If you pull the camera all the way back in the World War II strategy game R.U.S.E.: The Art Of Deception, the scenery fades into miniature, revealing that the entire battlefield sits on an old-fashioned war-room planning table. It’s a cute nod to the fact that R.U.S.E. is a tabletop game at heart—sort of a souped-up Stratego. It only happens to be a videogame because the play depends on multiple layers of subterfuge and deception, which is easier to accomplish when players are looking at two different screens rather than one common cardboard square.
A second player is recommended, because the single-player campaigns do a poor job of showing off R.U.S.E.’s charm. Solo players assume the role of either an upstart American tactician or his German counterpart, commanding battalions in the game’s re-imagined version of WWII history. While the real-time strategy genre has a reputation for intricacy and wonkiness, the more accessible R.U.S.E. uses a pared-down suite of commands and unit types, so the interface is simple enough to be controlled with a gamepad. (That said, plotting moves on an Xbox 360 makes the versatility of a keyboard and mouse look awfully good.) The action plays out with a sometimes methodical, sometimes tedious pace, and each showdown guides players through a series of specific goals: wipe out incoming tanks, secure an enemy’s command post, etc. An assisting officer lays out each objective as it arises, and he always seems to know more about the situation on the ground than you do. Regardless of victory or defeat, you’ll never feel like the smartest person in the room.
The solo mode is, in practice, a long tutorial, one that’s slow to introduce new concepts and—in a baffling move, given the game’s all-caps title—takes forever to unveil the full complement of all-important “Ruses.” A set of tactics designed to tilt the balance of information in your favor, Ruses include straightforward concepts like the Spy, who penetrates enemy lines to gather details about the other side’s forces, and more involved deceits like Reverse Intel, which gives the opposing team a false read on the makeup of your units—making tanks appear as pencil-necked infantrymen, and vice versa.
For solo players, the Ruses add little to a dull experience, since “fooling” the computer is never much fun, but against another human, the constant potential for surprise infuses the warfare with nervous energy. The game transforms into a dizzying sequence of feints, parries, and psychological trickery. It’s as if the main campaign is a ruse of its own, designed to throw players off the scent of a top-tier board game hidden underneath.