#10: Dungeon Keeper
One of Peter Molyneux's most classic designs, this RTS puts the player in the shoes of the bad guy -- the evil dungeon overlord who's trying to accumulate treasure while dealing with pesky heroes invading his realm and fighting his minions.
Of specific note? The hand cursor, which could be used to slap minions around and make them work faster or train harder. One could also pick up units and place them around the map, massing an army in the process.
These were just some of the many elements that made this game a great pleasure to play.
One of the first high-profile titles to attempt to combine first-person elements with the standard RTS style build-and-conquer gameplay, Battlezone won over many fans while puzzling others. The control scheme was supremely innovative but irritated pure RTS gamers who were accustomed to total control over all their units, while shooter fans failed to stick with it.
Still, the freedom the game extended to the player (jump out of a tank that's about to explode, run away, take cover in some hills, and then commandeer another nearby vehicle? Sure, why not?) and the sci-fi Cold War storyline made this a classic.
In fact, you can try it out on this ad-infested flash version.
The best of the pre-WOW series -- StarCraft excluded -- was dangerously close to being vaporware. For many reasons, Blizzard Entertainment announced the project and then delayed it: to make sure that typical computer could handle 3D graphics, to remove the more RPG-esque aspects, and of course, to tweak and re-tweak.
The pre-release hype lead to millions of copies pre-sold, and while the game was not industry-shattering, it was certainly a solid, enjoyable game, well worth the money and the wait.
In the end, Warcraft III was a great RTS -- fun, balanced, and with the quirky fantasy-genre units we all know, love, and expect. But by the time it came out, other games were innovating, while Warcraft III was simply doing old things -- albeit very, very well.
With no "ground", space games, by definition, add an extra layer of complexity -- and strategic goodness -- to otherwise standard games. Players are offered the unique ability to use tactics that work in an extra dimension, and this rarity is an exceptional plus.
When a good game enters the space arena, it becomes a great game.
The first true 3-D space strategy game, Homeworld's fleet management, cool formations, and drop-dead graphics made for an amazing experience.
Like Battlezone, Sacrifice put the player right onto the battlefield instead of making him a commander from on high. What set Sacrifice apart, other than the insane difficulty level, was the weird and surreal yet incredibly compelling art direction, the open-endedness of the campaign play, and the game's insistence on immersing the player in the game setting, even during mundane operations like loading a game or quitting to Windows.
For those wanting a rich experience, start-to-finish, Sacrifice knows few equals.
One of the earliest action-strategy hybrid games, Rampart was played mostly in video arcades (although several ports were made).
In Rampart, players build castles and enclose territory using wall pieces shaped like Tetris blocks, and then receive cannons based on the size of the newly enclosed territory. They then shoot holes in the enemy's castle walls. If a player couldn't enclose at least one castle in his walls during the building phase, he was eliminated.
From the clean, elegant gameplay to the option for the winner to execute the losers by guillotine at the end, Rampart's timelessness is undeniable.
The finest of the RTS games that use "weak side differentiation" -- an approach where the different factions or nations have substantial overlap in their unit and building choices, except for a few custom units and some special rule exceptions that nonetheless create very important strategic differences -- Age of Kings still retains tremendous popularity a decade after its release.
Age of Kings was also among the first RTS games to successfully incorporate wall and gate building, give the game a cheap and viable anti-rush, turtle-up strategy, but also allowing tactically-savvy rushers the chance to outflank their opponents.
Before the StarCraft: Brood War expansion, this game risked becoming one of the biggest busts in gaming history. It's pre-order strength and brand popularity allowed it to survive.
Probably the most popular RTS ever, StarCraft changed the rules by introducing three factions who were wildly dissimilar in every way: from resource collection to tactical approach to visual appearance. StarCraft also boasted one of the most compelling and classic story lines of all time, raising the bar for all computer games, not just RTS games, to come.
Total Annihilation suffered from a release date just a month or two after Starcraft's; nonetheless, its depth of gameplay and sci-fi immersiveness were unparalleled, and its visuals second to none.
It was also innovative, using a unique "faucet" style resource collection system instead of the standard "peon" system pioneered by the original WarCraft. With "true" line-of-site and ballistics that matched actual gravitational effects, the game play was pioneering. But what truly set TA apart was the differentiation between "strategy' and "tactics". Instead of just ordering units to "attack here, now!", gamers can queue up build, move, and patrol orders of units not yet created, in an effort to launch a battle plan.
Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns introduced so much clever gameplay it's hard to list it all.
One of the first RTS games to introduce a luck element to the standard game modes, Kohan maps randomly spawned creature lairs that granted gold or technology upgrades when destroyed. Its company system for units, which killed the standard RTS strategies of finding the "best unit" and building nothing but, also prompted endless discussion board threads on the best combinations for each faction and situation. Its elegant elimination of unit micromanagement in combat made players feel like generals rather than babysitters. Its formation system was both easy to use and absolutely necessary to master. Factors like morale and terrain were smoothly and seamlessly integrated. The slot system for cities, which constrained how many and which improvements players could build in a single town, introduced a new type of decision-making to the RTS base-building model.
Unfortunately, like many groundbreaking, paradigm-busting games, Kohan did not fare as well as less daring titles in the marketplace.