50. Endless Legend
Sin: A triumphant comeback for a 4X that I struggled with back when it won game of the year in 2014.
Endless Legend is unspeakably beautiful. For it to be so lovingly drawn and animated is unnecessary and yet key to its ethos. Every part of it was made with care and thought, and a commitment to making an often formulaic subgenre interesting and strange and enticing. Each world asks to be revealed, each faction stokes curiosity.
It’s those factions that really make it. Each is uniquely different to the others and to their counterparts in other games. The bizarre cultists and their sole, massive city, who fanatically raze anything they conquer after they’ve learned what they can from it. The dour Broken Lords are haunted suits of armour, unable to use food but able to reproduce with ‘dust’, the game’s mysterious magical currency, which itself is key to why my favourite faction, the Roving Clans, are interesting. They’re nomads obsessed with collecting dust to unlock its true power. They’re totally unable to declare war, but they get a cut of every market trade, and can hire the best mercenaries. They can move their entire cities, which themselves defy the 4X mould. One city can exist per region (and there are few of those), making careful placement matter rather than bashing settlers out to claim every blade of untouched grass so you can get a head start on your mathematically inevitable victory.
In addition to the expansion and conquest, there are story arcs to follow by sending armies to the right places, which themselves can drive conflict or political wrangling. From the faction-specific units on the turn-based tactical battles to the esoteric faction rules that even, god help me, invite roleplaying, everything about Endless Legend aims to take strategy games somewhere new and better.
Notes: There was much complaint on release, including from myself, that the AI was hopeless. Long-term patching has fixed this to a large extent.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Endless Space games sandwich their planet-bound friend and play similarly. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is uglier, and its faction divisions less dramatic, but is Legend’s closest ancestor.
Where can I play it: Steam.
49. Dune 2 Legacy
1992’s Frank Herbert-adapting Dune 2 is the great grandparent of the real-time strategy game as we know it now, but a pleasant play experience in 2018 it most certainly is not. That’s where Dune 2 Legacy comes in, an open source project which takes some of Dune 2’s original data files (you still have ’em, yeah?) and sticks ’em into a new framework blessed with far more modern interface and graphical sensibilities.
The world has, of course, moved on since Houses Atreides, Harkonen and Ordos first went to war for control of the Spice of Arrakis, but a combination of straightforwardness and excellent vehicle and creature designs (Ornithopers and Sandworms are forever burned into the memories of many a late-30-something PC gamer) and devious treats such as the now-rare likes of stealing enemy buildings lends it a timelessly lurid charm.
Miscellaneous notes: Legacy is not the only Dune 2 remake in town, and nor does everyone agree that it’s the best. There’s also Dynasty and Golden Path to think about, amongst others, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Where can I buy it: You can find Dune 2 Legacy here, but you’ll need to pair it files with Dune 2 itself, which has sadly been swallowed by a legal Sandworm and is not available digitally. Perhaps you can ask some Fremen to direct you towards more mysterious places, however.
What else should I be playing: The Command & Conquer series constitutes Dune 2’s direct descendants, but Blizzard’s Starcraft games go a lot further in terms of asymmetrical sci-fi war.
DEFCON is the strategy game most likely to make you wake up in a cold sweat. It’s an abstract simulation of thermonucler war, in which the tension rises along with the DEFCON level, and frantic deals lead to bitter betrayal. It’s a game in which people are reduced to numbers (and ashes). Scores are measured in megadeaths inflicted and, in the default setting, causing a megadeath on an opponent’s territory is worth two points while losing a million citizens in your own territory only loses one point. The value of life.
The presentation is immaculately sinister and minimalist, and while DEFCON is unlikely to keep you playing through the night, you might lose sleep anyway. The closest strategy gaming comes to horror.
Notes: 1983 film Wargames was a direct influence on DEFCON’s theme and aesthetics, and the film’s hacking sequences were an inspiration for Introversion’s first game, Uplink.
What else should I be playing: Chris “Dragon Speech” Crawford’s Balance of Power tackles Cold War brinkmanship, while New World Computing’s Nuclear War offers a satirical , cartoonish approach to mutually assured destruction.
On the face of things, BattleTech might look like XCOM with giant robots, but those big metal suits aren’t just there for show – they’re what makes BattleTech so distinctive. A big ol’ mech doesn’t much care when it loses an arm, for instance – it just keeps on fighting. Working out how to down these walking tanks both a) permanently and b) in a way that preserves enough of it to take home and use as parts to build a new one yourself is the key strategy here. You’ll have to juggle positioning, range, ammo and heat as these 80-ton titans clash in tense turn-based battles, while the meta-game involves steadily collecting enough salvage to raise yourself an army of building-sized steel Pokemon.
