Real-time strategy is an oddly gentlemanly affair, given its ultimate goal tends to be small-scale genocide. "I insist, good sir - let me clearly mark upon your map the exact location of my neatly-clustered power station." "Nay, sir - I could not in good conscience own a tank with more hitpoints than yours." Oh, balance - you have so much to answer for.
RUSE may be as constructed around equally-matched unit rosters as any other RTS, but it's that little bit closer to the deception and trickery of real-world war. It's about getting one over on the enemy, lying to them, luring them into traps... It's dirty.
Which means, despite appearances, this is not simply Another World War II Strategy Game, and you should wipe that spiteful expression off your face, young man. It is, it's true, set upon 1940s battlefields and thus features no laser-targeted apocalypse bombs or fungal death-spores from dimension x, but it also offers maps the size of Somerset and controls focused on motion and battle, and not too much fiddly micro-management.
Those enormous maps, especially, are quite the thing - from fields to hills to sea, from ground to sky, all at the flick of thumbstick or mouse and without any of that nasty loading business. The size is not simply shallow graphical posturing, either - RUSE is about strategy on a huge scale, pushing against and defending multiple fronts. Movement is in broad gestures, vast arrows directing murderous traffic across the land, and planned from a maxi-zoom-out that displays the battle as figurines upon a commander's table. This is a game that wants you to feel like a true general, pulling strings from afar and privy to information beyond anything his peons provide - not the strange half-god, half-tank mechanic figure you assume in most strategy titles.
With that in mind, you have access to much more information than simply what your units can see. In a neat twist upon fog of war - always a strange, arbitrary and almost science-fictional element in any RTS - you're forever able to see where enemy units are, but won't known exactly what and how numerous they are until you've got direct line of sight. So you always know where to go for a fight, but unless you've been diligent in your reconnaissance you'll have little idea of whether you'll come up trumps or get your botty handed to you.
Complicating that further are the titular ruses. Depending upon which cards - for the ruses are indeed presented as boardgame-like cards - your enemy has up his sleeve, what the game tells you is a temptingly exposed and frail army might in fact be a mighty squad of armoured steel. Or perhaps it's a decoy army, luring your attentions away from a major invasion force on the other side of the map. Or perhaps it's just a couple of expendable units ripe for the killing, but en route to them a more fearsome squad lies in ambush, rendered invisible thanks to the radio silence ruse.
In other words, this isn't just a matter of Largest Army Wins, or even of rock, paper, scissors ad infinitum. It's not even necessarily Smartest Army Wins - it's Most Devious, Bastardly Army Wins. There are ten ruses in all, but the bulk of them remain under wraps for now. What we do know is that most of them will be loosely grouped into faking information, hiding information, or stealing information, which says much about RUSE's overall philosophy. Information is king.
A potential wrinkle in the grand plan is the need to make a game that falls exactly in the middle of complicated and accessible - or, in other words, a strategy game for both PC and console. Idle browsing of forums has turned up some of the former trolling the usual "dumbed-down" line, and some of the latter whining it looks boring. It's got a bit of an uphill struggle, really. And while there isn't any inherent cause for complaint about the World War II setting, it is a little surprising that a game so determined to bring something new to the strategy table has gone with a very familiar theme that will prompt many to instantly feel they've got its number.
A first-hand experience of the so-called IRISZOOM engine, and its truly spectacular birds-eye to worms-eye insta-jumps, should change a lot of preconceptions. This isn't, say, Supreme Commander's similarly huge but strangely flat, featureless landscapes. This is terrain, baby - terrain. So, that PC is the lead development platform (the game is specifically designed to take advantage of quad-core systems) is perhaps not too much of a surprise. On the other hand, developer Eugen Systems is best known for Act of War: Direct Action, which threw out much of strategy gaming's complexities and fiddliness in favour of big explosions, so it's entirely possible RUSE could bridge that fearsome gap between PC and console strategy after all.
Hopefully, too, there's much left to see - for now, only muddy green-and-brown European countryside has been on show, but jaunts to Northern Africa and urban areas are promised, which should shake up the array of strategies as well as the aesthetics. RUSE is due for release later this year - no word on an exact month as yet - which means it shouldn't be long before we see how deserts and cities look in that incredible engine. If all goes to plan, this could be the poker of real-time strategy - the furious concentration and sadistic thrill of deceiving your opponents. Surely, after all, a genuine battle of wits is far more satisfying than simply bombarding power stations with giant bombs until everyone falls over?
RUSE is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 before the end of Ubisoft's current financial year - so by April 2010.