Assault frigates have been a fixture of EVE Online since tech 2 ships were introduced over a decade ago, and ever since their introduction, they have followed the same feast-or-famine cycle as every other ship class in the game. Assault frigates offer much better resist profiles, more damage, and more fitting options than their baseline counterparts. However, they are also slower, much more skill intensive to use, and much more expensive than tech 1 frigates. When CCP rolled out the balancing passes known as “tiericide”, many tech 1 frigates that were formerly useless became strong contenders, able to perform many of an assault frigate's roles at a fraction of the cost. Faction frigates in particular are a wonderful choice when one is seeking a heavy combat frigate. The introduction of the tech 3 destroyers, which do virtually everything an assault frigate does but better, may at first glance appear to be the final nail in the coffin for these little ships. I say appearances can be a bit deceiving. Let's have a look at them, one by one, and examine their strengths and weaknesses.
With four turret slots and generous fitting and damage bonuses, the amount of damage an Enyo can dish out is simply terrifying. A fit with ions, a single magstab, and a burst rig breaks 300 DPS with ease, throwing around the highly useful combo of Thermal and Kinetic damage, and some fits exist that do 400 or more, though these require fitting sacrifices that I do not believe are worthwhile. The MWD/blaster/active armor fit is a standard, and with good reason; it works. I do not personally like afterburners on blaster Enyos, as I believe their low speed and poor gun range simply makes them far too easy to kite. Rail Enyos, using either an MWD or an afterburner, are also very worthwhile; the afterburner/rail Enyo is a wee bit better in my opinion, taking advantage of the rather good tracking of rails, particularly when assisted by a web at those ships who would fight at close range, and enabling this ship to control the fight versus many kiting ships. Like the Wolf, the Enyo is a nice choice for roaming around null, causing problems. As an anti-cruiser ship, however, its utility is lessened, as it is particularly vulnerable to energy neutralizers. The Enyo's single light drone is nothing to write home about, but the DPS it can add is useful. Always remember to deploy it and send it after your target.
The harpy is another high damage blaster boat, a solid 5/4/3 slot layout with four turret slots, a sturdy shield tank which benefits from both a resist bonus and wonderful tech 2 resists, and two optimal range bonuses, which are good for blasters and excellent for rails. With the exception that it is a shield tank, this ship is in actual practice very much like the Enyo, being slightly slower but having a better tank and better damage projection, thanks to the aforementioned double optimal bonus. Like the Enyo, it is also popular with railguns; I will say that rail Harpies do not worry me as badly as blaster ones. With four mid slots, it does not lend itself as well to an active shield tank as the Hawk does; it is best with a shield extender and shield rigs. Frankly, as a Wolf pilot, Harpies freak me out; it is the nastiest frigate that I will actually engage, and my win/loss ratio against them is pretty poor. It is a great ship for brawling down other frigates or destroyers, and with an MWD it can be very hazardous to a goodly number of kiters. In spite of all it has going for it, it is rather uncommon; this is due to the fact that if you're going to fly Caldari, you will almost always want to use missiles, and if you're going to fly a Caldari assault frigate, well, you're probably going to fly a Hawk.
The Harpy is good. The Hawk is frankly amazing. With a mindblowing 5/5/2 slot layout with 4 turret slots, a double damage bonus (rate of fire and damage amount) and an active shield bonus, the Hawk is simply phenomenal. The Hawk can project a fully selectable damage type anywhere within scrambler range, its weapons cannot be disrupted or neuted out, and it can mount a freakish double ancillary shield booster fit. With Crystals and Blue Pill, it can easily tank every other assault frigate... and most destroyers and cruisers. The only reason it isn't more common at the moment is frankly because the Jackdaw, the new tech 3 Caldari destroyer, is a Hawk on steroids. The Hawk's sole disadvantage is the fact that it is 1) quite slow, as its dominant fit, the dual MASB fit, requires an afterburner, and 2) the fact that virtually no one will engage it. The Hawk is truly a nasty opponent for ships of virtually any size, and larger ship's primary defense against frigates, energy neutralizers, are very little help, as neither its tank nor its weapons depend on capacitor to run. I have seen dual MASB Hawks tank entire fleets.
The Ishkur is the sole drone carrier in the assault frigate lineup. With room for two full flights of light drones, a workable 4/3/4 fitting slots – it has one less slot than all the other assault frigs, due to its drone bay – and reasonably generous fitting, the Ishkur has always been solid; however, I do not feel it is among the best of the assault frigs. It is rather slow, and having only three turret slots, it does not have the ability to deal the freakish damage of the Enyo or Harpy. That being said, rail Ishkurs can control range with an AB, or kite with an MWD, and deal consistent, respectable damage with both turrets and drones. Drones cannot be ECMed or otherwise impacted by electronic warfare, and, if hull tanked, the lows can be used for delicious drone damage augmentations or a big ol' plate. I do not like the Ishkur with blasters; it cannot reliably control range, or even get into range, and a brawler it simply isn't; stay at the edge of scram/web range and let drones and railguns pick away at your target. Naturally, this fighting style does not lend itself particularly well to fighting anything larger than itself, so cruisers are generally off the menu. An Ishkur fit with four small energy neutralizers does exist, however I think this fit is far too situational – and the Ishkur far too slow – to be a first choice. When fighting large numbers of blaster and/or laser users, however, keep it in mind.
