your other neighbours is probably space Belgium. The enemy slips in through the undefended chokepoint, you're defeated.
Of further note, is Jump Drives. These actually take the potential strategic choices talked up from freedom of movement, and make them reality. You can just jump past your opponent's fortifications if you want to, and attack the heart of their empire.
Why does this work while the multiple FTLs don't? Two reasons. Firstly, its not all or nothing; you aren't forced to have every ship use a jump and suffer the ill effects. Secondly; there are ill effects to using this strategy.
The ill effects are highly important. It becomes a strategic move to use this. You tie up their fleet in one system, and then jump in a raiding fleet past their defences. This allows you to attack them while they're unable to defend, with a surprise strike. This only works if their fleet is away, because if their fleet is around, your fleet will be decimated after the jump because of the ill effects of the jump. This makes it a situational and strategic move. You play your opponents. You draw their fleet out, then strike while they're vulnerable. With Warp/Wormhole, it doesn't work like that. You are never left in a highly vulnerable position after bypassing the enemy defences. This means you'll just always use the strategy. It becomes just a normal attack, rather than a strategic raid. It ends up as just doomstacks smashing into each other, as that's the most effective use and counter to this strategy at present.
The main thing that separates it though, is the not all or nothing part. In the past, Warp had some serious ill effects to it. You were completely disabled after your jump. This was akin to what'll likely somewhat happen after a jump drive jump. The problem? It made Warp the worst FTL you could use. It was so highly situational, relying entirely on the enemy fleet either coming to you, or not being near where you attacked, that it just wasn't worth using really. But if you chose warp, you had no other option. This meant the ill effects had to be scaled back so as to not really be that meaningful, affecting only movement and thus traversal speed of the galaxy, rather than anything that might influence your combat strategy. With this being an optional use for certain ships at your discretion, you're able to have these large negative impacts. It can become a strategic choice again, but you aren't completely screwed if you choose to be able to use this choice, as you aren't forced to use it constantly. This means it becomes advantageous for both sides to split their fleet; The raiders with one fleet to draw away enemy fleets, and a second to jump past the fight and raid enemy territory. The defenders to have a fleet they send out to attack, and another that isn't tied down so that they can defend their territory as well. It keeps defences useful, as they'll slow or stop direct attacks, which will likely be most of what you face, but it allows you to use strategy to bypass these defences, using raiders to gain an advantage in the war. This is a much better implementation of the defence bypass idea, and is similar to that used in most strategy games for a reason.
All up, the name of the game here is opportunity cost. Meaningful choices. You can make one choice, but it loses you potential gains from another choice. At present, such decisions don't exist, or are ridiculously simplistic. Chokepoints and defences stand to introduce opportunity cost, and with it depth to combat. The FTL change is not going to be happy for everyone, and those who like the flavour of multiple FTLs will lose out, but it truly is in the best strategic interests of the gameplay. That's not the right choice for everyone, but no choice they could have made would be.
The other large change announced so far is with how space stations in general are now being handled. This has faced a lot less controversy, probably because its reasonably obvious how this'll affect gameplay; better defences, better borders, centralised construction, ect.
Perhaps its biggest advantage, however, is that it provides actual strategic targets in space. Up until now, raiding in a war has been a laughable idea. You can't really do any lasting damage to your opponent with a raiding force, you need to occupy a planet for that. Even then, that damage is usually quite temporary, with a counter-attack instantly restoring all of their losses. Sending in a small, fast fleet to bombard enemy planets and starports was a waste, as they'd lose little of value; as soon as a fleet came along, that planet would rejoin their economy, and they might actually gain energy credit income from the loss of that starbase, while they're building their fleet in another system, unaffected by your attack.
The new system changes this. This is because you can now have heavily economic star bases, and they're likely to be an important part of your empire. These star bases can also be disabled, even if you don't conquer them. Depending on how that's handled, this could allow you to have a large affect on an enemy's war time economy, with a raiding fleet that jumps in, strikes down some starbases, and then leaves. Now, there is more reason to split your fleets, as you could raid enemies with small, nimble forces, while you capture important objectives with stronger, massed forces. This is an important step towards stopping doomstacks.
Further, it better matches the reality of space exploration. At present, in Stellaris, early game most of your economy comes from space, while later its almost entirely planet based. In reality, this would be the opposite. Your early economy would be planet based, while later on it would come primarily from space. This echoes the theme of expanding into space, rather than chilling on planets, as well as constantly ups the stakes of war, as more and more of your economy is at risk during a war. This change doesn't complete that transition, but its an important step towards it.
