First of all, I want to thank Stardock for working very hard on getting the pre-release version out to everyone. As a game developer myself, I understand how presenting your product to the general public is both exhilarating and terrifying. Second, note that I did not play the Beta version of the game; this is a genuine initial commercial response.
1. I created a unique sovereign based upon my general playstyle for 4X games. I found the 3d graphics of my sovereign during creation to be very rough at 1920X1200 resolution, so I added 2X AA which seemed to do the job. Most of the options for the sovereign were self-explanatory and seemed to logically flow out of various playstyles that anyone familiar with GalCiv and/or Civ should recognize. I did not see any point in buying equipment for my sovereign since I was going to play a caster. I did like the personalization options, though I did feel a little bit like I was creating a DBZ avatar given the choice in hair and some of the art. Overall, giving players a lot of choices is a good thing!
2. I started on an average map with normal difficulty. During my first game, I did not build a farm early on because I thought I needed to research agriculture (irrigation). This greatly limited the expansion of my city. So, after several turns, I started over with the same settings.
3. During the second game, my camera got stuck in "city zoom" so I was running the game from an overhead perspective. This was very annoying. Running turns and moving units did not change the camera angle back. I looked in the options and eventually discovered how to turn off this camera angle but it did not affect the current game. So, I started over. Not a big deal.
4. In the next game, everything seemed to work fine with the city camera zoom turned off. I found that cities actually looked better as well. Personally, I would have this option turned off by default. I also started playing with other options, including making the mouse scroll on the edge of maps to be instant. Again, this seems like an option that should be set by default given the fact that nearly all games today utilize instant scroll when the mouse is at the edge of the screen. I actually thought the game engine was lagging because of the the default settings.
5. I founded a second city pretty early because I found a very nice spot with multiple resources. I found the micromanagement of two cities to be simple and only had one issues: after you build a building in a city and then click on another city (so you can add buildings to the queue), the game sorta bugs out and thinks you want to build a building at the first city as opposed to switching over to the second. On several occassions, this led to me building multiple huts when I shouldn't have. I also noticed that I did not have to spend any resources on building defensive units. For a majority of my game, my defense consisted of a few heroes with +production bonuses that were stationed in cities. To put it another way, I never felt threatened in the early game, either by roving monsters or by other players.
6. I like the research system but it was a bit confusing. I was not clear on whether or not I was researching a specific tech under a category or whether I was researching a general tech and then selecting a specific technology at the end of research. I believe the system is actually set up to be the latter, which is counter-intuitive.
7. I focused on civil and magic development initially. At some point, I realized that spell casting was very powerful early on. I had purposely only picked three books during sovereign creation (water, earth, summoning) and found that these met my needs. Especially summoning.
8. I stuck my sovereign together with a couple of other heroes (+movement and some other dude) and ran around. I never felt threatened by anything as I could just cast spells to kill anything early. Again, perhaps this is by design -- MoM was like this to some extent. One thing I found confusing was that at the end of combat there there was a synopsis of battle that was pretty easy to understand with the exception of a stat that using a crown graphic. I have no idea what that is as there are no tooltips. I thought it might be experience, but all my units were gaining experience equally.
9. At some point my research was becoming ridiculously out of control relative to the other CPUs. After about two-and-a-half hours of play, I had already researched Civil, Magic, Military and Magic up to level 10. Again, this might have been due to my play style -- I love to research.
10. I ran into a couple of other AIs. One (Gilder or something like that) declared war against me for no reason. I assume it is because my army strength was really low and because my two cities were absolutely huge. So, I quickly responded by summoning an earth, water and air elemental and sticking them together in a group.
11. I found that I never had to purchase equipment. I tried purchasing equipment for some of the secondary heroes but this was problematic; I could not find an easy way to transfer items to other characters that are in the same army stack. So, I pretty much had stock heroes running around with their basic equipment without any real repercussions.
12. Leveling up characters was a little rough due to the fact that the pointer graphic was tricky to use to press + on stats. I found that I could reliably press the + button by using the corner of the mouse icon, which, I suppose, is working as intended. But the graphic is a bit big and doesn't have a pointer.
13. The AI I was at war with (Gilder) seemed to build many different cities. Most were small and oddly positioned. With my group of three elementals and my sovereign, I was able to absolutely roll over the cities. This, of course, left me in control of a couple of cities that I really didn't want because they were positioned very closely together. I am not sure if there is an option to raze the cities or not. I basically went from having two super cities to having about six cities in short order.
14. I had a big battle with the sovereign of Gilder. I was apparently fielding the inferior army (combat value) but I was able to destroy the army with no losses. The battle was not challenging at all. My air elemental was hitting for 54 points of damage per hit (and I believe it had two attacks per turn). Probably working as intended. I am also not sure whether or not summons takes away spell points. In other words, is their a magical maintenance cost per summon? If not, perhaps there should be (rather than the only cost being spent magic points).
15. My capital city was very close to becoming a level five city but I was unable to build another house for some reason. It wasn't because of food. I was missing a resource that was a little tower icon or something. I think that is prestige but I am not sure.
16. I have not seen the higher levels spells as my magic level was at 6 or 7. I found many of the city spells to be somewhat questionable given the fact that a) I was so far ahead on research and the AIs that I stumbled upon were making numerous smaller cities as opposed to a couple larger ones.
17. I wish building some of the "wonders" would pop up a small movie like Civ2. I loved that in Civ2. The music, the historical context -- all helped create immersion in the game. SMAC was like this too.
18. At this point, the game started to slow considerably for me. It reminded me of playing Civ4 on HUGE maps during the end of the game on an older system. My system is pretty decent: can run most games on high settings at 1920x1200 (Dragon Age, SCII, etc) without any problems. I was also checking my CPU usage (q6600 OC'd to about 3.15) and it was low throughout most of the game. I tried to alt-tab to see if the game would crash and it did (got a "Out of Memory" error). So, I think there's a memory leak somewhere (Running Vista 64-bit with an ATI card).
I am having a hard time determining of the game is too easy or if I am just a good player. I was under the impression that the normal difficulty would be challenging but did not find it to be so. Part of this may be due to the geography of the map, my research choices, my playstyle and so on. Part of this might be that I am probably not near the end of the game (though it certainly FEELS that way). I'll have to play around a bit more with different playstyles.
I did find that I wanted to keep playing (Yet Another Turn!) but I had to get to sleep. This is a good thing. This was tempered, though, with the game slowing down dramatically for no reason (ie, eliminating an AI actually made the game go slower).
I like the game but, like others, I am concerned that it may be a little rough for those not familiar with 4X. Then again, that may not be your target market
Either way, I look forward to playing more after work tonight. Again, that's a good thing!