This review took me longer to write than I really wanted. I'm a big strategy fan, particularly of the Age of Empires series, so I was looking forward to Age of Empires: The Age of Kings. Initially, I was interested in how the game made the switch from RTS to turn-based, Advance Wars-style. It seemed like a natural fit and particularly suited to the Nintendo DS's design.
One problem: Age of Empire: The Age of Kings is extraordinarily buggy, ugly, and really not very good.
I think that the biggest problem is that the developers chose to use 3D graphics for the characters, rather than 2D sprites. The 3D models, due in part to the DS's smallish screens, come off as ugly and under-animated. During battles, the characters repeat from a very small pool of animations. The clashes between two units are poorly done, with enemies tending to swing at enemies who aren't even close enough to be hit. It gets particularly bad when your forces totally rout an enemy, reducing their counter to zero... but there are still three or four of them inexplicably walking around on screen. The graphics in general are sub-par. Mountains tend to look like tiny little triangles sitting alone in a square, while trees are just as under-detailed. The sound is tinny and prone to cutting off mid-byte, as well.
The touch screen can become particularly crowded when you have a lot of units on-screen, leading to you selecting the wrong unit, then possibly wasting a turn when you mistakenly tell it to move instead of deselecting it. You can use the d-pad to move around, as well, but switching between the two is a huge bother. There's no happy medium between the two, either, since using the d-pad is much more slow than using the touch screen.
The action, when it works, works about how you would expect it to. You move your units into conflict via the touch screen and watch them rock-paper-scissors their way out of battle. Each unit has specific weaknesses and attack bonuses, whether it be ranged attacks, extra damage in elevated terrain, or weakness against horses. Just like in the PC version of the game, you can upgrade your tech level to gain access to new units and buildings. Units have various prerequisite buildings before they can be produced, for example. Construction only takes one complete turn, which is definitely a good thing, and then your units or buildings are ready to go.
All game engine gripes aside, the campaign is well done. There's plenty of scripting to keep you in the action and the mission bonuses are tough to get, but worthwhile from a gameplay perspective. The heroes are all distinctive, just like the missions they have to go on. It's nice to see a game where the campaign missions aren't just "Do this in this stage, then go and do it again in the next six stages."
Overall, though, Age of Empires: The Age of Kings turns out to be merely adequate. There's some pretty glaring problems that simply overshadow the good areas of the game. Hopefully a sequel will straighten these out, because there is the potential for a truly great game here. There's some tough enemy AI at work, and some lovely scripting in the campaign mode, but I just wish it'd been in a better package.