People keep talking about Stellaris as the benchmark for space 4x style strategy games, like it’s some kind of holy grail in this genre. Don’t get me wrong I like Stellaris - I appreciate the atmosphere, the story aspects and the visuals and sound, the UI etc, although to be honest I often start to feel like an accountant when I’m playing it.
However it’s worth pointing out that Stellaris took the vast openness of outer space and squeezed it down into individual miniature sized pockets of space - allowing you to go from pocket to pocket (assuming there’s a line joining those two pockets) but nowhere in between.
This is a much easier way to develop a space strategy game and therefore it already has a massive head start by choosing this design. Personally I struggle to accept these restrictions and limitations on ship movement (in space of all places), but so many space 4x games head down this route as it’s just so much easier to build a balanced game around it. As a result you end up with space 4x games feeling much more confined than terrestrial games such as EU4, Civ, Endless Legend as those games allow you to move freely around the map. I’m amazed more people don’t notice this, or if they do notice it they don’t seem to care and are happy to accept the restrictions.
Gal Civ has a very different approach to space and tries to keep it as open as possible, with creative ways of adding some variety to the ‘terrain’. This design decision (to actually make space feel like space) must cause so many more headaches for the developer, but they’ve stuck with it over the years and continued to make what I consider a much more interesting and engaging game to play.
Respectfully, I don't think the decision to implement open space navigation is a valid justification for removing one of the core playstyles of 4X space strategy games -- that of tall empires. As well, from what I've read, it seems that many aspects of the game outside of economy and war have been de-emphasized, basically implying that GC4 is more like a turn-based Starcraft than a 4X like the previous installments.
What I just said is probably hyperbole, since I've not played the game, so take it with a grain of salt. And, since the game is young, I fully expect there will be major changes to come in the next few months to fix issues -- even major issues. I have no reason to expect the game will stay the way it is. They're very likely to rebalance things so the Yor don't always become the #1 civ, for instance.
I guess... my main hesitation is that, I deeply appreciate and value the fact that 4X strategy games offer a great many different ways to play. They offer meaningful different options at many different forks in the road. In order for an option to be meaningful, it must have a significant chance to lead you down a path that's just as strong for your empire (strategically, in terms of chances to survive / grow / win) than the other choices.
From what others have said, it seems like the number of different meaningful choices in how to play GC4 at the moment are limited. Always expand as quickly as possible, prepare for and expect war, and focus on conquering your neighbors who inevitably will pull you into an early war. Research key techs. Ignore diplomacy. Out-maneuver the AI in tactics and shipbuilding. Game over; you win.
I expect that many other strategies will come about once the game has been patched in the coming months. Maybe part of the deal is that players have to figure out how to play a competitive game with a strategy that takes a turn off this beaten path. That might take time, if it's possible now; and if not, it'll probably be possible later.
Some combination of balance changes, evolution of player strategy, and new content will hopefully someday soon give the game that feel -- a feel that Stellaris captures incredibly well, and even most earlier GalCiv games captured -- that your empire isn't necessarily doomed if you choose between tall or wide; if you choose between pacifist / trade-monger / conqueror play styles; if you choose between different custom civilizations with wacky pros and cons.
I'm sure there will always be a "meta" where a particular path tends to be a little stronger -- that's true even in Stellaris -- but that doesn't mean you're guaranteed to get curbstomped if you choose another way. Sometimes you can even beat the meta by being different. Again, I haven't played GC4, but I'm hearing from players that deviation from an expand-fight-conquer loop isn't really worth trying in GC4 today.
I'm trying to be soft in my criticisms, both because I want to give the game the chance to mature into something I'll truly love, and because I'm speaking from second-hand information. But I hope this post goes into my reasons why the things I've heard so far have turned me off from trying the game. I want my first experience with the game to be a great one, so I can happily wait until the game has addressed at least some of my concerns before jumping in.