I was a big Total Annihilation fan, haven't really enjoyed a RTS since. I played some DOWII at a friend's place and it made me think about buying it. I guess you could say that's a pretty big thumbs up.
Never been much of an RTS guy myself, mostly FPS. I played a lot of red alert 2 back in the day but never got too atached so I left RTS for a while. I decided to get World in Conflict a couple weeks back and wow, blew my pants off. I'm a bit of a closet history geek, and the tactics and units and story all make sense, IIRC it's based off a book by some Tom Clancy type. Pretty DX10 graphics, ran maxed on my system. And, for icing on the cake, there's an expansion coming out soon where we get to see the Soviet side.
Well, I can tell you this; Do not waste your money on Red Alert 3. This is the only C&C game to come out that I have not liked...at all. It is cartoony and seems like a step backwards for the franchise.
Any of the other Command and Conquer series is great though, or try Company of Heroes.
Out of those two I would pick Total War. The entire series is epic.
Start with some classics, they are classics for a reason! Starcraft, Starcraft BW. Hit up the Warcrafts, start at least at Warcraft II! Next up find the C&C games, the oldschool ones, mostly the ones when it was still done by Westwood, though a few EA ones are decent.
Best of all, you can pick up all these in a "battle chest" package type deal for real cheap!
Since you are a first time RTSer don't get Empire Total War you will be overwhelmed by the complexity of that game. I suggest something simple to learn on like starcraft, warcraft III. World in conflict & DW2 would be my next choices.
While Dawn of War 2 is classified as an RTS it is nothing like Age of Empires or Command and Conquer if thats what your looking for, neither is Empire Total War. I suggest Age of Empires 3, or Command and Conquer Red Alert 3, because its only $10 at bestbuy if you use the coupone availible to the free gamer's club
I would suggest Starcraft as well (you can get the battlechest from Newegg for 20 bucks) or Warcraft 3 and the add on. These are awesome simple RTS games. Dawn of War (the first one, I haven't played the second yet) is really fun too, but I would still suggest starting with those two I mentioned before.
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