Ruse is marketed as a new breed of WWII RTS. One that lets you carefully mull over your orders on a huge tactical board before deploying devious strategies to trick and confuse your opponents. This, unfortunately, is a ruse in itself (sigh – ed). Throughout the Campaign and few skirmishes I’ve played, Ruse has yet to surprise, or indeed impress with anything new. In fact, it feels rather familiar.
The campaign, to start, is a normal RTS campaign. You play as Joe – a complete dickhead of a commander coming through the ranks who seems to go out of his way to come across as unlikeable and annoying. You are surrounded by other badly written and voiced characters in a plot that takes you through the entirety of WWII in the blandest way possible. And the voice work and writing really is shocking – it’s so incredibly flat, stagnant, stereotyped, and screaming inauthenticity in what should be a high level military command room. None of this is really an issue though – RTS as a genre has constantly failed to delivery in terms of writing and story, it just would be nice for something to break that mould. Unfortunately, Ruse is not that long awaited messiah.
Each campaign mission is generally the same – build up some forces to take on this larger, pre-established force with new units and “Ruses” trickling through as you progress. Again, this is the same structure that RTS has always held, with only Starcraft II coming to mind that has actually mixed up the template in any way significant. Sure Ruse has a few tricks up it sleeves in the Campaign, and some missions are genuinely exciting, especially a tooth and nail defence of a couple of towns post Normandy, but on the whole they are all situations that you have played again and again.
Instead, the focus of Ruse is in its skirmish and multiplayer modes, just like – dare I say it – every other RTS out there. It’s here that Ruse’s combat is given the opportunity to shine with all the fuss and nonsense of the campaign taken out. Each map has a wealth of resource points to fight over and capture – vital for training units and the constructing the buildings that train them, and this is where Ruse starts to get complicated.
Normally I hate going through the motions of what’s in a game, but here I need to to explain something. So, as briefly as I can, units in Ruse: Soldiers are trained from a barracks, as are recon jeeps. Tanks – of which you’ll have the option of three or four types – come from the armoury, and Planes – again you’ll have three or four types – come from the airports. Fair enough. However, then you can build an anti-tank factory which builds anti-tank guns and, strangely, anti-tank tanks; and then there is the artillery and anti-air factory to build anti-air tanks and stations, and artillery tanks and stations. And then there are fortified Machine Gun, AT and AA nests that you can build from your HQ, which will also send out the trucks to build your Barracks, Armouries, Airports, AT factories, and AA and Artillery factories. Phew.
Hopefully my point has come across already – there are a lot of units and a lot of things that need constructing to get to those units. And normally, fine. I regularly enjoy a bout of Sins of a Solar Empire which is a ton more complex in its unit trees, but there is a key difference. In Ruse an anti tank gun can’t fire at infantry. It simply refuses to take the order, so infantry can just run up and destroy it. Some tanks can hide in woodland, others can’t. Fighter Bomber planes can target Armour, but Bombers cannot. It’s complicated and full of little nuances that need learning and puts a heftier emphasis on recon and intel, which is where, predominantly, Ruse cards come in.
Ruses are the super abilities which you are given a steady stream of. They range in ability from giving all units in an area a significant speed boost to sending a fake wave of offensive units across the map. The major difference between Ruse and most strategy games is that you have half a fog of war; without recon or a Ruse ability like “Spy” which reveals all enemy units in an area, you can see where the enemy are but only if they are “light” or “heavy” or “air” units. So, for example, infantry is obviously a light unit which you can happily send a light tank in to take out; but then an anti-tank gun is also a light unit which you want to keep your armour well away from.
Ruse cards assist in getting information, hiding information, and feeding false information as well as deploying fake units for free. A staple tactic for example is to launch a fake wave of units down one flank while sending a real wave down the other, cloaked from enemy view. On paper, this is brilliant. However, in practice and when you stop and think about it, it isn’t anything new or particularly useful really. Fog of War has been a standard for a long time and it really isn’t that different here. Without recon you’re effectively going in blind to any fight just as before – only now you know that there will be a fight. And the big selling point of Ruse – the fake units, well, they seem a bit pointless. Every skirmish I’ve played has boiled down to “who can build the most units” – a fake assault barely being more than an inconvenience as no one will commit a full force to an unknown attack anyway. And also, don’t we normally use flanks in normal RTS’s anyway, only, you know, with exciting firefights going on on both sides? It’s not like you can’t afford the firepower here.
It’s all just a little too fast, too. When you see the tabletop stacks of unit counters and arrows showing orders, it should be part of that tabletop experience. You should be able to play this whilst smoking a pipe and twiddling a moustache. Tanks should menacingly trundle into position, unable to relocate quick enough for a surprise attack to actually matter. Instead they fly across the map, able to react on the fly to any units you might sneak in, making this more of a chaotic micromanagement than the broad strokes strategy that the design lends itself to.
Ultimately, Ruse is just another RTS with a couple of quirks. It’s a good RTS and it looks great – especially with the iconic arrows thrusting across the battlefield – but it’s an RTS that you’ve played many times before. It doesn’t have the fluidity of Company of Heroes, the scale or level of control of Sins of a Solar Empire or the tight efficiency and interestingness of Supreme Commander 2. With better pacing and less emphasis on individual troop management it could have been great, instead it had hopes of innovation but barely fell into iteration.