It's Hell Out There, Outside the Toybox
HIGH Manning a tank to take care of enemies my mortars can't reach.
LOW It can sometimes be difficult to tell where enemy units are.
WTF "Pope Thrower"?
I hate Tower Defense games. I really do.
I want to like them (and there's a million to choose from) but there's something about the passivity of the genre that drives me up the wall. They always start pleasantly enough, but things inevitably get overwhelming. All too often, success boils down to memorizing which enemies are arriving when, and there's nothing more frustrating to me than watching the screen, helpless, as my forces get overrun because of a single miscalculation. It's more like being a glorified bean-counter than actively playing a part.
The developers of Toy Soldiers must have been thinking the same things that I have, because after playing through their premier title and its two add-on campaigns, I'm quite glad to report that I've finally found a Tower Defense game that I can get behind. While the game shares much DNA with the rest of its contemporaries in the genre, it breaks away from the pack by including opportunities for the player to take an active role in how combat plays out.
My reaction? Hallelujah.
When starting a level, the player must protect their base as various waves of enemies approach. After choosing between machine guns, mortars, howitzers and so on, the AI works out the details and eliminates as many enemies as possible. However, Toy Soldiers gives players the opportunity to control any friendly unit on the field in real-time. Is that poison gas unit attacking the wrong cluster of enemies? Jump in and point it yourself. Did a few infantrymen slip through your defenses? Commandeer the sniper tower and clear them out at will. It's utterly refreshing.
Taking this idea of player control and pushing it to the next level, Toy Soldiers also offers different types of vehicles which are free to roam the battlefield. If a particular level fields several waves of aggressive tanks, the player can control their own and pick them off at a choke point. If there are too many bombers approaching, it's possible to take to the skies and shoot them down like any other aerial combat game.
Having this do-it-yourself option means that the player doesn't need to knock down and reset banks of emplacements (a huge waste of precious resources) just for the sake of dealing with a handful of troublesome units, and the real-time control gives Toy Soldiers a more dynamic, visceral feeling than most Tower Defense games ever muster. The standard overhead map view is certainly available, but trying to climb a tank onto a hill before advancing troops reach an unprotected area adds a very welcome shot of adrenaline every now and then. Pulling the trigger myself felt even better.
I've got nothing but praise for Toy Soldiers, and it certainly doesn't hurt that the entire package is wrapped up in a beautifully-detailed WWI motif, although it's WWI by way of a child's toy set from the period. All of the game's units are portrayed as figurines, and each battlefield is surrounded by the trappings of a little boy's bedroom. Beyond the war-torn trenches and rugged hills of the sizable campaign, the camera often reveals glimpses of giant-sized desktop lamps, pencils and posters. The player's fortress? A toy box turned on its side. The conceit is richly charming, and injects a great deal of personality and flavor to the experience.
Signal Studios has done the impossible—they've taken a genre that I have traditionally avoided and made it deliciously enjoyable by nailing a new twist on traditional gameplay and finishing the package with flawless presentation. I've got nothing but praise for Toy Soldiers, and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone—even those (like myself) who might normally stay away. Top marks.
[Reviewer's Note: Two DLC add-ons are currently available—Invasion! (aliens and robots) and The Kaiser's Battle (a German offensive). Each contains new Achievements, a three-level Campaign, a new Survival map, and two Multiplayer maps. Both add-ons are priced at 400 MS points each.]
Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. No time was spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains violence and alcohol and tobacco references. Although the game isn't especially graphic, the subject matter is essentially a repackaging of WWI. As such, the player will be spending the duration of the game mowing down hordes of the opposition with bombs, poison gas, and machine guns. Older children might be all right with parental guidance, but parents should certainly investigate the material and exercise their better judgment.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You shouldn't have any difficulties. Although there are audio cues signaling new waves of enemies approaching, the elegant on-screen display presents all relevant information at a glance. I played several rounds with the sound turned completely off, and noticed no difficulty at all. There is no spoken dialogue in the game, and all relevant information is presented through text.