Whatever the future holds for RTS gameplay, the days of sitting hunched at your computer - perfecting that question-mark posture – as you strive to expand some virtual empire are numbered. Soon we’ll probably see players able to interact with their strategy games using nothing more than their hands, would-be-generals, free to mark out waypoints and recruit units simply by pointing at their computer screens; to dispatch engineers and redirect supplies with a sweep of their palm, to mount offensives by pushing army groups towards their opponent or carpet bomb whole cities with a few careless flicks of their wrist. Indeed, having taken some extremely bold steps to innovate the RTS genre, Ubisoft’s RUSE is a title yearning to break free from cumbersome peripherals like the mouse and controller.
Wheeling out a $15,000 Microsoft Surface Touch Table at E3, Ubisoft were certainly eager to show-off RUSE’s cutting edge gameplay and emphasise the format’s compatibility with flashy new technology. And although $15,000 might slightly exceed your average gamers’ military thrills budget, the intuitive control system can still be enjoyed Minority Report-style by anyone lucky enough to own a touch screen monitor. However RUSE certainly has the potential to go even further. And as this an RTS which isn’t exclusive to the PC, but coming out on the PS3 and Xbox 360, it’s a strategy game which simply cries out for Project Natal support.
However, despite so much originality (even if it is another war-game set during WW2), RUSE is a title which actually doesn’t mess too much with the basic principle of RTS gameplay. It still involves building bases, barracks, armoured factories and supply depots. However it’s the way in which the battlefield is presented to the player, and the way the player is free to navigate the environment, which makes the format so unique. Indeed, Ubisoft have effectively revolutionized the way we interact with RTS games with the incorporation of an extremely simple, but highly intuitive feature called IRISZOOM. This effectively allows the player to gain a multidimensional perspective of the terrain, and to control battles over an area sometimes as vast as an entire geographical region.
In fact, in keeping with the game’s title, RUSE does play on your initial expectations. Whilst installing the Online Multiplayer Beta (currently free on Steam) I expected the gameplay to consist of little more than pushing flags around on a virtual board game. However, while it does have many similarities with tabletop strategy games like Risk, RUSE’s IRISZOOM feature allows you to effortlessly zoom in and out between the board game overview and the battle raging on the ground. Indeed, for anyone who’s seen the series, this type of layering can’t help but remind you of how father and son team Peter and Dan Snow present episodes of Battlefield Britain.
On the one hand you have Peter who gives the viewer the basic overview of the battle (the terrain, the tactics, and the logistics) using a map with computerized animations over a square chunk of battlefield-terrain. This is almost identical to what the RUSE player sees when they zoom right out during the campaign. Of course, this immediately casts you in the role of a grey haired old general, assessing the situation from a briefing room (RUSE even provides you with the background chatter of a military control room) and trying to make decisions based on unconfirmed pieces of intelligence. However RUSE also allows you to zoom right in on the landscape, and, like Dan Snow, experience the action at ground level. The smoothness, precision, and extreme detail of this IRISZOOM feature, and the way Ubisoft have managed to reconcile these polar opposite perspectives is simply staggering. Indeed, even if you hate such complex and full on strategy games, I’d recommend downloading the Beta just to see it in action for yourself.
Like most RTSs however, the idea is to build up your forces and attempt to destroy or outscore your opponent. However one of the most crucial components to the gameplay is the ability to use various RUSE cards. These are periodically issued by your headquarters and consist of a serious of special abilities designed to trick your opponent. They vary from fake offensives, fake buildings, hiding units beneath a blanket of radio silence, increasing unit speed in a particular sector or using propaganda to undermine the morale of enemy units. The whole system is made all the more interesting with RUSE’s original take on fog of war which, rather than covering everything beneath a black cloud, gives you random pieces of intelligence based on enemy activity (although you can only confirm their reliability by deploying spy Ruse cards or carrying out recon).
This all comes together to create an RTS experience which is about much more than simply who’s got the biggest army. In fact, judging from the Multiplayer Beta, RUSE is really going to push players to be aggressive. Levels have a surprisingly limited amount of resources; turning your base into an impenetrable cocoon of anti-tank and anti-aircraft batteries will only undermine your ability to strike at your enemy no matter how tempting it might seem initially. Instead, you must try to do as much as possible with what little you can assemble before your supply trucks bleed those depots dry, and use every RUSE card up your sleeve to undermine, deceive, distract, lure or trap your opponent at every conceivable opportunity. Like senior producer Mathieu Girard said, RUSE provides players with the ‘tools to be a real general’… it forces you to fight dirty.