BattleTech is too slow for its own good (though mods and a patch address this), has a unhelpful tutorial and is a little drab to look at, but stick with it past the shonky early hours and it becomes an incredibly satisfying game of interplanetary iron warfare and robo-collection.
Notes: Developers Harebrained Schemes were acquired by Paradox in the wake of BattleTech’s success, which hopefully means this game will enjoy the sort of long-term support and updates that other ‘dox titles too.
What else should I be playing: To be honest, WW2 tank combat sims are probably where you want to go if your interest is in thoughtful tactical takedowns of heavily-armoured machines than it is the science-fictional trappings. But if it’s the latter, you might want to beetle in the direction of XCOM, though it’s significantly less measured, and its stars a whole lot squishier.
Wyvern, armoured bears, shield maidens, draugr: on face of things, the viking mythology-styled Northgard is a return to the thematic outlandishness of late 90s/early-noughties real-time strategy, but it combines that joyful anything-goes quality with thoughtful, almost simulatory paths onward from build’n’bash tradition. There’s a whole food ecosystem, the regular arrival of winter turns it into a survival game of sorts, you can trade with monsters and your choice of which clan you control affects your play style on a level far beyond mere unit options. It’s very much a building game as well as a wargame, but does a stand-up of job of keeping things lean despite how many plates it spins.
The singleplayer campaign plays a somewhat distant second fiddle to a beautifully drawn-out multiplayer mode that makes a virtue of tension as well as conflict, but whichever way you play, Northgard is without doubt one of the best RTS games of the last few years.
Notes: Northgard is in fact a 2017 game, depending on how you feel about the whole early access thing. It was a smash hit right out the gates even then, but we may never have seen it if its devs hadn’t abandoned their long-brewing ‘cooperative exploration game’ Until Dark in dissatisfaction and come up with Northgard instead.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing: If you dig the setting, you could try Expeditions: Viking, a narrative’n’choice-heavy RPG based on Norse society.
45. Unity of Command
The perfect gateway game. Perhaps you’ve dabbled with a couple of 4X games and the occasional RTS, and now you want to step up to the plate and try your hand at a historical wargame – Unity of Command is precisely what you’re looking for. It models all the smart stuff, including supply lines, but doesn’t drown players in the details.
There’s plenty for experienced wargamers to enjoy as well. Each map seems tailor-made to illustrate specific tactics that were utilised during the Stalingrad Campaign, and the expansions introduce fresh approaches that fit the historical realities of their new campaigns.
Notes: The strategic mechanics of the game were designed to reflect historical realities – the player should find themselves executing “textbook Blitzkrieg” at times, even if they weren’t previously aware what “textbook Blitzkrieg” looked like.
What else should I be playing: Ultimate General: Gettysburg is a similarly tricky and yet accessible historical wargame, as is Commander: The Great War, covering WWI.
Read more: Our review – Kieron is a shit Nazi
44. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
In truth, the long-running Command & Conquer series has never been one single thing, but in popular memory it tends to be defined by a combination of accessible but explosive build’n’bash warfare and gloriously daft sci-fi soap opera FMV cutscenes. That reached its apex with the second Red Alert game, an alt-history spin-off documenting an absurd 70s war between the Allieds and Soviets, replete with psychic soldiers, robot tanks, tesla troopers and more exaggerated cultural stereotypes than it would be best to dwell on here.
For all that, it finds a joyful line between tactical satisfaction and thematic silliness without entirely tumbling into the OTT self-consciousness of its 3D-accelerated successor. This is peak 90s RTS, from a time when the genre seem unassailable, and it remains fiendishly playable, just challenging enough and filled with campy delight.
Miscellaneous notes: RA2 still has a thriving online scene, for instance via the CnCNet project. Note that, to get anywhere with this these days, you will need the (extremely good) Yuri’s Revenge expansion pack too.
Where can I buy it: You’re restricted to the wildlands of the second-hand market if it’s only RA2 you’re after, as its only digital availability (EA’s Origin service) bundles it together with every other C&C game to date. Still, £25 ain’t bad for 10 slices of history (plus their 7 expansions) – or you can try it free for 7 days with an Origin Access trial.
What else should I be playing: The ‘best C&C ever’ vote is very much split between RA2 and 2003’s Generals. The latter stands out both because it was the first time Command & Conquer ever left its comfort zone in search of new mechanics, the first time it went 3D, and because it offered a much more real-world approach to RTS after the increasing cartoonishness of its predecessors. Perhaps too real world, given its glorification of military slaughter arrived during the height of the post-2001 Middle-Eastern conflict. But maybe that’s OK, given that real-world politics now increasingly resemble C&C cutscenes.
