by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 13th September, 2018
Real-time strategy games lived through their primes during the nineties and aughts, times when gamers could pick through dozens of extremely quality titles that all offered something new and unique for the genre and when sales were high enough to assure sequels and completely new IPs. But, during the recent decade, RTS games went underground and, with the exception of a few titles, ended their life as AAA titles with big budgets, breathtaking visuals, and top-notch production values.
The market grew substantially and what were solid (if not excellent) sales numbers ten years ago turned into subpar performance today. Even titles that manage to sell in millions of copies (like Dishonored 2, Prey, and two latest Deus Ex games) can be characterized as failures and end up being put on ice for the foreseeable future. And it is even worse for real-time strategies, a branch of video games that never was super popular and mainstream and where selling a million units was (and still is) considered a true achievement. This lead to RTS market becoming niche territory with budget titles that, no matter their relatively humble production values, can deliver excellent gameplay while at the same time looking modern and quite pretty.
On the other hand, this also means we cannot find epic, bigger than life single player campaigns in new RTS games because they ask for substantial funding and simply cannot be done with limited budget. This is why RTS lovers who aren't looking for a good multiplayer experience (which the market is filled with) can have a hard time looking for a quality single player fix. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent RTS games that feature amazing single-player campaign. Yes, most of them are a bit old but if you don't mind last gen graphics you will find enough superb campaigns to last you for years.
Here are some RTS games that have amazing single player campaigns; they should be played by everyone who loves single player experience. And even though the majority are relatively old titles we managed to find a couple recent games, showing that the flame isn't completely extinguished and that from time to time there's a new RTS game that brings so much more than pretty visuals, solid multiplayer, and modern graphics.
If you haven't played this one do yourself a favor and get it, like, right now. World in Conflict (which can be found online as a complete edition coming with its sole expansion pass titles Soviet Assault) is a marvelously produced RTS game that hits every single box needed for a complete RTS package. The game is still good looking even though it got released more than a decade ago (and back then it was an RTS equivalent of Crysis when it came to visuals). Textures are still sharp, lighting is a beautiful as it was in 2007, destructible terrain is still a feat many games fail to accomplish and the only thing that shows the game's age are relatively poor detailed vehicle and infantry models.
But sound design and the quality of voiceover is still firmly in AAA field, with magnificent Dolby 5.1 support (just play this one on surround speakers or some quality surround headphones, the experience simply cannot be depicted in words) and Hollywood-quality voice cast. And its single player campaign is the star of the show. The story is set in alternate reality 1989 where the Politburo if the SSSR decided to invade Europe and the US instead allowing for the country to collapse. Missions follow the US invasion along with past events that happened just months ago in Europe. Both sides are shown and the campaign's greatest achieving is the human view of the conflict portrayed by the game's main protagonists - a Soviet general who leads the invasion and US Army Lieutenant Parker (voiced by Alec Baldwin), who both struggle to remain humane and sane in the growing tension of the next World War.
The story is filled with emotion; the game's plot is more interesting than in 90 percent of today's movies, and all that is packaged into more than 15 hours of game time. And the gameplay sends the game to stratosphere with rapid pace, believable ballistics, and armor penetration systems, constant need for reinforcements (and constant calls for reinforcements), deep strategic layer, unique camera controls, lack of base building, and powerful off-map special attacks (like artillery bombardment and air assaults) that can turn the tide of the battle. This simply cannot be missed.
Star Wars universe has a ton of amazing games but this one (along with its expansion called Forces of Corruption) can be freely placed in top five of the best Star Wars games ever and could be placed in top five of the best RTS games of the 21st century. When it came back in early 2006 the game was the best thing to happen to Star Wars since remasters of the original trilogy and two excellent KOTOR games. This one is an epic RTS game set before and during the original Star Wars trilogy. Aside from re-experiencing events from Episodes IV, V, and VI like the destruction of Death Star, the annihilation of Alderaan, and the battle of Endor players can be a part of never-seen-before events (that are mentioned in movies) like the stealing of X-wing plans, along with actual ships. Players can choose both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance and the game opens with a couple of story missions that introduce players to the game.
After the first couple of missions, the Galaxy Map becomes unlocked, and it is the place where all the main operations are conducted. You can build limited number of buildings on each planet, thus specializing each planet for some form of production (resources, units) along with planetary defenses in case the enemy invades it. On top of that each planet holds its garrison and when you want to invade the enemy planet, you have to send your units to it before starting the assault. Battles are lead on the planet surface and in space (and these are super fun to play) and there are also heroes like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and other notable characters from the first three movies.
Aside from the story campaign (which takes dozens of hours to complete) the game also offers Galactic Conquest mod where you start with a limited number of planets with a goal of putting the whole galaxy under your umbrella. Empire at War is the ultimate Star Wars RTS experience and one of the best RTS games of all times.
