The Age of Empires series is at the forefront of classic RTS gaming, and the release of Age of Empires 4 has only reinvigorated interest in the genre. The secret sauce to the success of classic RTS lies in the careful balance between macro-strategy, found in base building and resource management, and micro-strategy, such as unit control and ability activation. Despite all the buzz and acclaim concentrating around Age of Empires, it’s only one out of a slew of other classic RTS titles that present their own spin on this subset strategy games, so here’s a list of ten games like Age of Empires that will keep players engrossed and hungry for more.
Games Like Age of Empires
Developer: Shiro Games Publisher: Shiro Games, Playdigious Platform(s): PC, macOS, LInux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Android
There’s a general anxiety in strategy gaming circles that classic RTS games are seeing a significant downturn due to a lack of interest and new titles. The reasonably successful release of Age of Empires 4 proves that there’s still a deep interest and titles like the relatively recent Viking game Northgard shows that many classic RTS-like games are evolving this subset and approaching the formula in new ways.
Northgard’s main point of innovation is a greater emphasis on gameplay and win condition variety in that there’s a wider selection of ways for players to win scenarios and triumph over their opponents. The game attempts to invite new players into the strategy genre, especially those who may be intimidated by the micro-intensive and highly competitive dynamics of Age of Empires, where it’s almost a complete certainty that combat and conflict are necessary tools to achieve victory.
Shiro Games also simplified some of the controls and base building dynamics, which does make Northgard more accessible, but it also results in the game maintaining a lower skill-ceiling, meaning players will likely get their fill of the game quickly. Nevertheless, Northgard is a solid example of developers building upon and modifying the classic RTS formula, while also making it a great introduction to this subset of games as a whole.
9. Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2
Developer: Westwood Studios, EA Pacific Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform(s): PC
Though the sun may have currently set on this once crucial pillar of classic RTS strategy gaming, the legacy of the Command and Conquer series has made an everlasting mark on the strategy genre as a whole. Though there are a huge number of titles in this series, it’s Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 that best encapsulates the core spirit of the franchise, with Red Alert 3 following close behind.
If Age of Empires goes for a more serious tone of historical wonder and discovery in its presentation, then Command and Conquer is precisely the opposite, leaning fully into the wacky fun of pulpy and silly science-fiction. In Red Alert 2 players will play as either the Soviets or the US in an over-the-top alternative history version of a Cold War gone hot with all the crazy Tesla and chronomancy technology to boot.
If anything, the sheer creativity in faction design and a rock solid gameplay loop foundation makes Red Alert 2 fun to return to over and over again, even despite its age. The absolutely bonkers cheesy live-action cutscenes of the campaign alone make playing through the game worth it.
For a more serious take on sci-fi strategy, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a prequel to an equally important game – the original Homeworld, which got a significant facelift in a remaster that’s also worth checking out. The action of Deserts of Kharak takes place across the dunes of the eponymous planet where players must battle various factions in order to unlock the mysteries of an ancient spaceship wreck that could lead to salvation and a way off-world.
Unlike Age of Empires, which focuses quite heavily on base building systems, Homeworld consolidates this feature into an innovative mothership or carrier command system, where players utilize a massive mobile base that acts as both an airfield, a production center, and central depot for resource gatherers. However, it isn’t defenceless as players can shunt power to different systems and end up taking their centerpiece unit straight into battle.
Arguably the most important area of strategic and tactical interest for combat tactics-oriented players is the prevalence of terrain, such as dunes, ruins, and hills that can heavily affect line-of-sight and are great for ambushes and maneuver warfare. Not to mention the faction design and the excellent art direction makes Deserts of Kharak a game worth checking out for any fan of classic RTSs.
7. Company of Heroes 2
Developer: Relic Entertainment Publisher: Sega, Feral Interactive Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux
Bouncing back to history, this time to the grand battlefields of the Eastern Front of World War Two, Company of Heroes has quickly become a new pillar of classic RTSs alongside the Age of Empires series, while finding its own voice by shifting gameplay focus away from complex base building and involved resource gathering to tactical unit command. The core difference here, aside from the setting, is Company of Heroes’ emphasis on combined arms warfare gameplay due squad units rather than single-entity hordes.
