It's true that setting a game of Master of Orion III at different difficulty levels really doesn't make any difference when starting a new game, but the game does have a few other settings that do matter. While conquering every single planet always assures you the satisfaction of an overwhelming victory, it's possible to turn off the other two victory conditions. The easiest goal to win, or lose, is the presidency of the Orion Senate. If your empire is randomly picked to start out in the galactic core and belongs to the senate, then you have a leg up, since you'll at least be aware of the periodic presidential elections and the generally insignificant legislation that comes up for members to vote on. The new orions, as the elder race, are seemingly satisfied with their single planet and superior technology and only occasionally send out their massive fleets or flaunt their massive 1000-senate-vote edge. But after around 200 turns, an expansionist empire will have enough votes to challenge the orions for the podium. If you care to, you can simply end your game early at this point, but if not, your game may be ended for you--and completely without warning if you don't belong to the senate.
The real job is to manage production queues and send ships to their unwitting targets.
The other victory condition requires you to find five ancient artifacts, which lend major empire bonuses when you finally find one and wait for the necessary research to be complete. The process is so long, involved, and secondary to the main action of the game that it's not a compelling alternative goal. No matter what strategy you decide to focus on (military, economic, or otherwise), it's hard to track your progress compared to other empires because the only relative rank is a numerical power rank that conflates a variety of factors. Don't look for detailed graphs listing all the empires' relative success in research, population growth, military strength, or the like. That sort of detailed data is available only on the victory screen.
Selecting and customizing your race is an even more important consideration while setting up a new game. Master of Orion III has 16 default races, but there are few limits to the customization, so you can simply pick a portrait you like and choose attributes you think will give you the most advantage. Some racial bonuses are much more beneficial than others, and some races are much harder to play than others, but the game gives no indication to new players about what makes one race better than another.
Master of Orion III packs in every gameplay component you might expect from playing early games in the series, and although most are incredibly more detailed, they lose some personality in the process. There's a certain appeal to researching exotic-sounding technologies, but the game has so many of them that it's hard to get a sense of what does what. But don't worry about keeping track, because you can more or less forget about that part of the game while the automation just keeps things plodding along. That's not to say that research doesn't matter, because new technology does unlock new ship sizes and weapons, infrastructure upgrades, and general empire bonuses. However, if you wanted to focus on designing a fleet of powerful starships, you'll find that you really only need to track which enhancements you're adding to your designs. Otherwise, you'll basically just press the auto-build button. Individual ships can't move by themselves and must be assigned to task forces, and to differentiate otherwise generic ships, there are a few different mission types that each ship design and task force must specialize in, such as long-range attacks, missiles, fighter carrier, point defense, and planet destroying. Master of Orion III at least has a simple rock-paper-scissors balance scheme for its ship types, meaning you can't simply build a single, all-purpose design.
Master of Orion III does feature a pretty pronounced emphasis on waging war, but unfortunately, the actual combat isn't very interesting. It's possible to automatically resolve most combats, but you can at least make a small difference if you decide to command tactical combat in larger battles. You don't have much control over ships and can't directly tell what ships are equipped with what weapons, but at least you find out more than just whether you won or lost a battle, and you'll find at least a little satisfaction in a large-scale battle between huge invading armadas and a heavily defended planet.
The tactical combat doesn't actually require much control or thought with regard to tactics.
The best thing you can say about Master of Orion III's visuals is that they come with some of the lowest system requirements of any PC game this year. The 2D menus consist of very plain-looking blue blocks. The planetary system view and the galactic map don't look bad and are certainly throwbacks to earlier games in the series, but the overall 2D presentation simply doesn't match up to what you might expect from a 2003 game. Unfortunately, Master of Orion III's tactical combat looks especially bad, because the realistically large scale of the map makes the ships look incredibly small on the screen--little more than dots that shoot variously colored jaggy lines. But since you spend most of your time on the galactic map and planet management screens, the fact that the menus open and close quickly, and that you can switch to a new turn quickly, at least keeps your attention focused on the game at hand. Also, Master of Orion III's musical score is very appropriate for its subject matter and makes a good accompaniment while running through a few hundred turns in an afternoon.
Master of Orion III is a disappointing follow-up to the two most significant space empire games ever. The core gameplay is enjoyable enough if you actually spend enough time getting used to the complex interface, but the timid opponent AI keeps the game from being really interesting. Master of Orion III underwent a significant design change early this year to increase the player's direct involvement in the game. Unfortunately, this change doesn't seem to have turned out the way it was intended to; the game's automation helps in many cases, but otherwise, it simply hides whatever decisions it makes from plain sight, and it does a terrible job of managing production. Given its complexity, Master of Orion III can offer plenty of deep gameplay to devoted players, but its AI flaws keep it from giving a satisfying payout in exchange for all that effort.