A humble truck tootles along a quiet country road in WW2-era Normandy. Our camera pulls back, ascending to the sky to reveal that the surrounding landscape is pock-marked with large craters. We pull back again, and from our new vantage point we see that a phalanx of tanks is approaching from the East. Pull back yet again and we catch sight of a squadron of bombers heading towards our truck, which is now barely a dot on the landscape. Pull back again, and again and again, and suddenly we can see what seems to be the entire province.
This is Ruse, a brand-new IP from Ubisoft and Eugen Systems (creators of the critically acclaimed strategy title Act of War: Direct Action) that promises to offer real-time strategy warfare on an epic scale. The game uses something called IrisZoom technology, software that allows the developer to create the playable equivalent of Google Maps - environments that represent hundreds upon hundreds of virtual kilometres. As one developer puts it, where most RTS titles might choose to re-create the Omagh landings (the battle bizarrely popularised by Saving Private Ryan), Ruse can let you govern the whole Allied invasion of Normandy.
But this magnitude is only one ingredient in Ubisoft's exciting pie. As the name suggests, Ruse is also a game that focuses heavily on deception. The designers argue that while cunning tactical makeovers play a large part in real-world battles, past RTS titles have rarely done much to represent the art of military trickery. Here each commander is granted three Ruse powers - special abilities that will help you to shift the balance of power in your favour. Ruse cards are loosely grouped into three categories: those that steal information, those that hide information, and those that put out false information.
In the first two categories, examples might include revealing the position of enemy units or cloaking your own so that they can sneak past opposing forces. In the third case, options include the ability to build wooden tanks - decoys that should fool the rival commander until he gets close. When used together, these Ruses should give you a wide range of cunning plans. You can make an enormous army look tiny, or you could make a pitiful band of infantry look like an unstoppable battalion. You can even build a fake base, distracting the Nazis while you build up a genuine stronghold elsewhere.
You only get to choose two of the three Ruse cards thrown your way (the third is randomly assigned), but whatever options you end up with, you'll have to play them well. Ubisoft promises that Ruses won't be just window-dressing on the standard RTS format, but decisive game-changing elements. Intriguingly, the developers at last week's showcase were citing poker as a major reference in terms of the way the strategy plays out. In a game of Texas Hold 'em each player builds a hand using two hole cards, which only they can see, and five communal cards that can be seen by everyone; in other words, there's a mix of public and private information about the state of the game at any given time. In Ruse, things work in a similar way. Rather than the standard fog-of-war seen in most RTS titles, each player can see the whole of the map. They can also see the location of enemy units - but, crucially, they can't see what these units are. You have an idea about what the opposition is up to, but you'll only get the full details through careful use of intelligence and reconnaissance.
In the demo I was shown, Allied forces were attempting to capture Monte Cassino - a hill located some 80 miles away from Rome. Several large Panzer units stood between the Allied taskforce and its objective. The obvious response was to call in an air strike, but the presence of a nearby anti-air unit made this problematic. A frontal attack on the AA group would also be risky, due to the close proximity of the Panzers. The demonstrator elected to play the Radio Silence ruse, rendering some of his force invisible. The hidden units were then sent to take out the anti-air group, then a fleet of bombers swooped in to take out the tanks. Job done!
This example situation was clearly engineered to give a clear problem and solution, but hopefully the final game will present subterfuge as a constant part of the strategic cut-and-thrust. If Ruse manages to pull off this double whammy of scale and deception, they should have something pretty special on their hands. What remains to be seen is how everything will be controlled. The PC version is bound to have some form of fairly familiar mouse and keyboard setup, but it'll be interesting to see what kind of approach is taken with the console games in the wake of Halo Wars and other recent attempts at innovation - such as Ubisoft's own voice-controlled EndWar.
And naturally, the console releases will have to match the impressive visuals of the lead-platform PC. We've all seen the zoom-in-for detail thing before - most recently in Empire: Total War - but Ruse certainly wins itself the choccy biccy for sheer eye-opening massiveness. You can zoom down to watch a fleet of battleships as they shell the coast, then pan forward a few miles to follow the missiles as they rain down on the enemy. You can retreat up into the heavens to inspect the damage you've done to the 100 per cent destructible terrain. If you retract the camera as far as it will go, you eventually find that the entire map is a scale model inside a general's quarters - you can even see the rest of the room. Apparently Ubisoft isn't sure if this view will be included in the final release, but I sincerely hope that it is: it's highly reminiscent of both Powermonger and Populous, strategy classics from years gone by. Will Ruse be as influential as these iconic games? It's a tall order, but you never know. This looks like a genuine attempt to shake-up the whole genre, so let's hope it works.
Ruse is coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. No release date has been announced. Watch the HD reveal trailer right here.