Space Empires V is the latest in a venerable series that has a strong fan-base drawn to the open-ended possibilities it offers. Space Empires IV was six years ago, though, so this is a franchise that has been in drydock for a while. Space Empires V does everything it can to not be a generic conquer the galaxy game, often to its own detriment.
Case in point: it not only enables you to customize your ships, it insists on it. There are no default models, so you have to rely on trial and error to get the right fit. You can fine tune your starting empire down to what kind of gas it breathes.
Space Empires V is about conquering and exploring and it does that well enough, especially if you are into micromanagement. The interface is convoluted enough that you learn to appreciate the hotkeys. It is difficult to scroll through planets and you can lose track of who owns what. There are a lot of options, though, and 4x gamers (who love explore, expand, exploit, exterminate empire building games like this one) love their options. The universe never really feels alive, but it does feel like you are slowly getting it under your control. The computer opponents are little more than a nuisance, but protect their own systems quite vigorously.
The research tree is huge, and not laid out particularly well, but you can tailor your research to industrial might or warlike pursuits much more closely than you can in similar titles. The races are randomized each time out, so you never get much of a feel for your opponents, but they are mostly speed bumps on your road to galactic supremacy.
A game this size needs much better documentation and in-game help than it has, and the tactical combat can get frustrating if you lose track of which ships have run out of missiles (repair and resupply are crucial). But there is a minor gem underneath all the dirt. If you stick with the smaller campaigns, you can focus on mastering the interface and designing the ultimate space fleet. Sometimes Space Empires V takes its commitment to customization too far, but there’s never any doubt who the emperor is.