The Strategy Gamer’s Guide to… The Best (Modern) RTS Games

By Brandon Casteel 27 Apr 2018 0

Everyone has their personal list of the best RTS games of all time, and many of those lists a packed with the classics from the 90’s and early 2000’s. We think it’s fair to say that these legends have quite rightly earned their place in the real-time hall of fame for all time, but this status quo sees the same handful of titles appearing time and again, with little new to say about them. It can leave newer releases without their fair due.

The rise of MOBAs has challenged the RTS scene quite significantly over the past decade, but that hasn’t stopped some worthy games rising to the top ranks to earn their own place in a future generation's hall of fame. We humbly submit our own thoughts of what the best real-time strategy games of the past decade could be, and we’ve drafted RTS aficionado and blogger Brandon Casteel (of Wayward Strategist fame) to give us a hand.

Real-time not your thing? How about this list of the best turn-based strategy games instead?

This is a ‘living’ list, in the sense that there are many worthy candidates and not enough room to fit them all in. Every so often (especially as new games come out), we’ll give this list a refresh and an update to bring some other titles their turn in the spotlight.

Offworld Trading Company

Publisher: Stardock
Developer: Mohawk Games
Buy From: Steam

Offworld Trading Company is an object lesson in RTS design. It’s a competitive strategy game in which there is no actual direct combat. And no units. Inspired by classic Atari game MULE and systems like Age of Empires’ Marketplace interface, Offworld Trading Company has players compete by cultivating the economic portfolio of an ambitious, hostile company.

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Players are tasked with choosing which resource(s) to harvest to produce income which they can use to, ultimately, buy out their opponent's companies one by one. To this end they are aided by intermittent auctions, the ability to freely buy and sell any resource in the game as well as attack their opponent's production with Pirates, EMPs, nuclear warheads or temporary takeovers of their operations. Ultimately, OTC is a game of efficiency, coupled with prediction and daring. It is, in every sense, the essence of what RTS games are about laid bare for all to see.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada (Review)

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Tindalos Interactive
Buy From: Steam

While there have been other classic fleet-combat games, it’s not a reach to number Battlefleet Gothic: Armada amongst the ranks of genre greats. Tactical combat, player-defined ship capabilities, relatively short match times, all combine with the Warhammer 40K universe in a delicious gumbo of strategy game goodness.

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This title is not without its flaws, but it combines depth and fun; you know you love outfitting spaceships to your specifications and then ramming them into one another. It remains the best real-time space combat game in recent years… until Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 comes along, that is.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (Review)

Publisher: Gearbox Software
Developer: Blackbird Interactive
Buy From: Steam

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A new take on the classic series’ mechanics and a prequel to the original Homeworld, Deserts of Kharak is beautiful, haunting, powerful and intense. While I was initially sceptical of how the “six degrees of freedom” RTS would pan out on a flat plane, Blackbird Interactive has packed Deserts of Kharak with nuance and heart. One of the best RTS solo campaigns in history, coupled with gameplay that hides surprising subtlety, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has been sadly overlooked by the larger RTS community.

Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault

Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Buy From: Steam

With the advent of the Western Front Armies, the overhauling of its War Spoils system and years of balance refinement, Company of Heroes 2 has cemented its place as a respectable and enjoyable competitive strategy game. With the creation of the Ardennes Assault campaign, Company of Heroes 2 has now also earned the honour possessing one of the best replayable single player experiences in modern real-time strategy gaming.

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Ardennes Assault provides players with a strategic territory-capture metagame layered over the single-player missions, including semi-random events and time-based objectives that change with each playthrough, four Companies to command (of which you can utilize three in each campaign playthrough) and hard choices in an Iron Man setting. These force the player to think through each move and live with sub-optimal strategies across the length of the campaign. Where the Soviet storyline in the core game was seen as sub-par or at the very least not supremely creative, Ardennes Assault is a well-crafted take on RTS single player.

Age of Empires 2: HD Edition

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment
Buy From: Steam

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I feel like I’m cheating, sneaking an older game into this article; while Age of Empires 2 HD came out in 2013, the original was released in 1999. Age of Empires 2 HD is a testament to the enduring quality of classic RTS games. Also of note, three expansions (The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms, Rise of the Rajas) have been released, something kind of unprecedented in the real-time strategy space as far as I know. The depth and complexity of this classic Age of Empires title is reaching, enchanting, challenging, and captivating the imaginations of a new generation of strategy gamers, and was perhaps the inspiration for Microsoft announcing remakes of virtually every other Age title ever made.

