Who doesn’t like a good real-time strategy (RTS) game? Or even just a simple strategy title? I can safely say that many of my childhood hours were spent planning how to destroy distant empires or protecting the mothership from hostile forces. RTS games, to me, have been a way of trying out new strategies and resource management.
But I will make an admission right here and now, dear reader. I have not played Starcraft and that is why it does not feature. It would be unfair for me to talk about RTS games and not mention i,t but since I have not played then I feel that I cannot talk about it in-depth. It will be given an honorary mention here and now.
You may find that there are some games that you disagree with or some that you feel shouldn’t be here at all, so bear in mind that these are just some of the literally hundreds of RTS/Strategy games you can buy. Narrowing it down is difficult, but the reason why some games are not on here is simply because I have not played them. That is why some games like Starcraft, Supreme Commander and Warcraft III are not on this list but neither is Civilisation.
So let’s kick things off with a golden oldie.
12. Command & Conquer: Red Alert
Released way back in 1996, Command & Conquer: Red Alert was considered to be the very finest RTS, at least at the time. I played this game as a youngster and was hooked. Playing in an alternative timeline to our own meant that as you took on the guise of the Allies or the Russians, it felt like you were actually changing the course of European history. The interface was incredibly easy to use, the units were responsive to your commands and, most usefully enough, the game was easy to learn.
The single-player campaign was incredible. There were several live-action sequences that probably look pretty cheesy now, but they they drove the story onward making you feel like the man or woman in charge, making you feel like you were in charge – the fate of the mission really did rest in your hands. Being either the Russians or the Allies meant that for either party there were some interesting party pieces. The Allies’ vehicles were cheap, fast and agile. The Soviets were slow, heavy and built of girders. Both teams had strong and weak points and it was up to you to exploit them in any way you could. A brilliant game that maybe has not stood the test of time, especially when you consider Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. However, this one is still immensely enjoyable and something that deserves a spot in this list.
What can I say about Homeworld? It is simply gorgeous.
Released in 1999, like many RTS’ you had to focus on gathering resources, building up ships so that you could, eventually, destroy your enemies, but also protect the mothership. One thing that blew my mind about Homeworld was the fact that you could travel in full 3D space. Your enemies could come at you from literally anywhere.
For its time and even now this game was one of the best RTS’ out there. The incredible detail that went into the ships and their surroundings was just incredible. The fact that you had 3D space to fight your battles in made for a whole new form of tactics and strategy. How do you deal with a threat that is coming from directly beneath you? Whilst previous games were boxed in by the fact that the enemy could only come from a certain number of places on the map now the possibilities are endless. While the theme is still the same, as it was with many RTS games (kill the enemy), the story was driven along with ‘chapters’ so that the same fleet you used in the previous mission would be used again. One thing I will say about Homeworld: once a battle got going, it was glorious. Drawing the camera back and setting it at the perfect angle made for an immensely entertaining game, even if you lost.
10. Command & Conquer: Generals
Command & Conquer could be said to be one of the forerunners of the RTS genre as it focuses on building units, managing resources and utterly destroying your opponents with as much firepower as possible.
A slick and updated game released in 2003, the graphics and character models looked pretty damn cool for the time. It felt like you were in command of a modern task force, but sometimes it almost became a little too real when dealing with the Global Liberation Army.
While Command and Conquer Generals, for me, took it into the modern age, it was almost too modern in its feel. United States taking on China for land and resources sounds like something that could be happening in the not too distant future. However, Command & Conquer: Generals was fun to play, sticking to tried and tested methods of making sure that whichever faction you chose had both its strong and weak points.
Generally well received by critics, it is a game that arguably brought the franchise closer to many games that were being released during that time. To say nothing of Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2, this game was just better looking and had a more modern approach.
9. Company of Heroes 2
Company of Heroes 2 was something of an enigma for me. Giving us the Russians to play with certainly put a different spin on things. For me, Company of Heroes (COH) is all about planning and quick thinking. You always need things like Oil and Munitions in order to keep your hopes of taking the objective alive.
