I played the game quite a bit more than a year ago, and have picked it up again this past week.
The upside potential of the game is better than any AAA strategy game I know of, WAY beyond what Master of Magic ever was. An incredible array of options and decisions, and they matter. Battles are interesting, city development is interesting, magic system is interesting, items are interesting. Level ups are excellent. Terrain really matters. And so on. Graphics are not a plus, but they do not bother me a bit.
However, the documentation and interface drive me batshit crazy. In many ways, this reminds me of OOTP Baseball in this regard. Experienced players just know where things, multiple levels down in the interface. They know where things are defined or explained. But very little is easily accessible when you start out.
Petty example: You need both resources and production to build anything – units or structures. For the newbie, this is not particularly clear, but okay, you figure that out. Then you go into any given city and see that there is a nice section at the bottom of a city’s first page, spelling out that city’s production and resource harvest… But gotcha! Resource production isn’t necessarily the limiting factor – you need to be looking at “stored resources” which is “conveniently” on a different page.
On the same page, you can see that your city is giving you x% magic research and x%civic research. Hmmm, x% of what number?
Go into your building queue and see that you can construct buildings for trade goods, or to increase taxes. The marketplace gives you 20 trade goods, which you quickly come to understand means 20 gold. Fine. But it also increases gold from food or resources sold by 5%. How do you figure out the numerical value of that? Meanwhile, the tax office would increase taxes by 10%. 10% of what? How the heck is a player supposed to decide whether buildings like the marketplace or buildings like the tax office help more?
If you wish to play the game competitively, expect to spend a great deal of time tracking down lots and lots of these sorts of things.
The core problem is that the game has two competing methods of sharing information, neither of which is all that efficient:
The F1 key brings up a Help Manual. There is a somewhat eccentric list of topics to click, covering some things, but leaving out many others. Some of the other stuff is unsorted, under “tips” and “frequently asked questions.” But none of this is searchable… Meanwhile, some other things are very thoroughly explained through a right click. But lots of things are not. :) Or are explained in unexpected places.
Even stuff like deciding what size map to use with how may AI opponents… you are on your own, and can easily devote many hours to a game, only to find out that this initial decision has stunted gameplay seriously.
Maybe someday he will put out a release version that is user friendly, but honestly, I’ll believe it when I see it. I think he’s going to keep making systems deeper and more interesting, but, like Markus at OOTP, really hasn’t a clue when it comes to usability. Before you buy you want to decide if “deep but all over the place” is your thing.