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The real-time strategy genre is hugely popular and it encompasses a wide variety of games. There are epic titles like Empire: Total War which blends a turn based campaign map with real-time battles. There are also alternative takes on the genre like Majesty 2 with individual mission maps which run in real-time but no direct control over units. These games are both quality in their own way but they’ll cost you a fair bit of cash, so what if you want a real-time strategy game for free? Well you’ll need to accept a drop in graphical standard but good gameplay doesn’t necessarily come with a premium price attached. In this article we’ll highlight the best free RTS games you can find online.
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While this wasn’t strictly speaking the first real-time strategy game it was the first really popular one and it cemented certain mechanics. Dune II paved the way for the Command & Conquer and Warcraft series. It is very dated now and the individual battle screens feature simple 2D artwork and a tile system. However despite its age Dune II still works nicely and has touches of brilliance. It was first released in 1992 and it gives you an idea of how far the RTS genre has come. You can download Dune II for free.
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Command & Conquer Gold
This was a fantastically popular RTS game in its day and it spawned many similar titles. In order to celebrate the 12th anniversary Electronic Arts decided to release the Gold Edition of the original game for free. This is still an enjoyable game to play although the visuals are dated. The gameplay has been developed further because the series continued and many other developers took the same basic mechanics but if you want to check out one of the most influential early RTS games then you have to play Command & Conquer Gold.
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This is an RPG themed 3D RTS game which is completely free to play. It was first released in 2004 and it is visually impressive for a free game. Since the game engine is also designed to be modifiable there are several alternative versions of the game to try out. It is set in a fantasy world with tech and magic factions. This is an open source game and was never a commercial product so it does lack polish but the gameplay is decent. Check out the Glest website.
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This real-time strategy game came out in 1999 as one of the first titles to offer RTS gaming in 3D. It was made free in 2004. The game has a typical post apocalyptic backdrop with epic warfare and a camera that can rotate and zoom. There is also plenty of technology to research. Warzone 2100 is another game which has been heavily modded so you’ll find various alternative versions to try and they are completely free. Visit the official site to download Warzone 2100. For more on the game you should check this article on the Warzone 2100 development history.
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This game was released in 2000 and it is another 3D effort. It dispenses with resource gathering altogether and you can’t build or summon reinforcements during the gameplay so you have to select the right force beforehand. Tactics are a vital component in this game and it offers a fun futuristic warfare experience. It was released for free when the sequel, Ground Control 2 came out in 2004. You’ll have to register to get your hands on a free download of Ground Control and you can do it at FilePlanet.
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This is an open source RTS game engine and it is also sometimes called Total Annihilation: Spring because it is a 3D remake of the original Total Annihilation game. There are lots of mods available for this game and it offers big 3D battles on attractive maps. The Star Wars: Imperial Winter mod is especially worth checking out. You can find all sorts of info and links to other mods at the Spring Project website.
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UFO: Alien Invasion
If you ever played the X-Com series then you’ll love this title. It blends turn-based with real-time strategy and puts you in charge of Earth’s defences in the face of alien invasion. You need to develop your base, research new technology and build an army capable of stopping the alien invaders. In the Tactical Mode you’ll control the encounters and battles. This free game is still being developed and you can find out more and download the latest version here.
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This is another open source RTS game which can be downloaded for free. It doesn’t look great but the gameplay is interesting and it has taken a leaf from Majesty’s book by dispensing with direct control over individual units. Instead you assign a number of units to a task and can then focus on your strategic approach. It is quite quirky and very different from the usual RTS. The battle for supremacy allows you to kill, convert or starve your opponent. You can find out more at the Globulation 2 wiki.
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This was known as Battle of Survival and it is an open source RTS released in 2007. It is a straight up battle for supremacy and your forces are fuelled by resource gathering. There is no technological research aspect. It looks like C&C, with a typically futuristic backdrop, and it plays like it too. You can download the latest version at the BOS Wars website.
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This is actually billed as an MMORTS and it is set in a historical fantasy world. You have to gather resources to raise armies and take on various quests. While this is a free to play title the free account does limit you in various ways and doesn’t offer the most enjoyable gameplay experience. If you want access to the full game and decent units you’ll have to spend at least $20. Still there aren’t too many MMORTS games out there so you may still fancy giving this a look which you can do at the Saga website.
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Free PC Games
There are other free RTS options out there which you can uncover with a bit of digging. You can also check out our articles on free PC games and free browser games for some alternative genre ideas. This blend of freely released commercial real-time strategy titles and indie developed games should be enough to keep you busy for a while though.