It's fair to say that RUSE feels like a boardgame, but it's also taking place in real-time, in a way that could only really work on an electronic game system. Boardgames, by their nature, tend to have trouble not being turn-based, and so the experience of RUSE is an unusual one. It is about deception, observation and, well, clever ruses. The central conceit of the game is that you can employ intelligence and counter-intelligence powers to fool and fox your enemy, just as you might in some militaristic card game. Of course, the real decision about who wins will still come down to firepower: this is the Second World War, with all the planes, tanks, artillery and men with guns that such a setting implies. RUSE is an unusual hybrid.
The first impression of RUSE is that this is another "long-zoom" game, where the map and the game space are one. When you zoom right out the gameworld is set in some kind of control room, and is reduced to slowly trundling icons. Zoom in and you can see the buildings, trees and even the movements of individual soldiers. It's not exactly visually breathtaking, but it's sort of functionally resplendent in a way that will make desktop general nod in sated approval.
The other thing that will strike most strategy players is how glacially slow the game can be, even in traditional strategy terms. Trucks from your base trundle out into the world in something like actual real-time, so it takes them several minutes to reach the supply depots which you must hold to gain income. Supply depots exist all across the map, and can be depleted if the game runs on for too long. Since they're far away from your starting base, they not only take a while to start supplying you, they're also at constant risk of attack, especially if your opponent is deploying fast jeeps and even-faster planes. Nevertheless you must connect to them, or be starved of cash.
There's an early lull in this process, which comes after you've spent your starting cash, and this lull is oddly tense, because it's the point at which both players are most vulnerable. You have very little money, and you have to start figuring out what your overall strategy is going to be. It's also at this stage that you're probably going to start playing some of your ruse cards. I generally go for something that reveals orders, or units, in the enemy area. That gives me an idea of what they might be up to, at least for a short period, and can give me a vital edge in the rock-paper-artillery game that lies ahead. If, as in the case of the game I played this morning, the guy is heavy on air defences, there's little point in my constructing an airstrip. When I also spot that he is building an airstrip, this means air defences will be essential to my own build from early in the process.
What I like best about RUSE. is how broad its palette of strategy actually is. The very slow pace of the game - infantry takes so long to move into position that they need to head off in the wobbly old truck at least one cup of tea in advance of any planned attack - offers scope for planning complex tactics far in advance. I now produce cheap infantry early on and send them off into the map, purely to be able to distract my enemy into keeping an eye on them, or to provide myself with harrying raid troops that can keep someone busy while I concoct my aircraft raid masterplan, or my tank assault.
The ruse powers themselves supplement this kind of play enormously, because you can trick enemies into thinking you have troops where you have none, or even swap signals so that - for a brief time - some of your units appear to belong to the enemy. This morning's game could have gone entirely the wrong way had my opponent been using his ruse properly. He might have had an entirely different strategy, having hidden his buildings with camouflage, or deployed dummy buildings to give me the wrong idea about where he was operating. I knew I was at risk of messing up entirely if I threw everything into an anti-air strategy, but what the hell, we'd have to see.
As it was, he really didn't produce any ground units at all, aside from a handful of infantry which I clashed with early on. Initially it looked like his air power might land me in trouble, but I eventually managed to produce the mobile anti-aircraft guns that would win the game. Pushing these forward until they surrounded his quarter of the map, I managed to force his retreat. As I held this line, I rolled some artillery forward and started to hit his base. After some skirmishes with light units, and the destruction of a number of strafing aircraft, I took the upper hand. Reliant on airpower, he was forced to concede.
What's interesting about RUSE is that while it seems relatively hardcore as a strategy, everything in the world is carefully presented so that it easy to deploy. You can learn by playing, and the game will tell you quite openly that a band of infantry will have trouble taking on an armoured column. Ubisoft claims that all this stuff will make RUSE exceptionally accessible to inexperience strategists, and it may be right. That said, I wonder whether the slow pace, the relatively conservative setting and lack of fireworks will mean it doesn't exactly tantalise the mainstream audiences. I've little doubt that - ranking system or otherwise - this will be a game dominated by a tiny ultra-hardcore community, even though there's a lot yet to see, including a single-player campaign that could prove to be very interesting.
RUSE is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in Q1 2010.