Dark Avatar isn't vastly different from Dread Lords. Players start on a single world and then rush to find and colonize the best and most planets, depending on what they can find. After buying a few colony ships, it's time to hunker down for some research while building enough defensive ships so as not to entice the AI into attacking. Even pansy racers like the Torians will extort money and eventually attack if you appear to be weak enough.
Players must also decide how much, if any, resources to devoid to constructors which will seize galactic resources that act as multipliers on various abilities – economic, research, influence, morale, or military. Constructors are significant investments early in the game, and starbases are free kills unless you dedicate more constructors to arm the starbase. More decisions face the player as he manages his tax rate and spending on military, social, and research projects. Some races are more suited to certain approaches, or they can use their natural advantages to counter-balance poor financial support in an area. Economic races, for example, can handle a lower tax rate which will improve morale, or they can try to maximize their income and trade money for technologies or influence.
All this is a solid foundation for what is a good match against the AI. The variety of AI settings will result in games that range from a cakewalk to an epic beatdown. My rust in the GC franchise showed through when I had the floor mopped with me three straight times on Normal. Finally, after swallowing my pride (it goes down easier with beer
-ed.), I set the difficulty down to Beginner and proceeded to finally get far enough along in-game to take screenshots. The AI is as good as it ever was, and has adapted to the changes with the game quite well. It uses the new spies effectively, and more importantly, is intelligent enough to counter the player's spy usage.
The robust AI options are all present and have been supplemented with Research and Economic treaties, that give the receiving party a boost. These treaties can be one-way, the player can simply buy or trade for a treaty, or they can be exchanges. Trade is as important as always, and established by sending freighters to foreign worlds. The longer the trade route, the more time it exists, the more profitable it is. Once one considers the economic advantages of building a string of economic starbases all along a route to boost trade revenue, it becomes tempting to trade with a single world or power. However, this tends to imbalance the game, by making that AI state significantly richer, since trade goes both ways. On the bright side, such extensive trade ties boost relations to their peak.
Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar does have some warts, however. Mega events can be considered disruptive in the best of circumstances, but there are some cool ones that happen. Unfortunately, the game only permits the player to disable them completely. Also, games that progress well into the tech tree can really bog down a system even on a medium-sized map. It takes considerable horsepower to run the AI, apparently. The Galactic Senate also hasn't changed much recently, it still has the same old issues being voted on.