Creating an article like this one is impossible without Blizzard RTS gems. Let's start with Starcraft. The first one still has one of the best single player campaigns of all times, no matter the genre, featuring an epic story with many plot twists and even more interesting and recognizable characters. Sure the graphics are dated but the game got a remaster recently that introduces support for HD resolution along with many fixes and improvements that make it ready for modern, wide monitors and FullHD (and higher) resolutions. The sheer diversity of the three factions along with superb RTS formula that became the standard for all other RTS games is enough to give this one a go.
And the second part of the Starcraft Saga is even better. If you can't stand dated graphics dive into this one because the visuals aren't the most detailed and they don't feature cutting-edge effects but that doesn't mean that Starcraft II isn't one of the prettiest RTS games ever. The single player campaign is even bigger and more ambitious than the one seen in the original game but if you don't have a clue about Starcraft story and lore it is best to consult the internet and get your grips on the story before diving into the sequel.
The epic war between Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss is split into three major campaigns in each game (making six in total, more if you count Brood War, the expansion pack for the original game) making for dozens and dozens of missions that all have something unique and interesting whether that are new units, unique objectives, specific gameplay twists, timed missions, and more. These two games are offering some of the best single player action (despite the fact both are excellent multiplayer titles) and the first one is still a better choice than 95 percent of other RTS games.
This game was developed by Petroglyph Games, the same studio responsible for the phenomenal Empire at War. In Universe at War, the Earth gets invaded by the aggressive alien race called the Hierarchy that seeks to strip our planer from all life and then mine our planet until it becomes nothing more than a pile of dust. Their plans change when another alien race (Novus) arrives and tries to stop the enforcers, giving time for Earth troops to regroup and take the fight to the Hierarchy. But in the meantime Hierarchy forces manage to awake the third alien race (Masari), who were in cryosleep beneath the Earth's oceans and from then the real fun begins.
Players lead all three alien factions across three distinct campaigns that follow the story from start to finish. And all three factions are completely different. The Hierarchy is a classic big guns faction with slow (both to move and to build) but huge units capable of extreme devastation. Novus is a race of intelligent machines and they rely on cheap, fast units capable of swarming enemies. And Masari is a faction similar to Protoss - a powerful alien race featuring powerful but vulnerable units and a strategy that's a mixture of approaches of the other two factions.
The game's campaign is interesting to play mainly because of the story (and because of the fact that humans are finally depicted as an underdeveloped and weak race that don't have a chance against immensely more powerful alien invaders) and because some missions are really interesting to play. On top of all that the game offers a nonlinear single player mode where you select one of the three races and then embark on conquering the Earth like in Risk, by capturing various regions in which the Earth is divided into. An excellent RTS game with a superb story and two single-player modes that can offer almost one hundred hours of fun.
While Company of Heroes II offers multiplayer that is as good (if not even better) as in the first game, the first Company of Heroes game has one thing that no other CoH title has, and that's a fantastic single-player campaign. While the D-Day and the Invasion of Normandy were depicted in numerous video games and movies the way guys and girls from Relic Entertainment tackled one of the most important events in WWII and in modern history, in general, is among the best, no matter the medium.
The campaign in Company of Heroes is like watching the best part of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers on repeat. The whole thing is filled with emotional drama, heartwarming stories of courage and bravery during the war but the game offers even more quality ingredients. Missions are challenging and filled with hard to reach goals that don't look unfair but achievable and rewarding. Each mission has a couple parts with different and unique objectives and the pace of each mission is simply perfect - players have just the right amount of time to catch short breaths between the action but the pace is super-fast in between, always asking for the maximum commitment to the events on screen.
And the gameplay is superb. The game is based around holding key points on the map that give player resources like fuel and points needed to erect constructions, defenses, and units and there's always something happening on the map. The game is filled with small skirmishes, the AI is great because it is aggressive but not dumb so it attacks from multiple directions and always puts your skill to the test. And graphics are great, even today, with detailed character models, and warm lighting. This one is a cult classic that feels even better today than when it came out because today we seriously lack in quality RTS games Company of Heroes most certainly is.
Another title from Petroglyph Games, Grey Goo is another quality RTS that excels in the quality of its single-player campaign. We again have three completely different factions, each with its own unique strategy, strengths, and weaknesses, and this time humans are among those three. Yay! The game is set 500 years in the future and follows the emerging conflict between them and two alien races called the Beta and the Goo (which are in fact self-replicating nanomachines created by humans). The story is amazing and has a couple of pretty cool plot twists and it really feels original and new compared to other similar games' stories.