Despite Age of Empires’ competitiveness and apparent intensity of control compared to Company of Heroes, it’s more cerebral and methodical as players need to plan out build orders, defensive barriers, and resource gathering operations, whereas the latter has you focusing on squad positioning, coordination with teammates, and precise timing to complete combat-oriented tactical objectives. The result is that Company of Heroes has some of the most intense and engaging skirmishes and battles that will keep you coming back for more.
Though Company of Heroes 2 may not have as many factions as Age of Empires, their design features and differences gives each of them a distinct playstyle and identity, which only adds to the game’s replayability and challenge. It also happens to be that Age of Empires 4 and Company of Heroes 2 were both developed by Relic Entertainment and both games show the developers’ experience in quality RTS design.
6. Age of Mythology: Extended Edition
Developer: Ensemble Studios, SkyBox Labs Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios, Xbox Game Studios, MacPlay, MacSoft Platform(s): PC, macOS
Before Relic Entertainment took over the reigns of the Age of Empires series, Ensemble Studios was the dev team that first conceived of the franchise and made it a household name. Amidst the success of the historically-set games, Ensemble Studios snuck in another smash hit with Age of Mythology, this time focusing on the struggles of various pantheons of gods.
At its core, Age of Mythology plays very similarly to its historical brethren with plentiful base building, resource gathering, and single-entity unit micro. However, the addition of deities and gods from various pantheons across humanity’s myths and legends adds a whole new layer of divine powers that can turn normally linear dynamics on their heads.
The mythological setting does a lot of the leg work in making Age of Mythology a compelling game as it presents itself as a kind of divine battle royale, as puny human followers do battle and conquer land in the name of their superior deity. For fans of the Age of Empires series looking for a fantastical twist, Age of Mythology is an excellent addition to your library.
5. Tooth and Tail
Developer: Pocketwatch Games Publisher: Pocketwatch Games Platform(s): PC, PS4
Not all strategy games are about bombastic battles and swarms of units duking it out on sprawling battlefields. Tooth and Tail takes the core premise of classic RTSs and condenses the action into short, rapid, sweet, and replayable matches to hone the player’s skills.
Rather than commanding an empire across an entire map, you will instead command the representative of a chosen faction that will have to physically move to various locations to place structures, muster units, and charge into battle. This approach essentially adds almost a fully-fledged hero adventure dynamic, something of a rarity in classic RTSs.
Unfortunately, the condensed gameplay of Tooth and Tail can leave the game feeling repetitive and perhaps not deep enough for players interested in a game with more meat on its bones. Just like Northgard, however, Tooth and Tail’s simpler approach to the formula and excellent unique visual style and setting make it a worthy real-time strategy that’s worth your attention.
4. Cossacks 2: Napoleonic Wars
Developer: GSC Game World Publisher: GSC Game World, CDV Software Platform(s): PC
In terms of popularity, the Cossacks series never really took off the same way Age of Empires did, despite following a similar formula and going for a unique Early Modern historical setting. Cossacks diverged even further from Age of Empires with Cossacks 2: Napoloenic Wars by doubling down on large-scale battles and formation-based combat.
In Cossacks’ combat system, single entities matter less than the integrity and performance of an entire formations of line infantry or cavalry, which makes any single engagement or skirmish in Cossacks 2 feel more grandiose, especially in the historical scenarios or the simple yet fun campaign system. Though in the skirmish battle mode, base building plays a greater role, the core of Cossacks’ gameplay centers on the creation of squads of units to overwhelm the opponent, which makes it a kind of precursor to Company of Heroes.
