As gamers ourselves, we did the research on over 30 different real-time strategy titles and our team ultimately determined the best RTS game is Blizzard's Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void. This title was the top choice based on its depth of content (a base title and three expansions), excellent single player campaign and stellar multiplayer matchmaking experience.
Our runner-up real-time strategy game is EA's Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. It is worth noting that this isn't the newest title in this particular franchise, but we believe it is the best version of recent releases as Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight did not receive a positive reception from most C&C fans who think that it strayed too much from its predecessors.
If you are looking to start enjoying a free RTS game, then Blizzard's Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is now free to download and play. This is the first iteration in the Starcraft II series followed by their two paid expansions which added new maps, units, structures and campaigns.
The latest and greatest RTS game expansion from Blizzard with new content and features.
While StarCraft 2 originally debuted back in 2010 with Wings of Liberty, the second expansion Legacy of the Void was released in 2015. With a campaign focused on their Protoss race, the storyline is fantastic with new units that make for a refreshingly fun single-player experience. Jumping into the multiplayer, you won't find another real-time strategy game with a larger active player base or as competitive eSports scene as SC2: LOTV.
Our pick as the best RTS game from the Command & Conquer franchise.
While not the most recent release from Electronic Arts and their Command & Conquer franchise, it is our pick as the best choice for someone looking for a solid real-time strategy title that isn't overly outdated. Offers an excellent single player experience coupled with great multiplayer battles, this is one to consider.
Best Free RTS Game
The original successor to StarCraft that brought this RTS franchise to modern times.
Released back in 2010, Wings of Liberty was a big release for Blizzard and brought the Starcraft real-time strategy franchise into modern times with updated graphics, units and a stellar campaign. Initially launched at a $40 price-point, Blizzard has since made Wings of Liberty free-to-play.
Video games have truly become mainstream in today's world with thanks to next-generation gaming consoles, better Internet connectivity and hardware components at lower prices for PC gamers. Adding in the popularity of eSports and video game streaming services like Twitch, the industry is booming.
Among the various categories of video games, one of them stands out in particular. Real-time strategy (RTS) titles are some of the most fun games ever to be released and also some of the toughest to master in skill. With high-paced action and a deep focus on both micro and macro management skills, these titles can be great fun to play and watch.
While the gaming industry has changed the focus from RTS development to other more popular game genres over the past five years, this guide was written to help introduce you to some of the best RTS games of all time.
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Before we introduce you to our full of recommended real-time strategy titles, we will try to tackle a common question about the lack of growth for the genre in the video game industry, what to look for in an RTS game and offer a basic comparison of the listed games.
Keep in mind, while this guide is based on our own personal views and recommendations without any outside bias, we have incorporated affiliate links within this content which may earn us a small commission on referred sales. In the event of this, you'll pay no more for the game and our minor cut of comes out of the retailer's revenue.
Since we don't make any revenue from providing free valuable content such as this (we don't charge for access to this article and hope we never have to), we partner with trusted retailers as an affiliate to help keep the lights on and not have to resort to an annoying number of display ads which almost always ruins the reading experience.
We appreciate your understanding and support on this issue and hope you find this guide on the best real-time strategy games to be helpful in your search.
What Does Real-Time Strategy Mean?
The term RTS in gaming stands for real-time strategy, and this is a genre of titles that has participants positioning and maneuvering their units and structures at the same time as their opponent.
Unlike traditional strategy games (like chess for example), there is no turn-based system of play so competitors must simultaneously control their assets in an attempt to invade and destroy their opponent's base.
Most of the time, these real-time strategy games will focus on having a primary resource of which players must harvest throughout the match which in turn this resource can be spent on crafting new structures or creating new units to product their assets or invade their enemies' area.
From an eSports point of view, real-time strategy titles are some of the most fun to watch as there is so much going on and often times the matches build up until a massive battle between the two competitors.
Real-time strategy is one of the harder video game genres to master since skilled players must be able to multi-task exceptionally well to maintain optimal resource harvesting alongside building new structures, creating new units and keeping an eye on the enemy forces.
APM is a common term that is thrown around the competitive RTS gaming scene, and it refers to actions per minute. This concept is the measurement of a player's ability to carry out productive actions per minute and is usually an easy way to judge an RTS player's skill.
Why Aren't Many New RTS Titles Being Released?
If you have been doing research on real-time strategy games, then you'll likely see that there haven't been all that many new RTS titles released in the last few years.
While this is unfortunate for many fans of the genre, there are a few potential reasons we think could be the reason we are seeing this trend (these are merely our observations):
- Lack of console support - while classics like Starcraft one debuted on consoles (Nintendo 64 surprisingly enough), it is difficult for developers to release an RTS game on a traditional gaming console due to the reliance on a controller (there are a few new exceptions like Halo Wars). While this isn't a problem for PC gamers, there is less incentive from a development standpoint to create a game just for the PC as there is less potential for revenue from sales across one platform compared to developing other games for multiple platforms with a broader audience.
- Lack of gamer interest - as the newer generations of gamers come into the picture, the gaming scene is dominated by MOBAs like League of Legends, FPS like Call of Duty or battle royales like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds or Fortnite. While there are still plenty of us that enjoy a good RTS game, there may not be the consumer interest that there once was.
