There's nothing quite like a good strategy game. Managing resources, shuffling units around, trying to find out the best build order – and the sweet, sweet payoff of seeing your enemies beg for mercy. It's not easy to do a good strategy game, much less one set during World War II, one of the most overused and abused settings this side of a rebellion trying to overthrow a galactic empire. But when one comes out that manages to keep me glued to my seat for hours at a time, I know it's something special. R.U.S.E., from Paris-based Eugen Systems, is just such a game.
With that said, I'm going to have to go against the grain in how I write this review because I would otherwise be doing the game and its potential fans a great disservice. Reviews typically follow the formula of discussing the story or campaign first, and then moving on to the rest of the single- and multiplayer features. It's a simple system and helps to ensure that the basics are covered, since most campaigns are used as tutorials, before delving into modes that expect some familiarity with the mechanics. That approach simply wouldn't work here, for reasons that will become very obvious in a few paragraphs.
R.U.S.E. is different from the outset, being a real-time game with the look of a turn-based one. Unlike most of its contemporaries, R.U.S.E. breaks up its battlefields into clearly defined sectors, giving the map the appearance of a traditional hex-based wargame. Its mechanics, however, are of a more traditional real-time ilk, with resources that must be harvested and bases built and secured. To that end, each sector is dotted with towns, supply depots, and patches of forest. Construction trucks haul building material from the pre-built headquarters to nearby depots to ship out supplies while soldiers set up in town squares and forests to defend chokepoints. Since roads are the preferred surfaces of all land units, securing a base by holding crossroads and towns (nightmares for trapped tanks) becomes a key defensive strategy. With the ability to construct secondary headquarters, these set-ups spring up all over the map, covering multiple sectors and creating multiple theaters of operation.
Getting a hold on all this is made easier by the ability to view the action at the ground level or from a commander's perspective. This is one of the game's more interesting features, as it goes beyond such similar approaches found in World in Conflict and Supreme Commander by having a view that pulls so far out that the world itself becomes abstracted to a map covered with figurines. It even goes further than Hegemony: Philip of Macedon by literally showing a map on a table inside of a commander's war room.
The commander's view just doesn't look cool but is a key component in operating in multiple sectors without becoming overwhelmed. As skirmishes start to flare up into full-blown battles, units will have to be moved from one sector to another while those engaged managed effectively so that they are still around when the reinforcements arrive and here, the system performs marvelously. A few flicks back on the mouse wheel pulls the view out far enough for the sectors to become defined areas, units become combined into grouped icons while a large arrow points to where they are ordered to go; similarly, zooming forward separates units into individual models and brings the nearby area into greater detail. It's not only highly functional, but it looks downright cool: dozens of tanks and infantry can be sent across multiple sectors from a war room, complete with workers manning their posts in the background, and zoomed in to see units recoiling when firing, retreating when ambushed, and the screen blurring and shaking from explosions. I would've liked for multiple units to have been easier to select at mid view, but the board view works great while the zoomed view, though not as detailed or nerve-racking as World in Conflict's, provides a more exhilarating experience.
Within these exchanges are a variety of infantry, tanks, planes, and defense structures. The campaign largely focuses on the American forces, but Battles and multiplayer open up Germany, UK, France, Italy, and USSR. Each faction differs slightly in what they excel at, such as France in defense, with their exceptional bunkers, and UK in air, with ready-to-go paratroopers and sturdy bombers. Although the game encompasses three eras – 1939, 1942, and 1945 – the units are largely the same: anti infantry, armor, and air bunkers and armor, infantry, and recon. Using the units is actually a joy, largely due to the fact that they respond appropriately to situations – attacking when enemies enter their firing range and retreating when hurt – and have an appropriate sense of speed and power. Learning how the units interact with the terrain and their general traits becomes vital, as an area largely forested is perfect for units that can enter them and terrible for those that can't; also, sending the wrong tank can be a costly mistake as it can arrive too late or too underpowered to counteract an enemy's assault. The visible firing ranges are a blessing, and the interaction between the units is great: only identified enemies can be fired upon by most units, so a quick solution is to send a recon unit near an artillery piece to extend its line of sight. Being able to zoom out and make sweeping decisions and then go in to tweak placement allows for total control, and the ability to make macro and micro decisions so quickly keeps the pace fast without being overwhelming. But contending with the enemy's units isn't the only danger on the battlefield, thanks to ruses.
