"So..." said the exasperated General "we're outnumbered, outgunned and the enemy advances on our position relentlessly. I fear there is little hope but to sound the retreat and hope that our weary legs keep us at enough distance from our foes. It is that, or we hunker in and we fight to the death."
His officers looked around nervously; no sound was forthcoming except that of the canvas tent billowing in an ill wind that carried the sound of distance gun fire. The General didn't blame his brave men. He knew too well that they would rather live to fight another day, yet he also knew that if he ordered them to stay and fight to the death they would duly obliged. It was just a rotten conspiracy of fortune that it would come to such a decision.
Moving over to his table he poured over the maps one last time to see what route would best serve their retreat. Regardless, a makeshift force would have to be left behind to buy the mainstay of the retreat time to disperse. Choosing who stayed behind wouldn't be easy but it was absolutely necessary... Where would they make their last stand?
Then he saw it... A slender valley that would prevent the full weight of the enemy force from smashing through their ranks. Not only that, it was flanked with high cliffs that held impossible angles from the ground view. How could he have been so stupid? If they could fake the retreat, luring the bulk of their pursuers forces into such a space, their numbers would count for naught. The battle was not over yet.
"Gentlemen" he said with glint in his eye. "I think I may have a plan of sorts..."
If movies have taught us anything it's that this is how wars were fought. In fact, while we should all lament that war still exists, what seems to bother most people is that it doesn't seem to have the same levels of "honour" as it once used to, modern warfare seeming to lack the brilliance and subtlety required for victory in days gone by. At the forefront of this thinking is the idea that a General was not some sort of bloodthirsty butcher or overprivileged tyrant, instead a gentleman, a scholar in the arts of war and above all capably cunning. It is that above all things that we wish to emulate when we sit down to our many different types of war game in this digital era.
R.U.S.E. is a game that looks to tap into this where others haven't. While the game includes many staples of the real time strategy genre it prizes one trait above all others - the ability to deceive and trick the opponent in order to win. This is emphasised not only through the implausible title of the game but also through the playing of R.U.S.E. cards which are designed to do a variety of things to alter the course of the battle.
For example some of these cards allow a player to disguise a unit as something else, forcing the player to respond to something that is in truth not really a threat. Others allow complete obfuscation of units in a prime position, the timing of the strike being what determines success or not. Some even allow for the building of units that are completely fake and harmless. Only one player will know the truth, perhaps until it is too late for the other.
Key to this game mechanic is the shared screen which makes the strategy of R.U.S.E. different to many others on the market. Dispensing with the fog of war, players can see exactly what is going on at all times, the units moved around the map like wooden models in a sand-pit. However, playing with expectations and altering an opponent's perceptions are what bring about the victory, not some tiresome "spawn and slog" mechanic of so many - even award winning - RTS titles. It is this "nothing is what it seems" atmosphere that keeps the games tense and radically different each time one starts anew. Even if they number of R.U.S.E. cards is limited the variation on what they do is more than enough to keep everyone guessing.
And while the game's success or failure might well hinge on this flowery gimmick it is probably worth mentioning too that the game has a solid skeleton on which to pin it. The Second World War setting might not be the one that would do this game the most justice - that is a subject for a rather pointless debate - yet the creators have done their high school homework. Many of the scenarios are accurate descriptions of true to life military operations and they feature units that perform as they would have.
The engine itself is simple to use and makes orchestrating the proceedings a doddle. Zoom out of the map effortlessly and at great pace to see how things are going, Zoom in even faster at a part of the map when it becomes clear an opponent is making a move or a trap has been sprung. Controlling units and playing the titular R.U.S.E. cards are also so straightforward it has a console simplicity even on the PC. The point and click simplicity doesn't mean that things aren't precise, far from it. It is just as easy to execute complex manoeuvres or to place units exactly where they need to be.
