Ranked: Best and Worst Computer Strategy Games

Crafting a top ten list

Image In space, no one can smell your cigar

When it arrives on store shelves tomorrow, Blizzard's much-hyped real-time strategy title StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty will have a lot to live up to. The original StarCraft 88 was released a dozen years ago to strong reviews, and eventually became one of the best-selling PC games of all time -- and, in countries like South Korea, a national obsession. Indeed, for many gamers, StarCraft is the ultimate, genre-defining real-time strategy game.

While 12 years is a long time to wait for a follow-up, StarCraft is getting not one but three separate sequels, with Wings of Liberty -- which focuses on the Terrans, one of the three playable races from the original -- the first to arrive. Will the new game be as good as fans hope? Since the game was not made available to reviewers in advance -- multiplayer is a huge part of StarCraft, and Blizzard wanted to ensure that critics would experience the game along with the full gaming community -- we won't know the consensus reaction for a few weeks.

But StarCraft II will have to be very good indeed to crack our list of the top strategy games of all time. Below, we look at the 10 highest-scoring PC strategy titles in Metacritic's database, an elite collection of games that -- yes -- does not include the original StarCraft, which just missed out by a single point. (Insert complaint here.) Not wanting to waste a good opportunity, we have also included a short list of the worst strategy games of all time. Your own personal rankings, of course, may differ from the lists below; feel free to post your own picks for the top strategy games of all time.

The 10 Best-Reviewed Strategy Games for PC
  Title Year Publisher Metascore Users
1 Civilization IV 2005 2K Games 94 7.5
"A game with this much depth, this much strategy, this much replayability, and multiplayer is totally unheard of in this space. Civilization IV stands alone. No fan of strategy games should leave this on store shelves."
-- GameSpy

Still the gold standard for turn-based strategy games after five years (heck, we've played it as recently as last week), Sid Meier's empire-building classic was the 2005 game of the year in many publications. Famously difficult to stop playing, the addictive game offers generally better gameplay and graphics than previous versions, although some fans prefer the equally high-scoring Civ 2, especially for combat. Civilization V arrives in September, promising a new take on the nearly 20-year-old series.

Related titles:
Civilization II 94 (1996)
Civilization III 90 (2000)
Civilization IV: Warlords 84 (2006)
Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword 86 (2007)
Civilization IV: Colonization 83 (2008)
2 Company of Heroes 2006 THQ 93 9.0
"You've never seen a strategy game with combat as intense as Company of Heroes."
-- Games Radar

Relic's real-time strategy classic is set during World War II, taking players through the Battle of Normandy, including the Americans' D-Day assault on Omaha Beach. Heroes was a hit with players and critics for its blend of chaotic action, demanding strategy, and historical detail.

Related titles:
Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts 87 (2007)
Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor 70 (2009)
3 Homeworld 1999 Sierra Studios 93 9.0
"Engrossing RTS play matched to a vital and visually intense story make this a gaming experience like no other."
-- PC Gamer

It might be over a decade old, but this is the game that StarCraft II must beat to become the highest-scoring sci-fi strategy game of all time. In fact, many longtime PC gamers consider Homeworld (another Relic title) one of the best games ever made, thanks to its compelling story, cinematic 3D graphics, excellent soundtrack, and challenging gameplay. A 2003 sequel didn't add much to the experience, and certainly wasn't the groundbreaking release that the original was.

Related titles:
Homeworld: Cataclysm 89 (2000)
Homeworld 2 83 (2003)
4 Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos 2002 Blizzard Ent. 92 8.6
"The yardstick that will be used to measure strategy games for some time to come."
-- Gamers' Temple

The third major installment (and the final one in the real-time strategy genre) in Blizzard's Warcraft franchise that began with 1994's Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and includes the world's most popular MMORPG, Reign of Chaos was a monster hit, becoming the fastest-selling PC game of all time shortly after its 2002 release. With four very distinct playable races, the title offered a lot of replay value, while also wowing in the graphics and story departments (even if it borrowed some elements from Blizzard's StarCraft).

Related titles:
Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne 88 (2003)
World of Warcraft 93 (2004)
5 Rome: Total War 2004 Activision/Sega 92 8.9
"Many games are excellent world-builders, and many are deep real time strategy war games. Rome: Total War sets out to be both and pulls it off wonderfully."
-- Gaming Age

The best-reviewed title in Creative Assembly's ongoing historical combat strategy series, Rome: Total War is set just before and after the formation of the Roman Empire. Ostensibly a real-time strategy game, Rome also incorporates elements of turn-based strategy in its empire-building aspects, which can span hundreds of turns and in some aspects can rival Civ 4. But it is the game's intense and highly detailed battles that are its calling card, allowing players to command thousands of soldiers at once. And anyone annoyed by the game's historical inaccuracies can download the Rome: Total Realism mod.

