The real-time strategy genre has always been near and dear to my heart. Red Alert 2 battles at LANs, playing Herzog Zwei head-to-head on my buddy’s Sega, taking time off from painting my 40k figs to play Dawn of War—it’s always been a big part of my gaming diet. It hasn’t always been easy to be a fan, however. By the time Starcraft 2 rolled out in 2010, enthusiasm for RTS games had hit an all-time low. While strategy games in general are experiencing a beautiful renaissance, it’s been a long time since the real-timers had a reason to celebrate.
There may be cause for optimism, because it looks like the RTS is back from the brink of death. With established studios and newcomers alike taking a crack at it, we might just be in for some exciting times. In the meantime, however, I have a list of some obscure classics from the vault of my lizard brain to tide you over. From time-traveling tanks to magical ninjas, here are five real-time strategy games the world forgot.
Developed by a tiny Czech studio and released in 2001, Original War follows the story of US and Russian troops sent back through time to secure an extra-terrestrial mineral called Siberite. While it features the usual base building and resource gathering you’d expect from an RTS, it also focuses on the personnel you brought with you—after all, it’s not like you can train up some new recruits from Fort Bragg two million years in the past. Your humans gain levels as soldiers, mechanics, scientists, or engineers and get better at various tasks as they progress. If you lose them in combat, however, they’re gone forever. You can train the regrettably named prehistoric apemen to perform their tasks, but they’re never quite as good.
Original War has some innovative systems. Supply crates get warped in from the future and push the pace of missions as you race to secure them before the other faction. Vehicles can use different power sources from oil to solar to strange crystals, each with benefits and drawbacks (there’s even a system for getting out and pushing your jeep if it runs out of gas). These features, combined with a fascinating concept and the fun of developing your team of doomed time travelers, makes this well worth a playthrough even decades later.
Have you ever been playing an RTS and found yourself screaming at whatever knucklehead was driving that tank because his pathing took him the wrong way and got him (and his whole squadron) killed? Or have you watched helplessly as your siege tanks got shredded by zerglings cause they took a wrong turn?
In Battlezone 2: Combat Commander this becomes much less of an issue. You play from the cockpit of a space tank, and while it still has base building and resource harvesting, a lot of the focus is on hands-on vehicle combat.
There aren’t a ton of games that blend real-time strategy with shooter or action elements, but boy are they satisfying when they work. The same frantic thrill I got playing Herzog Zwei all those years ago, scrambling into jet form to defend a base while trying to macro my production at the same time, I felt here. Building your base up so you can start producing Sasquatch walkers while trying to keep an eye on your suicidally oblivious scavengers keeps your brain going a million miles an hour in the best possible way. Check out the remaster on Steam (opens in new tab), confusingly just called Battlezone: Combat Commander.
Battle Realms gives me everything I’ve ever wanted all in one package: ninjas and werewolves vying for dominance, evil dragon necromancers, beautifully ripped low-poly FF7 lookin’ dudes with giant hammers.
This 2001 RTS explores a battle between ninja clans in a system that feels familiar while still managing to delve into unexplored territory. Resource gathering is limited to rice, water, and horses, all of which are grabbed by automatically generated peasants. These form the backbone of your fighting force, too—put a peasant in the dojo and you get a spearman, put a spearman in the archery range you get a samurai, and so on. This means you have to carefully balance upgrading peasants to make an army with keeping your logistics going, because there’s no other way to create units.
Armies gather Yin or Yang energy while battling depending on their actions, and hero units can be summoned by expending it. With four factions, charming sprites, and a lot of time spent teaching your lowly worker units slash-you-in-the-face-no-jutsu, this game is an underappreciated gem. There’s a remaster on Steam (opens in new tab) too, in early access at the moment.
When Command & Conquer first released, the RTS genre exploded like a tac nuke. In its radioactive fallout we got tons of clones, arguably the best of which was Dark Reign. With two asymmetrical factions, cool things happening with line of sight and terrain, and a soundtrack from the best guy in the business (Jeehun Hwang, who also did MechWarrior 2), it stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries.
Dark Reign and its excellent expansion, Rise of the Shadowhand, are available on GOG (opens in new tab). Even if you’re a multiplayer purist, take some time and play through the campaign—you take command of a force trying to earn the trust of a surviving band of humans as they determine who is the best choice to go back in time and save themselves from ruin.
Speaking of obscure games, if you’re like me and loved the SNES classic EVO: Search for Eden, this one’s for you. Impossible Creatures, Relic’s second game after Homeworld, is an RTS about smooshing animals together and making giant armies of them. Tigers with crab claws? Flying lobsters? Kanga-mooses? Yes, please.
The campaign puts you in the capable hands of Rex Chance, a disgraced war reporter whose father just happened to create a revolutionary technology that allowed for splicing two animals into a single organism. With this Sigma Technology, you create chimeric creatures and battle against the evil tycoon Upton Julius to avenge your father and ensure this dangerous technology doesn’t get into the wrong hands.
With a Steam release (opens in new tab) in 2015, it may be possible to find a multiplayer match here and there. The campaign itself is the main draw, though. It’s a fun romp through different environments as you unlock new creatures to experiment with. Fun fact—the engine they built Dawn of War on was developed for this game. Without anteater zebras and wolverine fish we may never have had one of the greatest RTS series of all time.
If you’re a fan of the RTS genre, check these games out. All of them are worth your time and will keep you up to your eyeballs in battles and base-building until what’s hopefully the next great real-time renaissance.
Read more: The best strategy games on PC