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.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (102)

  • Varkarrus  

    How come Maelstrom didn't make the list for the worst strategy games? Or for that matter, the one made by the same person who made Big Rigs over the road racing?

  • UK_John  

    Three points: When 'top' and bottom lists are created they should be based around user reviews. The rules should be at least 100 reviews with the lowest 10% and highest 10% discounted and the rest averaged. It strikes me as strange that 200 gamers can think a game is worth 7.5, and yet because 6 magazines gave it 9.0 it becomes one of the greatest games ever! The media are there to PROMOTE games, only gamers have to spend their hard earned money!

    Also, scoring should be weighted by how many user reviews. So an 8.8 for 600 user reviews of a 5 year old game that has consistently got high review scores should count for more than a 9.1 from a 6 month old game that has only garnered 75 user reviews so far, albeit all 9.0's plus.

    I also think users should be able to change their scores to take account of their changing views about a game. Magazine reviews, for example, never re-score a game if a patch comes out to fix all the bugs. I don;t see why users could not change their score when this happens. Same as if their is a game killer bug right at the end of the game. Many magazine reviews do not complete the game, so never discovered the bug. Why shouldn't users be able to come back and change their score when they discover this?

    It's all very well redesigning website and forcing gamers to re-sign in, but unless you look very carefully how you deal with data, Metacritic's reputation could easily go down the toilet. By treating user reviews as second to magazine reviews you are dissing the people that have actually made Metacritic what is, and how it is today. It is NOT the magazine reviews, that, let's face it, are mostly bad links within a year of them being put on this site! Only the user reviews are constant, because they are held on Metacritic servers. Links to other sites for magazine reviews is always going to be fraught with the danger of in 5 years 95% of magazine review links being dead, and then what use this site?

  • Dirk  

    I agree X-Com should have been part of the list. I would have liked to have seen Fallout 1 on the list, but that's just me

  • Pol  

    So far, Starcraft 2 has received a metascore of 94, tieing with civilization IV as the highest rated strategy game of all time. I do find it ironic that the original Starcraft scored below a 90, though.

  • Tim  

    A GLARING omission on the worst list is Conquest Earth. I remember buying that back in the 90s, expecting an awesome RTS. It was the first RTS where you could control individual units in battle, and boy, was I excited! What I got was a broken piece of crap that didn't function in any way shape or form. I remember reading previews of it in PC Gamer, but they never actually reviewed the finished game. The graphics were a mess and the controls simply did not work, either in RTS mode or unit control mode. This game is the biggest piece of garbage I have ever spent money on...

  • Rob  

    Pretty good list, and I agree that Civ 4 deserves to be at the top. I'm still playing that game five years later, which says something. But I really think that XCOM should have been on the list as well.

  • juden41  

    My favorites are on here, Company of Heroes and Age II (and to a lesser extent Black and White).

    Someone mentioned Total Annihilation. I've actually never played it but I always wanted too. Game sounds to have tons of depth, and then some.

  • heydude  

    hey dude... shame that the old games were given way lower ratings back then. today's games are just so overrated man...
    id like to see starcraft on here ofc, but also heroes of might and magic. that game rocks. empire earth were also really cool. atleast age of empires and wc3 were here.
    got starcraft 2 some days ago and i love it! too sad i cant ad-hoc with my friends when internet's gone, but lan-crack will be out sooner or later i guess.
    good article, btw.

  • Moragan  

    No Age of Mythology?! I understand that it was a clone of Age of Empires (fitting since they were the ones that made it) but with the Titans expansion that game was fantastic! The graphics are not the greatest, particularly by today's standards, but it is such a fun game! Its in the bargain bin of most electronics retailers now....give it a try...you won't be sorry!

  • doad  

    "Civ4?? Yeah that game’s PLAYABLE but not the best.
    I mean, there are no tactical aspect of the game."

    True strategy games do not have "tactical aspects." Tactics and strategy are different concepts. Most so-call real-time strategy games are not strategy games at all. They are actually real time tactical games. They have way too much micromanagement to be true strategy games.

    Considering the scale of Civilization and Alpha Centauri, they are probably more closer to true strategy than games like Warcraft III or Command and Conquer.

    Possibly one of the best strategy games I've played is Ogre Battle 64. Each unit in Ogre Battle 64 consists of 2 to 5 characters. In this game, you do no have direct control over your unit or any of the characters in that unit in combat. You can only give the entire unit vague commands like "Attack Weakest" or "Attack Strongest". You cannot give precise commands. That is what a true strategy game is like. On the PC, the only "strategic" RTS games are those of Kohan series. Supreme Commander is also a possibility but I haven't played it yet. Perhaps there are few others, but not much.

    And then of course there is the wargame genre as well: Steel Panthers, Civil War Generals, Panzer General, etc. A lot of these are true strategy games.

    "And it looks like Sid Meier doesn’t give a crap about reality.
    Spear charging Keshiks, Roosevelt in the prehistoric time,
    spending about a thousand years to get a band of settlers…"

    Then sci-fi/fantasy games like Starcraft and Warcraft must be crap because they do not represent reality?

    On a side note, I find it hilarious that people are blaming Metacritic for the games on this list, when the list simply based on scores given to the game by gaming magazines and website. How immature can people be?

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