"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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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