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R.U.S.E. (Preview)

R.U.S.E. (Preview)

In ancient Greece the best military minds were tested by a series of wargames recreating classic encounters with models in a sand-pit. Those who made the right moves and emerged victorious, perhaps by altering history or simply by emulating the decisive maneuvers made by great military figures would be marked out for a great career as an officer. The very best would receive the title of Strategos, a term applied to all Generals. It was essential that before they could lead real troops into battle they understood the mechanics of war, the ways in which it could be lost even with overwhelming odds in their favour and the ways that victories could be conjured out of the most desperate of circumstances.

Since those days tactical acumen has always been held in high regard and until recently only those who have pursued military careers, or are extremely enthusiastic about their military history, would have had a taste of what it was like to be in those situations. The advent of the home computer changed that and now everyone could, in some way, be a General from the comfort of their home as they survey their troops with a telescope and a large glass of Cognac. Even as games moved from turn based to real-time there was always something new to learn and each new franchise brought a raft of fresh challenges.

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Now however, what are we faced with? The RTS genre has moved away from those humble roots with all bar a few exceptions and most can be boiled down to a simple matter of unit matching, choosing the best troops for the job with a guaranteed outcome each time. Hardly a matter requiring the attention of a modern-day Strategos… Wouldn’t it be great if there was a game that recreated the element of surprise at the heart of each conflict, one that would enable players to not only show the understanding of their arsenal but also genuine lateral thinking in the face of something unexpected?

That is the premise behind R.U.S.E. It may seem like a familiar rehash of things that have seen before. The World War II setting for example means that almost anyone will be familiar with the units, the setting and the factions. No robotic hordes, no orcs, no anachronistic technology that feels almost alien through the advance of modernity. However, that isn’t to say that what is on display isn’t new and exciting in its own way. The tanks, planes and infantry might all come with their own historical baggage but the game itself is an entirely different animal to that which has gone before.

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For starters the landscapes are huge. Vast maps that incorporate land, sky and sea, so spacious that no matter the size of the army under the players command they will always feel stretched and over committing resources will be at the forefront of the many problems to be overcome. Forget fog of war also. As a general the player will always know where the enemy troops are but how numerous and how strong the forces are will only be revealed once a direct line of sight has been achieved. Of course this makes reconnaissance and scouting important factors in the game, keeping tabs on everything is the key to not getting caught short.

Nice touches for a strategy title yet what really makes the game shine are the RUSE cards. Handed out in the fashion of a board-game – think similar to the objectives in RISK – they vary in their influence. Some enable the player to disguise certain units as something else, making a weak force seem like something to be feared and causing a suitable reaction while the real bulk of the forces move to where the opponent is now exposed. Perhaps it is a ruse that allows a group of units to be invisible and when a move is made against some seemingly vulnerable troops an ambush can be sprung, swinging the favour of the skirmish. Ultimately the ruse cards impact on the information available to the players, altering their perceptions of the battlefield accordingly. No longer is it about who has the largest army, or the most advanced tech-tree; victory is most likely to go to the player that can see through deception while at the same time taking advantage of their own RUSE benefits.

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In the preview a lot of the RUSE cards aren’t available but each of the ones that can be used all tie into this simple ethos – knowledge is power and disinformation is the best weapon of all. Such an obvious, yet at the same time novel, twist on the genre makes each encounter a battle of wits rather than a battle of hand eye co-ordination. Each conflict is deliberately paced, slow and methodical. The best laid plans take time to come to fruition. That isn’t to say, on this showing at least, it is as clever as it wants to be. Clearly aiming to be the middle ground between PC and console RTS titles it walks that awkward tightrope of trying to be sophisticated while simple as well. The controls for example are very straightforward, which is no bad thing but at times it feels like it is lacking the shortcut functionality most PC RTS players would expect.

The graphics for the game are as polished as the medals on a veteran’s chest and have a console feel but scale well on more powerful systems. The units are wonderfully defined even in and the game allows players to jump from being zoomed in close enough to see the mud spread beneath a tanks caterpillar tracks to so far out the whole map can be surveyed in a split second. Not just smart design but absolutely necessary within the context of the game. Even if the palette of the rural European setting that is available in the demo does become a bit drab after several battles, the final game promises much more including urban based struggles. The potential of how good those levels will look will rival anything in RTS. After all, if muddy fields can be made to look this good, something with a bit more detail is going to shine on this engine.

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The game isn’t also above throwing in some good old fashioned explosions too and why not? It is something that players have come to expect in their war games, a tantalising fireworks display that hides the routine mathematics behind the visuals. Bombardments, airstrikes and volleys of rifle fire are all here to be seen and appreciated and the game loses none of its potency whether or not a player wants to focus on the minutiae or the broad picture.

What makes this game tick over is the thought process that makes each action potentially decisive, the time for caution and the time for boldness both presenting themselves almost simultaneously. If correctly assessed the decisions become calculated risks rather than gambles. That is a good word though because if we had to compare this game to anything else it wouldn’t be another RTS title, no matter how sophisticated. It would be poker. The cards are dealt and neither party knows what the other one holds. From analysing behavior players can guess but they can never be sure and both are more than capable of bluffing after a few attempts. The winner is usually the one that holds their nerve, makes the most of their hand and plays the player rather than the game.

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A lot of potential then between now and the full release. Anyone having played this will understand that this game, more than similar titles, wants to be part of the historic ideal. Forged in those ancient times, where generals relied on their wits and cunning to make the difference in battles that decided the fates of nations. If in any doubt that this is true, in the middle of a game if fully zoomed out what can be seen is nothing more than models on a table, just figures being pushed round in a General’s office. It is the minds behind the conflict that will decide if it is won or lost and the forces on the ground are simply tools to that end. A strategy game with a genuine depth that is gloriously competitive? Let’s hope that isn’t a ruse.

About Author

Stuart Davidson

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