Tooth and Tail (Review)

Publisher: Pocketwatch Games
Developer: Pocketwatch Games
Buy From: Steam

While Offworld Trading Company sought to find a unique mechanism to deliver the core RTS experience, Tooth and Tail seeks to distill the RTS to its core elements. Equal parts brutal and beautiful, Tooth and Tail is an intensely focused strategy game set in a world that’s an amalgamation of Redwall and the Russian Revolution. Despite its colorful and cartoony graphics, the story is kind of grim: animal factions are fighting over who lives, and who gets eaten. A story worthy of Don Bluth’s stellar take on The Secret of NIMH.

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The gameplay itself centers around the player’s hero character, which isn’t to say that it’s like a MOBA at all. The character serves as a cursor, mostly: placing buildings and farms under themselves, issuing movement orders to their army, and serving as a scout. The heroes themselves have no combat ability, relying on units to do all of the work in that regard. Matches can be as brutal as a game about cannibalistic armies might suggest, with armies prone to melting incredibly rapidly.

Full of character, with focused and easy-to-learn gameplay, Tooth and Tail is a dark fairy tale that reminds us how strategy games can still deliver an emotional punch.

StarCraft 2

Publisher: Blizzard
Developer: Blizzard
Buy From: Direct

You knew this was coming. You might have nodded grudgingly, or groaned inwardly. There’s nothing so contentious as the enduring popularity of StarCraft. It’s common to blame the ‘esports-ification’ of the genre on this phenomenally popular strategy game. But, love it or hate it, you can’t deny that StarCraft has continually set the standards for game polish and features for almost a decade now.

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Through relentless balancing, aggressive additions of content, engaging unit designs (yes yes we all hate the Sentry, but that’s the exception not the rule), and a multiplayer scene that virtually every other strategy game is jealous of, StarCraft 2 has rightly earned it its place at the top of the competitive strategy world. Co-op was an absolute coup, and I actually had a sobering day mourning RTS developers everywhere when they announced that SC2 was going to be free-to-play for multiplayer and arcade.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

Publisher: Stardock / Kalypso Media
Developer: Ironclad Games
Buy From: Steam

One of the older titles on this list, Sins of a Solar Empire actually launched in 2008. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, the standalone expansion, was released in 2012. But these games have had such a profound impact on the strategy space that it’s unthinkable not to address them here. Sins of a Solar Empire possess an endurance that parallels the continued popularity of franchises like Supreme Commander, or Command & Conquer Generals, and is a title where perennial requests for a new version have reached a fevered pitch.

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Sins is perhaps the definitive title which perfectly captures the blend of 4X and RTS: empire management, tactical fleet battles, research, diplomacy, and did I mention the fleet battles? It’s an intoxicating formula that manages to turn what could have been viewed as a stripped-down experience (technically there’s no campaign, only skirmish matches) into a cult phenomenon. A bevy of high-class game mods have also cropped up around it: from Star Wars and Star Trek, to Battlestar Galactica and even Halo (The Sins of the Prophet mod is amazing –ED), SOASE is the very definition of a modern and enduring classic.

Total War: Rome 2

Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Creative Assembly
Buy From: Steam

It may not have had the best of launches, but five-years later Total War: Rome 2 is Creative Assembly’s most popular historical Total War game, which is why it’s still getting supported with free updates and premium DLC, like Empire Divided. As a hybrid real-time tactics and turn-based strategy game, we’ve based this on which Total War entry’s real-time battles excelled above all others. We’re not factoring in the strategy layer here, where games like ATTILA, and the recent Total War: Warhammer titles stand as better examples than Rome 2.

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On the tactical side however, Rome 2 strikes the perfect balance. It allows units to suffer heavy damage while still giving you time to tactically manoeuvre troops around for pincer movements and other ploys. Units neither die too quickly, nor too fast and Rome 2 is the best game where facets like facing, formation, terrain etc… matter as much as they do to the tactical flow of battle.

Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation (Review)

Publisher: Stardock
Developer: Oxide Games
Buy From: Steam

While it is undeniable that Ashes of the Singularity launched in a pretty weird place, with a somewhat characterless campaign and what felt like a dearth of unit options, it’s matured in a big way via a long cycle of continued development and optimisation. It now stands as one of the more interesting takes on large-scale RTS that exists in the modern time.

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Ashes of the Singularity takes nods from Total Annihilation-style games, but also from Company of Heroes with its squad-based light vehicles, and interconnected resource nodes which function similarly in many respects to territories from Relic’s seminal World War 2 RTS. It uses structure-based support powers similar to those found in Command and Conquer 3, and constrains player upgrades and unit counts through the scarce Quanta resource (which is also used to activate support powers). The campaign DLC has vastly improved in quality, and while the game’s specifications make it difficult to run on all but higher-end machines, Ashes is shaping up to be a serious contender in the large-scale RTS space.

What would your list of top RTS games look like? Let us know in the comments! We plan to regularly refresh and update this article with other worthy candidates, so do come back!

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