Awakened empires are a really cool concept on paper. Stagnant mega-empires that re-emerge with a new sense of purpose and re-exerting their influence on the galaxy.
The problem is that for me, on difficulty levels of hard or above, is that the only way I can beat them is through rapid expansion and a massive fleet. I generally have to bide my time as long as possible and then bait their fleet into a system with defense stations and my doomstack waiting for them with optimized weapon builds and pray, either that or I get completely crushed and have to start a new game (ironman).
The AI is also generally inept at facing an awakened empire. It would make sense if there was a "galactic crisis" response to awakened empires, but there is not. The only way to stop them is for me to do it myself. And to date, I have not seen a war in heaven happen.
The problem is that this playstyle limits you. If you go rapid expansion and invade your neighbors early on, you snowball and get strong, but then you completely alienate other empires who refuse to interact with you diplomatically because as you get stronger, they view you more and more as a threat.
And honestly, it seems like the only way to win at Stellaris at higher difficulty levels IS the rapid expansion/huge fleet route. The late game crises are already absolutely insane and the only chance you will have to defeat them is to own a massive empire and fleet. Even then, no guarantee.
If I want to go a peaceful and smaller scientific or spiritual empire, I am basically shit out of luck once a late game crisis or awakened empire emerges. The bonuses I get for unity/science with smaller empires are completely negated by how much more production you get with a much larger one. It'd be cool if super scientific empires could build superweapons for defense or if spiritual empires could become insane psionic warriors that are extremely powerful but few in number. But, there are basically zero downsides to being an extremely aggressive warmongering empire.
Does anyone have any suggestions/tips for me on playstyle? Am I doing it wrong or are Stellaris' late game mechanics simply extremely flawed? It's a shame for me because while I really enjoy this game, I often find myself hitting a brick wall or railroaded into a specific playstyle. I'd appreciate any feedback either way.
TLDR: Only way I have found on harder difficulties to win is to play a very aggressive militaristic empire and expand asap to be able to deal with late game threats. There seems to be no other path to victory.