The real-time strategy genre is one of the staples in gaming today. Other genres, like first person shooters and role playing games, are saturated with hundreds of different titles, but real-time strategy doesn’t hold the same kind of prevalence. You have the big names like Starcraft and Age of Empires, but many RTS titles never gain much traction – especially the free ones.
I think RTS games are great, but I don’t derive enough entertainment from them to justify spending money. That’s why I play free RTS games instead. Keep in mind that free games don’t have the same kind of manpower behind their development, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. These games may not have the same production quality as, say, Blizzard’s latest creation, but what really matters is fun gameplay and these games can deliver when it comes to that.
Zero-K is an open-source RTS game built for short lasting games (averaging 20 to 30 minutes) and high-intensity, constant-moving action without sacrificing strategy or tactics. The gameplay and unit design is fantastic, and some battles can become truly epic. The economic system is streamlined for ease of understanding,and most units have unique abilities for that added oomph.
There are a few features in Zero-K that separate it from most other free RTS games: realistic physics (you can dodge projectiles if you micromanage well), terraforming (you can alter the landscape in real-time), and planet wars (a persistent online battle where players control planets and fight to survive). The best thing about Zero-K is its active community. The forums are constantly buzzing with new discussions and, for competitive players, the website does track player ELO ratings so you have a means to measure your skills.
Zero-K is based on the Spring Project, a powerful RTS engine that has been used to create many other games, both indie and professional.
Glest is an open-source RTS game and engine that is built on somewhat traditional gameplay mechanics. Its main draw is its modability, which allows players to create their own maps, tilesets, techs, and alter the game so deeply that it often feels like a new game altogether. The original Glest game is no longer in development, but two forks still remain active: MegaGlest and Glest Advanced Engine.
The original Glest has two factions for players: Tech (traditional medieval units) and Magic (advanced magical units). MegaGlest introduces five other factions: Egypt, Indians, Norsemen, Persian, and Romans. The actual gameplay itself is simple to learn, hard to master: build up a base and an army of units and destroy your opposition.
Glest is available on Windows, Mac, and Linux but community-maintained builds exist for other platforms. Players can fight in multiplayer battles, both Internet and LAN, in games that support up to 8 players. For a comparison between Glest, MegaGlest, and Glest Advanced Engine, check out the comparison page.
Way back in the day, a studio named Westwood created a franchise called Command and Conquer. Some might argue that the C&C series of games were instrumental in the pioneering of the RTS genre alongside Warcraft and Age of Empires. The original game and its sequel, Red Alert, are so old that modern operating systems run into compatibility issues. Thankfully there’s OpenRA, a project meant to revive the old C&C games as well as Dune 2000.
First things first: wow, what a blast of nostalgia. The graphics and sounds are the same, so you’ll instantly be taken back to the originals (if you played them). Despite its simplicity, Red Alert had some of the most fun RTS mechanics I’ve ever known. It isn’t as micromanagement-intensive as some modern titles, like Starcraft, and it has high replay value.
Of course, there are a few improvements and changes in OpenRA from the original C&C titles. For one thing, you’ll find new missions, new maps, and interface designs. Plus, you can play on Windows, Mac, and Linux, which is just fantastic.
Reprisal is a unique entry on this list for three reasons: it plays mainly from the browser (though it has a desktop version), it is stylistically retro, and it’s entirely singleplayer. This game was heavily inspired by Populous, a game that is widely considered to be the first “god game” on the PC. In Reprisal, you control a tribe of people and you have supernatural powers to control nature itself, shifting the world’s terrain and calling down fire according to your will.
I like Reprisal because it’s so easy to start (the web app loads fast), and you can play without having to create an account or download anything. The gameplay is fun, engaging and a reminder of the roots of RTS gaming. The retro graphics are a breath of fresh air, too, particularly at this time when it seems all game graphics are either hyper-realistic or shaded like toons.
I just wish Reprisal had a multiplayer feature. Maybe it will in the future. For now, you can enjoy the game in either campaign mode (30 levels) or skirmish mode (randomly generated scenarios).
My favorite of the games on this list would have to be OpenRA, mostly for the nostalgia factor. However, if you like the RTS genre and can appreciate small innovations here and there, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with any of these titles. They each offer something unique that the others don’t have.
Do you play free RTS games? Which ones do you recommend? What do you think about the ones on this list? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!
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