Opinion

The very best PC strategy games of all time - Part 2

AltChar
composit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3
The Best Strategy Games of All Time

Searching for the best strategy games of all time is a never-ending task and we assembled a preliminary selection. As any strategy connoisseur will gladly tell you, most finds will likely be on PC and probably a little dusty with age.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Firaxiscomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

What the early Civilization games established in terms of basic loops and mechanics, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri grabbed and took to the stars. Focusing on questions of ethics, the human condition, and the extremes which the genus Homo can drift into, Alpha Centauri adds character and philosophy where there was previously just a mechanical mirror for human history. 

The story has a colony ship depart from the crumbling remains of Earth towards Alpha Centauri, looking for a new home among the stars. Along the way, a malfunction on the vessel galvanises the crew into seven factions not based on ethnicity, but on their vision for humanity's future on an alien world. 

That same alien world, simply referred to as the Planet, is a character in its own right, but that's about as much as one could say without drifting deep into spoiler territory. Yes, spoilers for a Civ-like 4X game. Go figure.

Firaxiscomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Almost everything Civ players may be familiar with, is also in Alpha Centauri, but with a twist. Brian Raynolds, the lead designer on the project, has a background in philosophy and the influence can be felt in almost every corner of the final release.

An expansion titled Alien Invasion can usually be found bundled with currently available copies of the game, but it adds relatively little to the already jam-packed original release. The UI and graphics may not have aged too well, but on every other level Alpha Centauri is a true classic.

Endless Legend

Amplitudecomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Endless Legend

When it comes to translating ideas and concepts into systems and mechanics, few strategy titles come close to Endless Legend.

The game's Necrophage faction is a chittering slithering insectoid swarm only intent on consuming living things incapable of negotiating any sort of peace deal; The Roving Clan are a merchant faction that can ban others from the game's marketplace entirely; The Cult of the Eternal End is confined to having a single holy city and rely on conversion to spread. Every one of the 13 available factions feels incredibly unique and this goes beyond just appearance and deep into Endless Legend's inner workings.

Endless Legend features a changing seasons system, with winters being increasingly frequent and devastating as the game progresses and some parties deal with it better than others. This adds a sense of urgency to play and works wonders for match pacing.

SBcomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Endless Legend

The planet where the action takes place is pretty much doomed, so each faction's story revolves around their individual idea on how to face the coming disaster.

Amplitude Studios have made sure to include a new playable race and set of base mechanics with each of the game's expansions, so grabbing those is pretty much a must for the complete experience.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

Reliccomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War

The venerable Warhammer 40,000 licence got its first verisimilar computerised strategy incarnation with Relic's Dawn of War. It came with more dakka, purging and heresy than any previous attempt at bringing 40k tabletop carnage to PCs.

Where Dawn of War truly shines is providing those looking for a streamlined action-packed RTS experience and franchise enthusiasts just there to soak in a faithfull recreation of the setting with exactly what they wanted in equal measure.

The game's sync kills in particular were spectacular and gory animations played when one squad finishes off another, and deserve special mention for providing that triumphant "ohh, that must have hurt" moment.

The vanilla game and first Winter Assault expansion both came with a linear campaign, where the later offered some branching in its story and added the Imperial Guard on top of the already present Space Marines, Orks, Eldar and Chaos factions.

Reliccomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War - Dark Crusade

Dark Crusade was the third expansion that played out on a Risk-like overworld map and brought the Necrons and Tau to the roster. A final expansion named Soulstorm was handled by a different studio and is worth a look, even if many consider it to be the weakest of the lot.

Dawn of War has a lively modding community up to this day. The Warhammer 40.000 universe is a modders dream as the base game only scratched the surface of the massive 40k setting, and you can imagine how bonkers the mods get when a fanbase famed for painting and modelling incredible miniatures gets to work.

Heroes of Might and Magic 3

NWCcomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Heroes of Might & Magic 3

The Heroes of Might and Magic series peaked with its third instalment and one would be hard-pressed to describe it as anything other than timeless.

Story and setting are somewhat secondary to the proceedings, as HoMM3's bread, butter, and caviar lie in its incredible depth and complexity. Sure, one could spend upwards of at least 50 hours slogging through its challenging campaigns, but as soon as the first hot-seat multiplayer match gets rolling, players will quickly realise exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes.

In essence, every strategic avenue a player can pursue has several seemingly overpowered final destinations, and any good player will be pursuing at least 2 or 3 of these at once.

As an example, going for a undead necromancer build which turns entire enemy armies into Power Liches once defeated can break the game quite easily, until the realisation sinks in that an adversary has cheesed his way to enough money and spells to dispatch hordes of disposable heroes casting an extremely powerful Armageddon spell with just enough troops to cast it once per battle, turning those Power Liches back to dust in a blink. Both of these strategies are considered basic in HoMM3 and almost every late-game approach is overpowered in its own right.

NWCcomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Heroes of Might & Magic 3

The incredible feat on display is how a massive load of incredibly broken strategies start balancing themselves out when pitted against each other. This comes to a point where finding the most creative way to break the game, becomes the game itself.

Factions are unique, the art-style will remain gorgeous at least 50 years from now, the multiplayer can ruin friendships, and modders have made sure HD mods are readily available.

Avoid the official HD version and mod the Complete release for the best results

Rise of Nations

BHGcomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Rise of Nations

Some mash-ups are more obvious in hindsight than others, and Rise of Nations belongs to the I can't believe this actually works category. Big Huge Games figured they could pull off a mix of Civilisation and Age of Empires and they were right.

Borrowing real-time battles and city building from Age of Empires, then mixing it with territory control aspects and centralised urban hubs from Civilization, Rise of Nations can easily serve as a case study on how intricate design can carry a strategy experience.

At first glance the game looks like a highly polished offspring of its real-time muse, but players familiar with Civ will instantly recognise a lot of aspects influenced by Firaxis' work, like attrition on units in enemy territory or tapped luxury resources providing global bonuses.

The campaign's Risk-like region control structure gels well with individual battles, and a lot of small aesthetic or quality of life touches go a long way. Transporting units over bodies of water is a near-automatic affair which still requires some thought, grouped armies are instantly named and aligned into formations based on troop composition, and idle Citizens will always try to make themselves useful by filling vacant nearby worker slots.

Sergiucomposit of several strategy game box arts including rise of nations, endless legend, dark crusade, heroes 3Rise of Nations

Every nook and cranny of Rise of Nations also radiates that unique visual charm that both of its progenitors are renowned for. Getting it to run on modern systems in HD is possible with zero hassle thanks to the game's Extended Edition, which thankfully left the core game and its one expansion untouched while adding updated multiplayer features.

 

Googled your way here? To get the complete picture make sure to read Part 1, or move on to Part 3 if you're feeling adventurous. Sick of adventuring? Well, then hop right into the conclusion then.