You've basically summed up all my current concerns after spending about 20 hours playing and keeping it patched up to date to make sure I'm avoiding as many game-breaking bugs as possible (I had frequent crashes until 1.05... I *NEVER* have games crash normally).
At this point most of what Elemental has done is make me want to revisit Master of Magic and Age of Wonders. Yes, both have their flaws but there's so much more... I guess you could say feeling or environment.
MoM has a huge variety of races, magics, heroes, items, varied tech trees (to an extent).
- Heroes are incredibly varied and have very well defined upgrade paths
- Magic is similarly diverse... jack of all trades can be just as fun as being a specialist
- Retorts... a huge level of customization with actual longterm affects (warlord anyone?)
- Nodes/lairs aren't just a bunch of 100+ gold bags, they are of deep tactical value and the big ones are a bitch to take down
- Two planes with a completely different set of potential playstyles
- STRONG magic crafting system if you decide to pursue it (runemaster + artificer = yay)... quick, how many sorcery books do you need to be able to put haste on a weapon?
- Useful and varied terrain bonuses insofar as city building (nightshade, mithril, crystals, etc.)
AoW has a similar swath of said, though the differences are less strong in all categories.
Stardock *DOES* have a gem on their hands, but to risk going back to this painfully overused word, it needs POLISHING.
Make heroes feel powerful (though not a single man/woman wrecking ball laying waste to entire empires please
Give the magic school more differentiation than 20 varieties of "does INT * X * number of shards" damage. In the same vein, give magic some OOMPH! I shouldn't be sitting there with a min-maxed mage (we'll call it "well geared" for the sake of argument even though there's precious little gear that complements a caster sovereign) and looking enviously at the damage output and survivability of a squad of end-game peasants.
Race/tech differentiation! The only difference I can really see at the moment are entirely cosmetic and so incredibly vanilla as to disappear into the woodwork.
The adventure tech tree is a really great concept, but it feels far too random and/or powerful. The whole "get to level 3 so I can pop open a bazillion treasure chests" feels almost like an exploit. Why bother with any sort of building strategy when you can just plow through it with the huge payday that happens when you can treat the map as your own gilden ATM?
Make the upgrade path in a city more understandable (perhaps show the current tech, research and gold bonuses when you level up so you're not making a blind choice) so building specialist cities is useful. A breakdown of what your city can do and how well it does would go a long way toward alleviating the "Oh boy, my city just leveled. Time to play pin the tail on the random bonus!"
Perhaps show why I can't hire a "hero"? It'd be nice to know how much gold the greedy jerkwad is holding out for.
In fact the last two points highlight one of the biggest strengths of MoM... *INFORMATION*! Fire up MoM, load up a well developed saved game, go near a city or spot for a potential one and press F1... voila! You have a wealth of simple to understand and very useful information at your fingertips. The same goes for stuff like adjusting the tax rate, mana income, etc. This isn't a game of Memory... I don't want to have to remember what city bonus I picked for some random burg 20 turns ago
Less bland "crafting" would go a long way to combat the overall weakness and easy workaround insofar as gear. Why would I even bother with crafting in warfare if I can get cheaper and better stuff through magic research? Perhaps having actual gear slots or at least restrictions would make your choices more relevant (rather than just loading up on health packs and vision rings to exploit the system).
That's all I can think of off the top of my head. I really, REALLY want to love this game but it's just not there. Perhaps 6 months down the road with significant developer and modder work it'll get there.