And henceforth Ruse, because game names with extraneous punctuation in are just silly. Right, Stalker? Right. There can be much in a name, too. In this new real-time strategy from Eugen Systems and Ubisoft everything is based on that one titular conceit: trickery, misdirection, the flow of information. The ruse is the game. Some RTS games make a nod to this stuff with their fog of war, or even stealth tanks or whatnot, but here it's the key to success. It's remarkably refreshing. Also, I flagrantly kicked out my network cable and I didn't care! Why not? Because there's no always-on DRM. But enough pre-blather bombardment. Let's launch the landing craft of criticism directly into what I think about Ruse...
It can't be easy to put a fresh coat of novelty onto the topic of World War II. Even a decade ago it had become less-a-joke-more-a-horrible-reality that every other RTS announced would be a World War II themed game, and trend has only grown more acute. Eugen Systems' real achievement, then, aside from making an unusual and interesting strategy game, is to do it without leaning too much on other people's accomplishments in designing for that particular theatre of war. Ruse is recognisably a real-time strategy of the first order, but there are few reasons why it is distinct and original.
The first reason is the ruse mechanic itself. This is essentially a series of power-ups that can be deployed across sections of the map to give you a tactical advantage. Some of them are recognisable from other game systems – boosts to speed, or to morale – but the ones that are distinctly Ruse's own are what make the game interesting. These include fake buildings, and even entirely fake offensives, complete with decoy units made of string and cardboard. There are spies to reveal exact enemy unit types, and decryptions to reveal their intentions (illustrated by those lovely, iconic arrows you've seen sweeping across various screenshots.) The ruse cards fortify the game with tactical depth, giving you a breadth of options that will inspire some complex and surprising play. Some of the moves you will make become prescribed, such as using “Blitz” to speed things up at the start of a skirmish or mutiplayer game, but others can be more subtle: decoys that allow you to execute neat ambushes, setting your enemy up to think he's taking on armour, when really you've gone all out for aircraft. That sort of thing. (In concrete terms, Ruse cards are timed, everything else is built with cash-over-time.)
The critical difference between Ruse and other games of this ilk is that by default Ruse shows what is on the field. However, it doesn't show what the units are, exactly, it says whether they are in the air, on the ground, light or heavy. As such the field tells you a lot more than the traditional fog of war, but leaves out the crucial details. This ability to read the huge battlefields at a glance is the how and why of the game's conceit. You are always keeping an eye on the tokens in the distance, trying to second-guess your opponent, AI or human. But what you see isn't necessarily how things are, which means thorough recon and well-timed ruse cards are all that stands between victory and being duped to death.
I love the way this map-information is presented, too, which is another reason why Ruse stands out for me: the long zoom. Pull all the way back and you're floating in the clouds, and the entire map is laid out as if it's a war-room map table, complete with unit markers flagged in red, blue and green. Zoom back down to the ground and you can see a brilliantly detailed 3D map, and get a sense of the scale. The biggest of these battlescapes are titanic. Of course you tend to end up hovering around at a middle-ground zoom, so you can still get the big picture, but also so that you can fiddle with the exact placing of units. Breaking up big stacks of icons and making sure, say, infantry are using the cover of woods or towns is best done if you're a little closer in (although you can break up the units with the bottom bar). It's still useful to have that full camera, however, especially when you're taking on one of the gigantic large scenarios.
Let's dig a bit deeper into those layers. A game of skirmish or multiplayer (or the campaign single-player, too, although it takes a while to get going) starts off with a rush to grab a number of supply dumps. Yes, Ruse isn't exactly going for historical accuracy, and looting is the mainstay of your resource-mongering. With the cash earned you're able to build a number of unit-producing bases as well as a selection of fortifications. From this you can elect which of your units you want to build. This is where things are at their most rigid, because the rock, paper, scissors of the game is quite narrow. Anti-armour stuff is useless against infantry, infantry can only hit armour if they can ambush it, planes can only hit the specific target they are designed against, and so on. Then there's the matter of reconnaissance. Getting line of sight on some things requires spotter planes or fast-moving spotter jeeps. These will raise the range of certain units, like tank-killers, or simply allow other units to attack. P45s, for example, can take on air targets where-ever they can see them, but you will have to reveal the exact unit type on the ground for them to divebomb anything.
As a game unfolds you will tend to only have the resources to lean to one tactic, so you really have to go for it, or at least go for the other supply dumps. Taking them off your enemy is crucial to swinging the balance of the battle. I found turtling, my usual tactic in these games, to be rather difficult, as it doesn't take too much to bust open bunkers. Not only that but you will need to build anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and anti-infantry nests together if you want to cover all bases, and none of them will fire on something they're not supposed to be shooting. Much better, generally, to stay mobile and find a good way to give your enemy a kicking. I enjoyed the complex rushes you're able to pull off. It's impossible to rely on one unit type, but two or three, supported by a couple of Ruse cards, can earn a win. Large numbers of tanks helped by infantry were my calling card, but I soon learned the limitations of even this. An entire column of armour can be wiped out if hidden troops surprise you, but they're also strong against your infantry if they're out in the open. Using the terrain, therefore, if more than a cosmetic function.
For the majority of time, I suspect, the enemy of a Ruse player will be another, real person. Ruse's multiplayer has had one of the lengthiest betas I have ever participated in, and as a result it's both highly polished and exquisitely balanced. Yes, really experienced players will eat you alive, but it'll only be down to your inexperience. As a game it's superb to learn and it's going to be great to master. Of course there's plenty of other options to teethe on if you don't want to leap in at that deep end, because the skirmish maps are many, the options wide open (and best defined by time periods across the way, with later dates opening up more options), and the AI perfectly functional. You will beat the medium AI after just a couple of attempts, I should think, but the hard is a trickier, if not as squirmy as most humans, and it often knows a lot more about the right way to employ those ruse cards, too.
There are also “operations” which are one-off missions (a couple of which can be played co-op, as can any of the skirmish set ups) which are both interesting and challenging. I suspect my perspective is skewed somewhat by them being a mature level of the game. Having played the beta enough to be familiar with everything I found myself twiddling my thumbs through most of the campaign. The story, although well produced, with splendid quarter-screen videos to illustrate events that are taking place on the field as you play, really left me a little cold. The twist really wasn't much a twist, and the characters are cardboard and the dialogue a lukewarm time-filler. A shame, really, but there we are.
Initially the pace of Ruse seems odd – slow movement across large maps - but once you are attuned to it the tactical challenges are fresh and compelling. I feel the demo under-represents precisely what's on offer here – because there's so much, and the multiplayer really is a great offering on its own - but it does at least give you a good sample of the mechanisms and the presentation. Ruse is unusual, but not in a way that will really exclude anyone. I'm going to have to recommend it.