For years the real-time strategy genre (RTS) has been mired in the turgid, tiberium soaked legacy of Command & Conquer. Once a pioneering game, it’s regular as clockwork sequels have done little to improve the series beyond the occasional graphical overhaul and a handful of new units. The formula always remained the same: build base, farm resources, amass army and storm your enemy with enough troops to ideally drop the frame-rate. Other strategies could be undertaken by the hardcore (like storming a base with a hand full of cigar-chomping commandos) but they were rarely encouraged by a game that was in essence, as subtle as a breezeblock strapped to a nuke. Other series’ emerged, most famously Age of Empires, but were little more than copies in historical garb.
But now Ubisoft have boldly entered the fray with their first RTS (unless you count the Splinter Cell series of course) and R.U.S.E. promises to evolve the genre with a welcome fresh perspective. Being a bit of a board game geek, I was particularly looking forward to this title, which borrows its aesthetic and mechanics from tabletop gaming. For instance, the title refers to the various cards that can be deployed to affect various sections of the play area, such as ‘radio silence’, which effectively hides your units from the enemy. The ruses are perhaps the most obvious and original example of the many instances in which the game breaks away from the norms of the genre to give an interesting new dynamic.
The game is set towards the end of WWII, with the allies forcing the fascists back through central Europe with all of the drama and desperation that an end-game scenario entails, and it’s certainly elegant in its presentation. Zoom the camera in and you have an incredibly detailed view of the battlefield and the ability to micro-manage individual units, but zoom all the way out and you immediately have a sweeping over-view of the entire battle. It’s an excellent solution to one of the biggest problems the genre has always faced: how to reconcile the need to have full control over each and every unit, without losing sight of the bigger picture. Rather than rely on a tiny inset radar/map, the standard solution, the player can now alternate between the point-of-view of a soldier on the front line and a commander at HQ over-seeing the battle in a fairly fluid transition.
This isn’t just a clever gameplay mechanic, but a way to give consequence and a sense of human cost to your orders. Moving a platoon of soldiers incorrectly at an abstract level where they are merely represented by large or small discs bearing their national flag is easily done, but when you zoom in and see them slaughtered by a flamethrower tank it makes you think. The game’s storyline, which revolves around an ambitious American officer named Joe Sheridan, picks up on these issues, exploring how a thirst for personal glory can come at a high price indeed.
In spite of its presentation, the biggest problem with the game is still how difficult it is to get to grips with everything. Even on the easiest setting I struggled to stay on top of the mounting problems; balancing resource management with fending off attacks from all directions. Allied units can’t be controlled and have a tendency to throw themselves against Anti-tank defences and then complain at you for not clearing the way for them. It’s also frustratingly easy to accidentally select a carefully placed anti-tank gun with a bunch of other units only to later be confronted by the sight of a Tiger tank merrily decimating your base. In later campaigns, as the number of units on the battlefield increases, things get even messier.
This is as much a problem with the genre itself than simply with the game. In fact ‘real-time strategy’ is a bit of a contradiction in terms. Strategy is about planning and preparation, or it should be at least. The reason games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Valkyria Chronicles are so brilliant is because they are both built upon incredibly tight turn-based mechanics. The problem with R.U.S.E. is that it borrows a great deal from board games apart from that measured structure of the gameplay. As it stands it has all of the elements of a great strategy game, but they’re mixed with an incompatible twitch gameplay; like playing a game of poker with no turn order and everyone drawing cards when they feel like it. For strategists it will lack nuance and control, but for gamers not used to the genre at all it’s simply overwhelming.