I want to like the Jaguar. I want to love the Jaguar, to adore it. However, the Jaguar is easily the worst of the assault frigates, and it is among the worst ships in the game at the moment, period. A few years ago, the Jaguar was THE assault frigate, able to fight all contenders and punch considerably above its weight. Now, it suffers to its poor damage projection, its lowish DPS, and the fact that the thing must use an Afterburner to be at all useful in a dogfight due to the aforementioned poor damage projection, which means it gets outranged and killed by virtually anything with an MWD and the ability to deal damage beyond scram range. Its 4/4/4 slot layout promises versatility, but simply leaves it as a ship which does nothing particularly well, and which does lots of things badly. The Jaguar is the fastest of the assault frigates, but it is still considerably slower than most tech 1 or faction frigates. Its sole saving grace is the fact that it can be a solid tackler for gangs in a dual propulsion configuration, and the fact that IF you can land a scram on it, it's pretty good at killing turret cruisers. Jaguars with afterburners can be solid in dogfights vs. other assault frigates – I have had some surprising defeats by Jags – but one must be very picky about which fights to pick; guessing wrong can lead to a slow, frustrating death to something like a Condor or Tristan. Its limitations are many, and its strengths few. There are some artillery fits which people roll out once in a while, but once again, many limitations, few strengths. The Jaguar's biggest strength is that, frankly, anything will engage it.
The Retribution was once the least useful of the lineup; now, it is much better than it was, but it is still far from amazing. Its 5/2/5 slot configuration, with 4 turret slots, gives solid damage at ranges that matter, especially because of its optimal range bonus, and Amarrian tech 2 armor resists, combined with five low slots, allows it to field either a very respectable tank or a bunch of damage mods. The Retribution is still slow and it is still a laser ship, and tracking bonuses or no, lasers do not track particularly well, which limits its effectiveness as a brawler. It can be used in a running, kiting style of flight, much like a heavier, slower Imperial Navy Slicer, and that MWD signature radius bonus, while hardly game breaking, makes itself known here, in reduced damage the ship will sustain while kiting. If you simply must fly a laser using assault frigate, well, you've only got one choice, and this is it.
The Vengeance is a brick. It is a brick with little stubby wings and a glorious black paint job. Unlike the Retribution, however, the Vengeance has always been good, and among frigate-class ships, it is unequaled in its ability to soak damage. The Vengeance has a 5/3/4 slot layout, with 4 turret slots and a utility high slot that is almost always used for a small nosferatu. The Vengeance can use an MWD, as controlling range, while nice, is not of prime importance to it, though even with an MWD it is still very, very slow – 2k per second or so is about all it will do. The Vengeance can, like the Hawk, fully select its damage type, and it can project damage equally well anywhere inside warp scrambler range. The Vengeance's primary asset, however, is its tank, which is simply amazing. With a bonus to armor resists, a solid base armor amount, and amazing tech 2 Amarr armor resistances, the Vengeance can be an impossibly difficult nut to crack, and it can hit considerably above its weight. However, unlike the Hawk, its tank is vulnerable to neuting. There are dual armor repairer Vengeances which use a cap booster in place of the web which are even tougher... and which take even longer to actually kill anything. The Vengeance's primary weakness is simply that its damage is lackluster at best, and that unless you know your opponent has no backup, you're quite likely to be baited and killed. For seeking out and 1v1 fights or for tackling stuff and not dying, it is a great choice.
My first ever PvP kill was in a Wolf, and I have been obsessed with it ever since. While the Wolf has the same 5/2/5 slot, 4 turret layout as the Retribution, is it much faster, it has a double damage bonus, and it has a wonderfully useful falloff range bonus. Its tracking bonus, combined with the already decent tracking of autocannons, means it works fairly well as a brawler, though it can still have tracking issues at times vs. close orbiting, fast targets, and the pilot should strive to have the target on the ropes by the time this stage of the fight is reached. The Wolf's strengths are its decent speed, its good damage projection and DPS, and its small signature radius. Using autocannons, anywhere inside scram range you can fire high damage ammunition, and barrage will give you 17k of falloff range with a single ambit rig. For lows, both plates and resist modules have merit, and a gyro should always be included, to play to the Wolf's strengths. The autocannon fitted Wolf is a fun choice for nullsec or for hunting destroyers (particularly Coercers) in Faction Warfare space; it isn't so hot at dogfighting other assault frigates, however. There are also artillery Wolves which can be good at sniping faction frigates or interceptors, and though some pilots swear by this fit, I have simply never thought very highly of it; it is simply too flimsy and one-trick pony for my tastes. Lastly, afterburner/plate fitted Wolves can be the stuff of nightmares for cruisers, provided you can catch them.
There you have it; they can still be used, especially for wandering around in nullsec or faction warfare space, or for when you don't want to risk something that costs too terribly much. Sadly, they are currently a ship class without a role, but they're still fun, and hopefully, CCP will swing another balance pass at them before too much longer.
Until then, fly it like you stole it!