Age of Empires II - one of the best and hardest RTS games

Real-time strategy games have often been touted as some of the most challenging video games to get into. Some people find them incredibly complex and cerebral so they won’t touch them. Others have attempted to dive in only to be greeted by a massive skill gap between them and their opponents.

Age of Empires II - one of the best and hardest RTS games
Age of Empires II – one of the best and hardest RTS games

The few who manage to stick around, though, swear by the genre. They find enjoyment in the steep learning curve and open-ended gameplay these games offer. So, what is it that makes this genre so challenging for newcomers?

Where Does Difficulty in an RTS Come From?

Difficulty in RTS games isn’t a straightforward topic to address as it all depends on your perspective. Different people play this genre for different reasons. In some cases, people enjoy single-player campaigns, especially if they have interesting stories to tell. On the other hand, the lion’s share of RTS players enjoys battling against others.

For those who’d rather enjoy the genre solo, the difficulty can vary from one game to the next. AI opponents in RTS games are a bit of a mixed bag. A lot of them are designed to be challenging, to the point where they may even cheat. Most will likely let you adjust the challenge scale to cater to your own skill level. However, should you decide to dial it up to 11, you’ll likely have to deal with a beast of an opponent that plays at a galaxy brain level.

Stepping into the other side of the spectrum, PvP difficulty is a whole other ball game. The primary source of challenge is going to come from playing against human opponents. With as small a niche as the RTS genre, the likelihood of being matched up against a far more experienced player is exponentially high. And as if losing wasn’t enough, you barely learn anything from playing against these battle-hardened veterans.

So, does that mean all RTS games are as hard to get into?

Are All RTS Games Difficult?

All isn’t entirely lost when it comes to picking up an RTS game as a beginner. If you’re not looking to play these games for the campaign, then your next best bet is to play titles that have skirmish modes.

These modes allow you to play custom matches against AI opponents under rules and configurations of your choosing. Looking to steamroll a super easy opponent? You can do it. Want to stack the odds completely in your favor against a more challenging foe? That’s possible as well.

Skirmishes typically have tons of different options to alter that range from game speed to map size to economy manipulation. You can even set yourself up with AI allies and try your hand at some co-op battles. The possibilities are quite limitless.

The majority of RTS games will have a skirmish or custom mode for you to enjoy low-stakes matches. The other option, of course, is to play with or against friends.

What Makes an RTS Game Hard?

You’re probably reading all of this thinking “it’s a video game, how can it be hard to get into?” And, you’d be justified in thinking this way. Games aren’t inherently hard when you view them in a vacuum. However, vacuums aren’t canonical in real-life situations and RTS games have an environment of their own, which is their current player base.

If you’re looking to dive into an RTS to play against other players and test your mettle, you’ve got a few things to weigh up in relation to your own circumstances.

Economy Complexity

An RTS game’s match economy is its lifeblood. Managing resources and making decisions on how to use them is a key ingredient to the genre’s delicious soup. How well you distribute these resources defines your playstyle, overall match presence, and your general ability to outplay your opponent by realizing your strategy.

Having one or two resources, which is the standard for most RTS games, to manage is already challenging enough. Imagine having to juggle even more. For starters, it forces you to think in the long-term which can heavily impede your more immediate priorities. Furthermore, it’s not often clear which resources are more valuable to you and your army. It takes a fair amount of experience to work with multiple resources, which is why the more popular games opt to have few.

Combat Depth

Depth in an RTS game’s combat is defined mostly by how many capabilities your army has. At its most basic, each of your units will counter and be countered by other units. However, this is all flipped on its head when some of your troops have activated skills. This adds an entirely new layer to combat.

Do you pop your big AOE ability at the start of a battle or do you wait for enemy reinforcements to deal more damage? Has the enemy used their own ability yet and is it worth waiting for that first? These are but a sampling of the questions you’ll find yourself asking in an RTS with exceedingly deep combat. It gets even worse when your units have multiple abilities that underpin different approaches and strategies.

Skewed Balance

Let’s face it. Balance is everything when you are playing PvP and that goes double for RTS games. When one faction’s units are head and shoulders above the others, then you’re in for an uphill battle if you don’t make the right choice at the selection screen.

What makes balance a much tougher pill to swallow in an RTS is that unit strength can greatly depend on the phase of the battle you’re in. For instance, Zerglings in Starcraft are extremely powerful if you can get them out super early and in decent numbers. However, they’re nothing more than cannon fodder by the mid-point and beyond. What this all means is that your choice of faction is greatly affected by what type of strategy you enjoy playing.

Which Are The Hardest RTS Games?

Okay, so you’ve read up on RTS difficulty, so now you want to know which are the hardest RTS games to play. Let’s take a look below.

Starcraft 2

The Starcraft pedigree is well known not just in the RTS space but in the wider gaming world. While it’s one of the most popular titles, it’s also a bit of a struggle to pick up as a newcomer. Specifically, the second installment of the series has made a few interesting amendments to the formula established by Brood War, but the core remains intact.

What makes it a challenge is mostly how the game’s metagame works. For the longest time, matches have favored fast strategies and playstyles. These force you to play a specific way, which calls for memorizing build orders. While this is somewhat the norm in the genre, in Starcraft 2 it’s even more highly pronounced due to the sheer speed the meta forces on you.

Distant Worlds

Distant Worlds is a game that combines elements of RTS with the grand strategy subgenre called 4X. This combination alone defines the game as challenging because of how many moving parts you have to juggle. RTS games emphasize the nitty-gritty battles while 4X has you consider a much bigger picture. When combined, you’ve got a recipe for one heck of a game to learn.

Because of its sheer scale, Distant Worlds has a ton of decisions you need to make in a given instance. There are several resources you have to juggle and it’s never simple to determine which is more valuable than the other. The AI is also a formidable foe even at lower difficulties so this may not be the solo experience you are looking for.

Supreme Commander

Supreme Commander is a very deep game that’ll test your tactical mettle to the max. What makes battling other players in this game so challenging is how favorable turtling strategies are. This refers to sticking to a single base and emphasizing defense. If you’re not good at outpacing your opponent, then you’ll have a rough time defeating opponents who know how to hold their position effectively.

This naturally also means that combat is somewhat complex and heavily dependent on resources. The main motto the game’s community has is “never run out of energy, never run out of mass”. These two resources are so critical to playing the game that simply running out of either for a bit can spell doom for you.

Age of Empires 2

The Age of Empires legacy is only second to Starcraft. That’s how big this series is. Although each iteration has its share of complexities and challenges, it’s the second game that’s considered the hardest.

For starters, you have way more resources to juggle when building your base and training up your army. Furthermore, the game is just filled with so many experienced players. It’s a right struggle to attempt to even survive in a match long enough to enjoy it. What it has going for it, though, is how well-balanced its factions are. Regardless of which one you choose, you won’t feel that you’re particularly underpowered. That of course hinges on whether you’re playing with someone of the same skill. But still, even in skirmishes, this game is a gem and highly rewarding once you get to grips with it.

Read more: What makes a Good RTS Game

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