R.U.S.E.'s claim to fame is, as its subtitle says, "the art of deception." Control and manipulation are key, so forget strategic base-building and Zerg rushes. This game is all about fooling the enemy using decoys, spies, surprise attacks, radio silence, dummy buildings, psychological warfare and other underhanded actions. And who better to fool than the Nazis, right?
Well, turns out these Nazis have more smarts than your standard video game fodder. Their tanks are pretty big too ... and numerous. Oh so numerous.
But that's okay because your hand will be held through the entire campaign. Interspersed with lovely (but poorly voiced) cinematics, the campaign drags you through several snail-paced battles on the largest maps known to man. Incidentally, these maps of varied terrain are actually scaled gameboards -- the kind that you'd see on the general's table in a war room or in a game store, surrounded by Warhammer enthusiasts. Zoomed in, you wouldn't notice, but pull all the way out and you can spot nearby computers and desks all stationed around the gameboard.
Perfect strategists with perfect timing might have more luck than I had actually putting these R.U.S.E.s to good use.
The behind-the-shoulder camera angles, a la EndWar, are a little difficult to control at first, but this issue quickly falls second to the agonizingly slow pace of each match and the dialogue, picture-in-picture animations and spliced objectives that constantly interrupt the gameplay. It's as though the game just isn't comfortable allowing you to try a reasonably paced battle because the many options and controls are too complicated for you to understand without hours of lessons. Instead, you're bombarded with constant mini-commands (like "Place your AT here") and a lot of unskippable talk about some dude named Weatherby.
The constant chatter and refusal to unlock any of the fun gadgets aren't actually what make R.U.S.E. slow. See, it's the slowness that makes it slow. The controls are mostly point-and-click with a few hotkeys assigned to the construction of certain troops. This simplicity ought to move things along nicely. But no, it's still slow. Like, really, really slow. Honestly, there's no elegant way to say it. It looks like the units have been shot with a tranquilizer, thrown into a bowl of camouflaged Jello and challenged to break the World Record for running the slowest mile against the direction of an invisible conveyor belt.
As for the Xbox 360 version, R.U.S.E. makes a valid attempt at simplifying the controls for the console. However, that still doesn't make it a good idea. Directing your troops with the analog stick is imprecise, slow and tends to result in pointless self-sacrifice. On the other hand, the finicky controls may make you appreciate the inexorably slow pace of the game and the tiresome tutorial. So when it comes down to it, the Xbox version just highlights a different fashion of frustration, but it doesn't make the experience any more or less enjoyable.
At least the deliberate pacing affects more than just your troops -- it affects everyone. Nazis, Italians, French – they're all horribly, excruciatingly slow. Every battle, I'd spend a few minutes busily executing commands and the other half hour watching in absolute disbelief as thirty individual units traverse the map in a strange, slo-motion ballet. I checked the Options at least a dozen times to make sure there wasn't a "OMG, move faster" button. There wasn't.
Proper positioning is absolutely vital to your army's well-being. R.U.S.E isn't the sort of RTS where you can churn out 47 expendable pawns or plow your way through the enemy's defenses with a tank barrage. Instead, a single soldier can take out a tank by hiding in the forest and surprising him. One anti-tank artillery unit can blow up a Panzer duo. But pit seven soldiers dead on against just one medium tank and you're screwed.
It looks like the units have been shot with a tranquilizer, thrown into a bowl of camouflaged Jello and challenged to break the World Record for running the slowest mile against the direction of an invisible conveyor belt.
To complicate matters a little, you're given the opportunity to use various R.U.S.E. cards -- the aforementioned super awesome feature. These cards allow you to add a bit of flair to your positioning. For instance, you can hide your troops under radio silence or create unarmed decoys to fake an attack. Other cards let you see the enemies' moves or the troops he might have hidden in the woods. You can even strike fear into the enemy so that he flees after receiving a certain amount of damage.
Perfect strategists with perfect timing might have more luck than I had actually putting these R.U.S.E.s to good use. Sadly, I only executed a masterful bit of deception once. It happened during an Operation, a game mode with only six levels where the player must take on one army and several optional objectives using a specific set of units and R.U.S.E.s available. I tried one of the 1v1 maps twice, attempting to face the enemy head on with whatever typical RTS tricks I had up my sleeve. But, as the word "tried" implies, I failed. So the third time, I began in the same manner but sent a handful of soldiers around the far left edge under radio silence. Since they move slowly, this took quite awhile. But when they had almost made it to the enemy's base, I sent everything I had up the middle and an army of decoys to the right. With this distraction in place, I sped up my soldiers with the "Blitz" R.U.S.E. and used them to capture the enemy's headquarters from behind before he even saw it coming. It was glorious.
Aside from this one triumphant moment, each battle tended to come down to the number of units I had, their positions and whether their targets were appropriate to their skills. A bit of radio silence would come in handy now and then, and it helped to spy on the enemy's troops. But the proper use of R.U.S.E.s rarely turned the tide in battle or seemed to make as much of a difference as the name suggests.
Update [as requested, some more thoughts on multiplayer - Ed.]: Similar qualms are represented in the multiplayer. But despite the slow, uneventful pace felt in both modes, the multiplayer thankfully replaces the choppy, spliced campaign missions for much more fluid symmetrical skirmishes. Even better, human opponents are much easier to fool with R.U.S.E. tactics than their wiser computer counterparts. But while these highpoints may resonate with more deliberate strategists, I can't see the online multiplayer captivating its niche audience for too long.
If the pace weren't horrendous and the campaign so god-awfully boring, R.U.S.E. would make for an enjoyable RTS but certainly not a groundbreaking one. World War II just isn't the biggest thrill anymore, Nazis are overused and the overall package surrounding the gameplay – graphics, story, multiplayer options – is weak at best. As it is, R.U.S.E. would be most fun for those with more patience. But, during those moments when everything falls into place, the art of deception is just barely enough to keep us less patient folks on board.
[Randy: As you've no doubt read, I got my hands on Sony's PlayStation Move motion controller in advance of its retail launch next week, so I decided to test it out with the Move-compatible R.U.S.E. to see if it added anything to (or took away from) the experience. Basically, it mimics the DualShock 3 analog stick control with the added benefit of a really precise pointer than you can move faster than possible with a standard controller. The setup uses the Move controller and Navigation Controller for a combination of movement (NavCon) and panning / zoom (Move controller). As with the DS3, the NavCon's analog stick simply moves around the map (and can be used to navigate menus). Holding the T button on the Move controller and panning it left/right like a flashlight pans the camera, and tilting it up/down zooms in and out. The whole arrangement feels intuitive and smooth -- definitely the way to play if you have a Move, but nothing that improves the experience in any major way.]
This review is based on PC review code of R.U.S.E provided by Ubisoft.
About the author: Meghan Watt is a Chicago-based freelance writer and games journalist for various entertainment outlets, both in print and online, like Official Xbox Magazine, GamePro and The Escapist.