Signal Studios has taken the concept of the World War I tin soldiers playing out their little war, and applied it to the Cold War era for its sequel Toy Soldiers: Cold War. Instead of this just becoming an Army Men defense game, however, the result is more like replacing the old WWI soldiers with G.I. Joe toys and loving every minute of it.
Toy Soldiers: Cold War (Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: Signal Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points
Fans of the original will have no trouble getting back into the flow with Toy Soldiers: Cold War, because at its heart it's more or less the same game. You still protect your Toy Box from incoming waves of baddies, place turrets on small circular build sites and larger artillery or anti-air on the larger square build sites, and take direct control of turrets and vehicles to score multipliers and battle more effectively.
The new 1980s Cold War setting feels like a perfect fit for a Toy Soldiers game. It makes the game a lot more colorful, and everything from the logo to the 80s music gives off that campy yet nostalgic feeling of the bygone era. As a result of the more modern era of warfare -- but not too modern -- the old Barbed Wire is gone from the build menu. In its place is the new Anti-Tank turret, while the Mortar seems to have been tweaked to primarily act as an anti-infantry weapon.
Turrets now dramatically change as you upgrade them, rather than just becoming more powerful iterations that act the same. The Machine Gun turret turns into a chain gun that never overheats, but also allows you to lob grenades. The Anti-Tank turret upgrades to a T.O.W. missile launcher that you can manually steer into tanks or even aircraft. Likewise, artillery and anti-air receive MIRV or lock-on upgrades.
If you at any point mess up a wave, this time around you can rewind to any wave you have passed and start from there instead of starting from scratch.
Arguably the biggest change to the Toy Soldiers formula comes from the aspect of direct turret control, something that became less important in Toy Soldiers' later missions as the balance between hands-on action and battlefield oversight was skewed against the action approach.
Take control of a turret and kill 20 enemies in a row without losing your multiplier in Cold War, and you fill up a meter to receive a "Turbocharge" that lets you shoot without reloading for a short period of time. Get a 40-enemy killstreak, and you'll receive a "Barrage" that is specific to the turret you use.
Barrages are special abilities that act as game changers. you can use at any time. Getting 40 kills with a Machine Gun turret nets you the Commando Barrage, which makes a Rambo figure drop down onto the playing field -- cardboard and plastic packaging and all -- and puts you in control of an invincible fighting machine who can shoot unlimited RPGs everywhere. Other Barrages include temporary control of an AC-130 gunship, an artillery strike, a tactical nuke, and more. You can also receive a random Barrage by manually shooting an enemy special unit indicated by a red star, although if one of your turrets kills it before you get the chance to, you won't earn that Barrage.
The system of rewarding your multipliers with Turbocharge and Barrages makes it a lot more fun to get into the pilot seat, and you'll often feel like not wanting to switch back to the overhead view to build, repair, and upgrade your turrets.
It wouldn't be a Toy Soldiers game if there weren't some vehicles to take control of, and Cold War's don't disappoint. You can get to the choppa and take control of different types of gunships that focus on fire-and-forget missile salvos or lock-on missiles, or use tanks and APCs that can level entire waves of units. By taking control of the F-14 Tomcat to drop napalm on waves of infantry, you even get rewarded with very appropriate Top Gun-esque music!
This may sound like the vehicles are overpowered, and apart from the long reloading times for missiles, they really are. For balance's sake, each vehicle has a battery charge that slowly runs out. While exiting an aircraft makes it explode and fall to the ground, you can safely exit any tank and then re-enter it within a few seconds, provided it still has juice. This also means that you can leave a tank on its battery charge pad and never move, essentially turning it into a powerful turret that only works when you control it.
The aerial unit focus is mostly on helicopters this time around, so gone are the times where you tried your utmost to control a biplane in Toy Soldiers, only to fly through or over most enemy planes before one of them hit your Toy Box. Plus, the helicopters are more fun to shoot down -- especially right before they drop infantry to the ground. While planes do make an occassional appearance, they are few and far between, and it's for the better that they don't take central stage.
