The bad: Expensive, endgame is tedious, UI isn't management friendly
The ugly: The graphics
The object of Dominions 3 is to promote your Pretender God to the one true god by spreading your god's dominion and eliminating all rivals.
You start Dominions 3 by choosing an age and a nation to play in that age. There are over 2 dozen nations each with it's own theme from jungle apes to ethereal mist beings to powerful blood worshippers which gives a person a lot of choice to suit his fancy. In addition to the nation, you also create a Pretender God which has his own form and magic which by itself presents a challenging array of options and changes or reinforces the theme of the nation you chose. With your god you also choose the characteristics of your "dominion" such as productive or lazy, lucky or unlucky, magical or magic draining and so on. You may want to choose negative attributes so you get extra points to spend on other positive dominion factors or increase the magic strength of your pretender god. Suffice it to say this is a statisticians dream as there are lots and lots of possibilities and interactions. So much so that you will either spend all your waking hours getting the best ones if you care about that sort of thing or you will be perusing the messageboards looking for builds other people say that work. While in single player this is just fun, in multi-player I'm told it's critical (I haven't done multiplayer yet myself though).
There are preset maps and there is also a random map generator though oddly it takes awhile to generate maps on my computer. No doubt because of the database it is assembling creating each province but just be prepared to wait a few minutes, especially on the larger map generations. There are a variety of options to choose from even when generating the map such as size, magic frequency, province strength (for those you don't start with) and number of starting provinces for your empire. Let me pause here to mention that the music throughout the game is very good with varying tempo and themes so it almost never feels old even if you've heard the same piece over and over again. I definitely give the music a high rating though other sound affects are simply adequate.
Once in game while you essentially just expand through conquest, there are a number of things you are doing at the same time to be sure that when you bump into a real enemy, that they won't roll over you. You build priests to increase dominion in your land, you build mages to research magic and forge magical items and build up your army in your lands so you can use them to expand. While priests and mages serve the purpose I just listed, they are also important for combat itself where they can (in the case of priests) bless holy troops, improve morale and banish undead or for mages, they have a ton of variety depending on the mages magic skill in certain areas.
Speaking of the magic, there are 7 types of magic and also 6-7 schools of magic. For instance, you may have a powerful earth mage but if you haven't researched anything in the school of construction, you won't be able to summon many of the earth mages magical beings. Construction is also useful in forging ever stronger magical items you give to your heroes. I won't go into it more here because half the fun is discovering what works for yourself.
I've covered the highlights of the game and many of the strengths of Dominions so let me briefly go over some of the weaknesses. Dominions has never been a graphical game but I for one am tolerant of that as long as there is good gameplay. Don't expect any of the graphics to blow you away, they are adequate and functional for what you need to do. I don't particularly care for the battles. You set your troops up into 5 squads per hero (you are only limited in troops by how many your heros can command). You give a basic order and position, such as settting cavalry on the wing and telling them to attack the rearmost troops, and then basically the AI goes from there. So it's more about akin to a sophisticated chess match where you try to match the strength and weaknesses of yor army against your opponents. You have a little more control over your heroes where you can list the first 5 commands but to be honest, it is a little frustrating when you've set that up and then your army has won or lost by the time your hero has done his script. Of course you can tweak it to be more efficient but it's a lot of work once you get more than a few dozen heroes.
That brings me to the endgame critique in which, even on smaller maps, you will have a ton of troops and heroes to command and you really need to pay attention to detail to get the most out of your army. And if I haven't honed the point in enough, there can be tons and tons of provinces and heroes you have to manage and the UI isn't especially friendly for that purpose. I find it very tedious, especially after I've pretty much known the result of the game but I mistakenly think there is some kind of satisfaction in playing it out. Ironically, there is no reward whatsoever in finishing the game except for personal satisfaction and a very small popup that says your god has vanquished all the others. Whoop-de-do! Maybe there's a better sense for multiplayer but I don't have time for that very often so I was hoping single player would be more worthwhile. Now when I know where a game is heading, I just stop and reload but I can't help but lose satisfaction in that.
And that brings me back to my final complaint which is the price. This game at $55 is way overpriced. I obviously bought it with high hopes for the game but frankly, unless you are already a huge fan of the series and just have to have it, it's just not worth the price. It's like there pricing scheme was more about how many options you have versus the amount of real substance in the game. You do get a very nice 300+ page manual though 2/3rds of that simply are explanations of the nations and huge amount of magic spells. I think all they are doing is gouging the existing fanbase because you won't get many new fans with a price like that.
I keep getting drawn back to the game always wanting to try something new so there is no doubt about replayability, but I rarely finish a game anymore because of the endgame tedium (not to mention very lame ending popup). I would recommend this at maybe $30-35 but at $55 I would certainly not. If you have bought it, i do hope you enjoy and if you haven't, then hopefully this review will help you make up your mind.