Hey, I hope everybody jumps in and gives their thoughts on this game. Rather than give a review, I'd rather be more "organic' and post thoughts/screenshots over time as my impressions develop into a clear image. So, having played *very* little so far (I'm on the third episode of the campaign), here are some initial thoughts, and I hope you share yours:
* VALUE: I have to say, $39.00 for a Gold Edition that includes Dread Lords and Dark Avatar is pretty astounding. Normally you'd only see the X-pack on sale now for $29.00, and you'd be forced to get DL if you wanted DA. Of course, for those of us who already have DL, we can send in proof of purchase after getting DA and get a $10 refund. I'm sending mine in today.
* Alright, though, so what's the value in terms of the game itself? Of course I'm still figuring this one out. I can say that it's certainly a prettier looking game, and some of the UI has been reworked to make finding information a bit cleaner. There are still some ways I'd like to see a number of little touches made better (like the autopilot lines are too hard to see, as is most of the asteroids, etc., due to such a dark background, which even when tweaked in the options area is still a bit awkward), for game of this complexity, I have no real complaints so far.
* Much has been made of the new AI, which you can set to use maximum CPU time. I can't attest this yet, though I have seen the AI be a bit better, even on Normal difficulty, in targeting your troop transports, etc.
* Customization! Well, if you've read any of the big reviews, you'll see all about this. It's a customizer's delighted, from an expanded ship design tool to being able to create your own opponents from scratch (even some control over their AI routines). While there are modders out there who could have done this for us, for Stardock to allow the lazy layperson like me that chance to mess around with some of the key settings like this is really great.
* Espionage: One thing you notice in the campaign, which seems designed to work somewhat as a tutorial that has you focus on something in particular each mission, is a revamped espionage mechanic. Rather than just spending on espionage and getting info on a civ over time, you spend and then get spies over time. You can then place those spies on an enemy tile, which closes down the tile and starts the information gathering process. The enemy can cancel our your spy with his own and/or do the same on your tiles. It's a super clear, effective, but not game-wrecking addition. So far I like it.
* Reworking of the early game is very nice. Again as stated elsewhere, it's much harder to blindly go for a colony rush as most planets are not open to you until you research something rather costly down the tech tree. This forces a much more interesting balancing act on the early game, which previously I found a bit predictable. To help you develop, though, you can mine nearby asteroid fields. Even here, however, an interesting twist is that these mining colonies can defect to another player if their culture is more powerful than yours in that sector.
* Reworking of combat is also subtly but powerfully influencing how I handle battles: Now, each weapon on a ship gets its own turn rather than all weapons being added up and shot at once. This effectively means that a ship doesn't waste shots on a ship it already killed that round but uses any unfired weapons on the remaining ship(s). I'm still sorting out the implications here, but this promises to put a premium on ship design.
* Simplicity: Now, don't get me wrong. DA is a very complex game, worthy of years of study. But unlike Civ 4, which is outstanding in its own right, there is a certain simplicity that's hard to explain. Culture is there, sure. And you can do culture bombs. Tech is all there, and you have the same kinds of tech beelining discussions that you have in Civ 4. You even have resources as in Civ4...but somehow DA distills all this into an experience that seems easier to digest. One other gamer said DA is beer and Civ4 is wine. Maybe that's fair, but I tend to drink a lot more beer than wine, don't you? What I mean is sometimes you want wine, but the mood needs to be right...and when it is, the experience is wonderful. But a beer is pretty much a good thing whenever you want to sit down and relax.
* I haven't put all this together in coherent form yet. Once I finish the campaign and can run the free-form mode through its paces, I'll be able to say a lot better whether all these parts make a great compilation of improvements over DL, but I can say this much so far: If you liked DL but got a bit bored with some of its mechanics, I think DA offers enough tweaks to the system and promises of much better AI to at least check it out. Be sure to get your rebate! And if you have *any* interest in strategy games along the lines of Civ, Europa Universalis, Total War, etc., and haven't tried GalCiv 2 yet, then the Gold Edition is a must buy. The support from Stardock alone virtually guarantees that DA will continue to cater to its fanbase.