The Napoleonic Wars setting gives Cossacks plenty of vibrant color and factional distinction in unit composition, strengths, and weaknesses, which adds replayability to the game’s various modes. In many ways, the Cossacks franchise is a great companion series to Age of Empires as it follows similar principles with enough nuances, such as a greater focus on gunpowder and large battles, to make it stand on its own two feet from Age of Empires, while also paying homage to it.
3. Stronghold Crusader HD
Developer: Firefly Studios Publisher: Firefly Studios, Gathering of Developers, Take-Two Interactive Platform(s): PC
If you’re feeling that Age of Empires doesn’t have enough base-building and castle management, then Stronghold Crusader is the game for you. The Stronghold series, just like Cossacks, has existed in parallel with Age of Empires, but never really garnered the same attention even though it approaches the classic RTS formula in its own notable way.
In Stronghold Crusader players can really go all out as castle builder and fortification architects, as the building system is pleasantly simple, yet it allows players to unleash their creativity and strategic planning. On top of the solid castle building, Stronghold emphasizes resource management and supply chains even more so than Age of Empires, giving the former almost a managerial vibe on top of the base building and tactical combat.
Combat is an area where Stronghold Crusader lags behind its cousin series, as units lack flexible commands and behavior settings, making combat feel quite clunky and frustrating, especially for players looking for involved micro control. Luckily for a venerable game such as this one, the graphical style, great music, and silly sense of humor reminiscent of Command and Conquer, as well as the emphasis on base building make Stronghold Crusader an interesting alternative to Age of Empires.
2. Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth 2
Developer: EA Los Angeles Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360
Command and Conquer wasn’t the only series to suffer from Electronic Arts’ cancellation and business decision-making, as the fantastic Lord of the Rings film-inspired strategy games seem to be forever lost with even less hope for a grand return than even Command and Conquer. Nonetheless, Battle for Middle-earth 2 is an excellent fantasy classic RTS similar to Age of Empires that shares some elements found in Age of Mythology, Cossacks 2, and even Tooth and Tail.
Battle for Middle-earth generally follows the classic RTS formula with key modifications in that units take the form of full multi-entity squads, heroes act as powerful centerpiece units that single-handedly sway the fortunes of battle, and a healthy dose of thematic and impactful special powers, such as summoning powerful beasts like eagles or casting spells of flooding. The inclusion of multi-entity squads in particular not only adds to the grandiosity of combat, but gives more tactical options for combined arms and optimal formation positioning, something that takes a bit of a backseat in Age of Empires.
As an amazing bonus, Battle for Middle-earth includes a robust campaign mode and interesting narrative that follows secondary characters on their exploits that happen in parallel to the main plot of Frodo taking the ring to Mount Doom and the horrific War of the Ring. Altogether, if you can get your hands on a copy, Battle for Middle-earth is a great example of how a great fantasy setting and innovative ideas can make a great RTS.
1. Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War
Developer: Relic Entertainment Publisher: THQ Platform(s): PC
Aside from Command and Conquer, perhaps the only game to come closest to Age of Empires’ timelessness is once again a Relic Entertainment production in Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War. This game brilliantly marries the stunning grimdark universe of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40000 with classic RTS principles to simply make a well-balanced, fun, and deep strategy game.
Though Dawn of War does share a bit more with Company of Heroes than Age of Empires in its somewhat simpler base building system and greater emphasis on unit command, it still plays very much like any good classic RTS. A particular standout for Dawn of War is its incredible faction design, both visually and in terms of gameplay mechanics, which can be seen most of all in the unit customization system where commanders can customize squads, vehicles, and units with a variety of weapons and gear to best tackle relevant tactical challenges.
Dawn of War, unfortunately, hasn’t aged quite so well as some other games on the list due to some clunky controls and poor optimization on modern hardware, it still plays well enough to have a dedicated following and an extensive modding scene. Dawn of War in terms of sci-fi, similar to Battle for Middle-Earth 2 for fantasy, shows how effectively the classic RTS style of strategy game can adapt to novel setting and new ideas without treading on the toes of classic game series like Age of Empires, while taking some of its best parts to make something distinct and meaningful, while paying homage to its roots.
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