I was a little puzzled by Ruse (or R.U.S.E, as most people never call it) to begin with. Specifically, I was puzzled by its UI. Whoever designed the visual elements deserves a medal; the menus all use bright, vibrant primary colours and abstract geometric symbols to produce a wonderfully warm, stylish interface. It’s the style Civilization V wishes it had, basically. On the other hand there was something slightly off about data presentation and unit selection. The game is controlled almost entirely via left-clicking, box-selecting units is a little over-generous and ends up selecting units which are just outside the box, and the text is bloody enormous. Which seemed like somewhat baffling design decisions until I realised that Ruse was developed for consoles. The text is designed to be read on a TV screen from across the room and the game is supposed to be played with an imprecise controller, hence the overcompensation from the UI.
All this is a fairly roundabout way of saying that Ruse doesn’t feel like a console game, and it’s a testament to its complexity that it took me a fairly long time to twig that it was despite the tell-tale evidence in the design. Usually when a developer makes an RTS for a console, they make it like C&C Tiberium Wars – i.e., they assume they’re designing for ADD-addled morons who can’t pay attention for more than fifteen minutes and make everything fast-paced and shit. Ruse goes in the other direction, blending light wargaming elements into an RTS that has serious Advance Wars vibes to it. The basic structure is the usual rock-paper-scissors counter trope, with tanks and artillery being good against infantry and buildings, tank destroyers and fighter-bombers being the weapons of choice against tanks and armoured units, while fighters and anti-aircraft guns are (duh) used against aircraft.
Then Ruse deviates significantly from the formula with its implementation of infantry. On open ground, infantry are cannon fodder. They move at a snail’s pace, have the shortest range of any unit in the game and the only units that can’t shoot at them are tank destroyers. However, if you manage to get your infantry into a forest or a city then the tables turn. Infantry (and anti-tank guns) in forests become hidden. Most other units can’t follow them in, and unless they have a recon unit to spot for them they can’t even shoot either. And if an armoured unit – even a heavy one – blunders too close to a group of hidden infantry then that armoured unit is in for a world of hurt; all infantry carry bazookas and the first attack from a hidden position is three times as powerful as a regular attack. This is enough to one-shot most light and medium vehicles.
The strategy, then, lies in intelligent positioning of units and reconnaissance to maximise their striking power rather than a strict series of hard and soft counters. Playing the campaign on Hard often found me relying not on tanks or artillery or heavy airpower, but on a line of cheap anti-tank guns hidden in a forest screened by cheaper infantry and supported by a wing of fighter-bombers to take out recon units and any tanks that slipped past the killing zones.
Ironically – given the game’s emphasis on intelligence over firepower – the eponymous Ruses allowing you to manipulate the flow of information or otherwise power up your units aren’t that useful. The way Ruse works is that you can always see an opponent’s unit locations and whether the units are Light (infantry, towed units) or Heavy (tanks, tracked vehicles), but you won’t get to see the actual unit type until you make visual contact. Most units need a visual contact in order to target something; the only units that don’t are the ones that saturate an area with indiscriminate fire like artillery and bombers. The Ruses in theory allow you to futz with the vague unit information given to an opponent when they’re out of visual contact, but in actuality I found myself only using two or three of the nine or so types. Perhaps this was because I wasn’t playing against an actual person. I can see the others having more utility if you’re playing against a squishy, fallible human being who might more easily be led astray, but there’s something distinctly artless about, say, swapping around Light and Heavy unit tags when you’re playing the AI since it’s hardcoded to target Light units with anti-infantry ordnance and Heavy units with anti-tank. It doesn’t have a choice, and anyway if it can see your units it’ll know what they are anyway, so I found myself sticking to Radio Silence (hides all units out of visual contact so they can’t be targeted by artillery) and Blitz (speeds units up, which is very important since they normally crawl across the map at an agonisingly slow pace), with occasional use of Spy (reveal all units in a sector) when I found myself short on recon units.
Sadly, if you’re not playing multiplayer Ruse isn’t going to present much of a challenge. It’s somewhat predictable since it’s difficult enough to code a convincing AI for games with set counters and hardcoded rules, let alone the more amorphous variant that Ruse is, but I beat the Hard skirmish AI on my second game ever. It attacks aggressively but its counter to hidden units is artillery, which is completely stymied by Radio Silence allowing the player to cut it to pieces with ambush after ambush. The campaign is more difficult since the AI not only has overwhelming numbers but its units are also tougher than yours, and the game purposely restricts the types of units available to you. At first this makes for an interesting strategy puzzle – how do you break that defensive strongpoint with no air support within the fifteen minute time limit – and it helps that the missions are quite well put together from a technical point of view, but eventually the restrictions the game saddles you with become too blatantly artificial to be any fun.
A shame, really. Doubly so since – judging from my total and utter inability to get a game via the matchmaking system despite waiting ten minutes – there is no multiplayer community for Ruse. It doesn’t seem to have sold very well, or left any kind of lasting impression on the market – which says more about the current state of the market than it does about Ruse. It’s a game with a lot of good ideas that doesn’t really deserve to be ignored the way it has.
Note from glorious space-year 2013: Eugen Systems have gone on to release the excellent Wargame which contains many of the same ideas in a more serious package, so Ruse’s spirit lives on.