Developer: Signal Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release: August 17, 2011
Price: 1200 MS Points
Last year's Xbox Live Arcade hit Toy Soldiers delivered a smart blend of tower defense-style strategy with a more hands-on action approach, and now with sequel Toy Soldiers: Cold War – the final release in Microsoft's vaunted Summer of Arcade promotion – the admittedly flat World War I aesthetic from the first entry is boldly replaced with a tribute to the pro-America grandiosity of 1980s action films and their rousing anthems.
Nods to decade favorites like Top Gun and Rambo fill the game with an entertaining new level of personality that propels the action almost as much as the varied mission contents and objectives. And if you find yourself in a fighter jet at the start of one particular mission, crank up the volume to soak in a hilarious, straight-faced parody of the kind of vocal-assisted montage music that helped define the '80s campiest cinema.
Like the first game, Cold War's heroes and foes alike are plastic warriors battling over control of the bedroom play set (and more importantly, your "toy box" base). But what seemed like a subtle nod in that direction in the original game is now an in-your-face aesthetic, complete with loading screens and bedroom battlefields draped in era-specific relics like keytars and gargantuan mobile phones. Better yet, a bazooka-toting Commando hero arrives on the screen in a G.I. Joe-like action figure package, looks like a dead ringer for Stallone in First Blood, and spouts off constant one-liners like "Don't push me!" and "This one's for Jimmy!" Signal Studios clearly had fun mocking and even evangelizing the iconic inspirations, and it goes a long way towards delivering a much more impactful and memorable play experience.
On the battlefield, the move to a more recent timeframe helps imbue the experience with a bit more firepower, thanks to anti-tank rocket launchers and heavy machine gun turrets, but the game also keeps things lively with the introduction of a wide array of vehicles, from fighter jets and helicopters to heavy tanks and thermal-vision gunship assaults. Don't worry if you missed out on the original game – Cold War's clever tutorial breaks down the intricacies of the strategic action approach into fun mini-games and a straightforward starter mission, so both newbies and series vets alike will be ready to blast through waves of Soviet tanks and infantry in no time.
Much of your time will be spent building, upgrading, and repairing the various turrets to ward off increasingly tough enemy platoons, trying to find the best layout of weapons to deal with each new hazard. However, the ability to personally man any turret at any time – or take to the sky (or mud) in any available vehicle – gives Toy Soldiers a bit more bite than your average tower defense-style strategy release. Instead of simply setting your fortifications and watching the carnage unfold, you'll need to act at all times to stay on top and preserve virtual plastic American liberty in single-player and multiplayer modes.
While interestingly varied, the 10-mission campaign unfortunately arrives with a frustrating difficulty curve. The first nine missions are relatively simple, and even if you falter, the ability to rewind back to any previous enemy wave makes it easy to correct your mistakes and charge forward. But after that relative cakewalk, the final boss mission is absurdly challenging, and even infinite mulligans may not prevent you from tossing your controller. Plus, that last stage is where the game struggles the most with slowdown, as most vehicle-heavy scenarios cause the game to trudge along at a baffling pace.
It's also very noticeable during the online competitive and cooperative battles, but thankfully, the speed hit doesn't kill the alluring multiplayer matches. The one-on-one skirmishes quickly escalate into tense firefights where the timing and placement of each attack wave and equipment upgrade matters. Meanwhile, the co-op survival stages are more of a slow burn, with matches potentially lasting an hour or more in length, but they're entertaining all the same – plus the surprisingly solid mini-games are playable online, as well.
Toy Soldiers: Cold War arrives in need of further refinement, thanks to egregious slowdown and a strangely misbalanced campaign climb, but these issues luckily don't sink this engaging strategy sequel. It makes tower defense tactics more entertaining for non-enthusiasts while requiring a fair bit more planning and intuition than your average military shooter, but the added burst of flair is what really makes this follow-up entry even more memorable than the innovative original.
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