Another space 4X in the bag and I think I may actually be starting to get jaded with the genre, at least a little bit. So much of my time playing this game I spent wishing it was Stellaris. I had the hardest time engaging with StarDrive and I'm not really sure why.
It could be the lack of lore. Nothing I did was really connected to the broader story of the game in a clear and interesting way. However, I'm not sure that's truly a problem. Space Empires IV didn't have much lore either, and I enjoyed the hell out of that game.
I think sometimes mechanics tell an implicit story. You're a spacefaring species and your people are expanding and building and transforming new worlds into a massive transstellar civilization and it is all driven by that sense of activity. Your colonies have these build queues that they must grind through and new technology brings new buildings and obsolete things must be upgraded and it just keeps going until the endgame, where you're terraforming planets and throwing around massive amounts of resources and just generally feeling like you've unlocked terrible powers of advanced science.
StarDrive, by contrast, is very stingy with that sort of thing. There are several chokepoints to expansion that never really open up, even in the late game. Most planets have a very restrictive population cap that limits their total contribution to your empire's tax income. And of those, most also have an infertile environment environment that means they have to import food and thus are unlikely to reach even their modest population caps. In fact, most of the planets were completely unviable economically, not being large enough to break even on the infrastructure necessary to make them livable. Even in a huge universe, it's better to just settle the 3-4 fertile terran planets closest to your homeworld. Since interstellar movement is so slow, a true galaxy-spanning empire is not practical.
Indeed, at one point I'd used diplomacy to form a federation with three of my six remaining foes and the immediate acquisition of a dozen new planets tanked my budget hard. With four times the territory, I was barely able to support twice as large a fleet. On the one hand, it's nice to play a space game that doesn't force you onto the endless expansion treadmill. On the other hand, it is kind of demoralizing to play a game that slaps you on the hand for reaching for the new shinies.
In the end, I'm just disappointed. I was really anticipating this game and it just fell flat for me. Maybe it's not the game's fault, though. I can see that there might be a niche for a small-scale space 4X with a shallow tech tree, small empires, and a focus on ship combat. However, that niche is not my niche and I couldn't escape my more usually grandiose mindset to appreciate StarDrive for what it was.