Along with Role-Playing Games, Shooters, and so on, Strategy games are one of the oldest and most beloved of videogame genres. Arguably the finest examples are the Real-Time Strategy games, with notable franchises ranging from the depths of space to the shell-shocked fields of 20th century Europe, and everywhere in between (and that's before you even consider the plethora of 3rd party mods available). However, some game franchises just haven't received the attention from developers and publishers that they deserve, no matter how many whiny letters I send. Games with heart, with originality, and sometimes even with characters so relatable and developed that they put RPGs to shame. So, here are a few of my favourites. Hopefully you'll like the look of one or two and pick them up.
1. Impossible Creatures
It's entirely possible that you are familiar with Impossible Creatures. But it's also possible that you're a Nigerian Prince who wants to give me a large sum of money. I'm saying it's unlikely that you're familiar with the game is what I'm saying. At least, I've never come across more than half a dozen people who have heard of it. Then again, I only leave my underground bunker when I run out of Mountain Dew, so I guess I can't really judge.
Developed by Relic and released in 2002, it's one of the few RTS games with a truly unique premise. Essentially, you are a mad scientist doing battle with other mad scientists over who is the best at mad science. Your weapons? Animals. But not just any animals, that would be stupid. No, you take animals and combine them in a fashion that proves to be surprisingly horrific if you actually think about it, then order them to attack the opposing team with their bare fists. Or claws. Or lightning attacks. The combinations are quite varied and often humorous. Elephant-Dragonflies, for example. Or Shark-Eagles. If the game could be said to have a problem it's that the AI is surprisingly difficult, but I'm so confident that you're up for a challenge that I'm just going to put that in the 'pro' column. Overall, it stands up to the test of time fairly well, but it would be incredibly well served by the advances in technology over the last decade.
2. Age of Empire: Age of Mythology
I'm going to go ahead and assume you have actually heard of the classic RTS franchise, Age of Empires. In fact, I'm going to flat-out refuse to believe anyone hasn't heard of it. It's like not being aware of the existence of Snooki; even if you hate her and everything she stands for, you can't help but at least be aware she exists. I'm not even going to talk about how there should be an Age of Empires 4 (that's for an entirely different article). No, this is all about the relatively low-key AoE spin-off, Age of Mythology. Bet you can't guess what it's about. Wrong! It's about mythology. Specifically, Norse, Egyptian, and ancient Greek mythology. When you boil it down to the bare bones, it's a game about Thor, Ra and Zeus having a punch-up. But they're gods, so they're even less civilised about it than regular people. I'll let that sink in. Oh, and mythical creatures are available for each faction too, like minotaurs, mummies and frost giants.
Like Impossible Creatures, Age of Mythology was released in 2002 and received far less attention than it deserved. You should play it. I can almost guarantee that you'll love it and that you'll agree that eleven years of technological progress would only make it even more incredible.
3. Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends
Rise of Nations was a popular game in its own right, and tried introducing new elements to the RTS genre, like spheres of influence that could be gained or lost with the tides of war. Rise of Legends was a fantasy spin-off released a few years later in 2006. There were three playable races; the Vinci, masters of Steampunk clockwork and gunpowder; the Alin, powerful wizards with control over sand, fire and glass; the mysterious Cuotl, fickle alien gods with technology so advanced it might as well be magic, leading armies of slaves. Even left at this, the game would deserve a mention, but it also has a lot more to offer. The single-player campaign is highly entertaining; no two missions are alike, and very few maps are reused. The characters are engaging and well-written, with a story full of humour, romance and friendship, but ultimately driven by heroism and revenge. The campaign doesn't really leave any loose ends, but it is nonetheless almost criminal for such a franchise to have been left languishing for so long.
Before you say anything, yes I know that it was recently announced that the Homeworld games will be getting HD releases, and I'll be one of the first in line. But it's been a decade since Homeworld 2, and while a HD re-release is appreciated, it's not exactly the sequel that Homeworld fans have been dying for. No new units, maps, factions, mechanics...no new anything, basically.
The Homeworld games were amazing when they were released (and frankly, the graphics stand up well even after a decade of progress), with great music, an intuitive interface, and interesting mechanics. You started not on a planet, but in the middle of space, with a sizeable mothership providing all the basic functions and, with a bit of research, advanced functions too. It's one of the few games where simply moving your units has tactical implications, depending on how you move them. For example, just moving left and right and forwards and backwards is so passé; why not come at the enemy from above, or below? It is space, after all. Or, if you have the technology and resources, and feel flashy, you could make a hyperspace jump behind enemy lines, catching his fleet out of position. I strongly suggest both picking up a copy of the game when the HD digital release is made available, and offering to clean Gearbox's HQ for a year if they'll make Homeworld 3.
5. Fragile Allegiance
Fragile Allegiance is, explained in the simplest terms, a game about leading and operating an asteroid colonisation and mining company for TetraCorp. Obviously there's more to it than just digging into space rocks though. You are competing with several alien factions for control of said asteroids and diplomacy is vital, particularly of the shotgun variety. The combat itself is not particularly advanced; you build ships and missiles with the ore you mine (assuming you choose not to sell it to the Federation), form the ships into fleets, and tell them where to go. They'll attack whatever enemies they find at their destination. Simple, but the game was released in 1996, so what are you expecting? Personally, I find it more fun to cover a few asteroids with missile silos, fit the asteroids with engines, and voilà! You have yourself some missile-shooting balls of space rock that fly wherever you point. It's an exciting game; diplomatic ties can shift at any time, and the map itself is constantly in motion. More than once I've had colonies disappear because I wasn't paying attention and two asteroids smashed together, leaving nothing but dust floating in the space-breeze.
I believe this game deserves a sequel, or at least an updated re-release, it'd lend the game a whole new dimension. Literally, actually: the game map is only two-dimensional. Back in the 90s, you only needed two dimensions. Kids today are so spoiled.
Of course, there are games I wish I could have included but didn't have the space. So, without further ado, some of the Honourable Mentions, in no particular order:
Universe at War: Earth Assault
Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War (Dawn of War 2 is an entirely different genre, so doesn't count)
Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth