I first found out about R.U.S.E. when looking at what games might be affected by Ubisoft’s new DRM scheme, and a couple of weeks ago Steam popped up a window announcing the availability of a public beta so I thought I might as well take a look.
Starting with the always-online DRMephant in the room, I flipped Steam into offline mode, went to start the beta up and it seemed fine. In the middle of a single player game I yanked out the network cable just to be sure and everything continued quite happily, so I guess the beta is DRM free, which isn’t terribly surprising. Though other Ubisoft games have disappeared from Steam in the UK for unknown reasons that might or might not involve DRM, the RUSE beta is going strong and it’s still available for pre-order, but I’ll be holding off to see what the DRM situation is at launch before committing.
The game itself, though; RUSE is a World War II RTS that allows you to take control of UK, US, French, Italian, German or Russian forces and trundle your infantry, tanks, artillery and aircraft around the place for great justice. Though you produce individually named units (e.g. Matilda, Panzer IV, T-34 or Sherman tanks) RUSE works on a more abstracted strategic level, so a grognard level of knowledge of the armour penetration characteristics of the 75mm M3/L40 gun isn’t needed to work out who’s going to win in a fight. This is reflected really nicely in your view of the battlefield; you can zoom right in to see half-tracks backing up, hooking on your anti-tank guns and driving off to take up position, but as you zoom right out for the widest possible view the map is revealed as a table in a war room, with oversize counters and tokens representing your troops and the best knowledge available of enemy deployments. All it’s missing is a few WAAFs with long sticks shunting the units around.
I started off with a couple of single player battles to get to grips with the controls and interface as there doesn’t seem to be much of an in-game tutorial (there is a link to an online video that promises to explain how to play, but that sounds dangerously like reading an instruction manual and thus clearly out of the question). The single player option of the beta is limited to playing 1v1 on a small map against an Easy AI opponent controlling US forces, who doesn’t offer the greatest of challenges; I hit upon an ingenious strategy of building several armoured units called “tanks” and moving them quite rapidly towards my opponent, in something of a “rush” you might say, and he didn’t have much of an answer to that (such an innovative technique surely deserves a catchy name; I think I might call it the “rapid movement of many armoured vehicles towards the enemy”). With such a direct approach paying dividends, the AI battles aren’t really the best showcase for the titular ruses that distinguish the game from other RTSs; options include disguising your own units, spying on the enemy to reveal his units or orders and deploying decoy bases, none of which are a massive amount of use as you’re bearing down on the enemy base with five Matildas, three A13s and a couple of scout cars, destroying anything in your path with a hail of two pound shells. I used the “decryption” ruse to find out what orders the enemy was giving his troops, and it turned out “explode and burn” was somewhere near the top.
Suitably emboldened by a few glorious triumphs, and to see if ruses played more of a part on a larger map, I thought I’d have a crack at an online battle. It’s been a while since I’ve thrown down a gauntlet to random internet strangers, longer still if discounting MMOG PvP of various levels of seriousness (from “not very” to “slightly”). I’ve certainly never tried an RTS online, for everyone knows cybernetic ninja pirates lie in wait for hapless n00bs, poised to spring into action with a cry of “KEKEKEKEKEKE” and a volley of millimetre-perfect clicks so fast their mouse sounds like a Geiger counter in the presence of H. R. Giger (or radiation, I always forget which one of those they actually detect). Still, with RUSE being in public beta, I figure there can’t be too many lurking 7th Dan Black Belts, and plenty of casually curious blunderers out there.
After a few false starts that jammed up at the “Connecting” phase (it seems pretty sensitive to anything else using your bandwidth, so I shut down iTunes and its podcast downloads for the duration), I wound up in a lobby, hit the “Set Ready” button, and waited… and waited a bit more… and backed out to the main menu and joined another lobby with five players waiting for a 3v3 game, a sixth joined… and quit, someone else joined… and quit, someone else joined… and quit. Eventually I wound up in a four player Free For All match that actually started off, and I did pretty well; possibly because one player dropped early on and the other two were fairly preoccupied with each other, giving me time to build up a mighty air force, establish air superiority with Spitfires, knock out enemy vehicles with Typhoons and finish off the enemy base with Lancaster bombing raids. Future attempts at an air-heavy strategy often foundered on strong anti-air defences, though, so I’ve been broadening my range and trying various nations and strategies. One of my current favourites is to play as Italy, who right off the bat get access to 210mm artillery with a ludicrously long range and 90mm dual AT/AA emplacements; in a 2v2 game my team-mate dropped almost as the game started and I thought I was in for a right tonking, but it turned out that I got control of his base, and more importantly his starting money, enabling me to rush out a bunch of artillery units screened by AA bunkers. The bunkers took care of an attempted paratroop rush, and as the artillery units sat in the middle of my base and bombarded an enemy airfield one opponent surrendered in disgust, rapidly followed by the other.
That battle was a better demonstration of the use of ruses (or lack thereof); if my opponent had used the “camouflage net” option to disguise his base I don’t think my artillery could have targeted it, or a decoy base could have drawn fire. It’s quite hard to really gauge their effect, and I’m not sure they’re a massive genre-defining feature, but at least it gives a bit of a twist to the formula. All in all, I’m rather enjoying it at the moment, though I suspect I won’t buy the full game for two reasons; firstly, on principle, if it’s got the full Ubisoft DRM, and secondly, I suspect that within a few months of launch the supply of casual blunderers will have dried up, replaced by the cybernetic ninja pirates. Until they get distracted by Starcraft II.