Playing a "real" game didn't turn out to be that bad. Things got a little tense with my neighbors, but eventually we settled into a pattern of benign neglect and they stopped talking to me. The result was much the same as my isolation game, but I had half a dozen star systems instead of one.
I was actually getting really into it until I ran into a bug where my atmospheric converters simply stopped working. I was really keen on having 30 huge planets, all churning out research at an impossible rate. Building a megastructure in solitaire mode is great and all, but there's nothing quite like the thrill of doing it when you actually have opposition to worry about.
Bugs notwithstanding, Space Empires V is almost a contender for my regular 4X rotation. I love the sheer variety of technologies, and the fact that I'm almost always tinkering with build queues. It's very satisfying to settle a new planet, plan out its infrastructure years in advance, and then come back periodically to alter your plan according to new technological discoveries and the shifting galactic situation. And the tech tree isn't just bigger numbers (though there are a lot of those). You eventually unlock things that give you wholly new capabilities, allowing you to make a profound mark on the universe.
Unfortunately, as much as I love all that stuff, after playing the game for nearly sixty hours, I have to admit it's not very well put together. Navigating through menus is slightly less of a chore than it was in Space Empires IV, but still much more involved than it would be in a more modern game. The AI is just flat-out terrible. And you never know when a bug is going to sneak up on you and ruin your day. I can overlook these faults in the short-term, but in the long term, I'd much rather play a game that works, even if I can't research a hundred subtle variations on the standard cargo hold.
So, final verdict - I enjoyed almost every moment of playing this game (with the exception of trouble-shooting my terraforming projects and finding out that they simply weren't finishing when they were supposed to ), but I think, like Fallen Enchantress, the time where I could choose this game over my other options has passed. It's an interesting link in my gaming history, but rendered obsolete by more modern design.
(I am going to miss blowing up star-systems, though.)