Let's get down to it then: it's a real-time strategy game which, while it may be leading on PC, is due out at the same time on PS3 and Xbox 360. And when it comes to real-time strategy on consoles, all anyone ever wants to debate is compromises and dumbing down. Want to know why RTS games usually don't work on consoles? The fact we operate from the assumption that they won't work probably has something to do with it.
What's more, Eugen Systems' RUSE is doubly damned, because it's also set in World War II. So if we get bored patronising the console controls in previews, we can always move on to the line about how there's plenty of World War II to go around, and pretend Relic hasn't beaten everyone to the critical Berlin with Company of Heroes.
RUSE project coordinator Mathieu Girard, however, seems quite relaxed on both fronts. Controls? Well, he says, RUSE doesn't have the same problems as other games, for several reasons. It excises a lot of micromanagement, for one. You don't have to tell your tanks to run away when they're being shot, or that they should engage when the enemy's nearly within range; they know what they're doing. And thanks to the impressive Iriszoom engine, you don't need a mini-map, because there are three main zoom levels, which you can move quickly between with the right stick (mousewheel on PC).
And World War II? We need World War II, says Girard. "It's the last historical war on a world scale with all the units we know nowadays," he notes. "When you do a modern war game, you have to understand about electronics, radar jamming and stuff like that, which is a bit complex." The point being that even a console dullard can tell which end of a tank does what, and that flamethrower attacks probably don't work out well for artillery unit hiding in the forest.
Still, simplicity and familiarity aren't the typical answers you get when someone's asked to justify their game design decisions. In RUSE's case though, it seems to make sense: you need to be at ease, because battles are won or lost not just on the strength of your reflexes and unit selection, but perhaps even primarily because of the tricks you use to deceive the opposition, the eponymous ruses.
The idea with these, as you may know, is to deploy them to give yourself an unfair advantage, albeit temporarily. You can send a decoy army down one flank - in reality it's a couple of guys and some cardboard cut-out tanks - and as the enemy rushes to defend you can drive your main force right into their base from the opposite direction. Or you can use a decryption plan ruse to observe enemy movements within a certain sector. Spy plane identifies units and bases within a set area, while the camouflage ruse shields them from sight, and radio silence allows you to move around without being noticed. Coupled with Eugen's clever use of fog-of-war - showing you enemy positions but only identifying the specific units when you're within line-of-sight - it makes for a broad range of tactical possibilities.
One danger, of course, is that ruses come across as gimmickry, but having now played two single-player missions - defending against a Fliegerkorps attack in Tunisia, and liberating Monte Cassino in Italy with British naval support - they actually feel quite natural. Girard points out that this is because World War II basically did work like this. "It's a very good example of lots of use of espionage - breaking codes, the Ultra machine, the Enigma, or Japanese bombers attacking Pearl Harbor under radio silence. There were decoy units in the war - Rommel used them, the British used them." He says some of the individual ruse ideas presented themselves through the setting, and the core World War II RTS game as it took shape, rather than being imposed upon it by the team.
The Tunisia level, the bigger of the two I get to play, is said to be most representative of single-player levels in the campaign. It begins as you take control of a few tank units in a valley, heading towards open desert and the town of Gafsa, and Girard's point about the controls is immediately proven. You move a central cursor around with the left stick and the camera follows. When you hover over a unit, you can click A to select it, hold right trigger to drag select, or hit X to select every unit of that type. B deselects. Then you move your cursor to where you want to go and send your men on their way. It's so simple that I barely need my Eugen chaperone to explain it.
As you reach the mouth of the desert, it's ringed with German armoured teeth. Your tanks are more than a match for them, but your overzealous British allies quickly run into problems outside Gafsa as they're picked off by artillery in nearby trees, and any tanks rumbling into the town itself are smashed by infantry, who are better placed to disrupt them in the tight corridors of African buildings. Fortunately, you're soon reinforced by flame units. Up to now it's fairly simple, inline tutorial stuff: pay attention to terrain, beware the fog-of-war system, etc. Now it gets serious.
