The Good: Innovative game system that uses deception as key gaming element. Excellent multiplayer.
The Bad: Difficulty finding multiplayer matches. Some significant unit imbalances.
The Ugly: Single-player campaign sucks. Omaha Beach again?
In 1944 the Allies undertook a massive campaign of deception against the Germans prior to the invasion of Normandy. Due to “leaked” classified information through diplomatic channels, false radio traffic from non-existent units, and the construction of fake tanks and planes from wood and canvas, the German leadership was led to believe that the invasion of Normandy was a feint. They kept critical units too far from the front lines to reinforce German positions on D-Day, and we all know how that turned out (thanks, Wikipedia). Spies, misinformation, and decoys have been a part of military operations since the Trojan horse, and yet we’ve never seen them put to use in RTS strategy. Until now.
R.U.S.E. (though why not simply Ruse?) uses as a key part of its gameplay the application of ruses. They take many forms including sending a decoy army, placing spies to identify enemy units and positions, imposing radio silence on your own units making them stealthy, or listening in on the radio traffic of the enemy. The breadth of the ruses and the myriad of ways they can be applied are staggering. You’re given a number of these ruses which recharge over time, and the careful application of them at the proper time can turn the tide of an enemy advance or allow you to drive unchallenged deep into enemy territory with a speed I’ve rarely seen in an RTS game. Without the ruses, R.U.S.E. is a common if uninspired RTS. Typical unit commands available in most modern RTS games are really taken for granted like formations, patrol waypoints, and instructions to a unit to guard another unit are unavailable in R.U.S.E.. The single resource in the game is cash collected from depots scattered around the board, and there is no way to accelerate that gathering – all you can do is build a depot building and get money as fast as it comes. There is a research tree for unit improvements, but it is puny. There’s no way to quickkey a collection of units for easy command and manipulation. It is only with the ruses that R.U.S.E. manages to elevate itself above this commonness.
The single-player campaign, as I said up top, is awful. Among the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s not that the maps are poorly drawn or planned because they’re not, but just about everything else about the campaign is. The cutscenes feature atrociously plastic and creepy character models with cheesy (cheesy bad, not cheesy good) voice acting, and a plot so bland it makes white bread look zesty. WWII, Europe, field soldier distinguishing himself and being given field command, evil Nazi general, spies, a femme fatale, blah, blah, blah. The campaign itself introduces new units to you at a glacial pace, which is probably fine for someone who has never played an RTS in their life, but will be irritating to anyone with even a modicum of RTS experience. A dozen missions into the campaign, you’re still playing with an artificially fractional and crippled army. Additionally, new units and mission updates are introduced by zooming the map to some location and then a picture of the new information slides in and takes up half of the screen. Afterwards you have to resize and re-orient the map and try to find the units that you were working with before the interruption. To say that this disrupts gameplay is a massive understatement, and you can’t skip them – you have to wait for them to play out.
Multiplayer, where people will use the ruses and multitude of units with their own logic and essentially unpredictable strategy, is where this game really shines. The ruses add an additional layer of cleverness to the typical ‘try and raise the most money quickly and build an overwhelming force’ approach which is often found in RTS games. There are six different playable factions, which bring different strengths to the table. All of that said, the matchmaking service would often simply fail to find someone to play with, and if you have plans of hosting a game with any old random player, bring a book – I spent twenty minutes waiting for someone to join my game. Is that a problem with the service, or is truly no one playing this game? If the problem is the software, I hope they get if fixed soon, because without multiplayer Ruse is a poor-to-middle single player game only.
The units can be horribly out of balance. A single recon vehicle hiding in the forest can destroy a heavy tank or route an infantry battalion without them getting off a shot. A couple of infantry units hiding in the woods can destroy an entire column of heavy tanks. A couple of bombers can make very short work of a significant number of anti-aircraft units. In fact, aircraft overall are extremely powerful, and truly the player that owns the skies can bomb and strafe an enemy into submission essentially without risk. Artillery (used with spies to aid in targeting) can deliver devastating damage from a god-awful distance (though to be fair, that is probably true in real warfare as well).
Close up the game looks a great deal like World in Conflict – with well-defined units exploding and clutching their chests and dying. You can also zoom out, in which case the map becomes more strategic, the units becoming lozenge-shaped stacks (large lozenges for armor, small ones for infantry and support units), allowing you to gather and command large groups of units easily. I found the interface a little dated, with a single drop menu across the top for unit purchases and lacking a minimap to ease jumping around the fairly large maps to issue commands.
As I read over my review, I realize that I’ve said a lot of negative things. I’m hoping that with patches (and some more players) that most of those can be corrected, and the basic concept of the ruses is solid and very enjoyable. It really is an RTS that plays like no other, and it deserves a second look on that basis alone. The ruses allow what would otherwise be a mediocre game to morph into a better-than-average game that is part RTS, part old-fashioned tactical board game, and part strategy card game.