Related titles:
Shogun: Total War 84 (2000)
Medieval: Total War 88 (2002)
Rome: Total War - Barbarian Invasion 82 (2005)
Rome: Total War - Alexander 79 (2006)
Medieval II: Total War 88 (2006)
Empire: Total War 90 (2009)
Napoleon: Total War 81 (2010)
6 Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings 1999 Microsoft 92 9.2
"If you've ever liked any other real-time strategy game in this classical style, then you'll clearly see why this one deserves so much credit, even in direct comparison to the finest examples in its category."
-- GameSpot

Set during a thousand-year span encompassing the Middle Ages, the second AoE title took an already acclaimed series and made it even better (especially in the AI department), becoming a huge financial success in the process and influencing countless RTS games that followed. Another full sequel and spin-off titles like Age of Mythology would follow, although none would achieve quite the level of critical acclaim as AoE II.

Related titles:
Age of Empires 83 (1997)
Age of Empires II: The Conquerors 88 (2000)
Age of Mythology 89 (2002)
Age of Empires III 81 (2005)
7 Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri 1999 Electronic Arts 92 9.8
"It is, by all accounts, one of the best turn-based strategy games ever made and perhaps the best ever of its kind."
-- Adrenaline Vault

While it's arguably a sequel to another strategy game mentioned elsewhere on this list, the thought-provoking and story-driven Alpha Centauri is different enough from the Civilization series to merit inclusion on its own. Picking up where Civilization ends (at least in one scenario), SMAC ventures into the science fiction realm, following a group of colonists who set out into space and crash on a mysterious new world. The game was compared favorably by many critics to Civilization II, but there has yet to be a sequel to this popular title (though there was a 2000 expansion, Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire).

8 Black & White 2001 Electronic Arts 90 7.2
"One of the most unique -- and enjoyable -- strategy games we've seen this year."
-- GameSpy

If there's a single game on this list that doesn't belong here, it might be this one. Legendary game designer Peter Molyneux was instrumental in the development of the so-called "god game" genre, and Black & White -- based on part on his own Populous from over a decade earlier -- is his most famous example. Critics initially lauded this ambitious RPG-strategy-sim hybrid, which allowed gamers literally to play as a god while attempting to take control of multiple villages and battle the evil god Nemesis. But, over time, the critical consensus moved into a grey area, with publications like GameSpy (yes, the same one quoted above) finding the game highly overrated. Critics were also unimpressed with later expansions and a 2005 sequel.

Related titles:
Black & White: Creature Isle 72 (2002)
Black & White 2 75 (2005)
Black & White 2: Battle of the Gods 69 (2006)
9 Freedom Force 2002 EA/Crave 90 9.6
"The game's clever design and meticulously well-thought out, considerate presentation are accentuated by innovative gameplay that professionally melds the genres of RPG and strategy into a completely interactive and lively world."
-- IGN

While most of the games on this list are either set in outer space or are based on historical conquests, this 2002 release took a different approach, focusing on a team of original superheroes created by Irrational Games. Mixing real-time tactics with elements of RPGs, Freedom Force was hailed at the time as the best comic book-style game ever made, with personality to spare.

10 Sacrifice 2000 Interplay 89 9.4
"Gorgeous, polished, groundbreaking, and a lot of other impressive-sounding adjectives, but it's also chaotic and lacking in the precise micro-management and complex planning that endears many people to the genre."
-- Computer Games Magazine

This 3D fantasy RTS title puts players in the role of a wizard, able to cast a variety of spells and grow in powers as the game progresses, set in a world with five warring gods. Though Sacrifice was praised for its stunning graphics, original concept, and even its voice acting, it did not sell well, and was quickly forgotten.

Games are ranked by Metascore prior to rounding. Only major releases (with at least 15 critic reviews) were eligible for inclusion; expansions were excluded from consideration. Only the highest-scoring game in a series is included in the rankings; any sequels or prequels are grouped in the "Related titles" listings and were excluded from the rankings.