Girard explains that the plan is for each level to do a bit of teaching: "A series of learning objectives - how to use certain units and ruses - and then the sandbox where you put that into practice." In this case, the Germans hold a reinforced position outside El Djem, so it's a good idea to lay down an HQ and some resource stations. Take over nearby supply points and trucks will start moving between them and your main base, vulnerably but reliably, topping up your cash totals, and you can hit the Y-button drop-down menus to queue up units, which roll out of their home barracks or factories once complete. Again the simplicity, but as Girard noted, that's a useful thing, because you quickly need to decide which ruses to use. And frankly, to begin with, I have no idea.
So, one basic idea: send a couple of tanks out to get into skirmishes with the Germans' own supply trucks. They know I'm here anyway. With help from the radio silence ruse, I'm not noticed until a couple of trucks are dead, at which point I leg it. It buys some time. I'm paranoid, so as I continue to build up my army, I use the spy plane ruse to put a few names to swastikas. The German force isn't that hot, it turns out. Using the decoy ruse, I hope to distract them on their left flank and circle round on the other. The problem is, I've already used radio silence. Whoops. The Germans don't buy it.
Do I buy their reaction, though? And why should I? "[We] have to teach the AI that an unknown force of enemy units coming towards it is a danger," says Girard afterwards, "so it can divert some forces towards it even though they're your decoys. The AI would actually be able to know that, because it has access to all the memories in the computer, but you have to teach it how to be fooled by the enemy's doing." On the second attempt, I fare much better, deploying radio silence and decoy together, and calling on another non-ruse element - the option to summon bombers from offshore aircraft carriers. You can use up to four at once, after which they need to head home to refuel before they can be used again.
Now more sure of myself, I'm ready for the potentially greater challenge of Monte Cassino. Whereas the Tunisian level represents a fairly traditional RTS battle scenario, Monte Cassino gives you a small task force and asks you to liberate a hilltop town in an area of Italy swarming with axis powers. There's good news for the allies though, and that's, well, that they have allies. In this case, while my three-tank force sneaks across the Italian countryside under cover of the radio silence ruse to eliminate critical anti-aircraft batteries, the British navy keeps the enemy busy with long-range bombardment. That'll teach them for dabbling in National Socialism.
"I think we're striking the genre from a different angle," says Girard, once I'm finished playing, "because it's more about the table, the battle-plan, strategies facing each other, so it's really like being a general instead of being a captain or a lieutenant on the field." Zoom out a bit and units appear like poker chips stacked on the battlefield. Zoom out further and you realise that the black lines on the horizon weren't a preview build error - they were the edges of the table upon which you and your fellow generals are surveying the map and plotting the next move.
Iriszoom certainly brings that home, and while in extreme close-up there's a blandness to RUSE's unit visuals and animations, the environment - plotted from satellite maps, apparently - and environmental effects are decent compensation. The snazzy wheel-spinning zoom function isn't RUSE's only novelty either: Ubisoft has also been showing the game off on giant multi-touch screens - in this case an IntuiSense table - upon which it plays out like a massive iPhone game. There's a bit of lag on control input when I have a go, but there's a lot to be said for dragging the map around by moving two fingers across the surface and pretending you're Tom Cruise in Minority Report. "I can't give you a 100 per cent answer, but there is a fair chance that it will [come out] multi-touch aware or compatible," Girard says when I ask about Windows 7's support for this sort of thing.
Girard is less coy about multiplayer. The game will support four-versus-four, has "a good number of maps - at least the good minimum you'd expect from an RTS", a separate skirmish mode for a mixture of human and AI players, and "another mode which we're going to uncover in Cologne". Single-player or multiplayer? A pause. "In between!" One thing it won't have though is a level editor. "It's not a simple thing," says Girard, trying not to lament the satellite-data map-making. "The maps are gorgeous but they're a bit complex."
The most promising thing about all this, though, is that all questions of World War II and console controls have evaporated (the PC controls, incidentally, are similarly basic and intuitive). "The depth of the game is not reduced by the fact you can play with the pad," says Girard, by way of explanation. "Since it's a game about strategy, about huge battle-plans, you don't need micro action or lots of keyboard shortcuts." It's almost wrong to call it an RTS, I suggest. "Maybe you could call it real strategy. In real time."
RUSE is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in Q1 2010.