Toy Soldiers

[25 March 2010]

By Nick Dinicola

There have been plenty of games about World War II but very few (are there even any?) about World War I. Until now. Toy Soldiers tackles this oft ignored time period with a curious mixture of the real time strategy and tower-defense genres. It’s a combination that sounds awkward on paper, since the two seem completely opposed to one another: RTS games are all about building an offensive army while tower-defense games are all about building the best defenses possible. But the combination works.

Like all tower-defense games, the point of each battle is to protect your base (in this case, your Toy Box) from waves of various enemies. You have machine guns, chemical weapons, mortars, howitzers, and anti-air guns at your disposal, but you’re extremely limited in where you can place them. This makes every unit choice a big decision. Placing a chemical weapon in a corner instead of a machine gun can make the difference between obliterating a wave of soldiers and barely scraping out a win. Naturally, units can be upgraded for longer range and more power, and, boy, are these upgrades important. In one battle, a single flack cannon (max level anti-air) was enough to take out every air unit that the enemy could throw out there, leaving me more space to focus on ground defense.

But the best twist that Toy Soldiers adds to the genre is the ability to manually take over any weapon that you set down. Doing so has multiple advantages. Your damage increases, you can earn “streak” bonuses if you kill lots of enemies in a row, and sometimes you get other special perks, such as being able to fire three motor rounds at a time instead of just one. You get special vehicles in certain levels that only you can control, which change the tide of battle significantly when used correctly.

Each battle is fast paced and requires quick thinking but also an ability to plan ahead. You don’t want to get stuck trying to ward off a tank attack with machine guns. Some battles reach a climax with a huge boss that’s tough as hell, and it can seem invincible if you’re not properly prepared. In this way, the game encourages you to plan a long term strategy, to think about your defenses (not just holding off this current wave of soldiers), but also to consider future waves of heavy tanks and cavalry as well.

But this strategic depth is not what you’ll first notice about Toy Soldiers. The first thing that you’ll notice is the visual style. Your soldiers are, literally, toy soldiers, little army men (though not the green and tan kind—that’s another game) that run across the desolated No Man’s Land to their valiant, bloodless deaths. They just break into pieces like a toy smashed on the ground. Tanks have a giant wind-up handle on their side and explode in a fun display of little grinds and gears when destroyed. Every battle plays out in a diorama box, and the loading screens are old advertisements for “The Original Toy Soldiers.”

This style adds a refreshing whimsy to what would otherwise be a violent and dramatic game. For once, here’s a war game that’s packed with action, yet with none of its associated violence. For once, we’re not fighting Nazis, we’re not bombarded with overbearing attempts to promote patriotism or heroism, and we’re not asked to ponder any deeper meaning of war. We’re just a kid playing with toys in an awesome sandbox.

A sandbox others can play in as well. A multiplayer tower-defense game sounds odd, but like everything else in Toy Soldiers, it’s surprisingly fast, fun, and deep. In addition to your normal defenses, you can choose to send out three possible waves of units to attack. Depending on the map, you’ll get several types of tanks, planes, or other units. Victory is all about finding the right balance between offense and defense. You have a set amount of money and can only buy so much, so where do you focus? You’ll have to decide fast, because speed is integral to success in multiplayer. A newcomer is always disadvantaged because the time that it takes to get acclimated with the attack orders is time not spent attacking. Like most RTS games, it helps to have a strategy ready before going in. Unfortunately, as with any multiplayer game that features one on one fights, there’s a chance that your opponent will simply quit the moment that you gain a significant tactical advantage, and the game does nothing to punish this behavior. If it happens once it’s annoying, twice it’s frustrating, and after the third time, you’ll just want to stop playing for a while.

Toy Soldiers is a smart combination of genres, the tactics of a tower-defense game along with the speed and action of an RTS, adding in a whimsical style that makes you feel like a kid playing war. There hasn’t been much hype about Toy Soldiers outside the Xbox 360 dashboard, but this is a gem of a game that’s definitely worth your time.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/122330-toy-soldiers/