It's hell in them trenches.
Boy, I sure love the smell of burning plastic figurines in the morning! At first glance, Toy Soldiers might look just like an ordinary tower defense game, but its unique mix of strategy and real-time action sets it apart from its brethren in the already saturated tower defense genre.
[image1]Toy Soldiers has you taking command of an army of antique toy figurines that by magic become alive and fight over huge (to their scale, anyway) dioramas based on World War I's most famous battles. The trick to winning these fights is keeping your toy box safe from enemy attacks by smartly placing one of five types of units over specific spots on the road to your base.
Each type of unit is aimed at counter-measuring a specific type of enemy attack. Chemical towers work well against huge groups of soldiers, howitzers can be deadly to tanks, and so on. There isn't a huge variety of units to pick from, but they receive upgrades that are slowly unlocked throughout the game, which adds to the underlying strategy of resource management. Each unit you destroy rakes in a handful of cash that can then be used to buy and upgrade units on the fly, off a convenient radial menu.
Enemy attacks come in waves and usually start with light infantry, quickly moving to stronger units, like tanks. planes and even rail-mounted guns. Your towers have a limited range that can be boosted by manually controlling them. This is the twist in Toy Soldiers - you can take direct control of your units and aim through their actual sights. They are more precise and stronger once you take control of them, which in turn becomes a vital tactic in later battles.
Directly taking your units is so important, in fact, that the game has a difficulty setting based on it. Elite difficulty is unlocked as soon as you complete a level for the first time. This setting strips your units of any artificial intelligence, forcing you to take control of them individually. Some units, like planes and tanks, independently of the difficulty setting, are left exclusively to your direct control and can be a strategic edge in certain missions.
[image2]The campaign mode is fairly lengthy, spanning across twenty-four different levels. You'll first be playing as the British army in twelve missions against the Germans, where at certain levels, you face off against boss units that need to be destroyed before it reaches your base. These fights are incredibly fun and is the game's way of testing your unit placement throughout the level. In a certain scenario, the boss is a rail-mounted cannon that appears on a rail track right in the middle of the stage. If you are not careful with your unit placement during the battle, this threat can quickly turn the tide to the their favor. I won't spoil how to counter this giant, but safe to say, I died a whole lot of times before doing so.
After you complete the British campaign, the German mission set is unlocked, along with survival mode. The so called "campaign+" enlists you in the German army through a different set of scenarios against the British. Some of the missions in this new campaign add obstacles and conditions, like nighttime battles that limit your range of vision. Getting a whole different campaign after finishing the already lengthy first set of missions is a welcome surprise, and it certainly turns Toy Soldiers into a game worth sinking our collective strategic teeth into.
Missions are graded and added to online leaderboards, which not only measure your time and your rank, but if your completed bonus objectives as well. Each mission has its own bonus objective that adds to the challenge. Awards for completing bonus objectives are what the game call ration tickets, which are tied to some of the game's trickier Achievements.
Along with the already lengthy campaigns, there's a survival mode, in which you square off against endless waves of enemies with a limited set of resources and unit placements. Taking place in a wide open map, the game practically throws the kitchen sink at you in this mode, which creates some of the game's most tense moments by far.
[image3]In multiplayer, you face off against a random online player (or over split screen, locally) in one of five maps. These maps aren't very varied in design and are much smaller than the campaign missions. Multiplayer is a little light on options, and I'd have loved to get more than two people playing in each match, with some sort of cooperative or even four-way battles.
Toy Soldiers has an undeniable charm and shows off a gorgeous style in its presentation. Old gramophone music plays in the menu background, and all sorts of oldie toy commercial ads make up the loading screens. Battles have very little slowdown, and the graphics are eerily detailed to the point of showing defeated enemies break apart into cogs and bolts, a mix of quirky and just plain unsettling visuals. Environments and units look awesome and show an immense level of care.
Microsoft did well in picking up Toy Soldiers as their first title for the Block Party marketing campaign for Xbox Live Arcade. It has tons of charm and humor, and its lengthy campaign mode more than makes up for the 1200 Microsoft Point ($15 USD) price tag. I had tons of fun blowing up or burning down poor enemy troops, and if Toy Soldiers is any indication, the tower defense genre still has a little bit of life left in it and plenty of room for innovation.