You need to be quick and lethal. COH2 taught me that life was expendable. Being the Russians meant that throughout the campaign you could rely on penal battalions, or rather a handful of people, to reinforce whichever regular troops you had occupying the map. So, most of the time, you could just sit and wait for the timer to fill up again before deploying another eight or so convicts to do your dirty work. It defeated the object of careful planning and managing your resources when you could just overwhelm the enemy with numbers, which, in some cases, the Russians just did that anyway.
It was still a good game; playing the cold steppes meant that you had to keep your soldiers moving from fire to fire. You would watch as some would succumb to the cold, giving you that much more of an impetus to keep them alive to the very end. Even the inclusion of female snipers, some of the deadliest shooters in WW2, made for some interesting gameplay. In short, it was a game which showed us the might of the USSR during WW2 but also the hardships both they and their enemy faced.
8. Age of Mythology
An RTS with a difference. Instead of using historical settings, we are taken back to a world where gods and men frequently rubbed shoulders.
In Age of Mythology, Players were given a choice of gods to be their protector throughout the game. You could pick from Norse, Egyptians and Greek gods asking them to reign holy fire upon your enemies from time to time. In a similar vein to Age of Empires, you progress through certain ages by collecting resources and training fighters. What made this game so popular and so playable was that it had something different about it. Rather than rely on historical events or a sci-fi setting, Age of Mythology takes us into the realms of myth and legend.
A spin-off from the popular series Age of Empires, the game was praised for its graphics and detail back in 2002. For me, it was just such a fun game to play, something completely different from the normal RTS game where you relied on human AI to do your dirty work for you. Now you could call upon Minotaurs and other mythic creatures to go and annoy the enemy.
Who doesn’t like building medieval castles? Stronghold was a game that had a lot of replay value. The storyline was something that was quick to start and kept you occupied. However, its faults lie with the fact that all you ever seemed to do was build castles. Yes, the name did suggest that something like that would happen, but there’s only so many times you can build fortifications shaped like a pair of balls before the game loses its edge.
But it was an important game nonetheless. Like many RTS games, it taught you the valuable lesson of resource and land management; making sure that you keep within the confines of your fortifications. Keeping your population happy and, more importantly, well fed was another important task and one which kept you occupied for hours, unless you get attacked then you have an entirely different set of problems on your hands.
This is why I think Stronghold differs from other RTS games, but in a good way. Managing resources to keep your people alive and happy but also having enough to create new units meant that you had to keep a careful eye on space rather than build a wall around the first keep you build. A wonderfully tongue-in-cheek look at medieval life with some pleasant music in the background.
6. Empire: Total War
No, it’s not an RTS, but since this is both an RTS and strategy list then I feel that Empire: Total War (ETW) deserves a mention. Taking place in a ‘golden’ age of colonialism, ETW gave us large land battles, sea engagements, ever changing landscapes, musket fire and cavalry charges. I have to mention from the very start that the battles were just amazing. When everything works as it should (artillery, cavalry and infantry), it is a sight to behold. The attention to detail in the animations is superb.
Empire took so many factors from the time period early 18th century and made them easy to understand and easier to implement. Never has running an empire been so fun and yet so technical. It was historically accurate, had so much depth to it and its focus on gunpowder weaponry made it even more entertaining when entering into an engagement with your opponent.
Even the naval battles were a joy to watch, forgetting they were almost impossible to control. The sheer detail this game went into made it a title which could be replayed multiple times. It made you think not just one or two steps ahead, but ten. Empire made you think about so many different factors that often enough you could spend hours on just a handful of turns.
5. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
Age of Empires II was brought out in 1999 and, let’s face it, it was bloody brilliant.
Set during a time of shifting political and geographical landscapes, the single-player campaign followed a historical narrative which kept players interested. Following characters like Joan of Arc, Saladin and William Wallace. Each campaign had its own key moments and allowed players to experience the game using different civilisations (Franks, Celts, Teutons etc). It would lend colour and meaning to all those history lessons at school learning about the medieval ages.