In single player mode the campaign is of a respectable length, something which is missing from a lot of titles these days and it does a good job of teaching players the wider complexities of the game. Be under no illusion though, it is a lengthy tutorial for the ultimate test of taking on human players. Think of it as officer training... The game teaches each player the same lessons and once they are out in the field it is their own ingenuity that will make or break them. Indeed, even with respectable AI, it is clear from the central premise of the game it needs a human mind for a victory to have meant anything at all.
The game is a piece of modern art in that it looks good but the way it looks remains true to the central theme at all levels. It's the little things, the way decoy tanks are displayed as being made of all too fragile balsa wood as they trundle across the contrastingly detailed terrain. It's the way that the battles themselves look realistic when zoomed right in to survey how the war effort goes, only to revert to small coloured blocks at the touch of a button if the wider terrain needs to be surveyed. It's in the way that the whole table top is actually within some military nerve centre, the battlefield surrounded by staff that are constantly chuntering instructions and information into their microphones. And perhaps more than anything it is the detached viewpoint that forces the player to think like a general. These are not squelchy units that scream as they are mowed down and there are no individuals with whom to get attached. They are the tools needed to triumph and how they are used is at the behest of the person calling the shots. It's a smart twist, an almost political point, in a game that requires so many sacrificial plays.
While the engine allows players to zip around a battlefield effortlessly without any slowdown whatsoever, it must be said that the game holds up to scrutiny when observed at the highest levels of detail too. There's a slick fluidity about the action and while it might lack the miniaturised photo realism that other titles have aspired to, the game looks wonderful and is more than a match for many strategy pretenders.
That said, the campaign cut-scenes do look like something from another gaming era, their general shoddiness simply not attributable to wanting that antiquated feel no matter how much anyone might want to believe that. Given the small part that the campaign plays in the R.U.S.E. experience and given that the characters don't really inspire any sense of attachment, it's a minor quibble that will be forgotten about once the multiplayer adventure begins.
The sound, like much of the game, is something that relies on appreciation of the subtleties rather than waiting to be bludgeoned with something spectacular. For example, when concentrating on an area of combat the sounds are like those on any battlefield. Volleys of rifle fire, explosions, the sound of tanks mangling mud beneath tracks... Reduce that focus and move elsewhere and the sound becomes more akin to the pop of toy guns, distant and unaffecting.
The score however is dramatic, containing a mash up of all things anthemic and stirring that could be conjured up by simply shutting one's eyes and thinking back to those films that glorified the campaign. Yes, the sound of trumpets, the fanfare, the rhythmic pounding of drums like the marching of boots. If there's one thing R.U.S.E. has successfully done it is that it has completely bought into this representation of the period and it delivers that fictionalised recreation, if such a description can be appropriate, authentically.
The whole R.U.S.E. package is a satisfying one and is something that should appeal to true strategy fans everywhere, especially those bored of the generic RTS fodder that fly off the production line. While the single player campaign may lack the depth of some of its rivals it is clear that the game has plenty to offer in multi-player and in truth there aren't many game mechanics that are better suited to human interaction than this one.
What the game presents, despite an idea brilliantly realised and thematic consistency right down to the smallest components, is a wonderful contradiction. A historical RTS that is free of any educational sermonising. A conflict from yesteryear represented on a game engine that is dazzlingly modern. A tense and slow paced game that manages to excite with every new development. And ultimately it is a game about deception that is everything it appears to be... No ruse here, just a genuine triumph for the genre.
||Simple and straightforward interface with complex mechanics, this game rewards the thinking player without isolating the novice.
||Some wonderful touches and nice all round detail makes the game look great but extra credit has to go for the way the game effortlessly moves between views without any negative impact.
||Doesn't need to be loud or brash, the subtleties of sound here tie nicely to the package and the score brings the game to life.
||The single player campaign has legs but with the central premise to the game allowing invention multiplayer definitely deserves a player's attention.
(Not an Average)
||Both bold and classy this game is in itself everything a good General ought to be.