As part of a group of that has put over 50 hours into play testing combat over the past couple of months, I can let you know what we've experienced. It is generally positive (with the latest iteration) and we have tested basically from freetrader vs free trader, to 1000 ton carrier and a dozen fighters vs corvettes/destroyers and the like. No Capital Ship combat yet as we're not sure how the new barrage rules, if any, are going to look like.
All in all - to sum up the feel, it can be described as "More meaningful options & more impact from player choices and skills"
a) The biggest and most obvious change, is combat is no longer slug fest that takes forever. This may not have been an issue with MGT1 for scouts and free traders, but it was the second you got past that. You are now (rightfully so) doing hull damage all the time. This means that when your PCs are in a cool, custom 500-900 ton craft, they aren't spending 2 hours of play time trying to destroy an equivalent enemy craft. The PCs are also not laughing maniacally as their engineer simply jury-riggs the hell out of everything that isnt a hull hit
We unanimously liked this.
b) Effect adding to damage. This adds the feel that even a military craft will be damaged by a silly laser turret sneak attack from close range. It may even be a critical hit if you dump all your fire-control, best gunner, sensors, aid-gunners-pilot-action behind that attack. We were very split on this but ultimately, we ended up being 4-2 in favour (6 of us).
c) More rolls based on skill rather than flat modifiers (evasion). If Gunnery skill is effective in space Combat, then Pilot skill is as well. Unanimously in favour.
d) Changes to turrets. We liked this a lot. Not only does it increase the speed of combat, but it clarifies confusion around evasion, what constitutes a single attack, and what can a gunner do. Fire 1 type of weapon or linked weapons. Done & Simple! Also adds tactical flavour in that now 3 pulse lasers aren't just weapons that 2d6 , 3 times. Now they're akin to larger, more powerful attack doing 2d6+4. Add to that Effect adding to damage and youve got another different viable option when it comes to space combat vs what MGT1 multiple weapons were. Unanimously in favour.
e) Missiles increased damage but decreased speed. Viable and welcome change. I know there is a lot of concern around decreased speed but I'll wait to high-guard to see options. The damage change is welcome as now Missiles have very clear pros and cons (hard hitting but slow travelling and multiple defensive measures). Unanimously in favour.
f) Criticals. Unanimously not in favour after extended testing. We were too blinded by the other changes at the beginning then we realised the star engineer was literally playing iphone games during space combat because he was doing absolutely nothing. When his ship was crit, he rolled every and jury-rigged and that was it for another 5-10 mins. However, I'm positive
this is going to be changed as I dont see a single voice in support of the current, no-crit style space battle.
g) Small craft - no longer broken due to reinforced hull and so on. No matter what shape reinforced hull options in High Guard take, the fact that Hull damage is always being done and that Effect is always being added to damage, guarantees that even Bonded Super Dense Armour 15 Fighters will not be the small mysterious fortresses they were before. This is a very welcome change for campaigns (especially military ones) as like the OP said, it makes both carriers and heavy warships viable designs. You can't go around without fighters in a fleet action; but they no longer annihilate double their tonnage and 30 times their cost value from very long range. Again - Yay for more viable options!
h) Dog-fighting! - quite simply one of the coolest additions to the game. I think a few of us have issues with the compressed turns during dog-fighting (10 to 1 turns) but otherwise, the system is great and can really allow super elite pilots some amazing feats when they're using spacecraft even (we had an elite pilot whizzing around a 10,000 ton destroyer avoiding being cooked because he was capable of hugging the hull consistently. Granted they couldn't do anything to it, but it is cinematic)!
e) Evade Software - eh. A little Weird right now. Its 25 rating for up to three seperate -1s. too much rating for too little effect. I've proposed an idea about making it a apply a flat -1/-2/-3 to all attacks or even simply make it the opposite of firecontrol. Up to 25 rating, up to -5 split the way the captain wants. The big reason this is a problem is because unlike most of the other changes, it is not an attractive option because of the high rating cost and how it is competing for computer-run-time with firecontrol (amazing), and auto-repair (was amazing, will be amazing again I'm sure).