Signal Studios Toy Soldiers: Cold War, the last in Microsoft's 2011 Summer of Arcade promotion, offers a 1980s take on the backyard wars we used to fight with fireworks, GI Joes and shoebox bunkers. This time gamers take command of an army of toys in the Cold War showdown between the US and USSR. In addition to being a satisfying bit of nostalgia, it's also a heck of a good game, full of challenge and excitement but over far too soon.
If you played the original Toy Soldiers on XBLA last year, you know the game is a more action-focused take on the tower defense genre with controllable turrets and drivable vehicles that you'll use as the Allies to fight back the Communist invaders. The Cold War setting suits the gameplay very well, with players dropping napalm from F-14 Tomcats, firing guided missiles at Russian transport planes, and steamrolling Abrams tanks over toy cars.
All the vehicles are very powerful but they're also radio-controlled so you'll need to be mindful of your battery life when using them. As you run low on battery power, you'll either have to find batteries out in the battlefield, or return to your charging pad and wait until you're full power before heading back into the fight. The battery limit is a good way to rein in the awesome power of the vehicles while also giving the player a chance to jump in and really turn the tide of battle when things start going bad. Each new wave of enemies in Toy Soldiers: Cold War is a checkpoint, which allows players to rewind and restart each wave of enemies as needed. If you find, for instance, that a bunch of infantry managed to sneak into your toybox, you don't have to restart the entire level; you can just go back and start from the most recent wave.
While the vehicles are the real stars, I love the turret upgrades this time around. You've still got most of the same types - machine, mortars, anti-air - but the addition of new anti-tank turrets means more because the game includes more tanks and IFVs than the original did, which helps add a bit of variety. Additionally, the old chemical turrets have been replaced with "makeshift" turrets that really nail the toy aspect of this game. At the first stage, the makeshifts use bugspray to harm enemy infantry. Upgrade them further and you'll unlock flame-spouting aerosol cans and, at the highest level, a full on firecracker cannon that attacks any and everything that comes into range. These changes in attack type apply to all the turrets, which makes upgrading from level to level more meaningful than it was in the last game where upgrades merely meant you got a more powerful version of the same attack. Now hitting that third level on your anti-tank turret means you get guided missiles.
When you're not busy flying Tomcats, you'll definitely want to take direct control of the turrets. Not only are they much more effective when you're using them, but they also offer you the chance to earn "barrages." These are special rewards you get for kill streaks. You might earn a close-support bombing run, or even a nuclear attack. By far, the best barrage is the Commando. Earn this and you can drop a Rambo-style action figure, complete in original packaging, onto the battlefield. He tears himself out of the package and you'll take direct control of him as he, armed with a bazooka and a heavy machinegun, lays waste to any enemies he hits. Getting the Commando is pretty rare, but it's one of those perfect moments where the setting, the style and the gameplay all come together to create a transcendent experience. That you unlock a mullet for your Xbox avatar makes it even sweeter.
The toy aspect is also present in nearly every aspect of the game's environment. The battlefields themselves, though mostly realistic, will have neat little details stuck here and there. A building might be a Rubik's Cube, for example, or soldiers might have to climb over a pencil or a cassette tape as they race down a hill. Floppy discs and VHS tapes also make their appearances on the battlefield. Most of the battlefield is fairly representational, and you'll get a chance to fight around the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and even Mount Rushmore. In the ultimate realization of every kid's toy soldier scenario, you'll even be able to demolish almost all of the landmarks you see. You can even shoot down the Berlin Wall yourself if you want.
Beyond the edges of the battle, you see you're actually just in some kid's room, completely with Apple computers, posters, and keytars. Even with the game's exaggerations, these little details make it all convincing. As a kid who watched his fair share of Hasbro's half-hour toy commercials and rode to and from school with a kid who had the cassingle of "Danger Zone" permanently stuck in his car's tape deck, I can speak with some authority in these matters.
If I had one complaint about this game, it's that there's no single player option to play as the Soviets. You do finally get your hands on them in multiplayer, but the Allied campaign is short enough that I wanted to see the action from the other side. There's some extra stuff here, like a series of skill-based minigames and a survival mode, but none of it is quite as replayable as the main campaign. Still, I've spent 1200 Microsoft points on games I've enjoyed far less. I mean, the mullet alone is worth that much.
Bottom Line: This year's Summer of Arcade offerings have been especially strong and Toy Soldiers: Cold War is no exception. The game hits on a lot of levels; it's challenging, full of charm, and genuinely fun. I just wish it wasn't over quite so soon.
Recommendation: If you ever stuffed firecrackers into a model airplane, shot BBs at your action figures, or buried plastic tanks in a sandbox, you'll love what this game has to offer.
Steve Butts used to burn Stormtroopers with a cigarette lighter but the fumes didn't cause any permanent brain dafsk&*gy!w4n...
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Game: Toy Soldiers: Cold War
Developer: Signal Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios