The Best RTS Games30 Jul 2020 13
There are many lists of the best RTS games, and many of those lists a packed with the classics from the 90’s and early 2000’s. 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 titles appearing time and again, with little new to say about them. It can leave newer releases in the cold.
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.
The header image is from Battle for Middle-Earth 2. Strategy Gamer is a GOG.com Affiliate.
What are the best RTS Games?
- The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth (1 and 2)
- John Wick Hex
- Driftland: The Magic Revival
- Bad North: Jotunn Edition
- Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
- Tropico 6
- Offworld Trading Company
- Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
- Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
- Age of Empires 2
- StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty
- Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth (1 or 2)
Developer: EA Los Angeles
This one debuts on the list because we were thinking about it recently when Renata pointed out that, not only was it a pretty interesting RTS, but it was also one of the best Lord of the Rings digital adaptations to date. Not necessarily in terms of the core stories of the books but generally on how the developers at managed EA Los Angeles (who would go on to make Command & Conquer 3 & 4) to translate the feel of the different factions from the source material into an RTS context.
While Renata is very much in favour of the second game, plenty of readers have commented to us since that they actually preferred the first title, so we've listed both. Critically they received roughly the same score. The only caveat with this listing is that it's very hard to find a copy of the game for sale. EA lost the license in 2010 so you're stuck with trying to find second-hand discs or... 'other' means. Playing online as well is best done via services such as GameRanger, or the t3aonline.net website which has managed to preserve the game and make it playable in solo and multiplayer.
John Wick Hex
Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment
Buy From: Epic Games Store
I know this is going to cause some controversy, but I'm having a real tough-time with this one, ok? Hear me out - My thinking is, John Wick Hex can't be a turn-based game because there's no defined set of time for the turn to play out in. You choose an action, whether it be walking, or firing your gun, and time advances however long it takes for that action to play out. Meanwhile the game still plays out around you at it's own pace regardless of what you're doing, and your action could end part-way through a enemy playing out their action. It's not like BSG Deadlock, where a fixed amount of time passes in between issuing orders. So yeah, for now until we hear otherwise John Wick Hex is an RTS games. Kind of. Don't @ Me.
Identity crises aside, this is a very inventive and addictive strategy game where you play as John Wick, from the movies, in a prequel story set before the first film. You don't actually need to know much about the films for this to work - mastering the rhythm and the dynamics of the game's 'time-line' system is fascinating enough, and there are a surprising amount of tactical options to approach any given situation. This probably one of the most decent tie-in games we've seen in a long while.
Driftland: The Magic Revival
It's nice to see a new face finally make it onto this list - Driftland was in Early Access for a couple of years before it finally released in April 2019, and it seems that time has been put to good use. This is an innovative RTS that follows in the mould of the classic Majesty franchise - where indirect control is the order of the day. You are a Mage whose realm is on one of many shattered pieces of the world floating around, and you must develop your holdings and expand onto other ones by connecting them together.
It's not for everyone, and there are some other minor niggles that will need to get worked out over time, but Driftland willingness to be bold and experiment does it justice, and anyone looking for a new fantasy RTS game need look no further. Read our Driftland: The Magic Revival review for more.
Bad North: Jotunn Edition
Self-styling itself as a 'micro strategy' game, Bad North is the poster child for minimalist design facilitating tight tactical decision making. Evoking the best bits of games like FTL, this game sees you taking your modest force from island to island, protecting them against waves of blood-thirsty marauders. As you progress through the game you can earn coins to level up your troops, recruit new troops and find powerful items to aid you.
At the end of July 2019 Bad North got a major content update known as the Jotunn Edition. This is a huge content update, changing everything from meta progression, to adding new items, to gameplay and difficulty, and more. It's been folded into the main game and is now the 'definitive' version of Bad North.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
This isn't a new release but we feel it's definitely worth mentioning as Shadow Tactics is a wonderfully tense real-time tactical/puzzle game that will challenge not only your creative thinking, but also your combo and control skills. This is a stealth-based game that follows in the hallowed tradition of classics like Commandos, but also taking queues from modern contemporaries like Assassins Creed. With a very powerful and engaging narrative, you must guide up to five characters through vibrant and varied levels. Subterfuge is key, and 'fighting your way out' isn't really an option.
This is a wonderful homage to a forgotten genre of strategy games, but one that stands proud as it creates its own legacy. The attention to detail on the maps & characters makes this a story you genuinely want to experience right through the end, with characters you can 100% get behind. The tactical puzzles you are presented with map-to-map will challenge your creativity and handling of the characters to the very end – and at no point does it feel like a chore.
Ah, Tropico. The Banana Republic sim, the Castro sim, the tin-pot dictator sim. Tropico 6 represents a clean slate in the series' history - originally under the helm of Surviving Mars studio Haemimont, (who were responsible for Tropico's 3-6), Limbic Entertainment have now taken over control of everyone's favourite dictatorship. This is a refreshing twist on the city builder that puts players in the aviators and oversized cigars of not just one, but an entire dynasty of male and female despot wannabes. Starting in the twilight of the Imperial era, the player’s role is that of the manager of a new colony on a Caribbean isle, who eventually earns their independence and then proceeds to navigate the literal and political waters of the World Wars, the Cold War, and into the modern era, with the player choosing such roles as either a socialist dictator, or crony capitalist.
Tropico 6 is a great game. It hits many of the right notes, and has that “just a little longer” feel that will keep you in its sandbox (and coming back) for quite a while. It’s an easy pick for fans of sim games. And of course, there’s always the benefit that you can lord over the lives of hundreds of virtual people with as iron or velvet a hand as you desire – and that’s always a good time!
Offworld Trading Company
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.
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.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
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
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.
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 (2013)
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment
Buy From: Steam
I feel like I’m cheating, sneaking an older game into this article; while Age of Empires 2's first HD remake came out in 2013, the original was released in 1999. Age of Empires 2 HD was 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. It's worth noting that in November 2019 Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition was released that largely supersedes the 2013 HD release, even though you can buy both separately. It's essentially the same game with even better graphics and a new expansion pack. We've not updated this entry fully because the 2013 edition had far more impact on the RTS genre than the newest version. That said, there's no point buying the HD version if you don't already own it - go straight to the DE.
StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty
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.
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.
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
Developer: Oxide Games
Buy From: GOG.com, Direct
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.
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.
Other RTS Game Recommendations
The below games featured on our list in the past, but have since rotated out to join their brothers and sisters in the hall of heroes:
- Close Combat: The Bloody First
- Ancestors Legacy
- Starcraft Remastered
- Tooth & Tail
- Total War: Rome 2
- Tropico 5 (Although 4 will always be my bae-ED)
- A.I. War 2
What would your list of top RTS games look like? Let us know in the comments!