Another interesting change IMO, is how this may play into weapon types. At present, I've noted that we have too many weapon types. It is impossible to really balance them all, thanks to the sheer number. They'll always overlap in roles, and this results in one weapon being better than the other, and thus certain weapons being, well, useless. At present this is mostly handled through an arcane counter system, where about half the weapon types are the best weapon for one or two extremely niche counter builds, while a couple of weapons are the dominant force, and another set of weapons are entirely useless. This is hard to learn, easy to master design. Its a pain to learn exactly which build every damned weapon counters, and whether that build is realistically usable or not. Once that's figured out, however, its extremely easy to master the system, and identify the one or two core weapons your ships should use, and which situations might call for a slight change in plan. Once you've learnt the complexity, you've mastered the system; there isn't any more depth to wring out of it. A better system would have every weapon type have a defined role, a specific reason for its use. These roles would be easy to learn. However, when to use each role should be dynamic and creatively influenced by how a player handles their strategy and tactics. This would result in an easy to learn, hard to master system; its easy to learn when you should use every weapon in the game, but manipulating circumstances so that your weapons systems are in an advantageous position takes more practice and skill. Now, a quick change to such a system is never going to happen. It requires a complete rethinking of ships, stations, weapons, defences, and combat roles in Stellaris. Thankfully, that's what they're doing at the moment, so I have a little bit of hope here.
Having defences scale with fleets into the late game heavily encourages a weapon role meant to counter defences, while being weak against other ships. This is because, to be economic, a starbase needs to cost less to build and maintain than an equivalent fleet. That fleet is more flexible, and can be used for attack and defence. If it were also cheaper, why build the starbase instead of just another fleet?
This, however, leads to an issue whereby its difficult for an attacker to break through defences. This is, on some level, good. It leads to the strategic depth mentioned in the previous section; the ability to realistically defend your territory, but at the cost of not being able to expand. Eventually, you're outpaced. This can be hard to balance though. Having a dedicated weapons system for destroying defences adds another variable that allows you to better control how strong defences are. You could outfit your entire fleet with these weapons, and defeat a stronger defensive station. Of course, if they build stations AND fleets, rather than just focusing stations, you're in trouble. This adds more meaningful choices, and adjusting the effectiveness of these weapons directly adjusts the effectiveness of stations, without altering their own stats and struggling to balance competing needs with them.
With one weapon role, it opens the path to more weapon roles, and the opportunity for a combat system less based on arcane knowledge, and more based on manipulation of circumstances, and effective use of the tools you are provided with. More would still be needed for this to truly work, but it would be a good start.
Two other notable changes in 1.9 that we all know about now are the seeming fleet caps, and the armour change. We don't know a lot about these systems, except that they exist and some bare basics on how they look to work, but there's still stuff to talk about there.
Firstly, fleet caps. Honestly these are not a solution to Doomstacks, and should not be treated as such. Even if we plop down a bunch of arcane and unintuitive rules about how many fleets can be in a system, if the game doesn't incentivise you to split your fleets, rather than punishing you for not finding a creative enough way to keep your fleet together, people will just keep finding more and more creative ways of keeping their fleets together.
That being said, that doesn't make this change pointless. One potential to it could be slowing down the rapid growth of fleets. I don't think this is completely necessary, since fleets now grow in strength much slower than in 1.0 thanks to a number of other combat changes, but it could tie it more back to your influence and how developed socially your empire is, rather than purely economically. While interesting in idea, and with potential for increased depth to wars; needing to manage your factions more rather than just worry about minerals and energy, I hope they don't go too overboard if this is the case, as its highly restrictive, and has the potential to disrupt the opportunity cost between expanding your fleet and building defences unless handled very carefully.
Potentially a better use of this system is less mechanical, and more user experience oriented. Have it have a minor impact on game mechanics, however it provides feedback to players throughout the game on when they should think about splitting their fleets. Don't force it, but make it more intuitive for players to split their fleets. At present, one of your starting rally points is your fleet. You'll mostly have your fleet sitting in your home system for a while, before you need to use it. That's your other rally point. What ends up happening, is just by playing the game your fleet is concentrated into a doomstack, whether you think about using that strategy and its advantages or not. If the game flips this, so that you are reminded that it might be a good idea to split your fleet, it communicates the new meta to the player better, and makes people naturally want to split their fleets, and have to make an effort to keep them together should they choose to, rather than the other way around.
On the armour front, it really depends on how it works, but at present it looks to be a good change. Armour, until now, was just an inverted evasion. It was mostly another factor in which ships countered which ships, rather than playing into the weapons system more. Mechanically, it was also identical to evasion; percentage damage lost. The penetration worked slightly differently, but honestly not enough to really make it distinct.
Further, armour was overpowering. Its existence as a %age multiplier meant that you needed to use armour penetration weapons against larger ships, much like you needed to use small, evasion countering weapons for smaller ships. This naturally obsoleted the entire shield countering tree. Armour penetrating weapons were better against shielded ships than shield penetrating weapons, because armour was still on those ships, and that much stronger even after shields were down.
