Review: Toy Soldiers: Cold War

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2011’s Summer of Arcade on your Microsoft based home entertainment console ends with a bang in Toy Soldiers: Cold War.  For fifteen dollars, players of a certain age can be transported back to their youth, a time of sugary cereal, plastic toys and the few hours in a day when cartoons were on television.  A time when children of the United States understood we were at war, but not really sure with who, probably Eurasia. 

This age, the early 1980s, is one when Hasbro and others took advantage of this and marketed molded toys that resembled the instruments of battle.  An age when Hollywood could routinely send commandos into sovereign states to wage proxy wars and the only consequences were saving the world, and action.  Toy Soldiers: Cold War leverages all of these themes to make a sequel to the World War I themed Toy Soldiers that takes everything that was good about the original, and makes it better.

In line with its name, the game is presented as though these were toys waging war on a tiny, bedroom battlefield.  Someone has kindly set up a detailed mini-Vietnam for their bag of toy soldiers and handful of miniature tanks to play in.  While if looking only at the units, the title would only make sense when infantry units are defeated and they turn into rigid plastic men.  Without this, everything looks like Cold War era tanks and infantrymen.  But scattered throughout the levels are reminders of the true chibi scale of everything.  Some sights you’ll see on your tour of duty might be gigantic cassette tapes lying about with the odd twenty foot long crayon poking out of a rice paddy.  Tilting the camera upwards shows an out of focus room with strange planes held in place with cables, a globular illuminated mass in some sort of colossal lamp, and the feet of a bed so massive that surely it must belong to a titan.  While there is occasionally some clipping through the world, the game usually runs smoothly and truly conveys the idea that the toys have come to life.  To deal in death. 

People that played the original Toy Soldiers will be right at home here.  At its heart, this is a tower defense game set in a diorama in a child’s bedroom and played with windup toys and plastic army men.  The units themselves look like slightly toyafied tanks and helicopters.  Hordes of different toys spawn either from air or set positions and heedlessly march toward your toy box.  An alarm sounds whenever the base box is entered or damaged, for if its health is depleted, then the game will end.  (Side note: while it is probably not supposed to be given the dire nature of invading troops and tanks plowing into its exposed opening, I find the warning phrase “Protect your toy box!” very funny.) 

To stop the encroachment of enemy forces, there are various nodes set in the world on which different kinds of upgradable turrets can be placed after purchase.  Machine guns, mortar crews, artillery placements and anti-aircraft guns all have their role in protecting your toy box.  (Heh.)  Breaking toys nets money which buys, upgrades and repairs turrets.  Each wave of enemies comes out one after the next, and there is sometimes a lull between each.  After all enemies are destroyed and you are satisfied your fortifications are adequate, a press of a button will start the next wave immediately…or you can wait.  The game will even measure you on how quickly you asked for a second helping of borsht after a level is complete. 

While it is possible to just hang out in the overhead mode and watch your turrets shoot at enemies, it is vastly more effective to take control of them.  Once a turret is placed, it can be used to get directly into the army man action.  Controlling a turret will bring up a reticule and put the camera behind the crew manning the encampment.  As you spray the enemies with bullets, you will see the toys grimacing as they make mince-plastic out of the opposition.  While each turret type is very detailed and has unique reloading animations, it is difficult to enjoy them when you are waiting to just shoot the baddies a little more.  In addition to the turrets which are essentially “point here to do damage”, there are also indirect fire units that do damage to a large area, take longer to shoot, and can penetrate armor.  Using these will show an arrow which indicates where the shells are expected to land.  By holding down the fire button the camera will follow the shell to its destination and the trajectory can be feathered a bit. 

More advanced turrets will shoot out a guidable missile that turns the screen into something out of the Gulf War as you kamikaze it to blow them Russkies to smithereens.  This can be used to great effect, taking out air units with an anti-armor missile.  But just remember concentrating too much on shooting rockets may cause you to forget to repair and place turrets, and thus ultimately lose, because upgrading or repairing units takes them out of the fight for a limited time.  Destroying enemies in quick succession will result in multipliers and more points.  All of which goes towards the goal in the single player game: a high score and, you hope, a platinum metal.

