Review: Toy Soldiers: Cold War

Toy Soldiers: Cold War is the sequel to last year's game, simply entitled Toy Soldiers. Again, it follows in its predecessor's footsteps by releasing on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace exclusively. Priced at 1200 Microsoft Points, Neowin was lucky enough to receive a review copy of the game. Toy Soldiers: Cold War transfers from the battlefields of 1914 through to 1918 to the era of the 'Cold War'. The game loosely uses the Cold War as a backdrop, and it makes many references to the 1980s.

Having played the original game when it released last year, I would have considered it to be one of the best Arcade titles I had played. The sequel releases as part of Microsoft's 'Summer of Arcade' promotion for the Xbox 360. Will it be worth purchasing outside of the promotion?

Story

Toy Soldiers: Cold War does not have a 'true' story, so to speak. There are no cutscenes in the game; only a few lines of scrolling text in the style of an encrypted message sent to the player. The game makes use of the Cold War in order to provide a backdrop to the game, though does not follow the events closely. Some missions in the game nod towards events that did happen, such as the construction of the Berlin Wall, but the game does not stick entirely to the facts. Missions appearing in-game include a Soviet invasion of France, as well as an eventual invasion of the United States of America.

Strangely though, this seems to work for Toy Soldiers: Cold War. The entire game is modelled on play-set relating to the Cold War, and as a result it feels like the events were set up by a young person. It manages to fit well with the choices of a young child, and as a result the story remains of minimal significance to the overall experience. Anachronisms in the events also manage to feel of less significance than they would in other games, due to the constant reminder that these are toys rather than 'actual' combatants fighting each other.

Gameplay

Gameplay in Toy Soldiers: Cold War can best be described as a hybrid of real-time strategy and a shooter, with vehicular combat. It sounds confusing, though Toy Soldiers managed to blend all the same genres into the one package. Toy Soldiers: Cold War arguably does an even better job of this than its predecessor, due to the technological advancements not present during the era of the original game.

When on the battlefield in-game, you can place different units on designated build sites. These units can be upgraded, and include machine guns, artillery, and anti-tank launchers. The weapons are based on real-world designs, and Signal Studios went to the difficulty of modeling different units for the American and Soviet factions. The first U.S. anti-tank launcher is the M72 LAW, while the Soviet model is the RPG-7. The two handle identically, but due to small touches like this the two sides are clearly differentiated and hold their own character.

After placing a unit, you can upgrade it or control it directly. Upgrading the unit normally provides some bonus to its combat effectiveness, at the cost of another trait of the unit. Most of the time, this means a slower reload in return for more power, and the answer is usually to upgrade it anyway. The game is strategic to a point, but at times it's easier just to accept the negatives due to the overwhelming positives. Taking direct control of the unit is integral to playing the game to its fullest. When using a unit directly you have access to everything it can do. In the case of the top version of the U.S. machine gun unit, it gains a grenade launcher, which can be incredibly effective at close ranges.

In single-player, gameplay consists of defending against an oncoming Soviet enemy. The attacks are broken up into waves, and if you can survive all of the waves, you have succeeded in the mission. The enemy aims to enter your toy box, which is normally behind your defenses. If twenty or more enemy units enter during the mission then it automatically fails. While it may sound simple to complete each mission, it is not always as easy as would be expected. Enemies tend to approach in large numbers in order to overwhelm your defences. Each wave consists of different units, though some waves include both infantry and other units. The number of waves before a mission is completed can also vary. Typically, the first few missions have a smaller number of waves and are shorter altogether, while later missions are longer. It is not uncommon for one mission to play for thirty minutes. Waves do feel varied enough thanks to the mixtures that can be created. Occasionally infantry and heavy tanks can come together as well as other combinations, though the individual waves are fixed rather than randomly generated.