In R.U.S.E., it's not only the tank and infantry squad roaring towards your poorly defended flank that is cause for alarm, but what preceded their arrival. As its name implies – kind of, as I don't think it's actual an acronym for anything – there are ruses that can be played during combat. Headquarters supplies one ruse every minute, though the selection of which will depend on the map. The ruses can do anything from camouflage your headquarters, making it impossible for planes to bomb or infantry to capture; to demand radio silence, so that your units can move undetected; to send a spy to a sector to reveal all enemy units. Some of the more interesting abilities include the ability to send a wave of decoy units to invade a sector, scaring the daylights out of your enemy, and confusing the enemy into thinking non-scouted light units are heavies. It's one thing to read this, but it's something else entirely to realize that a few wooden tanks are what left your headquarters exposed and your hidden units revealed. Being revealed is practically a death sentence, and it's especially painful because hidden units receive a significant attack modifier: an ambush can turn a squad of infantry from tank fodder to nightmares with bazookas. The potency of the ambush ability becomes even more pronounced whenever forest hopping comes into play, as infantry from forest patch to patch, undetected by most units, until they come upon an unguarded supply depot or structure to capture. Capturing a structure is the quickest way to cripple an enemy's economy – and is a bit too easy to do. But to work a squad around a battlefield for 10 minutes to take a factory and then pump out tanks inside the enemy's base is very satisfying.
So there's light base building, the traditional mix of light and heavy units, and a heavy emphasis on chicanery through ambushing and ruses. Everything's sounding pretty good so far. And it actually is pretty good. No, it's very good. That is, except for the campaign. R.U.S.E. has one of the worst campaigns in recent memory. It's not just that it's bad, it's flat-out terrible.
It's tough to know where to begin since it falls flat in every aspect. Even its function as an elaborate tutorial is tinged with problems because of how obnoxious information is presented. I'll just start with the main characters, who are led by the unlikable American Joseph 'Joe' Sheridan and his there-there-old-boy British counterpart. There is just so much wrong with all of the character interactions that nearly every scene is an example of what not to do. Ignoring the very strange and nearly alien-like character models and mannerisms, there is the fact that the subtitles are littered with problems, the dialog is ridiculous, and the voice acting is equally bad. The story is supposed to be about a man's transformation from a lowly soldier to a general, but it's instead a story of a man going from being a jerk to a bigger jerk and then back to a regular jerk.
The missions themselves vary greatly in quality, thanks to some heavy scripting, though all suffer from the same excruciatingly irritating design decisions. Whenever a mission does nothing more than introduce a new unit or ruse and let you play, it's fine; better yet, you really get a solid feel for the game and can feel it grow on you. Most of the time, though, you're screaming at your monitor as the game removes all control – again – or clogs the screen with cutscenes or information panels – again – as the action continues to unfold during your helpless state. Not only that, but the camera also stays put after it pans, leaving you scrambling to reorient the view. Oh, and the game isn't paused for any of this: the computer goes about its business of killing your soldiers the entire time. Then, as if by some cruel test of the player's mental fortitude, all three things will happen at once: a cutscene taking up about a fifth of the screen drops from the top, an information panel showing a new unit and its attributes slides in from the side, and the camera pans around the battlefield for whatever reason. It is, by far, the most disorienting thing I have ever experienced in a strategy game. The payoff for all of this? Genuinely unlikeable characters and later missions that are so scripted they are just thinly disguised trial-and-error puzzles.
In short: skip the campaign.
To get the most enjoyment out of R.U.S.E., just go to Battle (the game's version of skirmish mode), set the computer on 'easy' and experiment. Getting straight into the mechanics is a lot less aggravating, and it'll get you to the good stuff much faster. Fortunately, there are several Battle maps, in addition to Operations and Multiplayer, to enjoy. The Battles come in sets of 2-, 3-4-, 5-6-, and 6-8-player maps, with the ability to set the AI as any of the factions (or random), one of three difficulty levels, and to a Profile that that favors a certain style of play - artillery, air, defense, etc. Operations are battles based on various conflicts throughout the war and allow for 1 versus 1, 1 versus all, and co-op play in a variety of scenarios, such as France's defense during the German invasion in 'The Maginot Line'. Online play also has a built-in ranking system using the game's experience points mechanic to don titles for bragging rights, and has options for ranked and unranked matches for up to eight players. The ruses really spice up competitive play, and are a great compliment to the solid unit balance. Ubisoft's uPlay is also supported, which offers some interesting perks, such as a special tank upgrade and an unlocked D-Day map, to purchase with their points earned in-game whenever certain objectives are met – they are achievements with an actual benefit. There are a lot of reasons to go back to R.U.S.E., and I fully intend on doing so.
Despite the disappointing campaign, R.U.S.E. is a largely enjoyable, exciting, and downright interesting game. There are a few things here and there that I remain iffy on, but they won't keep me from leaving R.U.S.E. installed. It's as if someone zoomed up on a section of a Panzer General map, sped things up, and tossed in some cloak and dagger options – an interesting blend of old and new. In all, a surprisingly good title.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)