To be perfectly honest, Toy Soldiers: Cold War wasn't a game that was even really on my radar going into the Summer of Arcade promotion. With the wealth of tower defense games on the market, I never really gave the first Toy Soldiers a chance, so the prospect of a sequel to a game I never played didn't excite me. I was also far more distracted with games like Bastion and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet that I had literally been waiting years to play. But when an unsolicited review copy appeared in my inbox, I thought "what the heck, I'll give it a try." And you know what, it's actually pretty darn good.
For those of you unfamiliar with the tower defense genre, Toy Soldiers: Cold War gives you the task of placing defensive weapons around the map to stop waves of enemies from invading your precious toy box. There are six turrets at your disposal, ranging from machine guns and anti-tank rockets to mortars and anti-air. My personal favorite is the makeshift, which features tiny plastic army men in hazmat suits spraying incoming infantry with pesticides.
What makes Toy Soldiers: Cold War special is that you won't just be acting as commander placing defenses, but you can also jump right into any turret on the battlefield. This allows players more control over which enemies a turret is targeting, and just in a more general sense be more involved in the battle at hand. Fully upgraded turrets even have special abilities that can only be accessed when a player takes direct control. Machine gun turrets can fire grenades, anti-air turrets can fire multiple missiles at once, and players can control the flight path of anti-tank rockets. A skilled player controlling an anti-air turret can be more effective than two AI-controlled turrets, opening up new strategic options as players consider which turrets to build and which to control.
In addition to turrets, players can also jump into vehicles such as tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. These vehicles are quite over-powered, but are balanced by their limited battery supply. Recharging batteries can take quite a long time, forcing players to look at what waves will be coming and plan vehicle use accordingly.
Of course, this being Toy Soldiers, the warfare is on a decidedly diminutive scale. I mean that in the best possible way. The game is absolutely packed with tiny details to give it a decidedly 80's toy flair. Each battlefield is constructed from a combination of model buildings and everyday toys. A Rubik's cube might stand in for a house, or a magnetic football toy (complete with paper cut-out players) plays the part of a roaring stadium. And just over the rim of each self-contained toybox battlefield you can see lava lamps, desks, and beds of the real world untouched by the imaginary war.
The one issue I see upsetting the game's balance is the ridiculously powerful anti-tank turrets. When fully upgraded, the anti-tank tower gives players the ability to guide each rocket through its entire flight, including buzzing around corners, over hills, and high into the air. This allows the anti-tank to destroy almost all vehicles in a mere two hits from across the entire map, or pick planes and helicopters out of the sky faster than a fully upgraded anti-air turret. With some decent defenses in place, (a well placed makeshift and an artillery or two to take care of infantry) a player could then sit in a level three anti-tank turret and complete most levels in the game. I know this is true, because I've done exactly that for 6 of the game's 11 missions. This is somewhat mitigated because the first time through the campaign tower upgrades are unlocked gradually, so level three rockets won't even be an option until the final few missions. However, once a tower upgrade is unlocked it can be used on any previously completed level for a higher score on Cold War's extremely competitive leaderboards.
The anti-tank balancing issues become even more prevalent in the versus multiplayer mode, where anti-tank rockets can be piloted to destroy the opponent's towers or special units right inside their base. This essentially locks the other player from building new towers or sending offensive troops since they no longer have a way to gain money. The commando unit is really the only hope for countering someone using this strategy, but needs to first travel across the map before it can reach the offending anti-tank, during which time a skilled anti-tank player can usually take away at least half of the commando's health. Unless there is some balance fix on the way, I can see multiplayer matches essentially boiling down to who can build a level three anti-tank tower fastest.
It's a shame, because the multiplayer mode is otherwise a lot of fun. Each map is set up with two bases, and waves of infantry that attack each at regular intervals. Players can use their earned money both for building new turrets or for sending more powerful units to their opponent. More powerful units are harder to kill, but also reward more money if they are taken down, meaning players have to plan around their opponent's defenses for victory. There are an unfortunately small number of multiplayer maps, only 3, but if the first Toy Soldiers is any indication then we can expect more to be added as DLC in the coming months.
I already mentioned Cold War's leaderboards, but they really deserve their own section. Every mode - campaign, survival maps, versus, and minigames - have their own leaderboards. Not only do they have leaderboards, but you are constantly bombarded by them. When selecting a campaign mission, for example, you will be shown the top scores from your friends list to compare without the need to open any extra leaderboard menu. Even once you're in a mission, every turret you build or enemy that gets through your defenses prompts a mini leaderboard notification showing how you compare to your friends list in that particular stat. The integration of leaderbaords into the game's core design encourages a more competitive way to play that elevated Cold War. I found myself replaying missions I otherwise probably wouldn't have touched again just to edge past the next leaderboard spot on my friends list.
Finally, I have to mention Cold War's innovative difficulty options. Sure, there are the standard easy, normal, and hard difficulties, but there are also the Elite and General options that really push the game to new heights. Elite difficulty takes away all AI from the turrets, meaning they will only fire when under your direct control. Meanwhile General difficulty takes away the option to control turrets entirely, as well as the ability to pilot vehicles. Both modes offer fresh experiences and require different strategies than the standard Toy Soldiers gameplay, going above and beyond what I would expect from an Xbox Live Arcade game's feature set.
Despite my complaints about the anti-tank turrets, and a sometimes restrictive camera angle, I can't help but recommend Toy Soldiers: Cold War. Especially for fans of the tower defense genre, the single-player campaign should offers a satisfying strategic experience. However, those who don't find leaderboards alluring will find significantly less value in the game. If you are looking for an action game with some strategic options, I might recommend you shift your gaze toward Trenched instead. But if you want the inverse, a strategic game with action-oriented options to keep you engaged, then Toy Soldiers: Cold War is a fight worth enlisting in.
A review copy was provided by the developer for this review. I completed the single-player campaign, played all of the minigames, and played three multiplayer matches on Xbox Live.