Real-time strategy or RTS is one of the quintessential genres that has defined PC gaming for over 2 decades. Whether you’re leading an army of British longbowmen in Age of Empires or laying waste to German tanks in Company of Heroes, the RTS genre is immensely fun. Humans have been fighting each other since the dawn of time.
We started with sticks and stones, upgraded to bows and swords, and then created guns to be even more efficient at killing. Similarly, in RTS games you start small with a tiny group of workers and just a couple of buildings. Then you collect resources from the environment to build new structures, create more units, and advance your technology.
Unlike turn-based strategy, everything in RTS happens spontaneously in real-time. Yeah, some games let you slow down or increase the pacing. But generally speaking, RTS has both your and your opponent fighting each other simultaneously.
To celebrate the rich history of this excellent genre, here are the top 30 RTS games of all time that you must play. Some of these are so good, you might spend the next several months not playing anything but those games. Company of Heroes, Starcraft, and Age of Empires are the pillars that define RTS and I review them all in this list.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
It’s good old Starcraft, refined and optimized to the absolute limit. If your only encounter with Starcraft was the original game, worry not. Because you’ve got a lot of the same units and mechanics in this one too.
With Starcraft II, Blizzard decided to split up the story into 3 sections. One covering each faction- Terran, Zerg, and Protoss. Wings of Liberty is the Terran campaign, with all its events taking place before the other two campaigns.
Terrans are humans, and the game depicts us as a futuristic spacefaring civilization. Starcraft II revolutionized esports by making it a mainstream phenomenon and part of pop culture, especially in South Korea. The best part is that you can download and play Wings of Liberty for free from Blizzard’s official site.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition
You can’t talk about real-time strategy without bringing up the Age of Empires. If Halo is Microsoft’s gift to the FPS genre, Age of Empires is their take on RTS. It features large-scale historical warfare in which you play as one of 13 different civilizations.
The game is set in the medieval period, so combat units usually consist of archers, pikemen, heavy sword-wielding infantry, and cavalry. There are also special units like siege catapults, cannons, etc. You have villagers, and a town center to start.
By collecting 3 major resources- food, wood, and gold you advance your population and technology into the next “Age”. Each new age gives you enhanced means of resource acquisition and access to upgraded military units.
if you are interested to check out more all-time best games from different genres, check out my other post Top 40 Turn-Based Strategy Games Of All Time (PC, Android, Switch, PS)
Company of Heroes 2
A military-focused real-time strategy game based on World War 2. Company of Heroes is all about map and resource control. You send units to plant their flags on key areas of the map, capturing oil and ammunition reserves.
The more area you control, the more units you can build. You’ve got light infantry, armored cars, artillery, and tanks. You can play as both Allied and Axis forces, each nation has its own unique military units.
The game has an excellent campaign with a tightly paced narrative. Not to mention a well-designed multiplayer in which you’re sure to lose countless hours of your life.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
Warhammer 40,000 requires no introduction; even casual gamers have at least heard of it. The infinitely deep lore of Warhammer draws significant inspiration from other fictional franchises like Starship Troopers. Originally, it started as a miniature wargame.
Even to this day, Warhammer 40,000 is the world’s most popular miniature wargame. Think tabletop military tactics simulation, but with intricately detailed miniature figurines instead of abstract objects. Eventually, a video game franchise was born from it.
Dawn of War II is a nice starting point for those new to the series. You’ll notice a lot of similarities between Company of Heroes and this game, that’s because both were developed by Relic. Base building mechanics are put aside in favor of deeper combat systems.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
Command & Conquer is one of the best real-time strategy franchises of all time. And Red Alert 2 is one of the best C & C games ever made. Unlike Company of Heroes, Command & Conquer is set in a fictional universe with a world resembling our Earth.
You’ve got two warring factions fighting over control of a resource called Tiberium. It’s basically like the Spice in Dune, and this war takes place on a global scale. There’s the Global Defense Initiative (UN) and Brotherhood of Nod which is a cult of militaristic followers led by one person called Nod.
Red Alert 2 is based on events that happened during the Cold War. You can play as either the Soviets or the Allies. In Red Alert 2 your goal is to defeat a chain of enemy commanders and conquer their bases. You do this by gathering resources that give you money to make new buildings and fighting units.
if you are interested to check out more all-time best games from different genres, check out my other post Top 35 MOBA Games Of All Time (Android, iOS, PC)
Rome: Total War
Unlike many other games on this list, Rome: Total War is a hybrid. This means you have got both turn-based and real-time elements. Much of the campaign involves a turn-based strategy as you manage diplomatic relations between various factions and control the economy.
