Empire building like Civ 5 + RPG elements + extensive customization for your army
It sounds like a winning combination, yes? Let's find out..
First off, the ((tutorial)): videos and encyclopedia feature explains most of the basics very well, so the learning curve is pretty smooth. So even though it is clearly a complex game, it's not hard to learn and play with most of the features. You still have to experiment yourself to master the customization features, which is great cuz such features are usually up to experienced players to make use of them anyway.
The ((campaigns)): were mostly boring. They emphasized the RPG aspect of the game (hero leveling and skill trees, magic casting and equipment etc..), but it also had some of the most repetitive quests ever, which is a shame cuz the story and lore are rather well-written. Unfortunately, you never feel attached to the characters in the campaign. They feel like robots, and you are playing with them only cuz you have NO OTHER CHOICE. Also the research tree is often reduced/butchered, even though it is one of the best features in this game... Ignore the campagin!
The ((customization)): Here's where this game really shines! Where do I begin?
First time playing, you might want to pick one of the standard races to play, so you can learn the basics and experience which type of gameplay you prefer >> science victory, diplomatic (almost pointless), Quest victory, or all-out DOMINATION.
There is attention to detail in the factions. On their own, they are well-balanced. Their different abilites actually greatly impact their play-style, even MORE here than in Civilization 5 for example.
Later on, when you enter the cauldron and make your own faction (better with the Leader Pack DLC), here's where you get to produce some game-breaking (and pretty fun!) factions, like giving them supreme unit bonuses for combat OR giving them several opened-up researches for a quicker science victory...
Unit customization in-game is even MORE fun and you can make use of the resources at your desposal depending on what you have and how much you have of each... You can edit everything: cosmetics/facial features, colors, weapons, armor, magic trinkets and special perks.
The research tree and city building: These are the second best features here. The research tree has geat impact, and you feel the difference with each upgrade almost immediately. In fact, factions with high research bonuses will most likely win easily if they are given enough time and space. You need to attack them ASAP if you're playing military style...
Growing your city and gaining territory is actually addciting here, also with great immediate impact, depending on your decisions. You get bonus buildings with growth etc..
I'm not gonna say much about combat: bacis tactical style. Nothing remarkable. Heroes are better playing in support function with abilities rather than tanking or dealing damage (unless you have exceptional items). They don't die permanently either. You will mostly rely on your melee units to deal damage and tank.. and pretty much do everything in combat... everything else is just support. It's all about making melee units PLUS upgrading them ASAP before the epic monsters show up at your doorstep and ruin your life...
The biggest PROBLEMS with this game are:
1) Unit models: despite all the customization, the unit models are remarkably UGLY! Whatever facial features you pick for your sovreign/hero you will rarely find him/her looking the way you want. The graphics, while sharp, are overall not appealing compared to other games in this genre.
2) Diplomacy: many features BUT unclear! You have no idea why your rivals like you one minute and HATE you suddenly. You might be fighting a common enemy one minute, then 15 turns later they declare war one you even though you are clearly much stronger than them. No rhyme or reason to dimplomacy... and no point in the diplomatic victory mechanic. War is more frequent and more profitable.
3) Starting locations: The main reason why some factions win is most likely gonna be affected by the abundance of resources and tile yileds on starting locations. City locations on Essence yields are more powerful than any other, especially when improved with city spells. And if you don't start with at least 2 crystal and 2 iron near you... you are gonna have a hard time upgrading your units later on. It almost makes the customizations pointless cuz all of the advance items and equipment require these resources! The starting locations are IMBALANCED in the custom games... and the AI makes poor decisions when settling new cities.
The DLC: depending on how you like to play>>
If you want better customization and custom game variety: Leader Pack DLC + Map DLC
If you want an extra race with unusual mechanics: Dead World (for playing as undead)
If you like to play around mainly with hero quests and epic equipment: Loot Pack + Quest Pack
They don't affect each other very much. Right now, I only recommend Leader Pack and Map pack (I like the customization), cuz the extra loot gets boring quickly and the Dead Nations have lots of bugs. The extra quests can be fun, but I find them just distracting me from conquering other factions instead, or going for straight up science victory.
Ultimately, it's a fun game, BUT I only recommend buying it on a big discount. It is NOT worth the current price of $40 imo