The golden era of RTS may have passed, but we’ve been left with a trove of underrated treasures.
What are the most underrated RTS games?
Northgard, Halo Wars 1, Knights and Merchants, and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II, are all underrated RTS games worth playing today.
I take a more detailed look at each one of these titles, plus a couple more, below:
Northgard has been widely praised by reviewers and players alike and so it might seem a bit strange to label it underrated.
However, I still think it hasn’t achieved the attention it deserves (maybe that’s a reflection on the current state of the RTS genre more generally).
While the mechanics can feel a bit awkward if you’re used to classic base-builders like Command & Conquer Red Alert 2, colonizing regions and preparing for winter soon become second nature.
It’s pretty difficult to rush enemies in Northgard (by design), which makes it a nice pick for total RTS beginners. At the same time, there’s sufficient strategic depth to encourage players at all levels to rack up hours upon hours of playtime.
Oh, and one more thing: It’s excellent on Nintendo Switch!
Halo Wars 1
Halo Wars is underrated in the sense that it is (in my opinion) the best console RTS of all time.
The game was designed specifically for the Xbox 360 controller which put it light years ahead of any previous PC-to-console ports in terms of playability.
The game that eventually became Halo Wars actually started life as a hacked version of the Age of Mythology expansion, The Titans, which developers used to create the console-friendly game design that found its way into the final release.
Halo franchise creators Bungie were allegedly not all that happy about their baby being repackaged in RTS format. I, for one, am glad that Microsoft chose to ignore those concerns.
Knights and Merchants
This one flew under my radar at the time of its release in September 1998, most likely because I was still busy with Age of Empires and Starcraft which had hit shelves just months before.
Not everyone missed Knights and Merchants, though, and it’s more than just rosy retrospection that has people still talking about this one 25 years later.
It’s definitely a slow-paced strategy game thanks to a level of detail often bordering on the absurd – each building is constructed brick by brick by your serfs – but there are several faster speed options to counter that.
The game looks great for a 90s release and Knights and Merchants also features fantastic death animations: When a unit dies in combat, their soul visibly floats out of their body and into the ether. Gnarly.
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II
Oh, how my grades suffered for this one. Is RTS the most addictive game genre? It’s hard to say, but I was most certainly addicted to Battle for Middle Earth II.
Battle for Middle Earth II didn’t exactly blow a hole in the genre with innovation, but it did a fantastic job of bringing Tolkien’s fantasy world to life in classic RTS format with two separate campaigns (Good and Evil) and a good range of playable factions each with a unique ‘Ring Hero’ unit.
Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, neither of the Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth titles is available to buy.
However, a friend of a friend has suggested to me that there is not much abandonware that a well-crafted Google query cannot unearth…
R.U.S.E. is a World War II-themed RTS with a single-player campaign focusing on the U.S. invasion of Nazi Germany and seven playable factions in multiplayer mode.
The coolest thing about R.U.S.E. (apart from the bit where you zoom out and the map is on an actual tabletop) is that deception truly is the name of the game.
While many of the standard tips for how to get better at RTS games still apply, it’s the sneakiest operators that often do better than fearless warriors on R.U.S.E.
Like Battle for Middle Earth II, it’s not so easy to get your hands on a PC copy of R.U.S.E. these days due to licensing issues.
However, it was also released for PS3 and Xbox 360 and there are plenty of other ways to enjoy it if you indirectly get what I’m saying, wink wink, nudge nudge.
Tooth and Tail
Tooth and Tail is an 8-bit adventure through a curious world in which various animal factions are out for each others’ blood.
Rather than ordering around an entire army from above, you control a commander in charge of six units (which can be selected from a pool of 20) tasked with destroying the enemy’s mills and campfires.
One of the best RTS indie games out there, Tooth and Tail makes use of procedurally generated terrain to ensure that no two battles are alike.
The game’s simple mechanics make it very console-friendly (it’s available on PS4 as well as PC/Mac), which can’t be said about most RTS games.
Underrated RTS games – Summary
Underrated RTS games worth playing today include:
- Halo Wars 1
- Knights and Merchants
- The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II
- Tooth and Tail