Numerous classic real-time strategy (RTS) campaigns have graced the PC gaming world, and nowadays, it's rare to find an RTS release without competitive aspects. Popular titles like Halo Wars 2, Dawn of War III, and Empires Apart prioritize multiplayer experiences, investing significant effort into enhancing that aspect. However, a recent trend has emerged, exemplified by games like They Are Billions and Frostpunk, indicating a renewed focus on singleplayer gameplay.

In this celebration of exceptional singleplayer RTS campaigns, we can't help but revisit some renowned giants in the genre, such as Relic, Blizzard, and Westwood. These developers have consistently demonstrated their commitment to world-building and storytelling, resulting in captivating campaigns of exceptional quality. But alongside these well-known titles, let's shine a light on some lesser-known gems that may have flown under the radar for some players.

1. Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault

Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault recounts the Battle of the Bulge from the perspective of four commanders, three of whom are playable characters. Each commander possesses a unique backstory and personality, influencing the forces under their command. What sets Ardennes Assault apart is the depth and challenging nature of its meta-layer map. Instead of trying to emulate the political layer found in Total War games, this campaign keeps battles at the forefront. The use of reinforcements creates rewards and consequences, as defeated enemies can retreat to reinforce territories you have yet to capture, thereby making subsequent missions more challenging. You can choose to cut off these retreating enemies by maneuvering your forces on the map, but doing so may mean sacrificing time-critical missions. The intricacies of this system make it a campaign style that is worth emulating in future games.

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Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault

The mission design in Ardennes Assault is diverse, ranging from defensive line holds to standard control point captures. The finale stands out as memorable without venturing into the realm of over-the-top ridiculousness, a trap that some final missions can fall into. (Note: The next campaign, Battle for Dune, also has the potential to fit this description.)

2. Battle Realms

Battle Realms, a 2001 RTS developed by Liquid Entertainment, deserves recognition among advanced combat system discussions in the genre. Games like Dawn of War, Men of War, Company of Heroes, and WarCraft 3 often dominate these conversations, but Battle Realms brings unique and enjoyable gameplay twists. For instance, players can level up peasants to any combat unit, trade one resource (water) to replenish another (rice), switch units dynamically between ranged and melee combat, and utilize a novel Yin/Yang system for upgrades.

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Battle Realms

Though the campaign's cutscenes appear dated as they are rendered in-game, the core formula remains fresh even in 2018. Players can assume the role of the Serpent Clan or the stalwart Dragons, following the exiled hero Kenji's journey to restore his chosen clan's dominance. One of the strengths of Battle Realms lies in its emphasis on player choice throughout the campaign. The game allows you to decide the territory and scenarios you wish to take on next, with victories in battles providing bonuses that carry over to future missions, introducing a sense of persistence across the campaign.

3. Emperor: Battle for Dune

Emperor: Battle for Dune secures its place on this list due to its exceptional story presentation, memorable characters, and replayability, making it a standout title. Westwood took the Command & Conquer formula and infused it with the quirky charm of the 1984 Dune movie. The campaign adopts a Risk-style territory map, where players must engage in battles against two AI Houses to gain control of the planet Arrakis. While the game primarily revolves around desert warfare, occasional story-progression missions set on different planets like Caladan or Spacing Guild Heighlighers offer a refreshing change of scenery. Additionally, players have the option to ally with or combat Minor Houses, adding variety to each playthrough. Emperor: Battle for Dune, along with Ardennes Assault, remains the gold standard for a captivating meta-campaign. Furthermore, it stands alongside Red Alert 2 as a prime example of enjoyable campiness in real-time strategy gaming.

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Emperor: Battle for Dune

4. Dawn of War: Dark Crusade

Dawn of War: Dark Crusade introduces two fascinating and entertaining factions, the Necrons and the Tau, to the world of RTS gaming. While these factions already hold intrigue within the Warhammer 40,000 lineup, their inclusion in the context of RTS elevates the experience to a new level.

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Dawn of War

Among the strategic campaigns featured in this list, Dark Crusade's iteration stands out for several reasons. Territories grant access to unique customizations that can significantly impact your approach to the game. Furthermore, the order in which you acquire these customizations can vary depending on the faction's starting location, adding a layer of strategic decision-making. The game also allows you to apply wargear to your chosen leader as you progress, offering a rewarding sense of growth and progression, even in the absence of a deeply intricate story beyond the perpetual warfare of the Warhammer universe.

Dark Crusade incorporates other thoughtful touches as well, like preserving your base after winning a province, a feature that many players appreciate but would like to see more often in RTS games. Additionally, the Honor Guard for faction leaders introduces another engaging and persistent element to the campaign.

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