- Lack of innovation - at this point in the RTS gaming scene, all of the big franchises (think Starcraft, Warcraft, Age of Empires, Command & Conquer) have all released several iterations or at least several expansion packs to their real-time strategy titles. With each new release there was more maps, units, structures or features, but over time the innovation from these franchises begins to slow to a halt as most of their fresh ideas have been used up.
What To Consider Before Buying An RTS Title
If you are thinking about investing some money into a real time strategy game then you probably should consider a few elements before buying an RTS title:
An obvious aspect to consider, but given the nature of the industry, it can be interesting as prices have fluctuated largely since many of these RTS games were first released. For example, some of the older real-time strategy classics are no longer being sold so you'll have to find an existing copy online which can get expensive.
For some RTS games, you'll see both digital and physical options for purchasing. More often than not, the digital copy will be cheaper and easier since you don't have to wait for the disc to arrive in the mail.
Additionally, in some situations there have been several games or expansions under the same franchise. In this guide, we will often reference the most current version of the game as that is the one most available and supported with modern operating systems. However, some older games like the original Starcraft has been updated and remastered for modern times at a lower launch price which is another option to consider.
Considering the year that the game was first released will give you an idea of how new the gameplay is and also help you determine if you may run into issues playing it. Most issues with old games will either be lack of support on modern versions of Windows operating systems (sometimes there is a workaround online) or discontinuation of the multiplayer servers so in some cases even though the title launched with online multiplayer, you will only be able to play single-player or LAN.
In this case, the kind of real-time strategy game is more towards the setting of which the the game takes place. The three types of RTS titles we will be covering include:
- Ancient - the game's setting is in ancient times which may have unrealistic characters or structures.
- Realistic - the game's setting takes place in modern times with realistic weaponry, characters and structures.
- Futuristic - the game's setting takes place in modern times with futuristic weaponry, characters and structures maybe even alien or space-based.
To some, this is the most crucial element to a real-time strategy game and often the single-player campaigns within these titles are well done and really interesting. Regardless of the year of release, single-player campaigns can be enjoyed (as long as your operating system supports the title) as there is no reliance of existing servers.
Others who are buy RTS games want to solely play online either cooperatively with friends or competitively against other real players. While a lot of the options of this list offered multiplayer support at one time or another, it is important to verify that the multiplayer infrastructure is still functioning at this current time especially if it is more than five years since the game's first release.
In some cases like the case for Command & Conquer titles, the original online multiplayer servers have been shut down which in this case was called GameSpy. However, diehard fans of the series have come together to start their own multiplayer service network so those can still play against others online unofficially.
Platform Support (PC & Mac)
This article is focusing on RTS games for the PC, but a few of these titles may be available for other game consoles. Additionally, a few of these titles may be available for Apple's Mac operating system although keep in mind that the edition you purchase to install on Mac will be entirely different than the PC version.
Lastly, despite these all being real-time strategy games for the PC or Windows operating system, older games might not install or run correctly on Windows 7, 8 or 10. Due to this, you may want to look up compatibility before buying and in some cases, it may not natively work right away, but other games have found workarounds to get these older RTS titles up and running.
Comparing The Top Strategy Titles
Halo Wars 2
World In Conflict: Soviet Assault
Empire: Total War
C&C: Red Alert 3
Star Wars: Empire At War
Company of Heroes 2
Age of Mythology: Extended Edition
Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 3
C&C 4: Tiberian Twilight
Age of Empires III
Total War: Rome II
*Pricing as of 4/4/18
The Best RTS Games (2018)
Our top choice for RTS games as of 2018 is Blizzard's latest expansion to their StarCraft II franchise dubbed Legacy of the Void. This futuristic title has a focus on the game's Protoss race (hence the name) and the campaign's storyline is closely tied into this.
Regarding multiplayer, most competitive SC2 tournaments and playrs will focus on the game as of the LOTV release of which brought forth even more new units. While eSports has grown significantly larger than StarCraft, this is the RTS game that still consistently grabs in the most viewers on Twitch.
The sequel to the popular Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 title, Red Alert 3 offers an exciting experience playing as the Allies, Soviets, or the Empire of the Rising Sun. The plot contains many twists and turns thanks to the Soviet's time travel device, so you will always be kept guessing. Besides the excellent single-player, the multiplayer modes give this game some extended replayability.
Age of Mythology was initially released way back in 2002 (with The Titans expansion in 2003) and is a sister franchise to Age of Empires. However, the developers reworked the title to bring it to modern times back in 2014 which included both the original game and The Titans expansion under the Extended Edition.
This newer version added necessary revamps like Steamworks integration, Twitch support, a better observer mode, HD widescreen support and better lighting/water details. In 2016, an expansion called Tale of the Dragon was released adding a Chinese culture, three new gods, a new campaign, a few multiplayer maps and other new features.
