It’s impossible to overstate how enjoyable RTS games can be. There are few things as satisfying as building up an immense army and simply washing over your foes like a river over stones, erasing their existence as effortlessly as a click. If you’re looking for a broader list of the best strategy games then we’ve got a separate list for that – this one’s all about real-time, where you can’t hide behind the safety of turn-based strategy’s pace.
The genre is largely defined by the likes of Starcraft and Age of Empires, but Indie games like Northgard and Driftland have shown there’s plenty of other voices to be heard. There’s also plenty to celebrate in games that are technically real-time, but not strictly speaking considered ‘RTS’.
The rise of MOBAs has challenged the RTS scene quite significantly over the past decade, but this hasn’t stopped some worthy games rising to the top ranks to earn their own place the hall of fame. Here’s our take on the best RTS games on PC, though we’re skewing more towards newer releases because, honestly, we all know how good Homeworld was by now.
The best RTS games
The best RTS games on PC are:
- Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
- Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
- Driftland: The Magic Revival
- Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
- Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
- Age of Empires II Definitive Edition
- Supreme Commander
- Starcraft 2
- Europa Universalis IV
- The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth
Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun
Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun is one of the best examples of modern RTS games. You don’t control vast armies with innumerable units, but instead, you guide an elite group of five characters, all of whom have different skills and strengths. While it does fit into the RTS genre, it also owes a debt to stealth games, meaning you have to be very careful when making decisions – your crew are skilled killers, but they’re no match for a fort full of samurai.
It’s a neat twist on real-time strategy, with each new level of the campaign presenting you with a new stealth puzzle to solve using your five very different soldiers. Will you deploy your lethal marksman to clear the path from afar, use your master of disguise to slip through unchecked, silently slay with your ninja, clear out small groups with your samurai, or use traps and decoys to sow chaos? Sometimes it’s the wealth of options at your disposal that makes things challenging. Regardless, every win will leave you feeling like a strategic ninja as your foes lie crumpled behind you.
This innovative Viking game arrived on our strategy shores mid-2018 after a stint in Early Access, and has been occupying its own quiet corner of the genre ever since in a very stoic and extremely competent manner. Set in a fictional world, each match of Northgard puts you as newcomers to an island that you need to explore and expand into in order to build a new life for your people.
You don’t build buildings and recruit units – instead you must assign your limited population to various ‘jobs’ which are enabled via buildings. The game can be quite hands-off in many respects, with even combat following a guidance model vs. direct control. You won’t be alone on the island either, there will others also seeking new homes for themselves. Each ‘clan’ of Vikings has unique mechanics and distinct playstyles; some prefer to form alliances, while others like to conquer. Others just want to make money, maybe summon a kraken.
There are multiple routes to victory, and every island is procedurally generated and filled with mysterious and NPC monsters to contend with. There’s also a survival element as you need to ensure you have enough food and supplies to see yourself through the winter phases. The game has some paid add-ins in the form of new clans, but most of the major updates – which have included several new game modes – have been free.
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
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.
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.
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 we were 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. These days, it’s available as part of a bundle with Homeworld Remastered, which also may be worth checking out if you liked the original classic games.
Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
With the advent of the Western Front Armies expansions, 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 standalone campaign, Company of Heroes 2 has now also earned the honour possessing one of the best replayable single player experiences in modern RTS 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 ironman setting. These force the player to think through each move and live with sub-optimal strategies across the length of the campaign.
While Company of Heroes 2 can relax for now, we suspect its modern sibling Company of Heroes 3 is going to takeover the fight soon enough, especially with the inclusion of a Total War-style campaign layer.
Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition
The original Age of Empires 2 is, undoubtedly, a high point in the world of RTS games – so much so that it has now been fully remastered and released. The combination of units, tech research, and wololoing, all combine to create one of the most replayable RTS games around. The Definitive Edition verges on a remake, updating not just the art, but also unit AI, not to mention the fact that it boasts new campaigns and a handful of fresh civilisations.
Age of Empires 2 (buy here) has a sumptuous mix of combat, civ development, construction, and resource-gathering that means you’re always busy clicking away on something. Combat is more developed than two sides hacking away at one another until one or two lucky warriors emerge unscathed – there are fortifications to navigate, siege tactics to employ, and all sorts of issues that can cause your assault to crumble.
Set amongst a big old war known as The Infinite War, Supreme Commander has you attempting to wrangle peace out of the chaos that the galaxy has known for so long. You’ll have to use every last brain cell to come out on top against the AI and the devastating weapons they wield.
Thankfully, they aren’t the only ones capable of bringing out the big guns. There are huge tech trees for you to plough through over the course of a campaign, but the highlight is the experimental branch of units, which include everything from giant crab-like walkers to mobile first bases, and nuclear payloads capable of instantly destroying major enemy bases. Supreme Commander also features one of the coolest map systems around, with the ability to zoom out and in seamlessly so you can always plan your next step. Few RTS games manage to make sci-fi warfare look and feel as impressive as Supreme Commander, and over a decade later it’s still the benchmark in that respect.
Starcraft 2 is a titan of the RTS genre. One so monolithic that many new players fear to even pick up the game because they’ll probably get torn apart online before figuring out the camera controls. Constant research and development choices will daunt the indecisive among you, but there’s untold freedom of choice whether you’re playing as Zerg or Protoss. As a new player you’ll be constantly weighing up whether to invest in permanent upgrades, short-term buffs to your most powerful units, or new units like giant robo-dogs – who doesn’t want those?
But it’s multiplayer where Blizzard’s balancing prowess really shines, a feat that’s reflected in the game’s impressive esports legacy. Winning is a constant, tireless struggle to try and outwit your opponent, scouting out their facilities, and attempting to counter it. Simply put: Starcraft 2 does everything an RTS game should do, but with a level of polish that is still hard to match nearly a decade later.
Europa Universalis IV
Paradox’s iconic brand of strategy games are, technically, real-time strategy in terms of design, even if they’re commonly known as grand strategy games these days. Still, as an experience they’re worth celebrating and since we’ve featured medieval madhouse Crusader Kings III on our ‘best strategy games’ list, here we thought we’d hold up EU4.
At the time of writing, Europa Universalis IV is eight years old, and it’s still getting new DLC expansions. It’s an excellent case study not only of how to support a strategy game over the long term, but also how complicated and difficult that same process can be. Not every EU4 DLC is equal, but the amount of new content that game has received, especially the free patches, is often under-appreciated.
Plus, it’s a really fun game. You start in the mid 15th century and you can lead any nation through several hundred years of tumultuous history as you have to struggle with the rise of empires, colonialism and religious tensions. There’s also a ton of EU4 mods to help spice things up.
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth
We’ve been thinking about this game a lot recently, as Renata pointed out that not only was it a pretty interesting RTS, but it was also one of the best Lord of the Rings games to date. Not necessarily in terms of the core stories of the books but generally on how the developers at EA Los Angeles (who would go on to make Command & Conquer 3 & 4) managed to translate the feel of the original source material into a game.
While Renata favours the second title – released in 2006 – plenty of readers have commented to us since that they actually preferred the first game from 2004. Critically they received roughly the same score. The only caveat with this listing is that it’s very hard to find a copy of either 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 preserved them for play in solo and multiplayer.
More RTS games
- Stronghold: Warlords
- Command and Conquer Remastered Collection
- Empire of Sin
- Ancestors Legacy
- A.I. War 2
- Homeworld Remastered
- Offworld Trading Company
- Tropico 6
- Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition
Original list by Jason Coles, with further contributions from Alex Connelly and Joe Robinson