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Reviewed by Jeff Morgan
rom the moment your camera opens on the battlefield, you know “R.U.S.E.” is a different breed of real-time strategy (RTS) game. Gone are the unit frames, the skill selection grid in the bottom right corner, and the mini-map in the top right. In fact, there’s only one thing about “R.U.S.E.” that makes it feel familiar – the story takes place during WWII.
If anything, the WWII backdrop is actually detrimental to the “R.U.S.E.” experience. As much as the game attempts to stray from RTS convention, it maintains a tight grip on that oldest of war strategy fare. “R.U.S.E.” does make it more interesting, though. You follow the story of Joe Sheridan, an American militarist on the rise as a result of his tactical maneuvering both on and off the battlefield. Sheridan’s story is told in part through the voiceovers during the campaign missions and filled in with some medium-grade cutscenes read from an overzealous script. It’s an RTS, guys. I want to be killing stuff, not watching two generals measure one another’s... medals.
Once you’re in the missions, though, you can really appreciate the design behind “R.U.S.E.” The wide-open battlefield looks great on a widescreen monitor, and really helps to give you a sense of scale when you zoom all the way out. Speaking of which, the zoom system in “R.U.S.E.” is fantastic. At max range, you’re looking down at a strategic map in a war room. Zoom all the way in and you can see the individual soldiers who were previously represented by a little blue star on the map.
The campaign opens by tasking you to rescue a covert operative from her imprisonment in a nearby castle. As with many RTS tutorials, the first mission shows you all the eye candy. There are planes swooping in and out, allied tanks flanking your enemy from the opposite side of the battlefield, and troop transports racing along narrow bridges. It’s everything you know you’ll be playing later in the game, but probably won’t be playing for the next several missions.
This is my great complaint about the RTS genre as a whole: Learning the new mechanics of each new RTS takes a long, long time. There are new units, new strategies, not to mention the myriad new keystrokes (which never stay the same between games). The learning process is slow, and because “R.U.S.E.” was developed with console players in mind, that process becomes even slower. There are literally hours of gameplay before you’re doing more than completing missions with a stock set of units. You don’t get to build a base or train your own army or any of those things that make an RTS what it is until you’ve done your diligence in the early campaign missions.
The console focus also means the game plays fairly slow. The units don’t move very quickly and on a PC the commands feel truly sluggish because they were designed with the imprecision of an analog stick and a limited button set in mind. As you get deeper into the game, though, that becomes less of a problem. “R.U.S.E.” isn’t about clicks per minute, or rush strategies, or the quickest base build, or the best tech tree. “R.U.S.E.” is about deliberate strategic maneuvering, deception, and espionage. The flagship feature of the game, R.U.S.E.s allow you to decrypt your enemies’ radio transmissions, send spies behind enemy lines, increase your build speed, and provide other strategic boons for your army. Playing your R.U.S.E. at the right time often means the difference between victory and defeat, and the game gets seriously challenging as you ratchet up the difficulty. At higher levels, you really can’t afford to make any mistakes. Reinforcements don’t come when you need them, and you better hope to god you’ve saved that speed R.U.S.E. for the right moment.
On the whole, “R.U.S.E.” is one of the most thoughtful RTS debuts I’ve seen in years. It tries, and mostly succeeds, to shift the genre away from the frenetic clicking and keystroking and instead encourages thoughtful troop deployment, all without dumbing the game down to the point that it’s not enjoyable. As slow as the game feels at times, you’ll appreciate that pace when Axis troops are bearing down on your nearly constructed base and you need just a few more moments to mount a perfect counter assault.