Toy Soldiers: Cold War review: Back in the USSR

When I was a kid, I loved playing with LEGOs. I didn't have many of my own, but my best friend, Matt, had tons of them, what seemed like dozens of huge plastic tubs brimming with building blocks. Together, we would build jets, tanks, spaceships and more than a few robots. Our elaborate army bases would take up entire rooms. Naturally, half the fun of playing with our creations was pitting them against one another.

The epic battles, complete with sound effects -- including what I still believe to be an incredible vocal impression of a machine gun -- would rage for hours, until we had to go to bed or I had to go home. Of course, the explosions, glorious victories and bitter defeats weren't actually real. All of it was in our heads.

Had we the ability to project our imagination into something real, I think the end result would have looked something like Toy Soldiers: Cold War. Though our version probably would have had more pirates.
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(For best results, listen to Cheap Trick's "Mighty Wings" while reading the remainder of this review)

Like its predecessor, Toy Soldiers: Cold War is a tower defense title, this time switching up the World War I aesthetic for the Cold War atmosphere of the 1980s. The title plays on the stereotypes of the decade, including colorful, GI Joe inspired art and a soundtrack heavily inspired by Top Gun, replete with grandiose, sweeping electric guitar.

The rest of Cold War is likewise tinged with 1980s flair. All of its battlefields are actually playsets, each with their own dramatic cardboard backdrops. And, just like the real playsets of yore, the battlefield is filled with a few "enhancements" like floppy disk bridges or cassette tapes used as makeshift vehicle ramps. You might notice the occasional pair of aviator sunglasses or a discarded CD player as well.

Toy helicopter

As is the case with any tower defense title, the object is to analyze the upcoming waves of enemy units and build your defenses appropriately. There are several different kinds of weapon emplacements, each with its own strengths and weaknesses against the Soviet menace. Machine guns are great for mowing down infantry, but not so great at taking out tanks, for example. There are more turrets than there were in the original Toy Soldiers, my favorite being the "Make-Shift" which, when fully upgraded, mows through infantry with firecrackers and Roman candles.

While turrets will automatically fire at enemy units, players can take direct control of any turret to dramatically increase its abilities. Taking control of the right turrets at the right time is essential to winning battles, especially when heavily armored units start arriving. It doesn't hurt that taking control of turrets is incredibly satisfying, allowing players to nail tanks with long-distance artillery or chew through infantry with miniguns.

In addition to the pure satisfaction of using turrets, doing so will also build up a turbo charge, which briefly grants the turret increased strength and infinite ammo. Destroy enough units while turbo charged and players earn a barrage, a powerful ability that can decimate enemy forces. These range from nuclear strikes to my personal favorite, the commando. Complete with rippling muscles, a mullet and a headband, the commando packs a machine gun in one hand and a bazooka in the other. He can take out entire waves of Soviets, all the while screaming one-liners like "This one's for Jimmy!" and "You wanted a war? You got a war!"

Cold War commando

Cold War also includes many more controllable vehicles than its predecessor, ranging from tanks and jets to helicopters. Vehicles are incredibly powerful and can easily turn the tide of a losing fight. Each vehicle runs on batteries, however, meaning they have to recharge once drained (or destroyed). Learning when to use vehicles is important, because you don't want to be caught staring at the recharge meter when a dozen tanks roll in.

Beyond the campaign, there are several other modes of play including versus, survival and a surprisingly fun collection of mini-games. Each mode has its charms, bolstered by leaderboards that challenge players to best their friends.

The versus mode sounds interesting on paper, though I feel it doesn't really play to Cold War's strengths. Each player controls one side of the battlefield, building turrets and controlling vehicles as normal. What makes versus mode different is that players can purchase attack waves to send at their opponent. In theory, you should analyze holes in the opponent's defense and attack accordingly. The problem is that each player's field of view is restricted to their own base. You can send a vehicle or commando directly into an opposing base for a little reconnaissance, though that seems like a clumsy design choice given a player's God-like view of the rest of the map.

Machine gun turret, meet Matryoshka dolls.

Aside from the view issues, victory in a versus match is contingent on overwhelming your enemy with computer-controlled infantry and vehicles and marching them into the opposing toy box. On top of that, thanks to the camera, you can't actually see them entering the toy box anyway. Sure, I can watch the enemy's health meter tick down, but I'd rather focus on what Toy Soldiers does best: Blasting things with turrets.

Thankfully, every other mode of Cold War does exactly that. Each mode also allows local or online play for two players, meaning versus isn't the only multiplayer option. I'm particularly fond of playing the campaign in co-op, a feature that wasn't available in the first Toy Soldiers. The simple addition of a second player to control turrets and earn barrages can make all the difference in more difficult missions. Also, while I've yet to experience it, the mere thought of two simultaneous commando rushes is exhilarating.

Toy Soldiers: Cold War isn't out to change any paradigms. It's a game through and through, a game based on perhaps the oldest boyhood pastime there is. I'd never dream of recommending it over real toys and childhood imagination but, for the adults who want to remember -- and maybe share some of that 80s magic with their own kids -- it definitely fits the bill.



This review is based on the final version of Toy Soldiers: Cold War provided by Microsoft. Toy Soldiers: Cold War will be available for $15 on XBLA starting August 17.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.