Gameplay-wise, all these changes help to make Toy Soldiers: Cold War feel a lot tighter and more varied, and Signal Studios has succeeded in this regard. That's why it's a shame that, unlike the original, this campaign only comprises 11 missions with no new game+ option. Re-use of assets be damned, it would've been a lot of fun to be able to play as the Soviets.
You can play the campaign levels on different difficulties, tackle challenges (e.g. kill 100 infantrymen using a Machine Gun turret), unlock level-specific "decorations" for completing side objectives, or try to get gold and platinum medals for completing a level in the healthiest, fastest, and most cost-effective way possible. A major downside of the campaign is that you only get access to the highest level of upgrades after the first half of the game gently eases you into the design, making the campaign too short and too easy for veterans of the original -- provided you're not playing it on Hard.
There are six mini games that allow you to get a feel for the main game as well as challenge your friends' high scores. Whenever you have a few minutes to kill, you can enter a turret-control shooting range, guide a rocket through a path for as long as possible, or go wild with a very satisfying turkey shoot in an AC-130.
A Survival mode tests your might on three different maps, with three modifiers to boot. Classic Survival is just your typical Survival mode, while Lockdown makes you purchase increasingly expensive build sites before you can build turrets on them. Finally, there is the Hardcore modifier, which doesn't let you repair any turrets and doesn't offer any replacement vehicles should they explode.
Competitive multiplayer can be played on three maps, either locally with vertical split screen or online over Xbox Live, and it's through multiplayer that you can finally get to play as the Soviets. Split screen limits your field-of-view and takes some getting used to, but it works well enough. You can see what your friend is doing, though, so it's less strategic because of it. Not that making your friend shit his pants, when he can clearly see your super unit marauding its way towards his base, doesn't have its charm. Far from it!
The core gameplay in multiplayer is similar to the campaign, with both players automatically spawning waves of enemies and using money to build turrets, but you can also buy single-use vehicles or specific offensive waves with the money you accumulate. One level offers periodic control over a special forces Commando unit (Rambo) for the U.S. and an Ivan unit (Drago from Rocky IV) for the Soviet side, which are not only great fun to use but also act as the only units capable of capturing a strategically important central build site for artillery.
At the time of writing, I was unable to get into any online multiplayer games, as not many people are playing it yet. However, the addition of offensive waves changed the dynamic well enough in local multiplayer to make it worth going back to once the online population has grown.
Besides the competitive multiplayer aspects, the Survival and campaign missions can be played cooperatively to give you yet another reason to play through the existing content.
Every single level, whether in the Survival mode, mini games, or the campaign, also displays leaderboard stats where it's impossible to ignore. Add to that all the medals, decorations, and challenges that you can aim for in the campaign, as well as option to replay things with a co-op buddy or fight him in competitive multiplayer, and Toy Soldiers: Cold War certainly presents a very well-rounded and big package of content that goes beyond what other games in this price-range tend to offer.
The caveat is that you will only get the most out of it if you are someone who always tries to improve his scores in a tower defense game, or if you have friends to play with or to keep the competition going. Outside of the mini games, the levels can be quite lenghty -- especially the survival ones -- so you do need to have a pretty hardcore interest in the genre to really invest hours and hours into it.
However, if you're more of a casual XBLA enthusiast who plays through a game's campaign and never looks at it again (e.g. you played through all the Defense Grid missions maybe once on easy or normal), then you might be a bit disappointed in the shorter, though more polished and varied, campaign. The Survival mode should keep you busy for a while to make up for it, but probably not for more than a few tries.
Toy Soldiers: Cold War could have been a lazy reskin of the original, but Signal Studios has done an admirable job making the game better and more accessible all around. While it may be lacking in raw content for some players, it more than makes up for it with layers of cooperative and competitive elements that make it one of the best strategy games on Xbox Live Arcade.
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