So Stellaris by Paradox looks like it's going to be another Paradox gem and they really outdid themselves on the customization front.
First when you start a game it will let you make a species of your own choosing from a wide range of ethos (eg. Miliatant Xenophile), traits for your population, look of your ships, the ttype of planets your pops inhabit and even a vide range of character portraits and even namesets that your characters will use. That way you can play the faction of your choosing. Depending on this choice how the rest of the universe treats you and how can you respond to it's challenges will change. Like a Spiritualist Empire is probably not going to be thrilled by you messing with robotics and giving robots sentience.
Next you need to make another important choice. Now in other games the way your ships travel the galaxy is predetermined by the game mechanics and most if not all factions will use the same method. But paradox rather than choosing one let you choose for your empire one of three that pretty much cover most of the common FTL ways in fiction. Warpjumps are your common warpspace/lightspeed/warpseed travel where your ships are able to jump to any system in range from the edge of a Star system. Pretty vanilla with the only trade off being it's relative slowness. Wormholes allow you to create wormhole stations that can generate wormholes between the station and any system in range and once the wormhole is open the travel is instantaneous. It's like a much faster Warp but with the added problem of having to build wormhole stations to cover systems where you might want to go. Also expanding into enemy territory is a bit more difficult since your advance can be stopped by the range of your stations untill you build more inside the enemy territory. And if you don't pay attention and don't make redundancies enemy could strand your fleet in a system by hitting a key wormhole station. Final way of travel are your traditional hyperlanes. Systems are connected with hyperlanes, but any given system is NOT connected to all it's neighbors. Hyperlanes are as fast if not faster than wormholes and don't require infrastructure BUT your ships need to visit all the intervening systems (no jumping over enemy territory) and enemy can lock you out from a sector of space by holding a key system.
Now that you have choosen a FTL flavour and play style you prefer you can choose the number of STARTING Empires, type of Galaxy and number of systems in it. The meny offers galaxies of up to 1k stars BUT there are no fixed limit on the amount of stars that can be modded in via fixed Galaxies. I've seen a map where devs were experimenting with 5k galaxy, only of course that might be a bit too much for your computer. The generator will generate the galaxy, star systems with a variety of planets. It is not uncommon that a system might contain more than one habitable planet, or none at all. Then the starting systems will be tailor made for the starting Empires, and Fallen Empires will be added in.
Fallen Empires are basically precursors that are still running around. They are the extreemes of their ideology, have all the techs unlocked and are massively more powerful than the starting races. This is balanced by the fact that they are decadent and will not rebuild their fleets will not expand and will largely ignore you the ants that you are. But they WILL rigorously enforce their ethos on their neighbors if they consider them in the breach. So Extreme Spiritualist will not like you colonizing sacred Gaia planets; Extreme Isolationists will not like you getting anywhere near close to their borders; Xenophiles will lok down to you purging planets of the inhabitants or enslaving them etc. And if they decide to do something about you your best course of action is to surrender immediately unless you are prepared and it's endgame. Seriously don't mess with these guys. During London multiplayer event where 32 players played at one point they all allied with the intention of ganging up on ONE Fallen Empire. Entire galaxy in early mid game vs One Fallen Empire. They lost HARD. On paper they had enough firepower to match the fallen empire's Home Ring System fleet (ON PAPER but not actually) but they had nowhere enough firepower to match their entire fleet that was soon everywhere blowing the shit out of their infrastructure and forcing them to surrender. Good news is that they will take no systems, but will simply enforce their demands: removing you from their borders, purging Gaia worlds, liberating the people you are purging, destroying your robots etc. They are in game to introduce some asymmetry and randomness. And add the sense of this being the old galaxy.
Another thing adding to the sense of oldness is the fact that as your explorers survey the galaxy they will be running into anomalies and studying them. And there are a lot of them ranging on simple background lore, to learning about the empires that came before you to discovering new tech based on spacelife you may encounter. And this is how you will spend early to mid game. Also as you meet new life you will not immediately know their language, but you or them will need to study each other in order to establish first contact. You will even run into planets inhabited already by sentient (in different stages of development) or non sentient life. First you can help along on their path to space (or thay can get there on their own or blow themselves up during atomic age) and the later you can uplift.
At the start you will only be able to colonize the planets of the same type as your home planet. But even if you research how to colonize different biomes, your pops might still not be best at living there. sure you can figure out how to construct settlements for your water world colonists on a desert planet, but they will never like it there and will be much less suited to working and thriving there than some race that evolved on such a planet. That is until they potentially eventually evolve and adapt to the world. This means that it would be nice to find some other race whose pops you could use to populate such planet. You can get those in a variety of ways. You could conquer another species's planet and use their pops to colonize planets that are unsuited to your race's population. You can even get an open migration treaty with an Empire allowing your and their pops to emigrate to planets they like. So there is a big incentive to working with the conquered species rather than purging them all for the filthy xenos they are.
And so the mid game will arrive. Most of the galaxy will be settled and you will learn about most of the Empires in it by this point, at which the game largely shifts into Paradox grand strategy mode where you will use diplomacy, alliances and military might to chart a way to brighter tomorow or survive. Here you will learn that while tech matters, what you put on your ships matters even more (unless the tech difference was especially massive). Which was really apparent during two battles during London multiplayer event.
