Here’s a genre that was at its peak from the late 90’s all the way up to almost the present day, tough there’s been a serious decline in new IP’s that could be described as being extraordinary or at least try to push the formula. As all that is new is just forgotten old anyway and nowhere is it more apparent than in the strategy game scene where remasters or sequels of established franchises are the only ones that manage to get any real attention, with mainly the turn-based and team-tactical subgenres being in the spot light.
Because of that, this list is going to cover the very best of real-time strategy. Unless stated otherwise, I’ve taken into account the main game along with all its subsequent expansion packs, as the add-on’s usually compliment a game and in certain cases may be the sole reason why a title has managed to reach the highest of ranks.
World in Conflict
Here’s a game from a Swedish company that was the real last push from them. The company had dabbled in gameplay without bases and resources before but here they pretty much perfected it. This was a game where tactical assets and knowledge of unit types was the key to victory. There was absolutely no way to just spam together a giant army as the maximum unit count for each player was equally capped. The scenery was that of 1989 in an alternate history where the Cold War turned hot. The bankruptcy of their publisher hindered the games continuity as there was only a lousy expansion pack released and the online community has now all but shivered up.
Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War
The original Dawn of War with its multitude of expansion packs was another of the resource-less games where base building and management are put in the background, with the focus on fast-paced combat. One of its biggest features is the overall scope. With a massive mythos, tons of missions and dozens of races combined among all the expansions, this is truly a game that you can sink an endless amount of time into and still find new things to discover. The sequel series took a more repetitive team-based approach.
Probably the best RTS of all time and the birthplace of the MOBA, with DotA starting out as a mod in the online portion of the game. This one again combined with its expansion is packed with loads of content and has a multitude of playable races and a massive amount of maps. The original two games were already big hitters back in their day, with their deep lore and unprecedented gameplay. The story of the game ties directly into the MMORPG World of Warcraft which to this day continues the Azeroth narrative, the world in which the game takes place.
Company of Heroes 2
This choice might be a bit confusing as it’s common knowledge that the original CoH with its superb expansions is apparently a lot better than the canonical sequel. The reason being that, while a truly great game, it did little new compared to Dawn of War(same developer). This title however tried to at least reinvent or add to the existing formula, something I stated in the beginning of this article that I take into consideration. Plus the Western front campaign has been done to death and even though CoH is an old game by today’s standards, they were beating the dead dog even back then. The snowy Russian winter, while also not the most novel, is still a much better choice.
Undoubtedly, currently the biggest RTS, a premier eSport and the unofficial national sport of South-Korea. The second expansion quite recently came out, with it ending the canonical trilogy. The game is already superb as a single player game and the online portion is responsible for being the sole income for a lot of people who play this on a professional level. Although released in 1998, the original StarCraft had a large player base at least up until the sequel was released, when pretty much the entire fanbase moved to the current iteration.
Red Alert 2
The best in the series and overall one of the best isometric RTS’ out there. This one is considered by many to be Westwoods swan song as it perfected the Command & Conquer formula, while also managing to stay original and be funny. Years later a third game was produced by a different company that wasn’t really that good overall, even if you judged it as a stand-alone title and not compare it to its predecessor. Fun fact: Ray Wise played the US president in the FMV’s in-between missions.
Total War: Medieval 2
This title is from a franchise with a long line of historical, though historically inaccurate, games and has one of the best expansion packs to date. It also was one of the more if not the most fleshed out in the entire Total War saga.So far I’ve complemented many of the titles on the list for their amount of content but this one truly takes the cake. The game covers the deep Dark Ages up to the early Renaissance period from the Middle East to South-America. Honestly, all the games in the series are great, some buggier than others though. Depends mostly on what era you enjoy.
Empire Earth 2
I’d consider this to be the odd one in the bunch as it is one of the more uglier games on the list, to start with. And while the battles can become extremely large in scope, it usually boils down to who can spam a larger army the fastest. But its charm lies definitely in its quirkiness, as the game really takes itself a bit too seriously, which is quite humorous but you’d be surprised how fast you can wind up loving it.
Age of Mythology
This one is a spiritual successor to Age of Empires. However, I decided to add this instead. This is not to undermine the AoE series, as that could have easily been on the list. The main reason being that while we could consider AoM’s predecessor to be somewhat of a grandfather to the ‘advancement through time’ trope, there were a lot of games that purely built upon that, some of which are even present on this list. What Age of Mythology did was take the core formula of AoE and build an entire expansive narrative-driven campaign around that and thus highlighting the core values of the formula.
Rise of Nations
Again, the ‘advancement through time’ is present here and plays an important part though it also has an interesting progression system, specifically the over-world map where you get to strategize your progress. Not particularly a new mechanic but most surely refined and the entire game work well, with different aspects complimenting each other.
Sins of a Solar Empire
A bit slow, even on the fastest settings, this 4X RTS in outer-space will blow you away with its massive battles once the players have managed to build up their fleets. It’s also a game that at first might look cumbersome to learn and a chore to play but nothing can be more further from the truth. Once you get acquainted with the basics, you’ll be well on your way to take part in the epic battles.
Ground Control II: Operation Exodus
This little-known game is developed by the same people behind World in Conflict. One can see how the GC series influenced their later Cold War-era RTS as it uses a lot of the same mechanics, though not as polished of course. A game that was truly a head of its time. Just the fact that you could zoom out to have the whole battlefield in view and at the same time zoom in to see up-close details of the characters and even the small writing on the tanks for instance, makes it a worthwhile experience.
Homeworld Remastered Collection
Another masterpiece from Relic Entertainment. I was one of those sad saps who never played the original series but was wise enough to pick up the Remastered Collection which does not only have the first and second game completely remade but also contains the originals too. Another space RTS with an emphasize on micromanagement, this one again is somewhat slow to get the action going but the epic scale and great aesthetics more than make up for it.
Warhammer: Mark of Chaos
Here’s an especially sweet treat for all you Warhammer fans out there. Mark of Chaos is one of those almost unknown titles that manages to blow you away with its scope and scale from the very beginning. The dark lore sets an eerie, almost desperate tone where you must battle the forces of chaos against overwhelming odds. A lot of strategizing before and especially on the battlefield is needed to succeed. Truly a forgotten masterpiece.
Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars
This sequel is a hybrid of real-time strategy and RPG elements that fixed many of the issues its predecessor posed and while not really known for being innovative in the grand scheme, it is a solid fantasy-themed game with a lot of depth.
This is an unknown title from Germany that is filled to brink with micromanagement and some of the most moronic AI. Regardless, it’s a deep, difficult and worthwhile game that manages to steal away the hours with little notice. Any Viking themed game enthusiasts looking for a challenge should definitely give it a go. Keep in mind, this is an old school title that will not hold your hand in any way.
Dune II | Emperor: Battle for Dune
Obviously cheating here a bit by adding two different games in the same slot. They’re both from the same universe, while being quite different in how they handle. Dune II is a cult classic, gracing many platforms in the early 90’s and being closest to the modern RTS that we had back then, while Battle for Dune was one of the earliest 3D strategy games and was actually a lot of fun but received very little coverage.