Quick succession can also lead to a barrage award.  When either a Red Star enemy is killed by a possessed turret, or when enough enemies are killed quickly, a bonus wheel will spin and a certain barrage will be awarded.  The Y button will deploy the barrage, so it can be saved until it is really needed.  The barrages run the gamut, from the bland bombing run to, because it is the Cold War, a tactical nuclear strike (radiation sickness medicine sold separately).  Of particular note is the Commando.  This barrage throws an action figure package on the map, which looks suspiciously like a G.I. Joe package, from which will spring a non-copyright infringing guy that looks a lot like Rambo.  While an effective temporary unit that turns the game into a third-person shooter, he constantly shouts catch phrases that are evocative of Cold War era action movies.  “You wanted a war, I’ll give you a war!” is funny the first time, but he will say this a lot.  Maybe that was intentional, after all kids playing with those kind of toys make them talk until the battery runs out.  But in a video game context, it gets annoying.

As it wouldn’t be the 80s if the really good toys weren’t battery powered, many levels feature battery powered toys that can be controlled.  Helicopters, tanks and jets can all be used until they run out of juice, then they have return to their recharge station.  If the toy is made to go out of its way, batteries can be found that will extend the play session.  These toys really decimate the opposition and feel overpowered on the default difficulty setting.  They keep the game play varied, which is the main appeal in both the Toy Soldiers games, but I wish that they looked more like toys.  It would be easy to mix the jet up with the planes in any Ace Combat game.  There should be a bunch of silly decals on the plane and it should make “peew – peew” noises when it rains death from above. 

In addition to shooting the various waves, some levels are topped off with a multi-staged boss.  These are huge, multi-staged affairs that dominate the entire battlefield and make even the mightiest artillery cannon seem inadequate.  They look like the kind of giant toys with all the moving parts and secret compartments that over-privileged children would have.  These are fairly difficult, or at least they soak up a ton of damage, and there is a sense of satisfaction in their defeat.  The final stage is usually an all out assault, so it is particularly exciting to defeat a boss just as the giant toy was about to cram its way into your toy box. 

In addition to the campaign mode, there are a variety of other offline and online modes.  In Survival mode, players must survive as long as they can against wave after wave of enemies until they are overwhelmed and their toy box is kicked open and all their former objects of joy are strewn across their room.  The minigame mode includes various maps which concentrate on using one particular kind of shooting to get points and to accomplish one specific goal.  For example, one map involves using a turret to shoot very gross swarms of flies, the blasting of which will net points.  But in addition to giving more points, shooting enough golden flies will net increasingly hard medals.  The game is full of these metagoals to go after. 

In the online Versus mode, two players randomly get chosen to be either the U.S. or U.S.S.R. and are set against one another.  Infantry units continuously pour out against the opposition, but things like barrages and battery powered toys must be bought separately.  Other waves of unit types can also be purchased and hurled at the maw of your foe’s machine guns.  In practice, this ends up turning into a giant tug of war, players constantly spawning enemies against each other, and eventually one will not be able to adapt to the situation properly, his defenses will erode, and then a very gradual decline will occur until defeat is inevitable. 

In my experience, the last seven minutes of a match will taste of win if the money is flowing in your favor, or it will be a bowl of misery garnished with the slight hope that the opposition will be inattentive and you will be able to take advantage of it.  This is not an unrealistic hope as it is easy to lose track of what is going on all over the battlefield, because while the possession of turrets will make them more effective, it also comes with a certain degree of myopia.  What is fun in the campaign — shooting a full mess of enemies — feels a bit like a chore in the multiplayer.  Maybe some people will get way into this kind of play, but the online is not going to keep me coming back for more.  You can also play cooperatively, if that is your thing.

Like any good summer festival, the Summer of Arcade lineup of XBLA releases started and ended very strong.  With its plethora of modes and difficulty settings, there is plenty of replay value in this Cold War adventure.  Which is a good thing, because the campaign only lasts about six hours.  Even so, given the price and ample style, this is a strong buy.  The problem now is imagining what style of toys we’ll see in Toy Soldiers 3.  I’m hoping for a setting based on hand-painted, pewter figurines.  Not so much because I have a deep attachment to fantasy table top gaming, but because if Signal Studios did this, it would have to be a different style of game.  A third machine gun, artillery, anti-air turret game would wear out this series’ welcome.  But, as this is only the second game and has shooting that is more fun than the first, it is worth playing.

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Pros:
+ Has epic conflicts in a child’s room
+ Effectively mixes action and tower defense gameplay
+ Minigame mode to practice shooting skills

Cons:
– Online is a tug of war
– Limited number of maps in the campaign, no real narrative

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via XBLA
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Signal Studios
Release Date: 8/17/2011
Genre: Action / Strategy
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2 (offline and online)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.