As you take control of General Arrogant American throughout the course of the campaign in R.U.S.E., you’ll struggle to come up with any real reason why this guy is any better than the bad guy, General Generic Evil Nazi. For one thing his accent is a hell of a lot more annoying, and although the WWII setting opens the door to large number of character stereotypes, they aren’t necessarily a bad thing when executed around a set of entertaining missions.
From gung-ho soldiers and generals, unusually uptight British commanders, to moustache twirling Nazis plotting and scheming against the Allied forces, WWII is a well worn setting for good reason. And although the R.U.S.E. campaign covers all the staple theatres of the last Great War, from the African continent to Europe, whilst also throwing in some revisionist history for good measure, it somehow doesn’t quite shake the feeling of being overall, well, just a bit too dull. In creating a campaign for an RTS game, especially for one focused on some semblance of historical accuracy, as seen with R.U.S.E., a cast of sympathetic characters would be a great place to start. Or perhaps, simply featuring a protagonist with some redeemable human qualities might be a nice touch.
But the saving grace here, thankfully, is the gameplay, with its simplistic controls that work more often than not. All troop movement and selection in R.U.S.E. is done with a single button with little to no micro-management or shortcuts being available. Whether it’s moving a group of Sherman Tanks into a nearby town, getting them to fire on an MG nest, or even to fall back behind your artillery line, this is all down with via clicking on the desired location or map marker.
This makes the end result something that works well with a mouse as well as a control pad. And in the wake of the biggest real-time strategy release this year, you know the one, the one that takes place in space, the one where in order to master it you need to train each of your fingers to grow their own set of limbs driven by separate microscopic sentient life forms each focused on a separate sequence of button commands - having the control scheme simplified to such a degree as this, is actually quite refreshing.
But more importantly it suits the presentation style, which opts for a more impersonal approach in letting players move their units across the battlefield in a fashion that is reminiscent of moving small figurines on top of a large map in a smoky battle room. In fact, R.U.S.E. takes this concept literally as when you zoom the viewpoint all the way out, the sounds of tanks and artillery fire are gradually replaced with sounds of radio chatter and typewriter, err, typing.
Similarly individual units are replaced by what look like casino chips, whilst the detailed map simply becomes the centrepiece in an animated war room. So the focus here is essentially on being a general sitting in some non-descript bunker somewhere commanding your forces through the use of radio transmissions based on intel gathered from various sources. Casualties don’t really have any real visceral impact with unit loss and production taking on the feel of a board game. This means that at all times players can see the entire battlefield, and all the enemy forces that might be standing in their way. But if you can see your enemy forces wouldn’t that cut out most of the actual strategy? Well, not really, it simply changes the focus.
This is where the game’s title and tag-line, “don’t believe what you see”, comes into play. With simplistic controls and little to no micromanagement coming into play during actual battles, strategy is centred on various ruses, deceptions, and other wartime shenanigans, follies, and pranks. This means that if you were to activate the ‘Radio Silence’ ruse on a particular sector, your enemy won’t be able to decipher your troop movements, paving the way for a sneak attack or an unnoticed casual stroll into enemy territory. We’re assuming this is due to your troops turning off their radios or them taking a break from sending IM’s to the Gerries like ‘R U rdy, cause we iZ comin to Car3ntan!’
Another ruse you can deploy is the ability to send decoys units into an enemy territory, simulating an attack, which can cause an advancing army to retreat back to defend its own base, buying you some time to shore up actual defences. This is done via duct taping a few hundred cats together in the shape of a tank, or painting a bunch of pigeons green with red circles to look like fighter planes. Either that or what the game would have you believe are ‘wooden units’. Other ruses involve camouflaging your buildings with magic nets that make them invisible to your enemies whilst the ‘blitz’ ruse, involves speeding your troop movements in a particular sector via the use of old-timey Red Bull or ‘some sort of motivation’.
In addition to the ruses, using your terrain to setup and quell various ambushes also plays a major role in each battle, meaning that trying to amass units and send them straight towards an enemy HQ rarely happens. Or when it does happen, it doesn’t go exactly to plan and leaves you with no choice but to go to the menu and reload the saved game titled “let’s give this a try” and ignore its namesake and do not in fact, try to do that thing that it’s referring to.
Overall this gives R.U.S.E. a distinct pacing and feeling that separates it from other strategy games, and surprisingly one that doesn’t really come together all that well as a single-player experience. Or perhaps when you take into account the board game presentation, pre-defined battlefields, and slower paced strategic movements - it’s something that works a lot better in co-op or competitive multiplayer.
Without any engaging action, the focus shifts to a more broadly strategically minded gameplay that gives each player a distinct feeling of being the ultimate ‘armchair general’, which is something that most strategy games of this nature aim for. As a multiplayer game or even in co-op, all the gameplay elements really come together as the focus on setting up ambushes and trying to deceive your opponents brings a feeling of playing some good old tabletop Risk, however in real-time and with its own distinct flavour.
Supporting up to 8-players on PC is also a plus and can lead to some genuinely entertaining and thoughtful encounters. With careful planning being a crucial part of the game this also has some negative side affects when supply lines are cut prematurely allowing for very little room to recover. This means that each battle feels like a tug of war of troop movement and territorial conquest, and when the balance of power starts to shift in any one direction, the war is lost long before the battle ends.