One of the newest RTS games to be released, Halo Wars 2 came out in February of 2017 on both Windows and the Xbox One. If you are familiar with the ultra-popular Halo FPS franchise, the units in Halo Wars 2 are based on with the ability to play as either the UNSC (humanity's military) or the Banished (aka the Covenant/Aliens).
Warcraft III is one of the most popular RTS games of all time. You can choose to play as the Orcs, Humans, Undead, or Night Elves. WC3 features an excellent single-player mode and a multiplayer mode that really boosted the popularity to the high levels it stands today. The game is very old coming out way back in 2002, but it is still a favorite among many including popular Twitch streamer, Grubby.
Those who are fans of the Star Wars movie franchise, Empire at War is the real-time strategy title for you. Within this RTS title you can conquer over 80 locations including Tatooine and Dagobah as well as command iconic characters like Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Boba Fett or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Battles take place both in air or on land to ultimately determine the fate of the galaxy.
The sequel to the original RTS game, Company of Heroes, this title took the realistic real-time strategy genre to the next level with new gameplay mechanics like TrueSight and Dynamic Battle Tactics. Built on a new and proprietary engine, Company of Heroes 2 exceeds the usual graphical and gameplay constraints of the RTS genre while offering both a stellar campaign and multiplayer experience.
Another iconic game franchise that built its following on the real-time strategy genre, Age of Empires III was released back in 2005 and had sold 3M copies by 2008. The gameplay is based on advancing through technological ages from historical time periods which provide greater access to improvements, unit and buildings as the time progresses.
The second in the series, Total War: Rome, this title offers an excellent cinematic real-time strategy experience set in ancient Rome where massive battles can take play with tens of thousands of units. With Total War: Rome II, the graphics engine has been redesigned to offer excellent detail and reliable graphics performance regardless of the specs of your PC.
Starcraft was one of the original real-time strategy games that exploded the popularity of the genre. Since being released back in 1998, the franchise has come a long way including the second iteration of which won the Editor's Choice in this article.
However, the original Starcraft is still a favorite among many diehard real-time strategy gamers, and it has since been made free to play. Additionally, Blizzard went back and remastered the original game with improved graphics and features like multiplayer matchmaking, and it is available for purchase at an affordable price of under $15.
Command & Conquer: Generals is a real-time strategy game based on realistic warfare. Throughout the campaign and multiplayer you have access to soldiers, tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, and even nuclear missiles. There was an official sequel planned, but trouble in development caused the game to be postponed then ultimately canceled by EA which was disappointing to many fans who preferred the realistic gameplay of Generals.
Empire: Total War debuted in 2009 and gave real-time strategy fans a chance to play as dominant political factions including France, Spain, Great Britain, Sweden, Prussia, Russia, and the Ottoman empire. Offering an episodic single-player campaign and an impressive multi-player structure that includes leagues and ladders, Empire: Total War is a refreshingly fun RTS.
The Warhammer 40,000 video game franchise includes many different titles and genres, but their Dawn of War series is geared for real-time strategy fans. Released just last year, Dawn of War III strives to offer the best features from its predecessors including base-building, large-scale battles, hero units and customizable armies. The single-player storyline is rich, and the online multiplayer battles are a blast. If you are already a fan of Warhammer then this is undoubtedly one to consider.
The original installment in the second generation of the StarCraft franchise and one that brought RTS back to mainstream esports upon its release. Featuring both a stellar single-player campaign and multi-player online experience, Starcraft 2 is a must-have for anyone who likes real-time strategy games.
When Wings of Liberty first launched back in 2010, Blizzard was charging $40 for the title although time has gone on and the company has released further expansions including Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void. Due to this, Blizzard has decided to make Wings of Liberty free-to-play.
The newest real-time strategy game from EA and their Command & Conquer franchise. Released in 2010, this title was met with a lot of disappointment by diehard fans of the series and many regard it as the worst in the C&C series. However, those who aren't heavily invested into the previous games might still enjoy Tiberian Twilight despite it straying away from the heart of the franchise.
The expansion of the original World in Conflict, which was a huge hit with strategy gamers. However, the Soviet Assault version was supposed to be released for modern consoles as well as Windows and only made its way to the PC with console releases getting canceled abruptly. Purchasing this version from Amazon includes the original World in Conflict, the Soviet Assault expansion as well as the real-time tactic game Tom Clancy's Endwar.
This concludes our guide, we hope that you found our recommendations helpful. While everyone's needs, budget and interests are different, there is not one game that fits all for real-time strategy titles.
We do believe that StarCraft II is the best choice for most readers of this article and you can either play the free Wings of Liberty original or spend a little bit of money to enjoy the expansions like Legacy of the Void.
While the real-time strategy game genre may be slowing down for future development, gamers will always find ways to enjoy the classics that we grew up playing and competing against our friends or opponents online with.
Our team hopes that you found value in our recommendations or learned something from this piece of content. Check back regularly as we will be adding or updating this article to most accurately reflect the best RTS games at this current time.
As a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and our Managing Editor, Colt loves testing out the newest tech products/services. His goal is to help better educate other consumers to ensure the most satisfying purchases decisions on consumer electronics and services. When he is not working on creating new content, Colt enjoys spending time with his two Australian Shepherds, Mia and Zoey.