Learn about one of the most popular PC game genres ever. Discover how real time strategy games make you the commander and test you mental acuity. Read about some of the best RTS games of the past and present to get in the game.
Many games out there strive to put you directly into the action, but Real Time Strategy (RTS) games take a different approach. Instead, they show you a bird’s eye view and give you control over entire armies.
With the power of a general at your fingertips, you might manage resources to out-produce your enemies, construct a base or fortress that is impenetrable or stun your foes with brilliant tactics by maneuvering your armies throughout the battlefield. Let’s take an in-depth look at what an RTS game is and some of the best RTS games out there, past and present.
Commanding in Real Time
RTS games are a varied and diverse bunch, but there are several features that a game must have to be considered truly Real Time Strategy.
- Command: As the player of an RTS game, you are some sort of leader; either a character in the story or some disembodied force. What’s important is that you are in command of a wide array of troops. By controlling these different units, you use their distinct strengths and weaknesses to complete objectives. Think of it like Chess, but with one important distinction…
- Real Time: Unlike Chess, the events of an RTS game unfold in, of course, real time. There are no turns to take; you do not wait for your opponent to make his move. Because you are giving orders and they are executed as you give them, you and your opponent or opponents must think fast and manipulate your forces correctly to win. Chess is a battle of wits, whereas RTS games require manual dexterity and skill as well as intellect.
- Resource Management: As a backdrop of all of this action, there is the resource and base management. An RTS game often, but not always, requires you to construct a base as well as gather and manage resources. With these resources, you create your army as well as purchase upgrades for it to give you an edge. So, not only must you outmaneuver your opponent, but you must also outproduce them. There are games that do not have base or resource management but do have you commanding armies or forces, but without the backdrop of economic strategy, it becomes a Real Time Tactics game.
These features are only the bare bones, however. Many RTS games expand and add to this framework to make memorable experiences. Here are a few features that you will often find in an RTS but are not necessary to classify them as such.
- Campaign story modes that tell a story from mission to mission
- RPG elements that allow your “commander” to grow and acquire new abilities and benefits as the game progresses
- Player Versus Player (PVP) combat that pits you against other players over the internet or LAN
- Capture point based economies that require you to seize and hold areas of the map to accumulate resources.
- Activatable abilities that are used in the heat of battle to turn the tide.
The RTS genre is a storied one with a rich history. Over the years, developers have found many ways to vary the genre and innovate to keep it fresh.
The Best RTS Games Out There
Because the RTS genre is so old, there are a wealth of games out there that deserve to be in this category. So let’s take a look at different subsections of the genre so that more great games can get their due.
Best RTS Games on PC: Recent/Modern
While the RTS genre has seen better days, game developers still manage to release excellent titles every once in a while. Here are some of the best games to come out in recent memory. These games are also all for the PC, the RTS games’ traditional home.
- Supreme Commander: This Sci-Fi RTS and its sequel are considered some of the finest RTS games ever because of the mind-boggling scope they are capable of. As the game ramps up, you’ll find yourself with titanic bases churning out mountains of resources to create enormous war machines to attack your enemies. Supreme Commander takes the idea of strategy to the next level.
- Company of Heroes: Set in WWII, Company of Heroes puts you in command of either Allied or Axis forces with a focus on realism. The game added new layers of strategy and tactics by perfecting systems and features like directional targeting; attacking that Tiger tank head-on is suicide, you must flank and attack its weaker rear or side armor. Throw in artillery, airstrikes and activated abilities, and you’ve got a complex and rewarding game with a great story to tell.
- Sins of a Solar Empire: SoaSE is unique in that instead of commanding armies on the ground and building bases, you command fleets and space stations in orbits around planets that you develop. Why be a general when you can be a space admiral? This galaxy conquering game somehow makes real time strategy work in space by forcing you to manage how long it takes to travel between systems and keep track of entire planet systems instead of one small patch of land.
Best RTS Games: Console
While the mouse and keyboard are widely considered the best tools for commanding digital armies in the RTS genre, there have been many attempts to bring RTS games to home consoles. Most of these were unsuccessful and clunky ports, but there are a few success stories. Here are a few that stand out.
- Halo Wars: A tie in to Microsoft’s flagship franchise. Halo Wars was built from the ground up with consoles in mind. A unique control scheme and design philosophy made it quite successful. It even spawned a sequel as a testament to its innovation and storytelling.
- GrimGrimoire: This classic from the PS2 had to change a lot of core mechanics to be possible on a console, but it managed it with some degree of success. As a witch, you would build runes and summon magical helpers to defeat your foes. It gathered a cult (pun not intended) following and is one of the few examples of RTS games with origins in Japan.
- Brutal Legend: While polarizing, this highly stylized game managed to pull off something unique. A hybrid action adventure game with RTS sequences, Brutal Legend managed to capture imaginations with its Metal aesthetic and star power, despite its barebones RTS mechanics.
Best RTS Games: Classic
Here are some of the best RTS games from years gone by. Despite their age, these games are so good they stand the test of time and hold up to this day.
- Command and Conquer: This series sets itself apart from other RTS war games with its tone and storytelling. By using full motion video (FMV) to tell stories with real actors and sets, the C&C injected a level of camp and humor into their games that remains unrivaled to this day, at least in the RTS world. This showmanship, combined with stellar gameplay and creative unit types, solidifies this sadly defunct franchise’s place in RTS history.
- Warcraft: The legendary RTS from Blizzard that started it all. The first Warcraft game wasn’t the first RTS game, but it put the genre on the map and led to the cultural force that is World of Warcraft. Rich lore, groundbreaking graphics and innovative gameplay were staples of each Warcraft installment, and the titles have become synonymous with the genre.
- Total Annihilation: Supreme Commander perfected its style of RTS, but Total Annihilation created it. Lauded for its complexity, depth and graphical advancements, this game has gone down as a genre-defining title.
Free RTS Games
For those of us with a tight budget, the free to play model has thankfully made its way to RTS games. There aren’t many, but here are a couple of options for the strategy starved.
- Starcraft II: Starcraft built upon the success of Warcraft, and Starcraft II is Blizzard’s most recent RTS game. The game is split into three different smaller games, but the first chapter is free to play as well as the online portion of the first chapter. This game is a great way to break into the genre at no cost and see what all the ESports hype is about.
- 0 A.D.: Pronounced “Zero Ay Dee,” this game is open source and available to download for free. This RTS pits classical civilizations from Humanity’s past against one another with impressive graphics and depth for a free game.
- Warzone 2100: A classic game in the vein of Total Annihilation. Warzone 2100 is downloadable for free and is a great window into the past of the RTS genre. There are even still people playing online (sometimes)!
Real Time Strategy games may not be the most popular and best-selling games these days, but they are still an important part of the video games landscape and offer a unique experience. They challenge both your mind and your reflexes in ways other games do not. There are also thriving Esports communities helping keep the genre alive. The RTS genre has a beloved past and, with any luck, a bright future.