Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bluffing and Bombing with RUSE

Ruse If you’ve never played a real time strategy game, here’s how it goes: you harvest resources. You use resources to build tanks. You build tanks until you have more than the other guy, and then you send your tanks to destroy his.

RUSE asks an interesting question: what if your tanks aren’t real? What if the enemy is fighting a ghost brigade, while your real tanks are rolling up his flank and advancing on his base?

RUSE intends to invigorate the flagging real-time strategy genre by forcing players to use deception as a weapon. Instead of churning out tanks, players will use feints, intelligence and illusion to gain the upper hand. With the open beta currently available over Steam, I decided to see if Eugen Sytems’ attempt to turn tank battles into a game of poker actually works.

Battles in RUSE take place on a giant table – literally. If you zoom out far enough, you can see the World War II-themed war room around you. Zoom in a little, and you’ll see the battlefield divided roughly into sectors. The standard hunt-and-gather RTS mechanics all make an appearance, and in essential form. Strategy curmudgeons will settle in without instruction, but newcomers shouldn’t find themselves daunted by the interface.

Combat plays out via rock, paper, scissors: big tank beats small tank; airplane beats tank; anti-air beats airplane; artillery beats buildings; et cetera. Units that conceal themselves within woods can only be ferreted out by observation planes or recon jeeps; be sure to bring a few along, lest your offensive get spoiled by an ambush of camouflaged anti-tank guns.

Conventional combat in RUSE plays out with remarkable balance and elegance. Battles unfold at a pace more typical of small, tactical RTS games like World in Conflict, but maintain their emphasis on big-picture strategy. But Eugen really wants “ruses,” the game’s weapons of deception, to be cornerstones of your strategy.

Ruses are applied to sectors and last for a few minutes. One ruse doubles the speed of your units; another makes them invisible to the enemy’s radar; another makes all your light units appear as heavies, and vice versa. Perhaps the most advertised ruse is the fake offensive, which will deploy a brigade of decoy forces to send at the enemy. Ruses are deployed as cards, which refresh at a steady rate regardless of income.

Ruses that increase speed, reveal territory and terrify enemy units, causing them to retreat, are more power-ups than deceptions. They’re less imaginative, but they’re certainly as effective. Combine the speed-booster with the terror bomb and an enemy line can collapse after only a few shots. When you’re playing against a computer, the fake offensive does exactly what it’s supposed to do: the artificial intelligence attacks your dummy units, allowing you to bomb their base to splinters.

But the open beta only allowed me to test my mettle against an AI on easy difficulty. How does the ruse system work against a thinking, scheming human mind? If said mind is mine, it works fine. Faced with a two-pronged offensive, I sent my tanks against the one my radar pegged as heavy tanks. My units bravely charged wooden tanks while my base fell to recon tanks and infantry. Cut off from supporting fire, my tanks were hunted down and obliterated by fighter-bombers.

But once you know what to look for, the fake-offensive ruse is painfully obvious. Human players tend to stack their tanks at a rally point; the computer-controlled ruse, however, gets them on the road as soon as they’re built, and the string of tanks is easily recognizable.

It’s hard to say how frequently the fake-offensive ruse is used. From the three or four multiplayer games I managed to connect to – there are more than a few bugs to get ironed out in multiplayer – it was only used once. In one six-player game that didn’t get floundered by connection issues, the enemy relied more on camouflage, speed-boosters and terror tactics to kick my ass.

And rest assured, cheap-kill tactics are readily available. In one game, an early paratrooper rush stole half my base; the other player, a remarkably good sport, left my headquarters untouched, allowing me to limp along long enough for him to close in for an honest victory. A less honorable player funneled his every dollar into building a single carpet-bomber as early as he possibly could, wrecking almost all of my base before I could eke out a single anti-air gun.

RUSE is due June 4 for both PC and Xbox 360. I got a chance to demo the 360 version at PAX East, and the 10 minutes I spent with the port left me surprised and impressed indeed. The controls are fluid, logical and intuitive; this alone elevates RUSE above the other RTS titles available for the Xbox 360, almost all of which feel hamstrung and clumsy in comparison to their PC counterparts. You don’t even need to shout at it!

The open beta is available for download via Steam. Real-time strategy stalwarts should definitely give RUSE a look. It’s the freshest the genre’s seen in a while. Novices or skeptics would do well to give the game an hour – that’s all it should take to put on a poker face, distract the bad guys with the left hand and hook them with the right.