Real-time strategy games have become something of a mainstay among PC gamers. Their growing popularity has even led to a number of them being developed or ported over to the leading consoles of the day. Just what is it that makes this genre so appealing? Perhaps it is the depth of decision making you engage in, the “big picture”-style gameplay, or the unique themes associated with each title? Apart from the reason you enjoy RTS games, there’s one absolute certainty, there’s a very large number of titles out there in existence to choose from.
Creating a top 20 real-time strategy games list is certainly no easy undertaking; there are many factors to consider, after all. In order to quickly and easily facilitate this process, we’ve elected to base the decision making process on several factors: graphics quality, gameplay addictiveness, uniqueness, significance of the story/plot, and overall value. So, if your favorite classic groundbreaking title isn’t included in this list, it’s probably because there simply wasn’t room for it amongst other games with more, shall we say, “advanced graphical prowess”. Now, in no particular order, we present the top 20 real-time strategy games available (at this current point in time).
Rise of Nations
One of the things that sets ‘Rise of Nations’ apart from other RTS games is the fact that it encapsulates virtually the entire history of warfare and types of human civilization. In other words, you’ll go from spears and bow and arrows to tanks and nuclear technology throughout the course of the game. Great visuals and deep gameplay featuring light city building rounds this one out and makes it a solid entry into the pantheon of RTS greatness.
Anno 1404/Dawn of Discovery
‘Dawn of Discovery’ is set in the 1400’s amidst pirates and tropical colonies. Simply put, this game adds complexities in nearly every way you can think of, nothing is automatic. You must plan your trade routes, design your cities and continuously manage your colonies if you are to be successful.
Empire Earth 2
From an absolutely mega-sized world to an extremely diverse, yet co-existing set of civilizations of differing degrees of development, ‘Empire Earth 2’ is a very deep and beautiful game to behold. It’s also particularly interesting how EE2 approaches future civilizations (battle mechs and so forth).
Commandos 3: Destination Berlin
If there’s one thing this title offers aside from drama and WW2 atmosphere, it’s a challenge. Instead of commanding large forces, you’ll take control over specialized tactical unites engaging in covert assault and espionage. While the gameplay might not be quite as deep as in other RTS titles, the level of commitment and tactical thinking required to navigate the missions more than makes up for any shortcomings; plus, you get to steal art from Nazis.
Rome: Total War
For those who are either history buffs or are really fascinated by all things ancient Rome, ‘Rome: Total War’ is the RTS for you. Basically, you control an influential Roman family at the height of the Empire. Both campaign and multiplayer modes are present and the game itself is fairly attractive from a graphical standpoint. Try to pick up the Gold Edition if you decide to purchase it.
Although ‘Homeworld’ was released in 1999 (and is one of the oldest games on this list, which has also helped to shape the entire genre) it’s still a really fun and interesting game. Basically, your civilization makes a startling discovery, obtains a mothership and sets off to explore the universe. Very quickly, things take a turn for the worse, leaving you only with your ship and the drive to build more vessels and develop newer technologies.
In terms of sheer scale and visual presentation, it’s tough to beat ‘Supreme Commander’. Aside from the wonderful setting however, it’s also important to note that the gameplay in this one is also extremely deep, which offers gamers the opportunity to approach each mission from various angles. Battle takes place on the land, air and sea, often simultaneously. If you’re looking for a RTS game that provides nearly limitless options, this is the one for you.
Sins of a Solar Empire
From deep and complex empire building to real-time strategy-based combat, ‘Sins of a Solar Empire’ is truly one-of-a-kind. This isn’t an “either / or” type game when it comes to building vs. combat, you have the tools to effectively deal with both without sacrificing visuals or control of either. Colonizing planets is the main driving force in this title and all of the drama and construction that follows is usually a result of such actions.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2
Though ‘Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2’ is one of the older RTS games, it is still one of the most amazing that’s ever emerged in the genre. What makes this title so great is its completely throughout approach to gameplay, the graphics and the sci-fi elements / futuristic weaponry you’ll encounter. As far as actual strategy is concerned, the gameplay is very deep and the resource harvesting element is still very enjoyable.
World in Conflict
There are plenty of things to love about ‘World in Conflict’, most noticeably, its graphical prowess. But visuals aren’t the only thing that WIC brings to the table; fast-paced combat and strategy are also big factors here. Veteran RTS players will have a ball with this one, but it’s also highly accessible to noobs who prefer action shooters as well. However, one of the coolest things about this game is the fact that it features cooperative multiplayer in which you can form teams and engage other human-led teams.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise is widely known for a reason, it’s absolutely fantastic. Quite simply, ‘Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos’ is one of the best and most polished real-time strategy games ever released. They’ve even managed to incorporate some RPG elements in this wonderful title. Throughout the course of this game you’ll assume control over various races / classes including Orcs, the Undead, Humans, and the Night Elves. What’s the objective, you ask? To vanquish the Burning Legion of course; WCIII: RoC is without a doubt one of the best RTS games ever.
Empire: Total War
As far as historical strategy games are concerned, ‘Empire Total War’ is one of the best around. Offering gamers a chance to approach 18th century-style combat from a strategic point-of-view, E:TW presents us with a turn-based game that contains some historically accurate content. As the title suggests, you’ll be building empires in addition to engaging in battle throughout the course of this one. Not only will you be assuming the role of a battlefield commander, you’ll also take charge as a national leader.
Company of Heroes
Yes, CoH is another rWW2 RTS, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving this awesome game a shot. Graphically speaking, ‘Company of heroes’ can stand among the best out there, it also features really excellent gameplay and sound design as well. On the building front, you have three elements to deal with: points, ammunition and fuel. Truly one of the better WW2-oriented strategy games out there.
Medieval II: Total War
As the title suggests, ‘Medieval II: Total War’ is indeed a RTS based on the middle ages. There are basically two elements to contend with; empire building and combat. On the building side, you will actually develop your settlements and handle foreign relations, while the combat is just as you’d expect, thrilling. Also, the game looks really great in terms of visuals as well.
Age of Empires III
AoEIII is a game that seems to have received mixed reviews. Some critics and gamers feel that it is one of the absolute best RTS games ever released while others find it somewhat lacking on multiple fronts. In terms of graphics, the game looks pretty good and the gameplay is certainly deep enough to entrance even the most jaded gamer. You’ll build empires up and destroy others throughout the course of this one.
StarCraft (Brood War Expansion)
If you’re into RTS games, you’re undoubtedly already familiar with the original ‘StarCraft’ and its awesomeness. Shortly after the release of that epic entry, an expansion was released that completely overhauled the original game in a number of key ways which only improved things (substantially).
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Expanding the StarCraft universe even further is ‘StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty’. This is essentially the same deep StarCraft gameplay you know and lover, but updated with better visuals and new campaign materials. This is (arguably) one of Blizzard’s best by far.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
Finally, a RTS game that features space marines! This title is both a builder and a combat-based thriller. Apart from the excellent and stylized visuals, WH40k: DoWII is deep in the gameplay department and offers a great deal of customization opportunities.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
C&C: RA3 is every bit as fun as it is wacky (at times). It features an alternate timeline in which everything that’s currently true about the world is radically different and parachuting robotic bears and time-travel based assassinations of figures like Einstein are the norm. Apart from the fun and zaniness, it’s a deep and visually appealing RTS game that should not be missed under any circumstances.
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II
For fans of the LOTR franchise and RTS games, this one is a no-brainer purchase. Great visuals, deep gameplay, familiar characters and incredible battles are just some of the many reasons you should play this game. Those with a penchant for evil will certainly enjoy invading the shire, hint, hint.