A new system, called ‘Barrages’, allows you to completely turn the tide of battle if it is used correctly. Some enemies will be designated with a red star. Killing these enemies will result in earning a Barrage. A Barrage can also be earned through killing a large number of enemies in a short space of time. These Barrages range from a strategic bombing of the area by a Boeing B-52, to a full nuclear strike. Should a wave be too difficult, the game does offer a feature called Wavelist Rewind, allowing you to go back before that wave. This was a luxury not included in the original game. However, Toy Soldiers: Cold War is arguably not as difficult as the original game, so the feature is of limited use. It is helpful if you have neglected your defences, or an enemy bombing run has resulted in the destruction of multiple key assets for your defence. It is also worth using, even just once, for the additional achievement. The pay-off for using the Wavelist Rewind is a lower score at the end of the game.

Among the Barrages is the ‘Commando’. Depending on which side you are playing as, the commando is aesthetically different, though operates the same way. If you are playing as the United States, you will receive a Rambo-esque character carrying an M60, as Rambo himself did. The Soviet commando bears more than a passing resemblance to Ivan Drago, from Rocky IV.

Whether the reduced score is an issue depends on your passion for leaderboard dominance. The game heavily promotes social interaction with your Xbox LIVE Friends List, so at the end of missions you will receive a score as well as a medal in bronze, silver, or gold. These can then be used to compare and compete with those on your friends list, as well as the Xbox LIVE community in general. Toy Soldiers: Cold War does a good job of providing social interaction with other players on your friends list, assuming at least some of them have played the game.

Surprisingly for an Arcade game, Toy Soldiers: Cold War comes with a large number of game modes. As well as the expected multiplayer, the game comes with Survival mode and multiple different mini-games. These mini-games range from attempting to shoot flies (further reinforcing the concept of toy soldiers instead of actual combatants), and an option called ‘Thread the Needle’, where players are instructed to guide a missile through an increasingly difficult path of obstacles. Survival mode is exactly what would be expected; a mode where endless waves of enemies pour at your defences. You are able to select multiple different maps and scenarios for Survival, and therefore it remains fresh even after playing the core campaign for an extended period of time.

Multiplayer

Multiplayer in Toy Soldiers; Cold War is similar to the first title. Players take control of one of the two factions, before fighting on different maps. These maps do not appear to be based upon the single player missions, though it would not be surprising if the number of maps in the game were expanded upon in the near future.

As players build units and use them against their enemies, the game will generate infantry automatically. Generally the infantry is a dead loss, but they can be used to swarm the enemy while you plot. Sending a group of ATVs to further strain enemy defences could leave them weak enough for aerial pounding by some helicopter gunships, and other strategic decisions will need to be made during a match.

Occasionally it can be possible to be pushed into an impossible fight, though normally this is not the case. Matches suffer from only minor lag. Even on my connection at home I have not experienced any crippling lag that would make a match unplayable. This is an impressive fact considering the sheer number of enemy units that can be on-screen at once during a game. No slowdown can be detected even when looking at the large number of units, which is exemplary, especially when considering Toy Soldiers: Cold War is only an Arcade title and not a full-blown retail game.

Online in Toy Soldiers: Cold War is most definitely a niche, and therefore it may grow difficult to find a match later in the game’s lifespan. Like most niche games it may spawn a dedicated and passionate community around it, which would not be surprising. Toy Soldiers: Cold War manages to bring a lot of the experience from single-player to online multiplayer, though it does not point out one critical fact: units have different amounts of health. In single-player it is possible to destroy a series of tanks using your commando instead of anti-tank defences, but in online this is virtually impossible. Most units are incredibly strong online, and therefore kamikaze rushing with a commando is not as effective as you will previously be taught.

Despite this, online is an enjoyable expansion on the game. It does not feel like the game was designed as a mainly multiplayer title, like the Call of Duty series, but among other Arcade titles it does an excellent job of holding on by its own merits.  

