The clue to the big idea behind RUSE is most definitely in the title, using crafty stratagems and subterfuge to fool your enemy plays a huge role in giving Ubisoft's new strategy game its unique selling point. Gone are the days of simply building your units and planning your tactics, now you can spread disinformation and lies to try and trick your opponent into making a mistake. May the most cunning army win.
Set in World War II, RUSE is one of the new breed of strategy games that utilise massive zoom levels to allow you to move from a table-top style Generals-eye view of the unfolding battle right down to the nitty gritty of ground level individual troop action. The ability to scale your view like this soon becomes more than just a novelty when you realise the huge size of the maps the game is set in. Were you forced to work with a more fixed viewpoint you'd be scrolling around them for days without ever really being able to grasp the full picture. Thankfully despite their impressive size the maps are also nicely detailed with a genuine sense they've been designed to encourage tactical thinking on a grander than usual scale with multiple fronts to defeat and attack.
To help immerse you further in the game, developers Eugen Systems (Act of War: Direct Action) have found a nifty way round the age old fog of war idea. While other games have tended to shroud large areas of the battlefield in a cloak of darkness until you've explored, and thus are able to see into, an area, RUSE does things a little differently. For a start you can see the whole battlefield at all times but what's interesting is that you're also able to always see where enemy units are, the catch is you're less clear on their exact numbers and designation until you've got one of your own units in direct line of sight. It's a neat idea and feels far more natural than the complete blindness offered by other games while promising real strategic rewards for those able to achieve more detailed reconnaissance.
At its core, the combat in RUSE isn't that dissimilar to other games you may have played before, ultimately it's still all about amassing as much firepower as possible and letting the background dice throws work their rock-paper-scissors style magic. However, what makes this game really stand out are the titular 'ruses' you're able use to confuse and spy on opponents via. Presented as board game style cards these can allow you both glimpses into your enemies plans and mask your own tactics to try and lure them into thinking you're planning one thing while you actually do another.
It's an exciting idea and with ten ruses available, split between faking, hiding and stealing information you're soon knee-deep in an intelligence war where you can never quite trust what you see and have to work hard to mask your own actions behind a smokescreen of lies. For example, the helpless looking band of infantry you think are just over the brow of that hill ready to be unceremoniously slaughtered could end up being a much more powerful force once you get close enough to engage them. Of course they could also be mere bait to lure you in that direction where you'll be ambushed by another larger group previously hidden from view thanks to the radio silence ruse, then there's the chance they don't exist at all and you've just wasted time and units deploying against a non-existent foe.
Obviously all this works both ways, you're just as able to confuse as be confused, and the power of all this misinformation is that it lends each game a tantalising air of unpredictability and tension. Even when victory seems safely within your grasp you're never sure there isn't another surprise just around the corner.
While RUSE wisely focuses on the strategy and battles there's still some resource management to contend with along the way too. Cash comes from supply depots that are scattered around each map, they tend to be a fair distance away from your starting position meaning that it not only takes a while for the money to start flowing but there's also an ever present risk of your supply chain being broken by a clever enemy wielding some nippy units.
At first glance RUSE appears to be a pretty slow moving experience, even by strategy game standards, but soon this more languid pace becomes a real help rather than a hindrance. With units taking a realistically lengthy time to move from A to B you get plenty of time to strategise and scheme as they move. Since the key to success is to essentially trick your opponent as much as possible, playing at this pace soon reveals itself to be ideal as you've always got time to think. It's especially handy if you're the one who's been tricked and you need to calculate a response as fast as possible.
It remains to be seen how this almost card game-esque twist on the real-time strategy idea will play out when it's fully finished, there's an obvious question mark around how realistic it will feel when you're trying to trick the computer AI in the single player game for example. However, the game's mechanics feel solidly enjoyable and the whole idea of the ruse cards works fantastically well in multiplayer games - which could perhaps point to where the game's real success will lay. Definitely one to keep an eye on when it's released in early 2010.