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Real-time strategy (RTS) games have been around for decades, and they remain an important staple for many PC gamers. The scale of these games has grown exponentially over the years as well, and the same goes for the ways in which we play them. These titles are no longer strictly defined experiences because the RTS genre has branched out into its own subgenres.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at what sets these games apart. We’ll then run down the best RTS titles available to play this year, including some that are completely free to play. Here are the games we’ll cover:
- Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition
- Company of Heroes 2
- Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
- AI War 2
- StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty
- Dota 2
- VEGA Conflict
But before we get started, let’s take a quick look at what an RTS game is.
What is an RTS game?
Players explore, build, and interact in the moment, whether it’s for conflict or diplomacy. RTS games task players with controlling their operations in real time (hence the name, real-time strategy game). While games like Civilization pioneered the world of turn-based strategy, the likes of Age of Empires and StarCraft helped shape the long-term popularity of the RTS genre in the mid-1990s.
Resource management is crucial
Resource management is an expression any RTS gamer will recognize. In most of these games, resource management can apply to just about every layer of your in-game activities. Activities such as building your base, upgrading buildings, and developing new technology or units almost always depend on gathering materials and deploying them effectively.
Even more abstract tasks like diplomacy can often be tied to managing variables. Time is one such example, but there are others you may have to manage in a game. For example, events may unfold differently based on the in-game ideology or technological sophistication of your campaign.
MOBA and ARTS
There are lots of games with similar characteristics to RTS. The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) subgenre is one that has a bigger emphasis on team-play and less on things like base building. Games like Dota 2 and League of Legends are great examples. They actually grew out of an earlier niche described as action RTS (ARTS), but they’ve been adapted for online play.
The real-time tactics (RTT) subgenre describes the critical planning that goes into the most dynamic turn-based strategy games. In these cases, a turn will usually correspond to a set amount of time, while decision-making centers on a suite of events that either occur or are triggered during your turn.
4X is another common term in the realm of strategy games, and it’s short for the “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” focus in many RTS and turn-based strategy games. That doesn’t mean you have to play as a tyrant in all 4X games, but you are generally in competition with other players and factions for resources. Civilization is the classic example, but there are plenty of popular and more modern forays into 4X.
The best RTS Games for PC
1. Stellaris by Paradox
Released for PC in 2016, Stellaris
is sci-fi RTS that’s seen consistently strong popularity and a steady stream of expanded content over the years. It boasts seven expansions to date and their latest, Ancient Relics
, was just released this past June. That popularity also prompted Paradox to port the game over to consoles as well.
A blend of RTS and grand strategy wargames, Stellaris lets you control a space-faring species just as it masters efficient interstellar travel. You can customize your species and your empire to suit your style of play, which gives your game a deeper personality. Explore, trade, and conquer in whatever combination you prefer when you play this 4X title.
2. Age of Empires Definitive Editions by Tantalus and Forgotten Empires
Age of Empires
is a classic when it comes to historical RTS games, and updated versions of the entire series will keep it on your radar. Expect better graphics, improved gameplay and user design, along with revamped sound and a bevy of other fixes. Age of Empires 1
and The Rise of Rome
expansion, focused on the Stone Age through the formation of Rome, are already available in a definitive edition.
Later in 2019, the definitive edition for Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings will bring improved gameplay and its various expansions to your collection. Plus, there’s a definitive edition planned for the third AoE, though it’s not clear when it’ll be released. Whichever you choose, it’s a great way to keep busy while waiting for the much-anticipated fourth installment in the series, due to launch in 2020.
3. Company of Heroes 2 by Relic Entertainment
Focused on the events of World War II, 2013’s Company of Heroes 2
moves away from Western Europe and takes players from the Battle of Stalingrad to the Fall of the Reichstag in Berlin. The game attempts to portray some of the dysfunction of Stalinist leadership as well as controversial wartime events like Stalin’s famous Order No. 227.
It may be an older title, but it’s got a serious shelf life for RTS enthusiasts, particularly those with a fondness for more recent world history. Also, Company of Heroes 2 and the expansions are still seen as a high-watermark for WWII-themed RTS games.
4. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 by Tindalos Interactive
Rooted in the gothic sci-fi universe of popular miniature wargame Warhammer 40,000, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
quietly hit digital shelves in 2019 during a crowded release schedule. It shares many features with its predecessor but comes with improved graphics, more factions, and an incredibly deep storyline, plus a bigger scale for multiplayer.