Battles take place in real-time, and it usually involves taking control of an enemy city. Once you’ve taken over territory, you can use it to train and produce your soldiers. And since this game is primarily about the Roman Empire spanning between 270BC and 14AD, you’ll be able to control some really interesting military units of that time.
Command & Conquer: Generals
Gameplay-wise, this is like the previous Command & Conquer titles. You move around on a map gathering resources to build up your armed forces and research new technologies. However, there are new units and factions available in this game.
Combine that with the new SAGE engine and you’ve got an excellent RTS game that anyone can easily pick up and play. In its fictional world, the US, China, and a terrorist 3rd party are engaged in global conflict. You can make infantry, defensive buildings, tanks, artillery, and even aircraft (no ships though).
Sins Of A Solar Empire
Well, if you want your real-time strategy to be gigantic in scale and feature more diplomatic options- this is it. Victory is achieved through many routes, combat being just one. Sins of a Solar Empire isn’t just your average RTS, instead, it’s a mix of 4X and RTS.
4X is short for Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate. The world of this game is vast, much larger in scale than the comparatively tiny maps of other RTS games. You travel the galaxy conquering territory through militaristic, economical, and diplomatic means.
if you are interested to check out more all-time best games from different genres, check out my other post Top 40 Stealth Games Of All Time (PS, Xbox, PC, Switch)
The ultimate in a large-scale futuristic space battle. Supreme Commander is a streamlined yet deep RTS game with interesting features that would inspire several upcoming games. It was one of the first games to use airlift transports for troops.
Instead of sending in one wave after another of ground troops, you can simultaneously assault the enemy from all 3 fronts- land, sea, and air. Most other RTS games only let you control 100 to 200 units. But in Supreme Commander, you can have up to 1000 units on the battlefield.
Age of Mythology
Technically, this is an Age of Empires spin-off made by the same developers (Ensemble). However, it isn’t historically accurate. Instead, the Age of Mythology is set in an alternate world where myths and legends have come to life.
Gods battling alongside mortals, centaurs, and orcs ravaging across the battlefield, meteors and lightning storms wiping out entire villages. That’s what the Age of Mythology is all about. You have 3 playable factions- the Greeks, Egyptians, and Norse.
Each of these 3 factions has one major god and several minor gods. You have 4 ages just like Age of Empires 2, and every Age upgrade lets you choose a minor god. All major and minor gods provide you with unique buffs and one-time abilities called “God Powers”.
Halo Wars 2
Yes, it’s a real-time strategy Halo game based on actual Halo lore. In which a UNSC ship called the Spirit of Fire lands on the Ark and fight against the Banished. In Halo Wars 2 you have a top-down view of the battlefield as you control various types of ground troops and vehicles. Combat is based around a simple rock-paper-scissors system.
Ground vehicles are good against infantry, infantry is good against air vehicles, and air vehicles are good against ground vehicles. You need a nice balance of all 3 unit types to successfully carry out a mission. You also have base-building mechanics and can play as either UNSC or Banished.
if you are interested to check out more all-time best games from different genres, check out my other post Top 40 JRPG Games Of All Time (PC, PS, PSP, Switch)
One of the earliest real-time strategy games, this is the original intergalactic space-war simulator. Total Annihilation isn’t the prettiest or most in-depth military RTS but it’s still fun to this day. Unlike many other RTS games such as Age of Empires 2, resources aren’t collected in batches.
Instead, they are streamed directly to your base so figures update constantly (like Age of Empires 3). Plus, resources aren’t finite. And building structures will take more or less time depending on the tier of unit tasked with construction.
Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos
It’s the Sequel to Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and the first 3D Warcraft game. Reign of Chaos is one of those genre-defining titles that you see once every decade. Not only did it change the landscape of RTS gaming forever, but it also formed the foundation for an entirely new genre of RTS called MOBA.
Games like Dota and League of Legends were derived from a mod created for Reign of Chaos. Heroes are a unit type introduced in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. These heroes collect XP from enemy units dying around them and gain access to new spells (as well as an ultimate ability starting at level 6).
Rise of Nations
Rise of Nations plays like a mix between Company of Heroes and Age of Empires. With up to 8 age tiers, you can go all the way from swords and longbows to jet fighters and nuclear missiles. Initially, you are limited to only building structures around the territory that you control.
