Console real-time strategy titles rarely succeed.
This is down to a number of reasons, chief amongst which is the lack of control authority offered by at least two of the major console manufacturers. The RTS genre almost always requires quick map scrolling, prompt selection of multiple units and access to a wide range of sub-menus; none of these crucial gameplay components are particularly easy to manage using a controller. Until now, that is.
R.U.S.E. (the acronym doesn't actually stand for anything) has largely circumvented these concerns by removing complexity from the game. Selecting multiple units is performed by a trigger press; the number of units involved depends on the altitude of the camera, as the selection radius is always the same. A bumper press then splits the units out according to the unit type, allowing you to move a ghost image of the unit selected to wherever you need on the map. A simple solution to a complicated problem hasn't been realised this elegantly since John Roundabout became involved in town planning.
R.U.S.E. epitomises this forward-thinking practicality at nearly every juncture, with one exception. The campaign mode is rubbish. What starts out as dull, dreary and largely nonsensical rapidly degenerates from there, resorting to a tired collection of WWII clichés, the overuse of which has ironically enough became a cliché itself. Initially, the gruff, arrogant US Major is assisted by a stereotypically pompous British General to track down the elusive spy Promotheus, which set the campaign up to detail his ascension to the rank of General.
Besides insulting the collective intelligence of anyone who has ever had more than a passing interest in WWII, the campaign really only exists to act as a long tutorial. You'll be taught how to shuffle units around the map, defend positions, use decoy tactics to achieve supremacy, and attempt to ignore the cut-scenes which are about as welcome as a root canal.
In short, it's tedious and undeserving of your time.
Happily, it doesn't matter. The campaign mode isn't why you should play this game. In fact, it's likely to occupy such a small percentage of the time you spend in R.U.S.E. as to be of virtually no consequence. The only way you're going to enjoy this title is to head online and battle it out against human opponents, because that is where the game transforms itself into something really rather special.
Key to destroying your foe is the mastery of the ruse itself. Every few minutes during combat you're presented with a new ruse card, which (when played) performs a particular task for a predetermined period of time. It's a constant struggle between intelligence and counter-intelligence, and as always, timing is everything.
Each of the ten ruses can be deployed in a certain sector of the game map, and are designed to give you a strategic edge - such as the ability to spy on enemy units, or deploy decoy troops to distract opposing armies before mounting your own attack from another direction. You can deploy a fake, booby-trapped airfield, or perhaps launch a simulated tank attack. You might even order a Blitzkrieg on a sector to increase your unit speed and take the enemy by surprise - it's entirely up to you.
The decoy tactics themselves form the basis of the title, and it's pretty clear developers Eugen Systems have used them to differentiate their game from the dozens of other RTS titles produced over the last few years.
The effect this has is profound. Battles are no longer decided by simple resource accumulation leading to unit superiority. You can't rely on a rush to defeat the enemy because you're never entirely sure of the status of their defence. The introduction of the ruse mechanic has produced a title featuring wonderfully complex engagements previously only available to PC armchair generals.
The ever-present fog of war means that although you can see the lie of the land, you can't ascertain exactly what enemy units are present until you can get direct line of sight. Sure, you might know that there are at least two units over the next hill, but short of deploying spies or actually getting closer, you have no idea what those units actually are.
Adding to this is the ubiquitous RTS standard of generating income, and using that income to purchase weapons, upgrade weapons or build new supply depots. The range of units on offer aren't overwhelming, and each adhere to a solid rock/paper/scissors standard that whilst isn't in any way revolutionary certainly doesn't fall short. The ruse itself plays a much more interesting role in determining how your immediate battle will progress - some of the best moments come whilst bluffing your opponent into thinking you can a limited capacity to expand, during which time you're secretly loading up an airfield with dive-bombers ready to destroy their facilities.
The overall quality of unit animation and texture detail on the Xbox 360 version is sub-par. At maximum zoom, trucks are blocky, tanks are lazily drawn and the terrain is largely featureless. This may be a reflection of the general age of the console, or the desire by Eugen to provide a huge zoom mechanism; from a low elevation of perhaps a thousand feet to a game overview well above the aircraft you're controlling. It's at this space-eye view you realise the entire game is set on a board, placed on a table, located in a command centre. Clever twist, or easy way to get around a lack of horsepower to drive a decent draw distance? You decide.
Further research online seems to indicate that the Move compatibility added to the PS3 version of R.U.S.E. is pretty decent, and the PC version has significantly better eye-candy, so it would seem Microsoft have been relegated to last place for this release.
R.U.S.E. proves that console RTS, at least in concept, can be managed well. There's no longer any reason for developers to blame controller limitations, particularly with the more simplistic strategy-first style of play found in this title.
If you want an RTS that requires a command to be issued every second then you're still going to need that PC, but in the meantime R.U.S.E. in an acceptable distraction for those willing to skirmish online.
It's certainly one of the more surprising titles of the year, and one we can't help but think deserves at least some piecemeal DLC attention from the developer.