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.
The rise of MOBAs has challenged the RTS scene quite significantly over the past decade, but this hasn’t stopped some worthy games from rising to the top ranks to earn their own place in 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 on PC are:
State of Survival
In this list, you’ll find a number of fantasy and history games, but it’s not often that you see modern-day zombie apocalypses used as the basis for RTS games. State of Survival puts you into the shoes of somebody leading a community of survivors amidst the ravaging hordes of the undead.
The most common type of battle in this game follows a kind of tower defence formula, where you have to move your units around so that they’re best positioned to fend off those pesky brain munchers. But then, there are also times when you’re pitting your armies against those of your opponents, which is a slightly more traditional RTS sort of battle. Of course, between all this, you’re also responsible for maintaining a central base and gathering resources. It’s pretty fun for a free-to-play game.
Rise of Kingdoms
Rise of Kingdoms is a free PC game that lets you choose between a number of different civilizations from all around the world. When you first create your character, you get to choose between thirteen different kingdoms, including Rome, Egypt, and Japan (among others). Each of them offers unique strengths and benefits based on their location in the world and the resources they have access to, so it’s important to choose carefully.
Once you have chosen who you’re going to play as, it’s up to you to decide how you want to build your civilization. You can focus on developing your cities and building new and impressive structures while working to craft items to enhance your power, or you can work on honing your army, with loads of commanders to unlock, all of whom give you a unique way to approach battles. There is a large community of active players for you to battle with or form relationships with, making this a game that it’s very easy to get sucked into.
Age of Empires IV
It’s perhaps slightly unorthodox to have two games from the same series grace a list like this, especially considering Age of Empires IV is, in many ways, a reimagining of Age of Empires II. However, the newest entry in the legendary RTS series has exploded onto Steam and deserves a shout-out in its own right.
Age of Empires II remains a quality RTS game because it’s managed to stand the test of time and is still getting support today, but its newest sibling is by no means a slouch. Sporting an upgraded engine, new graphics, and a different approach to civilisation design, Age of Empires IV is a modern AOE game for the modern strategy gamer. It’s even turned up its treatment of history to 11, with hours of real-life documentary footage explaining the historical context of the campaigns, as well as specific aspects of medieval life.
The campaigns are also pretty fun, although it’s unclear what the RTS community make of the multiplayer and faction balance. Make sure you check out our Age of Empires IV review, and we’ve also got plenty of Age of Empires IV civilisation guides to check out as well.
Command & Conquer: Remastered
As an exercise in reviving one of the best old games and giving it plenty of modern updates, and our Command & Conquer: Remastered review says it’s an outstanding remaster. It includes all of the original campaigns for both Command & Conquer and Command & Conquer: Red Alert, the expansion missions and even the super secret hidden levels. This offering alone has hours of fun, but you can also take your armies online to fight in skirmishes against friends or AI across many maps.
The fundamental army structure is as you would remember it, but with improved controls and a fully customisable jukebox that uses all of the music in both games. Special attention has to go to the cutscenes, their original recordings once lost to time, but through pain-staking detective work, they were mostly all found and remastered to modern standards. Clearly, the developers are fans of the games that popularised the RTS genre, and this is a loving tribute.
This innovative Viking game arrived on our strategy shores in mid-2018 after a stint in Early Access. It occupies its own quiet corner of the genre in a very stoic and extremely competent manner. Set in a fictional world, each match of Northgard has you take command of 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’, 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, as others will also seek 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 procedurally generated island has mysterious 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 – including 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 unique takes on large-scale RTS in modern times.
Ashes of the Singularity takes nods from Total Annihilation-style games, Company of Heroes with its squad-based light vehicles, and interconnected resource nodes that 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 while restricting player upgrades and unit counts through the scarce Quanta resource (which you can also use 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 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 was released in April 2019. This innovative RTS 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.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition
The original Age of Empires II is undoubtedly a high point in the history of RTS games. The combination of units and tech research 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 fresh civilisations.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has a sumptuous mix of combat, civ development, construction, and resource-gathering, which 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.
If you’re looking for more AoE goodness, you can read our Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition review, if you have fond memories of that game, and we even have a dedicated guide to some other games like Age of Empires as well if you want something similar.
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 includes everything from giant crab-like walkers and mobile-first bases to 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 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 even picking 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 most indecisive among you, but there’s untold freedom of choice whether you’re playing as Zerg or Protoss. As a new player, you’ll constantly be 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.
Dune: Spice Wars
It’s still earlyish days for Dune: Spice Wars, with it still being in early access, but this hybrid of RTS and 4X games captures the essence of what makes Frank Herbert’s Dune so compelling. As one of several factions, your job is to influence and manipulate everyone else into fighting each other while vacuuming up all the spice for yourself. Explore the desert planet of Arrakis to find villages with valuable resources, and forge temporary alliances against common foes, all while avoiding the attention of the deadly sandworms. Shiro Games has a roadmap with future updates for the next year, but there’s still plenty to discover in this massive RTS game.
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, preserving both solo and multiplayer game modes.
Those are all of the best RTS games out there, but if you’re looking for broader best strategy games picks, then we’ve got a separate list for that, as well as lists for both grand strategy games and turn-based strategy games where you can hide behind the safety of a more relaxed pace.
Original list by Jason Coles, with further contributions from Dave Irwin, Alex Connelly, and Joe Robinson.