The campaign is played by all three factions and each of them (like in all games by Petroglyph) is completely unique. The Beta units are highly mobile with devastating attacks but vulnerable and easy to destroy. Human units are solid in all ways but they do not excel in any. And Goo doesn't feature units per see. Because they are nanomachines they work by swarming other units and then transforming themselves into unique vehicles. Really, you have to play the game in order to fully understand how the Goo faction works.
Superb graphics and tasty campaign are the two strongest selling points of Grey Goo. The game is worth playing for its campaign alone and it presents a breath of fresh air and a worthy successor of RTS games of the past decade (this one got released in 2015). If you look for a modern RTS game that's good looking and that features interesting and quality campaign (which is very hard to find these days) look no more.
Command & Conquer franchise gave birth to some epic titles but the apex of the whole series (at least when we talk about the quality of single player campaign) is Tiberium Wars. A game bigger than life, with massive production values and blockbuster visuals, is the perfect example of how important RTS games were a decade ago. Back when it got out it was a staple EA title, with a huge budget and high hopes. It managed to sell in millions of units and to give players the biggest and most epic plot of the whole Command & Conquer universe. The never-ending conflict between the Brotherhood of Nod and GDI reaches its climax in what will become the Third Tiberium War just before alien invaders called Scrin arrive on Earth, and the whole thing just explodes into free-for-all conflict with all sides wanting to take the Earth for themselves.
The campaign follows the GDI and Brotherhood of Nod across many missions and it is divided into two distinct parts. At the end of each either Nod or GDI emerge as the sole winner and once the player completes both campaigns the third mini-campaign is unlocked, with Scrin as the playable faction.
The game is filled with excellent FMV cutscenes, one of the famous things almost every C&C game had. The gameplay clearly separates GDI and Nod, with the first being the behemoth faction with powerful units and the second being underdogs with a few tricks up their sleeve. Visuals are still pleasant to the eye and the campaign is one of the best around, and an awesome choice for those looking for an RTS game with a superb single-player campaign.
Okay, Warcraft III, like the original Starcraft, simply has to be a part of this list. The game was, and still is, one of the best RTS games of all times and one of the best thing about it is its epic single-player campaign. The massive conflict between the Alliance and the Horde feels as fresh as it felt in 2002 when the game got released and while visually Warcraft III shows its age mechanically, it is still one of the best RTS games around.
And what to say about its story that could freely be characterized as an epic fantasy of the highest quality capable of being as good as LOTR and other cult fantasy novels. If you like quality RTS games and want a single player campaign that has all - excellent story, longevity, challenging missions, superb strategy layer - you simply have to play Warcraft III.
The second standalone expansion pack of the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War game is the best one for those who seek for a quality single player experience. While the original game along with its two expansions (Winter Assault and Soulstorm) offers solid single player campaigns they are short and underwhelming when compared to the behemoth of a campaign offered in Dark Crusade.
In this one players can conquer the whole planet of Kronus in a non-linear planet-wide Risk-like campaign with Kronus being divided into many regions which all have to be taken in order for victory to be reached. Playing the campaign with one faction can be fun as hell and quite challenging but here you can play with one of the seven completely unique factions meaning that the single-player campaign element of the game can offer almost 100 hours of unique Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War experience, which is an amazing deal for anyone looking for a game with long and fleshed out single player campaign.
The only downside is that there's no story and missions are divided into two groups - those where you attack new regions and those where you must defend your own regions - but the sheer excellence of Dawn of War strategic formula along with bloody combat and adrenaline pumping action from start to finish are enough to recommend this one.
Last but not least is an RTS game with a surprisingly long name. Released during the RTS golden years by EA, The Battle for Middle-earth follows the three LOTR movies along with additional content that can be found only in books. The game features epic battles of Minas Tirith and Helm's Deep along with other notable events from the movie trilogy.
The base game offers a unique take on building a base with one main structure placed in the middle along with predetermined foundations for other buildings that are placed in a circle around the main structure, limiting players in the number of buildings they can erect and presenting an additional problem to solve in different missions.
You can build all the famous units from the movies and books but the best part of this game are heroes from both sides who act like super strong units capable of defeating whole regiments making The Battle for Middle-earth one extremely fun game for all Lord of the Rings aficionados. You can lead every single hero, and while most missions limit which heroes can be recruited few of them (like the Minas Tirith one) allow for all heroes to be present at the battlefield at the same time, recreating scenes from the movie in one extremely enjoyable fashion.
There are two campaigns (Good and Evil) where the player follows the plot of the three books or create their own plot (during the Evil campaign), trying to defend Middle Earth from Sauron, or succumb to its rule. Both campaigns are very fun to play and amazing story-wise but the Good campaign is much better because it follows the books and movies and presents the best digital depiction of LOTR lore. A true delicacy for RTS lovers.