During one encounter a technologically superior main battle fleet of a xenophobic bugs species were CRUSHED in a single massive battle by a better designed fleet. The bugs tried building a fleet of ultimate CQC ships with close range massive damage guns and relied on shields to get them close to the enemy. Unfortunatelly for them the enemy went for long range missiles which ignore shields and to make matters worse they had no point defense, so most of their fleet died while trying to get into the range of the enemy. That same war was also decided by the ability of the fleets of the Star Empire of Manticore (which proved themselves worthy of their novel namesakes) to rapidly shift from front to front using their hyperlane FTL and destroy fleets in traditional Manticoran way, using loooong range missile swarms. At one point they were able to overtake a fleet retreating, so when ragged survivors of the enemy fleet wrped in a supposedly safe system they found out they waped in on the top of the Manty fleet. In the last engagement of the event during battle of 192.168.27.0/24 (truly a name that will go into annals of history) a fleet was able tu punch like 2 times above it's firepower rating simply because it was properly designed to counter the design relying on missiles that the majority used.
In fact when going to was it is smart to keep a sizable warchest untill you meet the enemy in battle and actually see what are their designs and will you need to upgrade/redesign or build a new fleet. So yes ship designer is in the game.
As for diplomacy you have alliances where any declarations of war need to be ratified by other alliance members (so it's preferable to bribe them with wargoals that benefit them and not only you) there are federations that are more centralized versions of alliances. In federations all members are still independent Empires but their foreign policy (war declaration and peace) is controlled by the president of the federation which rotates among fed. members. Also the president gets to control/design/build a federation fleet. A force of ships whose design is based on all the techs that the fed. members have researched. And why would that be important. Surely most of the members are probably about same tech wise with some being more advanced than the others as they go down the tech tree. Well that is because there is no tech tree. WHAAAT?
There is no tech tree, and the technologies that are presented to you as possible for research (4 techs) are randomized each time you research a new tech. The tech you will get as a choice are weighted so you are likely to get some important tech such as bigger ship types or tech for colonization, but tech are also weighted based on your past preference. So if you are favoring lasers as weapon research path you are more likely to get more laser techs. This way each time your tech level is different and there is no real optimal tech order, and it ensures that there will be a variety of tech focus and levels throughout the galaxy which is why a federation fleet ships are likely to be stronger than any ship of any member nations. Coz they can use the best modules available from all trees.
As for the internal mechanics of your empire it's not static either. In order to simplify things and reduce micromanagement that would be involved with managing an Empire dozens of planets strong, sectors are a must. Similary to CK2 your government can only directly control a small number of world (by midgame ~5). These are likely to be 5 core most prosperous and advanced worlds where you will be building and docking your fleet. The rest of the systems and planets you need to give to sectors and they will economically be managed by the AI whose focus you can set. The AI will build no ships but will send you resources based the level of taxation, but they will build the improvements in their systems. That way the management is simplified and as far as i have seen AI is pretty fine with doing such management. Sectors are also important in that over time as you empire grows in scope population of planet will start to diverge from yours in terms of ethos and traits, not to mention that many of those planets will be populated by pops of other races. Due to this the disagreements and formations of Factions inside your empire will be inevitable, and if you don't manage things properly it's quite likely for a planet or an entire sector to go rebel in an attempt to enforce their own views on you, or even to form a splinter Empire.
If you manage to get to the lategame as either an endgame powerhouse or a small Empire sandwiched between bigger ones Stellaris is likely to throw one last surprise on you. Late Game Crisis. Crises are an late game galaxy vide event where you will be scrambling to either prevent or make happen an event. Depending on what was researched or random dice roll a Crisis can be anything from dealing with the emergence of rogue AI/robots (which happens when one empire goes too far in AI research and pisses off it's robot slaves that they stage a successful robot uprising) to extragalactic invasions.
While I am an unashamed fanboi, I will admit that there are some problems that I have spotted during various streams paradox has held during intervening months (Blorg stream where cKnoor and Game Dev played as a race of repugnant long lived shrooms obsessed with aliens (xenophile) and being friends with them to the point that they will not take no for an answer (militant), and London two day massive multiplayer LAN match). The first one is that despite Paradox clearly investing a LOT of time into creating a lot of anomalies and events to throw some color and sense of wonder into the world (and the music obviously helps a lot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuELLd3Ec4U
) their worth for the time invested might be dubious, since during multiplayer most of the players ignored them most of the time. But they will sure be invaluable for role playing purposes. The second is the map that clearly lack some sort of icons to indicate the fleet strengths in systems without you having to hover over the enemy fleet icon in the Galaxy view mode. Also map lacks diplomacy map mode to show who is your ally, enemy, rival or neutral. All of this might make managing a large war or diplomacy a bit more tiring than it should. On the other hand these map troubles shouldn't be har to solve and since the Dev remarked it's likely to be solved in future patches. The event worth problem on teh other hand if not solved by Paradox will certainly be solved by modders since this is a Paradox game and as a result modding support is like no 1. item on the Dev priority list.
So in all likelihood Stellaris will #MakeSpaceGreatAgain
Also you can find dev diaries that are a fun read here: https://forum.paradoxplaza.com/forum/in ... ve.882950/