Sound

Sound in Toy Soldiers: Cold War is impressive. Sounds are crisp, clear, and consistent, and the game boasts voice, even though it could succeed without. It is impressive that the game boasts such a depth of audio, as it gives the feeling of a polished end product. What might be surprising is that the title contains no instances of expletives, making it more family-friendly than other military titles. Music in the game feels fitting with the 1980s time period it is based upon, and the opening theme for the game evokes thoughts of Top Gun and other 1980s films.

Minor touches that really set things off include voices, as well as each unit’s individual noises. The PKM for the Soviet team sounds slightly different to the American equivalent, and this lends a feeling of character to the teams that would otherwise not feel radically different. Due to the variation in sounds and visuals, the two sides are clearly differentiated.

Sound is not without its weaknesses, however. Many of the lines in the game grow incredibly repetitive as they repeat. There are three, maybe four lines for each of the units (including their upgraded variants). As a result of this, it is virtually impossible to go through the game without hearing each line uttered multiple times. Eventually you grow to accept these repetitive sound clips, but they aren’t a crippling issue. Even the two commandos, which happened to be the promotional characters, feel like they have a limited pool of lines to spout. I can understand the need for reducing the game size; nobody will download an Arcade title if it is several gigabytes in size. Considering the superb grade at which Toy Soldiers manages to maintain itself, it is disappointing that the sounds grow slightly repetitive during play.

Graphics

For the most part, strategy games do not rely heavily on graphics. Toy Soldiers: Cold War manages to break the mould, like its predecessor. While it may not hold up against titles such as Gran Turismo 5, the game manages to outshine many other Arcade titles. Due to the small size of the download, it is very impressive to consider how well crafted it all feels. Animations are smooth and at times, suitably over-the-top for toys if they had been manipulated by a small child.

The graphics may not be mind-blowing like some games, but they feel like a marginal improvement over the game’s predecessor, which was already impressive on the graphics front. Toy Soldiers: Cold War manages to maintain a smooth frame-rate even with large amounts of action on-screen at the same time. At times, the frame rate drops massively, but this is more due to the sheer absurdity of some of the enemies in the game. This is most notable with the final enemy in the game. Rather than spoil the surprise of finding and defeating it, the frame rate drops considerably at this point. It becomes difficult to play and enjoy the game, as the frame rate drops to anywhere around 10-15 FPS. It is detrimental to most games, but for the most part, it cannot fault Toy Soldiers: Cold War. Even if it does prove to be too frustrating to combat, players who have enjoyed the game enough to finish the campaign likely will not be too disappointed by the drop.

When you are in danger of losing the match, the graphics distort a little, like they did in the original title as well. This was not something I was a fan of as I felt it detracted from the game experience. As a result, the graphics cannot be admired for long unless you want to risk incurring the distorted overlay. It is understandable why the overlay exists in the game, with its focus on making players feel like they are desperately clawing back some breathing room against the enemy, but it would be superb if this could be toggled on or off. I am not a fan of distorted vision in games, unless it can be removed, such as in Call of Duty and other first-person shooters.

Verdict

Toy Soldiers: Cold War is a great addition to the plethora of Arcade games available on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. While it is 1200 Microsoft Points, most Arcade titles have grown to this price. For the large amount of content within the game, and the amount of time that can be spent playing on different difficulty settings for the truly hardcore, Toy Soldiers: Cold War is deserving of a lot more praise. Signal Studios have managed to take their original concept and improve on it. While I admit I was a huge fan of the original Toy Soldiers, I do believe the sequel manages to surpass the original game in almost all areas, if not all. World War I had its charm as an era, but its successor manages to best the original game.

On the whole, Toy Soldiers: Cold War is a very worthwhile purchase. Not only is the game fun, but it also provides a good base for an expansion pack. The original game received the Kaiser's Battle expansion pack, and it would not be surprising if its sequel also receives an expansion. I highly recommend a purchase, or at least trying the trial version of the game.

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