I just can't get past the bad graphics in AOW. What am I missing?
Age of Wonders Shadow Magic? I am not talking about the first AOW, but the 2003 version of the game: I really wouldn't call that bad graphics, it is 2D, yes, but it's actually pretty sweet. I do agree that EWOM has a better graphics: 3D with a full zooming support... But the way AOWSM works is amazing. That game is just as complex as this one and it is pretty much bug free, other than offering a thousand strategic tricks to overcome other human players: stealth movement, incredible spells, flying units for scouting.
Even AOWSM, though, in single player gets a little boring after a while. But guys, believe me this kind of games more than anything deserve to be played against people, the are REAL strategy games, not RTS! No AI will never be able to compare to a human opponent. Besides the level of competition and adrenaline you get after you play a game each day for months against other passionate players, man you have to try that!
Also I wouldn't say the city system is brain dead. It is less pretty than EWOM, yes, but it is very effective and the overall experience of the game gains a lot from its speed. Also battles are a lot more entertaining than in EWOM, you don't have to hit an enemy a million times to kill it.
Overall there are more units, they fight more often they die more easily and that helps the overall epic feeling, since you actually have massive armies (all adjacent hexes are involved in the same battle). In EWOM they seems to believe that slowness gives an epic feeling, but in fact that only bores you to death. besides what kind of army needs 9 seasons to be create? (9 seasons is more than 2 years to put together 3 guy dressed in rags?)... In the end you are bored you have no army and the few armies present in the battlefield just don't die unless you hit them a million times.
Also that makes heroes too much of a surrogate for armies, since you can just buy them anywhere by the dozen.