After enjoying a golden era in the late 90s, real time strategy games saw their popularity dwindle. Part of this was likely due to an increased interest in quicker, more intuitive action games, but I personally think the genre also suffered from child star syndrome. After greats like Homeworld, Starcraft and Total Annihilation, the path forward was unclear.
Today, the situation hasn’t improved. Starcraft 2 is almost the only game in town, so to speak. However, gamers on a budget do have some options, most of which harken back to better days.
While many games are made for a retail market, others are released as freeware from the time of their inception. Most, frankly, aren’t great. But those that are fun to play tend to make an impression and become popular quickly.
Such is the case with Battleships Forever. Developed by Singaporean developer Sean Chan, Battleships Forever is a real-time science fiction video game that’s all about space ships blowing each other to pieces. Since it’s made by one man, the game has simple graphics and a simple campaign. You won’t find a deep story or complex multiplayer here.
What sets the game apart are the way the ships are modeled. Although entirely 2D, they consist of individual components and sections which take damage individually. This results in impressive scenes in which ships slowly disintegrate in heavy fire. Few other games can so precisely tickle a sci-fi fan’s love of watching big hunks of metal blow each other to tiny bits in the vacuum of space.
Because of the simple graphics, this is an easy game to run. Any computer made in the last decade should run it, and the default resolution of 1024×768 fits netbooks well.
Released in 2000, Ground Control received generally excellent reviews but never made much of an impression on the market. This was towards the end of the golden age of strategy games, and this was also one of the first RTS games to do away with the macro-management elements of base building and resource collection, making it a bit controversial.
Still, it was a beautiful game that put heavy focus on proper tactical use of units. The game includes suppressive fire, camouflage, and other gameplay elements that are usually reserved for serious turn-based strategy titles. It’s a thinking gamer’s strategy title. Those who go into battle without a solid plan usually lose.
Online play of Ground Control is no longer supported, but the campaign is challenging and provides many hours of enjoyment. The older 3D graphics aren’t taxing for modern systems, either. Modern systems may have compatibility issues, however. I’ve been able to run this title in Windows XP compatibility mode, but I’ve had no luck running it under Windows 7.
Some games just won’t die. One such title is Total Annihilation, a popular RTS title from the late 90s that I played for hours on end. While other games have come in gone, Total Annihilation has stuck around because no other game has ever successfully replicated its gameplay.
Eventually, Total Annihilation fans lost faith that a true successor would ever be made. In response, some decided to re-create the game with a full 3D engine, as opposed to the pseudo-3D engine used by the original. The resulting project was called TA: Spring. Today the game engine created to replicate Total Annihilation has become its own project, and is used by indie developers interested in creating a 3D RTS.
Some of these spin-offs are impressive, but in my opinion, Balanced Annihilation remains the way to go. This modification of the original game stays true to its roots, but attempts to rectify some balance issues that were never addressed by the original game’s developer before it went belly-up. Personally, I’m not convinced that every problem has been fixed, but that’s not really the point. This isn’t a game that should be played competitively. Instead, it’s a title that’s best played for the pleasure of watching huge armies clashing, leaving a wrecked and wasted landscape in their wake.
These three games are excellent, but I know for sure they’re not the only ones out there. Even a top 25 would be unlikely to locate every single worthwhile RTS game. As always, you’re welcome to share your favorite free real times strategy game in the comments!