Unlike Age of Empires, where you can build anywhere on the map as long as it isn’t too close to the enemy town center. Also, the 18 playable civilizations can progress through all 8 ages even though in real history they ceased to exist long ago. You have 6 different resources to collect, and each civilization can build “Wonders” that provide unique buffs.
if you are interested to check out more all-time best games from different genres, check out my other post Top 40 Sandbox Games Of All Time (PC, PS, Android, Xbox)
Medieval: Total War
Like other Total War games, you have both a turn-based and real-time aspect in Medieval. It’s set in the period between 1087 to 1453, with you building your very own empire. You grow this empire by conquering various places across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Turn-based gameplay involves politics, religion, and the economy. You move troops from one region to another, deal with diplomatic tasks, send agents, etc. During the battle, you’re placed into a real-time 3D map with a variety of infantry, cavalry, and siege units.
Total War: Shogun 2
The very first Total War was set in Feudal Japan during the 16th century. Events of the campaign take place after the Ōnin War under the Ashikaga Shogunate. Like with all games featuring medieval Japan, you’ve got clans of rival warlords and leaders trying to take control of each other’s territory.
Like other Total War games, you switch between clan leader and army general roles. As you move your army around the map and make choices that affect your economy, the campaign will progress and put you into real-time battles. There are a total of 9 clans, and you can also interact with foreign factions or send traders to get special benefits.
Company of Heroes
One of the most successful RTS games of all time, Company of Heroes sold millions of copies. It even inspired a movie of the same name, albeit direct-to-video one. The original Company of Heroes introduced several new mechanics for military RTS games.
Like the cover system in which your infantry can take shelter from incoming enemy fire by hiding behind rocks, trees, walls, etc. It also has a garrison system that lets you put an MG team, sniper, or infantry team within a building. Garrisoned units take less damage compared to units that are out in the open, and are harder to suppress with automatic fire.
Set in the 1800s during the dawn of the Industrial Age, Anno 1800 is more of a city building simulator than anything else. Instead of commanding armies, you deal with factory workers, artisans, and tradesmen. Building more industry harms your population even though it improved productivity and the economy.
The attractiveness of your city drops if you industrialize indiscriminately. Pollution, noise, and local unrest will start increasing and AI-controlled citizens will start moving towards areas with more greenery and local festivals.
Anno 1800 also introduces a new system called Blueprinting that lets you plan out your city layout beforehand. If you don’t have the resources at hand, you can place a blueprint at the designated location and instantly finish the building once you have the resources.
Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty
The original Dune movie released way back in 1984 is based on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel of the same name. This game was released in 1992 and draws inspiration from the movie. Its developer even marketed Dune II as the first “real-time strategy”.
Technically, it isn’t the first but it sure laid the foundation that would inspire a bunch of other developers to follow in its footsteps. Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, etc. were all inspired on some level by Dune II. And they use many things that were introduced by this game (world maps, the fog of war, resource gathering, factions, etc.).
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth
This game uses the same SAGE engine as Command & Conquer: Generals and is based on Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy of movies. It even uses clips from the movies and lines spoken by some of the actual voice actors from the movies. Resources are limited to one type only and produced in designated buildings.
You can only construct buildings on plots that you have purchased. And plots can be purchased when they are located within the area that your faction controls. Four factions are waging the War of the Rings with the battle divided into two sides.
Age of Empires IV
When Age of Empires 3 was released, many old fans of the series didn’t like the way it casualized several aspects of the game. Age of Empires II still had a very large and active player base for years after III’s release and was generally regarded as the better game. Eventually, Microsoft decided to make a proper successor to the Age of Empires II.
And that’s how we got Age of Empires IV. Visually it’s a massive upgrade over previous titles and gameplay mechanics have largely been carried over straight from II. The campaign with its high-definition cutscenes and actual footage of historical locations is also a nice touch.
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
Originally released as a standalone expansion to the main game in 2016, Escalation was eventually merged into the base version. When this game was initially released, it was quite demanding on computer hardware of the time. As a result, many tech reviewers would use it as a benchmarking tool to judge the relative performance of new graphics cards and processors.
The reason it’s so resource-intensive is because of the large-scale battles involving thousands of units on gigantic maps. Plus, this isn’t Supreme Commander- the graphics are actually modern and look good even when zoomed in. Ashes of the Singularity has two factions- the Post-Human Coalition and the Substrate.
Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun
While there are other RTS games set in feudal Japan, none play like Shadow Tactics. It manages to merge stealth and real-time strategy in a way that feels natural and intuitive. The game is set during the Edo period when the Tokugawa Shogunate and his Daimyos ruled over Japan.
Tokugawa has united the nation after countless years of war and suffering between rival clans that nearly tore the nation to pieces during the Edo period. However, a new warlord called Kage has risen to the forefront and he threatens the stability of Japan as a nation. You engage in espionage, assassination, and various other stealthy acts instead of large-scale combat in open fields.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
The original Homeworld released in 1999 was an excellent space RTS in which you could command an entire fleet of ships. The new Homeworld is designed to be a prequel, taking place 106 years before the events of the original game. Kharak is a dying world, its surface is almost entirely made up of deserts.
Resources are scarce and various enemy factions are at each other’s throats over territorial disputes. Unlike the original game which only had two factions, this one focuses on just the Kushans. But there are 4 different coalitions/ groups within this single race, and each one occupies different parts of Kharak with unique army units and technologies.
Did you know that when Halo was initially conceived, it was designed to be an RTS game? Back then, Bungie was an independent studio and they came up with this incredible 3D world with vast open-ended levels and a sandbox-style approach. You had infantry, vehicles, and aircraft.
Then, Microsoft purchased Bungie to create a flagship game for their new Xbox console. And we all know what happened- Halo for Xbox defined the way FPS games would work on consoles. However, Halo Wars was meant to be an RTS from the start.
It was designed in 2004 by the same team that worked on Age of Empires. The goal was to revolutionize RTS for consoles in the same way that Halo did for the FPS genre. Both RTS and FPS were PC-favored genres in the 90s and early 2000s.
Men of War
In this game set during World War 2, there is no base-building or resource gathering. Instead, it focuses entirely on military tactics and achieving goals on a grander scale. The game also has a unique inventory system for each vehicle and soldier.
You can even pick up items and trade them. Vehicles or emplacements don’t just have a generic health value. Instead, they are divided into individual parts that each have their own damage value and can be repaired separately.
Buildings are fully modeled on the inside so soldiers can get in, walk around and explore the whole place. Almost everything you see in the game can be destroyed or damaged. All this makes Men of War seem like an intricately modeled simulation game hiding underneath the suit of an RTS.
They Are Billions
One of the best early access success stories on Steam in recent times. They Are Billions is a wonderful combination of RTS and survival mechanics. You are put into a large sandbox-style world that’s randomly generated.
Oh, and there’s also a zombie outbreak. So you have to explore and gather resources while also surviving hordes of zombies. There is a tech tree and you must collect various resources like food, water, oil, gold, etc. to construct new buildings and advance your technology.
While you have access to various unit types, the zombies also come in multiple variants much like Left 4 Dead. You must defend your village or stronghold against waves of zombies, which almost makes this feel like a tower defense game.
It’s like your very own interplanetary conquest simulator. You control giant futuristic space armies and travel around capturing planets to establish new bases. There are 2-player matches and large-scale matches with up to 40 players.
Don’t like a certain planet? Well, you can use other planets and even asteroids like cannonballs to “annihilate” any planet you want. You can own and control an entire map filled with several solar systems, each containing multiple planets.
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines
Unlike Command & Conquer, this game puts you in charge of small covert units comprised of special operations soldiers. Or commandos, as some like to call them. You take control of a group containing 6 Allied commandos, who complete missions in various parts of the world.
There are different mission types, ranging from espionage and sabotage to rescue and assassination. Before each mission, you are provided with a quick briefing that gives you the background of your target area and the objective list.
Commandoes are taken from various branches of the military and each commando has unique specialties. For example- Marines can pilot boats and dive underwater while Green Berets can move barrels and climb rough terrain.
Offworld Trading Company
Humans have now colonized Mars and several corporations are engaged in a battle to take over the most resources. There are 4 different off-world trading companies, each with their extractor buildings working continuously to suck the planet dry. In this game, you have 13 unique resources.
Some of those resources are water, aluminum, iron, silicon, and carbon. You need power plants to generate electricity for buildings, and these buildings are often mills where you process raw mineral ore.
With this list, I covered most of the popular RTS games released between the 90s and the current year. However, there are a few great ones that I left out. After all, the genre is so vast and diverse with dozens of new RTS games being released each year.
Remember- all this is based on my personal opinion and general popularity among the gaming public. This is why games like Anno, Halo Wars, Ashes of the Singularity, etc. made it onto the list. Not only are they good, but also have a large and active player base.
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