The 5 Worst-Reviewed Strategy Games for PC
  Title Year Publisher Metascore Users
1 Stalin vs. Martians 2009 Mezmer Games 25 3.9
"The worst game we’ve ever reviewed, and that’s being generous."
-- Total PC Gaming
While the simplistic game was intended as a parody of World War II real-time strategy titles, it turns out that neither critics nor gamers found much to laugh at in Stalin vs. Martians. Critics could not single out just one single aspect of the game that was bad; instead, they found it truly awful across the board. It turns out that when infamous Russian leaders battle invading Martians, nobody wins.
2 Left Behind: Eternal Forces 2006 Left Behind Games 38 4.0
"Avoid this title like the plague. Not only are you sparing yourself the discomfort of ham-fisted preaching and shoddy game mechanics, you’ll also be doing your part to ensure that this obscene mess of eschatological flotsam and apocryphal jetsam never sees a sequel."
-- Worth Playing
In theory, an evangelical Christian videogame about the Rapture doesn't have to be bad. But when the execution is as poor as it is here, the result doesn't have a prayer of a chance at success. Based on the Left Behind novels, the buggy Eternal Forces couldn't even convert the religious; some Christian groups criticized the game for its violence and lack of Christian values.
3 Beyond the Law: The Third Wave 2004 Magnum Games 42 9.3
"To paraphrase an old psychology axiom, if the game sounds bad, looks bad and plays bad, it probably is bad."
-- Cheat Code Central
A team-based strategy game, Beyond the Law is set in a New York City overrun by mobsters. But this low-budget, low-cost title was also low on options, technical prowess, playability, and fun, according to critics, who were left frustrated and bored.
4 Stormrise 2009 Sega 42 4.4
"This frustrating, broken mess is one of the worst strategy games in years."
-- GameSpot
While the other low-scoring titles here were from smaller studios, Stormrise was developed by The Creative Assembly (of Total War fame) and published by Sega. But though it demonstrated some good ideas, this post-apocalyptic RTS title -- also released for the 360 and PS3 -- was still a major failure, thanks mainly to a widely-panned control scheme that somehow worked even more poorly on a PC than it did on the consoles.
5 COPS 2170: The Power of Law 2005 Strategy First Inc. 44 6.2
"There are just far too many better options out there when it comes to strategy games, so why bother with a poorly designed one that is in the end an exercise in frustration?"
-- Gamers' Temple
This futuristic title blends tactical strategy and RPG in a such a way as to disappoint fans of both genres as well as anyone hoping for a solid cyberpunk gaming experience. Critic after critic named the plot, voice acting, gameplay, and graphics as just some of the reasons not to purchase this tedious and poorly-executed release.

What do you think?

What are your favorite strategy games? Are you looking forward to StarCraft II? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Comments (102)

  • D  

    The total war series leaves everything for dead. I just can't imagine going back to a C&C/warcraft based strategy war game. They just can't compare in anyway whatsoever. It's like comparing Eve online to wing commander or pong to a modern tennis game. These games don't even belong on the same list as the total war series.

  • impact  

    Have you considered Mechanized Assault and eXploration or M.A.X. for short? Many would argue this 1996 title belongs nowhere else but at the top of this list.

  • Brian  

    Wanted to add that after playing total annihilation, then all of those games on the author's list, they all seemed so shallow, incomplete, small, and ameturish. They could not hold my interest at all. It's like comparing chess(TA) to checkers(all other RTS games).

  • Brian  

    Ridiculous list. Did the auther ever play any of these games? To not have Total Annihilation an this list should be cause for the author's termination of employment. No other real time strategy game matches total annihilation in the variety of units, size of maps, number of units that can be on the map, variety and difficulty of the A.I.'s, number and quality of player created terrain tiles, textures, maps A.I.'s, units, etc...nothing matches all that. Not even by half.

  • Jonathan  

    You ought add Civilization 5 to the 'worst' list. How can a game developer spend so much money, and take so long, to turn a fun game into a not fun game?

  • Ryan  

    Interesting list of games you got there . I will definitely have to give some of them a try! You should check out my site on Today's top 10 PC games !

  • Barnaky  

    Where is age of Mythology? That game was very good. It was one of the first 3-D RTS games.

  • kyle  

    age of empires the age of kings is the best stratergy game of all time

  • Greg  

    Yah command and conquer should have been on the list but Starcraft 2 pwns all!

  • Zeeshan  

    OH My GOD i mean cmon guyz you didnt even mention command and conquer ,commandos and red alert 3,dawn of war and other those super asskickin games, Sucked up rating yo

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