Real Time Strategy games (or RTS) have fallen out of favour in recent years, but it's a rich genre with an amazing history. Let's count down our ten favorites!
10. Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996, Westwood Studios)
The mid-90s were the glory years for real-time strategy games, and Command and Conquer: Red Alert is a wholly emblematic game of the period: fast-paced, tight, with decent graphics and sound that would still run on a computer without 3D acceleration or a high-end sound card. There is good balance between the opposing Allies and Soviets -- you really feel like you’re controlling a different team when you play as one over the other.
A prequel to Westwood’s strong Command and Conquer, Red Alert launched its own parallel franchise that created some strong games in their own right, with Red Alert 3 being a particularly welcome addition to the genre, and delivered this exceptional Tim Curry performance.
9. Dune II: Battle for Arrakis (1992, Westwood Studios)
The granddaddy of the PC RTS genre, taking inspiration from Sega’s rather bizarre mech-based strategy game Herzog Zwei for the Mega Drive/Genesis. Westwood’s game manages to be both an immersive experience in Frank Herbert’s amazing world of Dune, and a compelling resource management based RTS. It’s definitely held up, almost 30 years later.
8. Age of Empires (1997, Ensemble Studios)
Though not initially as beloved as it is today, the original Age of Empires is one of the strongest, purest RTS games ever made. Featuring a more bare bones interface than many Command and Conquer clones were attempting at the time, Age of Empires is a simple, elegant RTS experience with a sprite-based graphical engine that still looks great today. Its expansion pack, The Rise of Rome, is an essential addition.
7. Rise of Nations (2003, Big Huge Games)
Rise of Nations is a wide, sweeping epic of an RTS that was rightfully praised on its release as a genius game. Big Huge Games delivered a product that is full of unique tactical situations, immense scope, and immersive combat situations. A true spiritual successor to the Age of Empires series.
6. Company of Heroes (2006, Relic Entertainment)
Unique for its surprisingly emotional tone among RTS games, Company of Heroes leads you into the dark and terrible world of World War II. With fantastic graphics and a feel unlike any other RTS, it would have been impossible not to include the game on this list.
5. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010, Blizzard)
How the heck do you follow up StarCraft, one of the most beloved games of all time? Luckily, Blizzard took their time and developed a game that built on much of StarCraft’s greatness while adding some unique twists. There’s a reason this game has remained so popular in the eSports community.
4. Total Annihilation (1997, Cavedog Entertainment)
A bit of a sleeper hit in its time, Total Annihilation has only grown in stature over recent years. The style of play is unlike any other RTS, turning resource management on its head with a limitless resource stream that you have to spend energy tapping into rather than a scramble for limited resources like Dune II or Age of Empires. An interesting plot and setting also sets it apart from historical or typical science fiction settings.
3. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002, Blizzard)
It’s been hard not to mention any of the Warcraft games up until this point, which from the original have always been fun, well-paced games. It’s with the third entry in the series, though, that Blizzard figured out the formula perfectly. The plot, the sound, the gameplay, the beautiful graphics: it’s all here, in a most glorious package.
2. Age of Empires II: Age of Kings (1999, Ensemble Studios)
Age of Empires was great -- Age of Empires: Age of Kings is almost perfect. The things that Age of Empires was comparatively weak in like too-easy AI, lack of unique units, weaker strategies, all of these things have been enhanced to the point where the game is an absolute joy to play. And with a recent HD remaster, it’s never been better to start a game, especially with its robust online community.
1. StarCraft (1998, Blizzard)
It had to end here, folks: the greatest RTS of all time. No other game has captured balance between races, gameplay pacing, amazingly intuitive interface, and it’s a game that’s easy to pick up but stunningly complex to master. StarCraft is, and always will be, the gold standard of real time strategy games.