What do you think of when I say "RTS"? Do you think 'Real-time strategy game'? Do you think 'Build More Farms' or 'Zerg rush'? How did we come to this point, anyway, where just a term means both a genre, games within the genre, elements of the genre, and all the points in between? There were many games that got us to the path where we are today - either making the mold or breaking it. And I'd like us to remember those games today, or at least the five most noteworthy ones.
When it comes to 3D RTS games, it becomes a bit of a headache to even think about controlling. How do you count for the third plane? Do you use a different up/down moveset for the camera? How do you click a third-dimension point in space? It could have been damn near impossible or at the very least clunky and finicky.
Homeworld was groundbreaking just for figuring all that out, but it also delivered it in a pretty sweet package of a game. It wasn't just their control system that was smart and intuitive, it was also the graphics system that (though dated now) at the time was gob-smackingly fantastic, really putting you into the world of an excellent sci-fi film or series, like Battlestar Galactica. The music – composed by Paul Ruskay, oddly the only thing he's noteworthy for – featured a sweeping vocal ambient chorus and orchestra, using a mix of electronica and Middle-Eastern influences.
Naturally, the second game just took the original formula and just did more of it, but it's still not holding a candle to how hard the original game got it 'right.'
#4 - Warcraft: Orcs Vs Humans
I don't know how much I need to say about Warcraft setting the tone, but earlier games before it had yet to really pin down a few standards that the industry takes for granted today. Resource acquisition and management, such as food granted by farms or similar, had yet to be a standard. Home 'bases' like town halls or the forts like in Dawn of War II had yet to come into existence. Fantasy RTSes had yet to understand themselves, including the now-standard footmen/archer/sorcerer/gigantic exotic monster template.
In essence, Warcraft redefined a lot of the standards we take for granted today. It wasn't until Warcraft II and III came along and re-redefined the genres (streamlining the original, making wider variety of units between factions, hero units, better built multiplayer, and setting the art style we all know and love today) that we had true RTS mastery, but remember that this was the one that started it all.
#3 - Total Annihalation
This is an odd one. Even though it's not a direct influence and didn't cause the entire RTS generation to hop to it and imitate it, not only was Total Annihilation a completely friggin' rad game, it also set several precedences. The step-to system of harvesting gold/gas/minerals had been taken for granted, and yet TA streamlined the process by adding in auto-harvesters, which generate the resource (energy and metal) that never ran out, and it was less about consuming harvested minerals efficiently and more about balancing income and expenditures, like most real economies.
Additionally, unique to the genre was not limiting who could attack what – everyone could shoot anyone, it's just a matter of who was more efficient at it. Sure, your Mavericks couldn't hit the broad side of a flying Hurricane, but it didn't mean they wouldn't try if you let them, and hey if you had enough of those built statistics dictated that you had to hit something eventually.
And honestly if the Commander and his gigantic f*ck-you D-Gun weren't the basis for hero units in Warcraft III I'd be astonished.
#2 - Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty
Everything I've told you up until now was building on the basis of RTS games as a whole. Adding the components of hero units, playing with resource management, finagling with how bases are constructed, etc. But there is not a single one of those things that could not be traced back to Dune II. If the last game in my list was the RTS skeleton, this was the muscle.
Dune II built it all. Three factions. Fog of war. Base building. World map. Mobile base units. Tech trees. Mouse command. Friggin mouse commands were introduced to RTSes through this game. It's common to associate such things with StarCraft and WarCraft, but they merely adapted the system. Dune II was born in it.
Once they departed from the Dune license and built their own sci-fi property in Command and Conquer, and then launched even further away into what can best be described as 'stupid-crazy-awesome' with the Red Alert franchise, before they sold off to EA.
And as great as this game was at setting foundations, the real skeleton of RTSes as a whole belongs to...
#1 - Herzog Zwei
This is not a great game. It's old, it's clunky, and all the stuff Dune II streamlined by being on PC the Genesis had to force working by being controller-operated. There's also a lot of genre-bending in retrospect – is it really an RTS if you have a big robot making all the commands and setting everything up, or are we just playing a strategy game of sorts?
But the core of the game, setting out and waging war with units and managing resources like fuel and ammo, different types of unit to construct and prepare, as well as giant sweeping maps with outposts that work as a base of operations, is all real-time strategy. And this arguably set the standard, especially in multiple maps with environmental hazards, something Westwood undoubtedly saw and, while thinking about Sandworms, said, “YES!”
It's a slow game. Given that you are a controlled Definitely Not Macross mech, you have to go one by one and order units then air-drop them around the battlefield, issuing commands. It's clunky, but it sorta works as a mechanic designed around robots with AI rather than giving orders to actual physical space marines, adding to a system of feeling like you're in control of a bunch of extraordinarily thick droids rather than maintaining an illusion of people under orders of a commander.
But that's not as important as what it did – set a rule. There are others before it (the original Herzog in 1988 is controversial in exactly how much it built the genre before its successor on the Genesis), but without any lines you can see the parallels. And that's why it's on this list at the top. Others have done it different or better, but this is where it all began.