I’m paraphrasing the words of Sun Tzu when I say that in battle there are no more than two methods of attack: the direct and the indirect. Mix and match these and you’ve got yourself a jamboree of death and destruction.
The generals of all our favourite tower defence games have proven clearly that the The Art of War is not a book on the reading list of any of their classes. We should be thankful for that though for their enthusiasm for neglecting all but the direct part of Tzu’s advice has spawned a brilliant genre of which few games are as brilliant as Toy Soldiers.
Toy Soldiers cut a sweet divide between ritual tower defence and clunky third person shooting; placing the player inside the brain-box of a seven-year-old acting out army on the living room floor. It also did tower defence without resigning you to babysitting turrets for too long, occasionally strapping you into the seat of a thundering artillery unit instead, or allowing you to crush platoons of trembling draftees under the violent jurisdiction of a tank. Most enjoyable indeed.
On top of that it made light work of one of the most savage and inglorious chapters in contemporary history most notably by having enemies visibly celebrate as they inched within fondling distance of your toy box, as if taunting you to crush them beneath an iron fist of fuck you. “Hoozah!” they chanted foolishly, seconds before their song and dance arrived at an abrupt climax as they exploded into clouds of broken dreams and plastic limbs (an artillery shell thwarting their premature battlefield soiree, no doubt.)
That divide between strategy and mindless shooting, coupled with its blithe disposition, were the keys to its success, freeing Toy Soldiers from the endless strategizing – not to mention dryness – of typical tower defence.
For the inevitable sequel all that remains but the surly battlefields of war-ravaged Europe have been sidelined in favour of the panache of a romanticised Cold War – Rambo, AC-130 gunships and nuclear warfare all bundled in.
The fundamentals remain largely unaltered. Tasked with guarding a toy box from legions of angry toy soldiers, you build towers which you’re then able to take direct control of. You don’t have to, but it’s jolly good fun playing artillery man.
All tower positions are predetermined so it’s crucial to make good use of your limited catalog of doom. Artillery will carve an appalling hole in the side of a tank but has little to say to a supersonic jet, even less to a B52 Bomber. An AA gun, on the other hand, will quickly strike up a violent conversation with either.
Throughout the course of its 10-level campaign you’re slung to and fro across the world; one moment you’ll be giggling as you accidentally on purposely bring the Pyramids cascading to the ground, the next you’ll defend Paris and then the next inexplicably protect an aircraft carrier. The lack of cohesion between the missions is jarring and robs the sequel of the escalation brimming beneath the first game. As the German army was steadily forced out the back end of Europe, there was a semi-decent sense that the whole tabletop ordeal was actually a war. It appealed to the amateur-hour history buff within me. Cold War doesn’t.
As before, levels are thick with endearing trinkets; neatly parked cars and a high school football pitch home to one, the Eiffel Tower looming over the horizon of another. Each a cute little mnemonic in place to prove that a soulless tower defence game this most certainly is not. But all the effort spent crafting these lovable tabletops is borderline squandered because there’s always something howling out for attention; a new vehicle, a turret armed with remote controlled missiles, an AC-130. The list is endless.
The AC-130, alongside a medley of other superficially exciting weapons (like the enormous Rambo doll), is tied to the new barrage feature which awards these tide-altering weapons as a return for getting your mitts mucky by manning the turrets.
By wiping out a small army of soldiers in a relatively short period of time you not only gain carte blanche to ram a rusty fork up the Russian army’s backside with an AC-130 but, as if bringing one of those to a fight against quad bikes and dawdling rifleman wasn’t brutal enough, you’re granted a brief stint during which your turret of choice will fire without having to reload. The hows and whys aren’t important. Just go with it.
The problem is these gimmicks just aren’t that entertaining and they detract from the far superior tower defence. The AC-130 especially feels like a flavour of the month addition. Call of Duty had one, right? Coupled with the returning ensemble of plastic vehicles they threaten to temper the celebrated tower defence that was the core of the previous game.
Then there’s the knot of mini-games; a series of tacky distractions that err unfavorably toward the action side of things. Considering the lack of a second campaign and with just ten missions, the mini games are a stinging inclusion. And let’s not talk about the boss fights.
Even with the inclusion of super weapons and jet fighters, veterans will blast though the frenetic blend of tower defence and action shooter by rote and Cold War won’t last much beyond five or six hours. Unlike Toy Soldiers, there’s no reverse campaign pitting you as the enemy, nor a decorations list. What there is instead is a bevy of leaderboards and challenges that would fit snuggly into the Call of Duty template but neither of which are a worthy replacement for a second campaign. Challenges require you to repeat levels four or five times without offering up much reward for doing so, seemingly just another modern-day feature ham-fisted into a game that never screamed out for mini-games or objectives like ‘slaughter 1000 soldiers with a helicopter gunship.’
Maybe it’s fitting that a game set during the Cold War and with its sights firmly set on 80s action movies is as breathless as this. But for me it represents a step in the wrong direction, one that threatens to rob Cold War of the quaint likeability of its forebear while mistakenly placing an emphasis on the fireworks and empty thrills of piloting an AC-130 gunship, being Rambo or navigating a remote-controlled missile up the arse of some unlucky Russian serviceman.