If you want the short story: A game which has a third of my gaming hours hooked, and pleases the sci-fi and strategy parts of me by a long way!!! 8/10
If you want the long story, then i suggest you take a good seat, have a good brew and listen close. :)
I have always had some undying thirst for games like these, though what has always put me off them is the fact i end up diving in the deep end and not realising HOW DEEP it is. But the developers i think have cleverly thought this out, with automanage features in the options menu (and which you can set in game too so your not having to restart from scratch). Meaning you can concentrate on the parts you, the player, want to focus on.
You can even do a kind of mini-game if you will like a 2D version of EVE online :P, and set everything on auto-manage while just manually ordering 1 ship to be built and personally customised by you via the ship design screen, after it is built, you can go with it on adventures across the galaxy and (if your a hardcore roleplaying kind of person) make up your own story. Aside from having your little RPG fun on a supposed 4x RTS game, you can set it to your liking as i mentioned earlier.
Do you want to just focus on the intel part of your empire and be an intergalactic James Bond? then go do that! Just set everything on auto manage except the intel parts of it and have fun! Or if you just want to be the man with the iron fist and go on a mad quest to conquer the galaxy you can do that too. If i had to pick one reason i love this game, it is the fact that it can be tailored around your play style. As the game motto is..."The Universe is Yours"
I would like to remind that afterall, this is mean't to be a grand strategy game, but all these little details in what you want managing and what you want to control with your own mouse and keyboard help tailor the game towards your own playstyle.
I also love the diplomatic relations on the game, where you can form alliance pacts to trade agreements, initiate sanctions and declare war, all the usual stuff. But what i like about it is that you can check another empires relations with everybody else and not just yours. It is really useful to keep in check over the ever shifting diplomatic web of relations to give you a rough picture of who to trust or not.
I have noticed with most game modes you start with, you will have 1 empire that is akin to your race. It bugges me a bit but after a while i can ignore this and simply create some sort of back story. Say they were some sort of event that made the two forget about eachother as time went by and only happened upon eachother in modern times. The real reason this happens though i think is so you can get a jump start and have some sort of support (and maybe even a friend among the empires) so you are not completely alone, though there is the matter of finding them first, and if they end up starting in the same system as you, expect an solar civil war to take place within that system.
What will also keep you hooked is that there are plenty of races to choose from, 22 in fact counting the guardians and shakturi in a fully customisable game. But what i also like about them is that each race has its own charicteristics, and that the victory conditions are set in a way that is more attuned to a said race. This allows for a more role play game and can introduce a fresh way of approach, so your not going in with exactly the same goal as everybody else and using the same strategy.
The victory conditions are divided into 4 sub conditions. Economy, Territory, Population and Race Specific (already mentioned). The economic, territorial and population is mostly the same but the race specific ones help create more of a diverse way of achieving those goals. But since the galaxy, as big as it is, is not unlimited, and that there will be collisions with other empires conditions, the victory benchmark is set to 80% of your total victory conditions, meaning you don't have to achieve 100% of what everything is set for you to win.
One thorny issue i have noticed is that the dialogue can be a bit user unfriendly at times and you may get spammed with messages from other empires. (especially true when you are part of an evershifting web of pacts and you end up with a seemingly intergalactic NATO vs Warsaw conflict. It is also the disadvantage of when you set the auto manage to advisors, where you get asked permission if your empire can build this and that or a new set of ships or fleet.
I have however come to terms with these issues and in the long run can be a fun game, but it does lose some of its magic after a while. As even with a standard 20 races to choose from (not counting the ancient guardians and shakturi of a fully customisable game), you eventually get to learn what they can behave like. The insectoids for example are your more angry bunch of races, some of which will just declare war on you and others just for the fun and giggles, while other races behave in a loose cannon and are just simply unpredictable, one point being all, sup, and you have no relations (but they have no beef on you so its mainly mutual), to suddenly, "we declare war on you, because we just feel like it, mad bro?" or at least thats how i see it, though usually they go less severe and just sanction trade with you instead, but it still dampens the mood with diplomatic relations. The Haakonish Race are seriously notorious for this, everytime i now see them im expecting them to piss 80% of the galaxy off with conflicts and sanctions.
So, in summary:
Plenty of races to choose from so you are kept on your toes for a good while with new playstyles.
The diplomacy panel is actually quite easy to understand when you get used to it.
Completely customisable games.
Can set certain tasks to auto-manage so you are not overwhelmed with info, and also allows you to play your way.
Can even play as pirates. :P
Different storymodes to make a new game from.
Races can become predictable (even though government types can alter the factor).
Late game can be unfriendly userface wise.
Isn't exactly WOW factor with graphics, but you wouldn't mind too much given the scale of the game.
REALLY steep learning curve. but that is what the auto-manage is there for).
***Can be demanding with all the info it is gathering and processing, and in my case the Saves get overthrown and not recognised, but it doesn't happen everygame. To counter this I just use 2 saves so i can load on the previous one if the later one crashes.
***Can be demanding mid to late game when empires become large and there are many fleets going about their business.
***(probably due to the PC i use, it isnt exactly something for gaming but it can handle some, you will probably be better off though).
Overall, if your a strategy fan and a sci-fi lover, this should at least take a few months of your gaming calendar. Maybe after then it becomes a bit predictable with what may happen (such as an insectoid race declaring war on you as they are like that, nothing personal on you :D) but the fact it runs deep and there are a wide range of play styles to choose from, you shouldn't get bored any times soon and there are plenty of events that can interestingly occur that will get your curiosity spiking.