In 2010, developers Signal Studios proved themselves as one of the new masters of the tower defense genre with their highly-stylized hit Toy Soldiers. In addition to the game's fantastic visuals and unique toy-box theme, Toy Soldiers also featured incredibly exciting gameplay, bolstered by the innovative concept of allowing players to actually hop inside the game's various turrets and vehicles. Given the success of the original, a sequel was inevitable, though surprisingly the WWI-era tin soldiers of the last game have been melted down, the latest installment flashing us forward to perhaps the most regrettable era in American pop culture. An era of ridiculous music, mulleted action heroes, and Reaganomics. That's right…
The goddamned 80s.
The influences for Toy Soldiers: Cold War are easy to spot, drawing heavily from the anti-Soviet propaganda of the time period, movies like Rocky IV or, my personal favorite, Red Dawn. It's this sort of commie-busting attitude that will propel you through the game's main campaign, blasting away at those dirty Reds with a strangely satisfying sense of moral justification. After all, they're only toys, right? To help you take out your plastic foes, the game features six main turret types to choose from, all with a variety of powerful upgrades which are unlocked as players progress through the game. Unlike the majority of tower defense games, which let you set up turrets wherever you like, turret placement in the Toy Soldier series is limited to a handful of predetermined spots on each map. The focus then is not to overwhelm the enemy with a giant mass of weaponry, but instead to properly manage the limited number of turrets you control, as well as making sure to upgrade and repair them frequently.
The most important feature of the Toy Soldiers series is still the ability to hop into and control the turrets you create, and learning to master these various weapons is an essential part of the game. In most tower defense games players learn to fear the endlessly spawning waves of baddies, though because of this mechanic I instead found myself eagerly anticipating their arrival, ready to jump into my machine gun and tear those Russian bastards to pieces. Though the A.I. turrets are competent, they are nowhere as effective as a human gunner. This is especially true of the anti-tank and mortar turrets, which actually allow players to steer the ordinance towards the enemy troops, allowing for pinpoint devastation. This is honestly one of the most exciting features of the game, and learning how to ride a missile all the way across the map to snipe newly-spawning tanks is an essential skill.
To switch up the gameplay a bit, Cold War offers a variety of innovative elements well beyond traditional tower building. One is the game's many "battery-operated" vehicles, allowing players to take control of a model tank, helicopter or jet-fighter. Each vehicle packs an incredible amount of firepower, though can only be used for as a brief amount of time before the batteries run out. Another interesting bonus is the combo system, which rewards players for taking out multiple targets while commanding a turret. A 20x kill combo will put the turret into 'Overcharge' mode, boosting the turret's overall firepower and removing that pesky need to reload. A 40x combo grants the player one of the game's many 'Barrage' power-ups, special one-time busts of firepower ranging from airstrikes to tactical nukes. My personal favorite would be the Commando, who drops onto the field still sealed in his original packaging, bursting forth to wreak havok while spouting such lines as "This one's for Jimmy!" in a slurred manner of speech not unlike that of one John Rambo. Players can also earn a barrage by taking out specially marked enemy units while in command of a turret, just another example of the game's desire to put you in control of the action.
The main Cold War campaign can be finished in a day or so, however the game packs a lot of replay value in by offering additional difficulty levels for each stage once cleared, as well as a comprehensive set of online leader-boards ranking players on everything from individual stage score, to the total number of helicopters shot down. The game also features an awesome versus mode, something I'm sure will captivate more than a few players with its dangerously addictive action. To top it all off, there's also even a small selection of mini-games for which to compete for the high score, and I'll admit the rocket obstacle course kept me occupied for quite awhile.
In short, there's a ridiculous amount of content packed into this game, with no expense spared in making sure that every part of the experience is top-notch. This is definitely one of the best tower defense games ever developed, and an honest to god bargain. So grab your aviator sunglasses, strap into your cockpit and get ready for a ride into the danger zone, with Toy Soldiers: Cold War for Xbox Live Arcade. This one's for Jimmy!
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]