SummaryDefinitely the best RTS to date. Nothing can match it.
The GoodAge of Empires was so good that when I heard about Kings, I was a bit confused-- how could it get any better? Here in AoE you had smoothly animated, realistic units, varied civilizations, epic pitched battles, and an expansion pack that added to the fun.
But it did get better. AoK is clearly a gem right from the get-go. The graphics have been greatly enhanced. They are still flat sprites, but Age of Kings uses 2d graphics better than any other game I have ever played. You hardly ever see a clipping error, IE a catapolt wheel running through a house (which is painfuly common in other 2d RTSs). Another thing few people know is that the sprites were only in 256 color, a choice the devs made to keep performance optimal. Well, I didn't even realize this until I was told!
So many things have been expanded, fixed, and polished since AoE I really don't know where to start. One of the major ones, however, is scale-- no longer are building either 2 or 4 times as big as cavalry; no, now trees stand as high as they should, barracks are properly large, and castles tower above all before them.
All sorts of new features have been added too. You can now garisson your units inside of buildings, something I can't believe I lived without before. Archers and townspeople will fire out at attackers if they come near. Units are more plentiful and balanced, and they look cooler too. Researches no longer occur in weird places (whoever heard of researching Watch Towers at a grainery? Well, no more!).
Some people dislike the game because of its scope. It has more resources, units, tactics, and ways to utterly destroy your enemy than any other RTS out there. It takes almost forever to master this game, and then you'll find that it's a whole new challange to play a different civilization with a different special unit.
There are all sorts of game types, the random map generater is better, maps are *bigger* (up to four times), and enemies are a hell of a lot smarter. If you've been playing for years, like I have, you'll still get to know all their possible tactics fairly well, but to be honest with you I still can't beat the game on the hardest difficulty level. The unit max has been moved up to 200-- wooohoo!
I really should put loads more here, but I couldn't possibly cover all of the improvments. Suffice to say that just about everything that could have been fixed and/or enhanced from AoE was.
The Bad...just about everything. The diplomacy is still awful. Now, don't get me wrong; I almost feel like a traitor for not putting this in the Good section, because the guys at Ensemble clearly made it much better. But they just didn't get it right (again). As I said, it's better; you can actually tempt players to become your allies, trade with them well, etc. But there are HUGE holes in the AI code! For example, if you make someone your ally, you can switch your status with them to Enemy for a second and then go slaughter a hundred of their men, while they whine 'I'm your friend, be mine!' (I do this when they're hacking at MY lumber). Then when you're done, switch your status back to Ally again, and bam-- you're bestest friends again! They don't have a single memory of the terrors you unleashed unto their civilization. Huh.
I also miss the animated cutscenes from AoE. I know they had reasons to keep them out of this one, but I still *really* miss them.
I also felt that the map system could have used some tweaking, to handle their Campaigns (that attempted to put some RPG into the game, like W3: RoC did later). The Campaigns were not the best I've played in a game. But hey... who plays them anyways?!
The Bottom LineAge of Empires II: The Age of Kings remains, in my opinion, the undisputed master of the real-time strategy scene. No other game-- yes, not even the overhypted Warcraft 3-- can defeat it. This isn't a game with hours of gameplay inside-- it's a game with years of it.