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Following EndWar, RUSE is Ubisoft's second leap at the accessible, console-friendly RTS bandwagon. It seems to be aiming for a similar, action-gamer-friendly area of the market, but does so while bringing a genuinely unique addition to the fray. It lets you cheat. In fact, it encourages it. And that's in addition to a whole bunch of other cool new visual and gameplay features that could really shake up the genre. Sound awesome? Yes it does, but be warned that this preview comes with a very big "But" attached to the following list of positives.
RUSE's central mechanic is skulduggery. The basic idea is players can augment their tactics with three "ruse" or cheat perks per battle. Selected at the start, they have various effects when activated, but all have the overall aim of deceiving or cheating the opposition.
We saw some relatively basic ruses during our demo, like turning units invisible and viewing recently inputted enemy orders, but we also witnessed tricks as extravagant as creating fake units as decoys to allow genuine attacks more breathing room. We can see more than a few mics being exploded with overdoses of laughter and tears when online play hits, and that thought warms our cold, black hearts no end.
RUSE takes the EndWar idea of detailed, over-the-shoulder combat and puts it on stupidly, stupidly big battlefields. So big in fact, they would be crushingly hard to navigate if it weren't for the boggling new IrisZoom engine, which allows vomit-inducingly fast scaling of the map. Distant zoom means less detail, closer zoom means more, so it all balances out in terms of processing and we get fast, super-slick scaling from street level to a God's-eye view. It's mind-blowing to watch, even after you've seen it a few times already.
RUSE doesn't allow any hands-on control of your units, but you can treat your surroundings just like you would in a shooter. Buildings will shield you from explosions, as well as blocking the scanners of recon units. It's even possible for units to make tactical use of architecture and forests to set up ambushes. We're a tad dubious about RUSE's adoption of regenerative unit damage, but hopefully the noobs' favourite health system won't mess up the balance. Tanks are crap at hiding behind crates, after all.
We know that making the "accessible RTS" claim is currently the most tiresomely fashionable thing to do IN THE WHOLE WORLD, but in RUSE's case we're already onboard. At a fully zoomed-in view, the graphic detail of close-combat makes skirmishes instantly intelligable. On the flip-side the zoomed-out overview breaks those huge warzones down into manageable bite-sized chunks of territory, each defined by a highlighted border. The borders are often made out of logical, pre-existing features such as roads, and those roads in turn act as key supply routes in game. Its a borderline genius balance of detail and economy that brings about massive clarity.
But the bit we really love is when you pull all the way out and the world map will be revealed to be just that; a map. On a table. In a war room. It's just like that scene in every World War II movie ever made. Even better, to avoid losing track of your tiny green and brown units on your massive green and brown map, everything becomes simplified down to brightly coloured casino chips. It's all playfully toylike, but looks brilliantly functional.
Imagine playing a scorching tactical round, before finding out that the heavy patrol you've put your focus on is actually made of wood and poses no real threat at all. Or having a game pinned down, only for a massive invisible army to decloak right behind you and blast your face off. Frustrating, annoying and cheap. Without catsuit-tight balancing, the potential is there for the ruse system to be all three.
We've been assured by the devs that the ruses can balance each other out and that recon units also will help, but until we've properly sessioned the multiplayer our reservations will remain. It's a frustrating situation, because Ruse has so many cool features that have us genuinely excited about the direction it's taking. But alas, at this stage we just can't ignore the fact that if things go wrong, RUSE could easily turn out to be RTS without the S.