Like so many games on this list, what made AoE II great was that it was a simple and easy to learn with five separate single-player campaigns that would keep you occupied for hours. Even the addition of smaller details made for a far more immersive gaming experience. Villagers were no longer just idle cannon fodder but integral parts of the game, contributing not only to construction and resource gathering, but also town defence. I loved this game when I was younger because it felt like you could just sit down and start playing it immediately if you had any experience of RTS games. AoE2 was hugely influential on future RTS games, including Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, Empire Earth and Cossacks: European Wars.
4. Medieval: Total War
I realise that this is not an RTS game, but I loved Medieval: Total War for a number of reasons. It was historically accurate, the battles were masterfully put together, and you could be an utter bastard if you really wanted to. Medieval: Total War (MTW) treated you to a front row seat in one of the most turbulent times in European and Middle Eastern History.
For me, this game was hugely entertaining, having to take into consideration not only your allies, your enemies, and your geography, but also the church. Raid your neighbour one too many times and you’re going straight to hell – well, according to the Pope, anyway. Although this game would not stand the test of time, it was still a game that gave you an empire to run and left you feeling like an emperor from the comfort of your desk chair.
3. Rise of Nations
Developed by RTS veteran designer Brian Reynolds, who was behind Civ II and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Rise of Nations (RoN) takes in numerous different types of gameplay in order to make what could be said as one of the finest RTS games ever made.
This game is in the top three because of how it centres on territory. After picking a civilisation, you can only build within your boundaries – the bigger you get, the bigger the boundaries. The more towns you create, the more trade you can do. Whilst previous RTS games were more focussed on resource management, RoN also focusses on developing a balance between offense, defence and economy.
You could adapt any game to your style and ultimately explore eighteen different cultures. Unlike Age of Empires II, RoN made you think just that little bit further ahead. Maybe RTS games boil down to “build this, kill that”, but with RoN, the beauty of the game was the fact that if you get something wrong at the start, like not having enough resources next to your city, and you will pay for it dearly later on.
Land battles were particularly entertaining considering the tactical formations you could use. The building of wonders (Pyramids, Terracotta Army etc) only sought to reinforce the feeling that you were going from strength to strength. The music was good, the character animations were excellent and it was a generally very entertaining game to play.
2. Crusader Kings II
Crusader Kings 2 is one of the finest strategy games there is. The sheer size of the game in terms of playable nations, decisions, diplomacies and general backstabbing activities you can get up to is mind blowing. The possibilities are literally endless in this game: be who you want, do what you want, and generally invade who you want.
However, this is not a game that you can just dip in and out of like Battlefield or Call of Duty. It requires hours of effort and investment. It certainly has lasting appeal since you can pick pretty much anyone to play as in the campaign. It’s pretty much down to you as to how you fill your time.
But where it falls down, in my opinion, is in two areas. One is the combat system. For a game of such size, you would expect something akin to any of the Total War series where you could command your troops on the ground. The combat system doesn’t lend itself to be user-friendly and encourages you to achieve your goals by other means.
The other fault that lies at the heart of Crusader Kings 2 is the fact that there is just too much information to take in. You are overloaded with the stuff and, to make matters worse, the tutorial just plain sucks. But maybe that’s the point, it’s so you play the game again and try new strategies and thought processes.
1. Company of Heroes
What to say about Company of Heroes (COH)? Brought to us by Relic Entertainment in 2006 and built on the Havok physics engine, it is the best WW2 RTS game ever. Why is it so good? The story behind the main COH game took actual events from Operation Overlord and dropped you straight into the middle of them. It incorporated base building with quick skirmishes and all out conquest, while also teaching you a valuable lesson: without resources, the Army goes nowhere.
What I particularly enjoyed about COH is how you could completely decimate the battlefield if you so wish, leaving no building or tree standing. The physics engine meant that no two craters were alike, bits of wall and bridge could be blown up at will and worse still is the way in which body parts scatter after a mortar barrage or a direct hit from a Howitzer.
That, and incorporation of actual battles and operations during World War II gave you the feeling that you were directly influencing the war, that every captured building and every tank destroyed was one less for the enemy. The sound quality was something else that made COH stand out from the rest, from the whistle of a shell overhead to the whispered conversations of your troops as they wait for H-Hour. The addition of British units and elite German units in the expansion packs only cemented the game as being one of the best RTS games ever produced.
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