Read More: Kieron Gillen and Leigh Alexander discuss the ‘War & Boobs‘ of the Red Alert 3 trailer.
43. Total Annihilation
Nate: Total Annihilation was the real robot wars. Although pretty ancient now, hailing from 1998, it is (in my opinion) still a hair stronger than spiritual successor Supreme Commander, and certainly better than the concept’s most recent iteration, Planetary Annihilation.
What concept? Loads and loads and loads of mechs, churned out by factories to fight in an enormous meatgrinder of an RTS, with each side led by a single, vital commander unit.
I remember Total Annihilation being hyped to me as a 14 year old by a fellow fan of Command & Conquer: Red Alert, who practically roared with excitement that “tanks could go up hills”. And indeed, they could. Although the game’s landscape was 2D, it did the best impression any RTS had done of looking fully 3D, and had a cracking physics systems to govern ballistic projectiles, aircraft wreckage and the like.
The scale of battles was astonishing, especially for the time, and they still feel epic-scaled today. Nukes, for example, were a fairly standard tool. Resources were gathered on a vast scale, “streaming” at a steady rate rather than being harvested in discrete units, and thus taking away one level of micromanagement. Smart commands for automating rally points, patrol routes and the like eliminated another, leaving the player free to focus on sweeping troop movements.
The atmosphere was also powerfully inhuman and sad, with a melancholy backstory about posthuman cyborgs battling over the embers of the far future, and a stirring orchestral soundtrack. And tanks could go up hills.
Notes: Depressingly, I’ve just discovered that Total Annihilation’s soundtrack was composed by Jeremy Soule, which does rather ruin it.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Supreme Commander is definitely the next place to go after Total Annihilation. Graham reckons it’s better, and there’s no argument that it’s a spiritual successor, especially since it was made by many of the same people.
42. Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War
Although Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer has finally seen the light of day (twice!), Relic’s first Dawn of War game is still the best digital expression of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe, having sadly not been surpassed by last year’s Dawn of War III. It’s the grimmest darkest strategy game in existence, and while the game itself is more limited in scope than Twarhammer, the 40k universe is a much stronger draw than the elves ‘n’ imperials fantasy world.
Dawn of War is steeped in the blood and weird theological war cries of the 40K universe, and manages to add enough thematically suitable twists to the RTS template to make the setting more than a fresh lick of paint. Better still, it’s lived an long and rich life of both official and fan-made expansions, adding races, modes, units and even entire new rules aplenty – which is a big part of why this remains the ultimate Games Workshop RTS, even 14 years on.
Notes: When THQ filed for bankruptcy in 2012, Dawn of War studio Relic was sold to Sega for $26.6m. Before Dawn of War, Strategic Simulations Inc. had worked on a series of strategy games based on the 40K license in the nineties. The sequel is impressive, but the move toward tighter tactical combat, cover systems and individual units isn’t quite as satisfying as the meatgrinder of the original’s best maps.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: The sequel removes the base-building and takes a similar approach to Warcraft III, adding RPG aspects, while its particularly strong standalone expansion Chaos Rising even manages branching storylines. For more 40K, try Armageddon, a solid turn-based wargame.
Read more: The joy of unwinnable skirmishes
41. Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos
It’s tempting to think of Blizzard as a gargantuan entity that absorbs the best ideas of a genre, reshuffles them slightly and applies an enormous amount of polish. The company’s enormous success was hard-earned, however, in the RTS boom of the nineties. The first two Warcraft games were launched into a world where Westwood’s Command and Conquer series was king, and it was only the release of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness that elevated Blizzard to the same level as their rivals.
Rather than swinging for the same fences again, Blizzard made some minor alterations to the wheel with Warcraft III. The introduction of two new playable races, alongside orcs and humans, threatened fine-tuned balance, and there was a concerted effort to add variety to the RTS formula, particularly in the early game. Incorporating light RPG elements through the hero characters muddied the waters further and it’s testament to the abilities of designer Rob Pardo and his team that they were able to chart such a smooth course through those waters.
Notes: Reign of Chaos is the origin of Defense of the Ancients and the MOBA genre. Warcraft is one of the most successful games ever made but isn’t even close to being the most successful thing about itself.
Where can I buy it: From Blizzard.
What else should I be playing: If you want to know more about the world of Warcraft, there’s always World of Warcraft, as well as the previous strategy games in the series. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II has a similar approach to role-playing strategy and hero units.