The expanded Warhammer 40,000 is huge and admittedly can seem a little daunting for newcomers. That said, if the prospect of a rich campaign and immersive space-based capital-ship combat sounds appealing, you should give this one a try. If not, at least check out some gameplay videos.
5. Frostpunk by 11 Bit Studios
isn’t like a typical RTS or even a multiplayer-focused variant. It’s a city-building game that combines the fundamentals of a traditional RTS with the premise of survival horror. In Frostpunk
, players must manage one of humanity’s few remaining cities after a global winter is triggered by volcanic eruptions and mysterious solar dimming.
The basics are pure RTS, with resource management and events, and the encroaching cold is an omnipresent threat that constantly threatens your city. Gather materials and make decisions when confronted by new emergencies, external threats, and the needs of your community. There are several base scenarios to play through along with a free DLC, The Fall of Winterhome.
6. AI War 2 by Arcen Games
The sequel to Arcen Games’ challenging and complex AI War: Fleet Command
, AI War 2
was partially funded via Kickstarter and entered Early Access on Steam in late 2018. Even in its unfinished form, AI War 2
has garnered a consistently positive response from users and looks to have advanced on the basic premise of the original game.
It may not be breaking too much new ground in terms of narrative, but AI War 2 stays true to the original when it comes to large-scale fleet management and combat. As with the first game, you play as a Human Remnant coping with a growing menagerie of other factions. It’s still in development, but definitely worth a look if you’re into detailed space strategy games.
7. Warparty by Crazy Monkey Studios
Set in a fantastical version of the Stone Age, Warparty
is a relatively simple cross-platform RTS game that you can play on PC or console. It’s also one of the newest titles we’ll cover, as it was released in 2019 with a strong emphasis on multiplayer and accessible RTS basics.
You’ll choose from three factions, each with its own different affinities. Raise the dead to fight for you as the Necromas or use magic to tame dinosaurs as the Vithara. Or if you prefer a more balanced approach with mixed-infantry tactics, opt for the Wildlanders as you explore the wonders of this take on the Stone Age.
The best free RTS games
8. StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty by Blizzard Entertainment
Initially released in 2010, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty
had a long and successful history even before the developers at Blizzard Entertainment decided to change gears and make the game entirely free to play. They made the shift in 2017, and opened up StarCraft 2
’s main game modes including the campaign, multiplayer, and more.
It may be nearly a decade old, but the game quality and the free-to-play model continue to draw in new players. The annual StarCraft II World Championship Series and its high-stakes pot have also kept the community lively. Take command of the Terrans, the humanoid Protoss, or the alien-bug Zerg Swarm and play through more than two dozen campaign missions, multiplayer, and up to five co-op missions - all for free.
9. Dota 2 by Valve Corporation
First developed as a mod for The Frozen Throne
expansion to Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos
, Defense of the Ancients (Dota)
and its sequel, Dota 2
, are both top-tier MOBA titles. And while MOBAs are technically a subgenre of the RTS, we had to mention the second iteration because it helped define what we know as MOBAs. In this game, two teams of five compete against each other to defend and capture the “Ancients” at the heart of each other’s base.
Both games take place in a universe heavily inspired by Warcraft 3
. Also, while Dota 2
and MOBA games in general are not for campaign-centric players, there are plenty of reasons to try it out. If you’re into competitive games and haven’t played Dota 2
yet, you have nothing to lose - it’s completely free. It’s also a big moneymaker for eSports games
thanks to the huge tournament scene and a top-prize valued at nearly $30 million so far this year.
10. VEGA Conflict by KIXEYE
, launched by KIXEYE, known for their successful Facebook and massive multiplayer games, has found success with both PC and mobile users. Play as a rebel commander fighting the VEGA Corporation plus a coterie of other factions and sub-factions.
In VEGA Conflict, the gameplay focuses on ship customization and combat. And while the game got its start on Facebook, it commands a large audience across formats. Given that there’s a massive universe full of other players to battle, it’s not too difficult to see why.
As made evident by this list, the best thing about RTS games in 2019 is that there is so much variety. From Stellaris
’s intergalactic battles to Frostpunk
’s horror-inspired city management, you’re sure to find a title in this diverse genre that’s right for you. And when you do, make sure you have the right gaming PC
to get the most out of your new favorite game.
About the Author: Dwight Pavlovic is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Dwight is a music and technology writer based out of West Virginia.