Toy Soldiers

We strive to keep the enemy out of our toy-box, our HQ, our last line of defense in this tabletop war. As the battle commences a small cluster of infantry leap into no mans land, noble soldiers sacrificed on the road to glory. Front line machine gunners thin the enemy’s charging troops (and probably kill a few of our guys to, woops) and a vicious burst of fire from a rear-flamethrower ensures our treasured chest remains untouched.

An air-raid siren screams Banshee like, an attempt to strike trepidation into the heart of our defense. As enemy bi-planes emerge ominously one by one from the horizon an anti-air gun ignites into a cacophonous roar. Planes plummet to the scorched earth; one pilot propels his plastic war-machine into a stalking air balloon and it erupts into a dancing flame. Another dives into a bombing run, unleashing a swell of explosions that tear across the front of our stronghold, sending earth and sandbags ricocheting about the landscape. We lose one of our machine gunners.

Far on the other side of this bleak battlefield – peppered with crumbling buildings and stark foliage – the enemy prepares a wave of cavalry. Our 96 Neuer Art, the basic artillery unit in the German army, bombards their emplacement but they’re dug in well and awaiting the trumpet cry that will announce their mad race toward our intensifying fortress. It cries out and they charge headfirst into a hail of machine-gun fire and mortar rounds, shattering into a shower of springs, plastic and dollar signs. The money is used to upgrade our artillery.

There’s a lull in the conflict and the anti-air unit hauls down some of the zeppelins hovering in the sky above. They’re floating above because each level has its own bonus objective. One challenge requires you to kill three units with a single bullet from the sniper tower (a tower that alters the game momentarily, diving into FPS territory); another has you seeing out the entire battle using only a bi-plane (an intimidating task for all but the most stalwart pilot). Your reward for completing each challenge is a ration. War is cruel. The rations are stored on the game menu and offer a comical glimpse into the less amusing truths of war-life. It’s a nice touch.

Artillery erupts as tanks emerge from the hill, behind them towers a colossal whiskey bottle – a subtle reminder of the unlikely location – a kitchen table. Their rusted wind-up switches roll rhythmically as they encroach with fatal intent. The artillery pounds but still they impose, tumbling gracelessly through the rugged terrain. Rickety trees plummet and buildings collapse under fire. As the final tank comes within breathing distance of our toy box a last ditch mortar shell severs the beast into five victorious shards of its former glorious self. Armour and colour shower down between the barbed wire placed strategically to coax infantry into a human barbeque courtesy of our flamethrower unit.

Finally the ultimate attack begins. An implausibly gargantuan Uber Tank crashes down through the scenery without regard for the love and care that has gone into creating it. Right about now historical accuracy is thrown out the window. The artillery embarks on an explosive crusade as the Uber Tank circles our theatre of war. Periodically it releases weaker tanks and crushes the frontline of our defense with frustrating ease. But the frantic fight continues, an elaborate ping-pong of missiles thrown back and forth between the demon and our castle. Tension heightens; we’ve fought valiantly, lost friends and comrades today. We’re close and the health gauge is down to a fraction, artillery thumps the unsightly smouldering beast. Seconds from victory it surfaces back on the horizon. It stops, considering its next move. And then it dashes leopard-like from its perch and crashes directly into our toy box. Game over.

Back to that in a moment.

World War One doesn’t receive the same outlandish affection World War Two does, with dozens of games dedicated to the second horrific war. You could put that down to the tactics and technology of the era: the constant waiting, the filthy conditions, the charging, the dying. The mentality of trench warfare isn’t a great backdrop for an absorbing and entertaining game. Then, of course, there were the tanks that couldn’t surpass three miles-per-hour, the horses, and the cannons that took a short month to reload.

But the clumsiness and sluggish nature of World War One makes for perfect tower defense and Signal Studio clearly have a lot of love for the history of the Great War because Toy Soldiers is packed full of delightful features that successfully set it apart from almost everything in the genre.

Most distinguishing is the facility to control each of your towers, while the others continue to function automatically, as well as a handful of individual units: tanks, bi-planes and bombers. It’s a fantastic feature that drives away the tedium of constant tower management. Taking that to an extreme, on the elite difficulty, only the tower that you control will fire. It turns a sometimes-sedate game into a hectic race between units and is riotously fun.

