I’d shorten the fighters light trails to less than a half of what it is now. IMHO, they take to much visual protagonism in the battlefield.
I’d make a bigger graphical representation of the hit of any weapon that hasn’t a very visible trajectory (e.g.: blasters). A large array of cheap blaster corvettes can destroy a cruiser in seconds without seeing more than tiny bullets.
In this game, losing sight or perspective for a second isn’t inherently bad (In an RTS it’d be an awful mistake). Thus I’d:
Add much light to the ships explosion effects (MUCH light, as in losing sight on that 2cm radius for two seconds).
Add some independent moving smoke to the small burning parts in ships. No need for particle effects, just an animated image of a small smoke patch that fades for three seconds or so.
Add also smoke as an after effect of the much brighter ship explosion.
Leave a very subtle afterglow under stronger lasers. It creates nice “fan” effects with rapid firing lasers and fast ships.
Lastly, I’d really try to establish a direct correlation between power and graphical representation. At least between similar weapons. The afterglow is one of the tools for this.
The optimal result should be that people could instantly differentiate a heavy laser from a medium or light one.
Smoke would exist, it’s just micro particles, possibly released due to the venting of internal fires. External fires wouldn’t exist except where oxygen was venting into space, but that would be pretty common given a big ship with air filled corridors (not necessarily the best choice for a combat ship in space, but it’s sci fi standard).
What I wish is that the white flashes from the systems explosions were either a bit smaller or lighter, they are very distracting. I like them… they are just a bit too much for me. In those big battles I find my self thinking that I’m glad I don’t suffer from epilepsy.
Also, it’s a game! We aren’t simulating reality here. Otherwise there shouldn’t be any sound effects, everything should be moving with Newtonian physics (i.e. engines only determine acceleration and there’s no top speed), probably there wouldn’t be any such thing as “shields,” etc. etc. People keep complaining about AOE missile effects and shockwaves without any medium for propagation. I say, who cares? Take a hint from MST3K, and tell yourself “it’s just a [game], I should really just relax!”
Actually, I think Newtonian physics would be really cool, and would be an interesting setting/mod. And shields are actually quite real. I don’t think they would be dramatically visible, but all you need is enough power to create an extremely powerful magnetic field (or a wall of plasma contained by said field). Hell, if you need a real-life example, this one gets pretty close: