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TVG gets to grips with the multiplayer beta for Eugen Systems' upcoming World War II RTS, RUSE...
A few years ago, you couldn't set two feet in a games shop without being accosted by a World War II strategy game. The likes of Codename: Panzers, Blitzkrieg, and Company of Heroes (as well as many, many more that don't bear mentioning) even managed to rival the mighty World War II FPS at one point. Thankfully, the game industry's obsession with WWII has started to wane in recent years, which is good news for game journalists like us who've begun to dread the WWII setting like a one-hit-wonder pop star who has to play the same melody - day in, day out - for the duration of their uneventful career.
Of course, there are still stragglers that attempt to mine the WWII setting as if it's a sustainable resource (which it isn't, as they really should have learned from RTS gameplay itself) , and Eugen System's RUSE is one of these stragglers. However, while it might remain stuck in World War II, it nevertheless brings fresh gameplay dynamics to the table, which do manage to revive a sub-genre that's quickly going cold. Similarly to the likes of Massive Entertainment's World in Conflict, Creative Assembly's Total War series, and Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander, Ruse allows players to opulently zoom in continuous motion from small scale battles at street level all the way up to a stratospheric view of the whole battlefield.
This sort of freedom of movement and strategic scope has been well received by gamers in the past and there's no reason why it won't continue with Ruse. Starting at a battle map similar to those that you'd imagine in the war rooms of generals (there's even a softly focused backdrop of just such a war room around the boundaries of the map), players can then scroll the mouse wheel forward to zoom-in on individual city regions and units represented like Risk figures, and then further on down to watch singular troops fire their piddly little guns at a looming tank. As far as 'Strategic Zooms' go, it certainly holds its own. The maps are large enough as well, encompassing around half a dozen settlements per map dotted between landscapes of procedurally generated forests, hills, and fields.
Over and above this map though is an altogether more innovative system of command from which the game's title is derived. Ruses are essentially what transform Eugen Systems' game from a good RTS into a compelling one, adding a powerful layer of strategy with more potential than most other RTS games have managed to muster in the last few years. Ruse's core gameplay principle is simple: deceive the opponent into thinking you're going to do something that you're not. Shockingly though, this is actually a principle that isn't incorporated into many RTS games. All too often, the genre is stagnated by titles that reward lightning fast base building over intelligent offensive manoeuvres (or attrition over cunning). It's almost 15 years after the original Command & Conquer was released and some developers are still using the archaic Fog of War system as the primary tactical tool for seconding-guessing the enemy.
Not so in Ruse's case. The multiplayer beta version has 10 separate Ruse abilities that can be initiated at any time and as many times as you like. The only limiting factors are the amount of time a Ruse is operative for, the territory it's used in, and the number of Ruses that you're allowed to use at any one time (roughly three). The Ruses themselves are incredibly far reaching, from powers that allow you to conceal your orders or units from the enemy (or, indeed, reveal an enemy's orders or units in opposing territories), to other subterfuge powers such as camouflaging buildings, deploying decoy units at the enemy, or making your small opposing force look larger than it is (and vice-versa). There are also a few Ruses that provide offensive perks on the battlefield, such as Blitz (which gives your attacking units 50% more firepower) and another Ruse that hinders enemy units from retreating.
Underneath this is an RTS that's actually deceptively simple. An HQ at the foot of your army's side of the map houses all of the unit and building creation. Secondary HQs can then be built on supply dump sites that are found around the map, which then determines your income and resources (i.e. the more supply dumps you capture, the more money flows in for new units and buildings). This simplistic approach to resources and base building positions Ruse as more of a real-time tactics title than a traditional RTS. Building barracks and an airport, for example, is all that's required to put men on the ground and birds in the air (so long as you have sufficient funds), which thereby dispenses with the complications of specific resource requirements for units and a deep tech-tree etc.
The units themselves are fairly rudimentary in the multiplayer beta that Eugen Systems has served up. One standard unit is used for infantry, although paratroopers can be recruited once you've built an airport. A small handful of tank units then comprise the main offensive vehicles, while standard artillery units can also be built for defence. Fighters, bombers, and fighter-bomber hybrids are Ruse's principle units in the air, while defensive anti-tank/anti-air bunkers and machine gun nests can be placed around important buildings for added protection. There was only one researchable technology in the multiplayer beta, which appeared to be some sort of nuclear facility, but we can only assume that there will be more in the final build. Demos of the game have revealed naval battleship units and amphibious landings, so presumably Eugen Systems has got much more in store that simply hasn't featured in this beta (particularly where the single-player is concerned).
Nonetheless, this simplistic approach to units and buildings does seem to lend itself to the Ruse system. By taking the emphasis off flashy units, Eugen Systems is effectively ensuring that Ruses are the star of the show by making gamers rely on them for the basis of their strategy. To be quite honest, we're much more excited by this Ruse system than we are the spearoclorian faction in Super Space Strategy Game 5, with its unique dimensional pulsar units (available only with online pre-orders). If Eugen Systems can successfully balance the vast scope of Ruse in the game's final build, then we see no reason why it can't hold its own against the likes of Napoleon: Total War and Supreme Commander 2 next year.
There's no denying the fact that RTS games are in rapid decline. The lack of a console market and increasingly worrying rates of piracy have placed the genre on its death bed. However, this also means that there simply isn't space for the weak and the chaff in a market that can now only support the strong and robust. Ruse certainly has the innovative gameplay that's necessary for it to compete amongst the born survivors on next year's release schedule (the likes of C&C4, Supreme Commander 2, and Napoleon: Total War). The only question now is whether the World War II setting is still appealing enough for gamers to invest in.