Otherwise Toy Soldiers will be recognisable to anyone having played the likes of Defense Grid, PixelJunk Monsters or Plants vs Zombies to name a few. The goal as ever is to build towers and prevent waves of enemy units from making it across the map into your toy box, or toy boxes, occasionally there are two. On the normal difficulty you have a limit of twenty units that are allowed to break through your defenses before you’re sent home with your tail between your legs. As with all tower defense there’s a delicate balance between recourse management and building strategy and the game isn’t afraid to throw an awkward wave into the fray just as you find yourself settling into a rhythm.

The battles themselves all take place on various tabletops, and as you might guess, the combatants are all toy soldiers or vehicles. There is a huge selection of infantry, tanks, planes, cavalry and cannons to keep you on your frostbitten toes. The tabletop are placed in a range of rooms. There’s a bedroom decorated with world war one posters and maps and a kitchen with brightly coloured walls among others. A large amount of the detail is lost until you’re zipping about the sky in a plane but every now and again you’ll catch sight of a stray whiskey bottle or huge desk lamp intruding over the battlefield. It’s a lovely set-up.

There are only five towers but each can be upgraded three times and it can often be a case of what to upgrade rather than which to build because you are typically limited to less than a dozen towers; at full whack the artillery is a dreadful barbarian capable of small genocide, it’s explosive impact enough to fracture two or three tanks in close vicinity; anti-air units evolve into flak cannons mounted on the back of rusted jeeps and keep the skies vacant with deadly efficiency; the Minenwerfer, aptly described like “the most fashionable girl at a party, the shells take their sweet time to arrive… but get everyone’s attention once they have”, hurls mortar rounds across the table like a lethal party popper, rounds whistling down onto unlucky units below.

They each have their own specialty and there are only a few levels you can survive without a combination of all of them. Which is just as well because they’re all a joy to control too.

Visually, like the twelve battlegrounds, the towers are crafted with deft affection. Each one has its own unique band of men maintaining it, reloading, taking aim and scouting, the machine gun even has a colonel-like leader that fires a comically inaccurate pistol as the main gun is reloaded. They are delightful, boasting a magnetism that eludes the traditional perceptions of tower defense as a slightly characterless genre.

The twelve levels aren’t especially lengthy, lasting between twenty and forty-five minutes nearer the end. But there’s a bevy of other modes and features beside the campaign. A brutal survival level pits you against continuous waves of soldiers with only a few positions to construct towers in. To make matters bleaker an armored train drops by every few minutes to reduce your towers to rubble. It’s a frenzied battle between upgrading, repairing, and controlling the towers. Campaign+, on the other hand, puts you in the boots of the German army, reversing the maps and giving the towers their own Central paint-job. There is multiplayer too, split screen and online. Although there are only five maps to play on choosing which units to throw at your opponent is a nice touch to the otherwise identical gameplay.

And there are a slew of hidden items and bonus missions across the twenty-four levels that more than justify the £10 price tag.

There are a few things niggling away at the overall package though. If you allow a dozen or so units refuge in your toy-box the screen is attacked by a brash old-film style effect that does little more than make your job unnecessarily tougher. It’s frustrating enough failing without being reminded and then reprimanded for it. Even more trying is the unfathomable resistance the cavalry has to anything that isn’t an explosive. They’ll gallop effortlessly through gas, fire and basic machine-gun rounds like they were petals rather than solid metal piercing the air at a thousand feet per second. It’s a questionable inclusion in a game that otherwise maintains a realistic outlook on the relationship between bullets share with flesh.

More detrimental however is the total omission of checkpoints. Spending an hour holding the opposing army at bay is as much fun as protecting your house is in Plants vs Zombies but the joys are almost obliterated when an Uber Tank rampages through your carefully managed defenses and destroys your toy box in a glance. You could argue that the lack of checkpoints is a tenant of the tower defense genre but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow and Defense Grid proved that challenging tower defense and regular checkpoints aren’t mutually exclusive.

Not without its flaws then, but if you can look beyond them Toy Soldiers is an otherwise brilliantly imaginative game that takes a captivating slant on the traditional genre formula and is without doubt one of the best games available on the Xbox Live Arcade to date. Being able to take control of your towers combines the strategic joys of tower defense with the less cerebral, more immediate highs that come packaged with dogfights, tank duels, obliterating plastic men and shooting a horse in the face with a mortar.

8/10

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