Having a flat amount of HP from armour flips this, and makes it more viable to use shield penetrating weapons, as they'll then eat through armour with some level of effectiveness, much like armour penetrating weapons are still effective against shields ATM. Penetration would need to also match shield weapons; with increased damage to armour, and maybe in some cases the ability to totally bypass it.
This would help a lot to opening up more weapon roles to actually being useful; shield penetrating weapons and armour penetrating weapons might actually stand a chance of being balanced, while ATM that is likely impossible.
I don't see it as a perfect system though, if that's all that it is. Ideally, armour should have a mechanical twist like shields do, that alters it from a simple EHP equation. This is important, as it is what separates the combat system from being a mathematically solvable, one best option sort of thing, into one where manipulating circumstances becomes more important.
At present, shields represent such a switch. They regenerate health every day. You can't just calculate the EHP of that ship, as it depends on how long it is alive in a fight for. The longer it survives a fight, the more EHP it has. This results in a situation where you'll want to prolong a fight for the indirect benefits it will have to your ships strength.
Armour ATM is a completely solvable EHP equation. You get the ship's health - a fixed variable - the armour percentage - a fixed variable once you've designed the ship - and the average armour penetration of the enemy fleet - again, a fixed variable once that fleet has been built. Everything is decided as soon as the fleets are built in terms of the battle. Changing armour to simple HP instead won't change this.
Personally, I'd add an alternate to the shield's system. Shields favour high sustained DPS weapons. They regenerate a small amount of health quickly over time. This means that higher DPS weapons will naturally do better against this ship. The health regen can be thought of as a negative to DPS of any attacker.
If armour were to reduce incoming damage by a flat amount, say 0.5 damage per shot per tier per slot size of armour [Numbers subject to tweaking, naturally], you'd end up with a polar opposite system. Such a defence would favour high damage per shot, rather than damage over time. A fast firing weapon that deals low damage each shot, but high total DPS, would be heavily affected by this system. A slow firing weapon dealing lower DPS, but very high damage each shot, would be near unaffected. EHP is again not a simple calculation, as now it depends on the fire rate of the enemy fleet. Every single shot they take, increases your EHP by an amount.
This works as a natural counterpart to the whole 'shield damage bonus/armour damage bonus' deal, and accomplishes the same thing, without any such modifiers. The modifers of course should still be kept; they communicate to players the purpose of that weapon, and if applied to certain weapons can help them overcome the weakness of their 'typing'; a rapid firing weapon that dealt 200% damage to armour, would have more of its damage overcome the armour defence, and thus become more effective against armour. A slow firing weapon that deals 200% damage against shields would see its DPS increase, overcoming more of the DPS wall that shields present.
This would also mean that fights aren't decided the moment a fleet is built, they're decided by what circumstances a fight happens in. Shield bearing fleets would favour fights in areas that lower the DPS of all ships. This would make the fight last longer, and give them more EHP. They would want to avoid DPS increasing effects, as that would leave them vulnerable. Armour fleets would favour fights that reduce the damage per shot of enemies, even if fire rate were increased to keep DPS the same. The length of the fight would not affect them, only the damage of each shot coming their way. The less damage each shot, the more shots they survive, and the more EHP they have. They would want to avoid effects that increase the raw damage of each weapon, as that would leave them more vulnerable.
This could lead to two effects that seem very similar, and that at present are identical in the game, having vastly different outcomes; Say a system that reduces fire rate by 33%. That doesn't affect armour fleets at all, but is a great strength to shielded fleets. A system that increases weapon damage by 50%. That isn't a good thing for shields, but its probably even worse for armour. At present, both just influence the DPS of a fleet, with that not really impacting the outcome of any given fight.
Mix this in with aura modules, which we aren't sure what is happening, and you can start to control the outcome of fights not through fleet design, but through where and when you decide to have a fight. Fleet design, naturally, still plays a part, but how you utilise the strengths of your fleet also becomes an important factor.
Naturally, this is a raw idea that would need a lot of refining, but the concept at its heart is what is important; differences in the functionality of Armour and Shields, and their effect on an indirect EHP equation. Whichever means this is accomplished by, it stands to make weapons and defences feel more different, as well as opening up more meaningful strategic considerations when going to fight your enemies.
All up, 1.9 is a ballsy move that I didn't see Paradox taking, but that is certainly in the right direction to improve the game as a strategic experience. People will definitely lose out from this, especially those who like the flavour of the multiple FTL types, however the game also has a lot to stand to gain in flavour in other respects. These baseline changes, while not perfect, provide a foundation for both modders and Paradox to further improve on the strengths of the game and give it a polished identity of its own, even if some of its old identity is lost. Hopefully this has added a few new thoughts to the conversation, though this is the new hot topic so it has been discussed extensively already. Thanks to anyone who has made it through all that, and I'd love to hear everyone else's opinions, hopefully on slightly different topics to those already covered extensively.