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Friday, August 26, 2011

Toy Soldiers: Cold War Review

Toy Soldiers: Cold War is an action-packed tower defense game that improves upon its predecessor at almost every opportunity.

The Good

  • Loads of replay value  
  • Good number of competitive and cooperative options for two players  
  • Barrage abilities are a great addition  
  • Makes numerous improvements and tweaks to the Toy Soldiers formula.

The Bad

  • Frame rate can't always keep up with the action  
  • Versus mode leaderboards are easy to game.
History tells us that in the 40-plus years of the Cold War, forces from the United States and Soviet Union never actually faced each other in a major battle. The story is very different in the Toy Soldiers universe, though, where the opposing superpowers go head-to-head on battlefield dioramas across the world. Like its predecessor, Toy Soldiers: Cold War is a tower defense game in which quick reflexes are often as important as strategic thinking. You defend your toy box base not only by setting up gun emplacements, but also by manning said emplacements and, where they're available, taking direct control of vehicles and commando units that are powerful enough to turn the tide of a battle. Commando action figures are a great addition to the original Toy Soldiers formula, and Cold War makes plenty of smart improvements elsewhere as well; new kill combos offer significant gameplay rewards, minigames let you hone important skills outside of battle, a new rewind feature lets you correct costly mistakes during campaign missions, and cooperative play (online or split-screen) is now an option in both the Campaign and Survival modes. You get a formidable arsenal of toys to play with for your 1200 Microsoft points, and you won't want to put them away until long after you've ensured victory for the US.

Welcome to the jungle.
Where the original Toy Soldiers campaign afforded you an opportunity to play through World War I from the perspectives of both the Allies and the Central Powers, in Cold War you play only as the US. The 11 missions typically take 20 to 30 minutes each to play through, but that certainly doesn't mean that you can expect to be done with the game in five hours. For starters, you're unlikely to beat all of the missions on your first attempt; the default difficulty setting isn't overly challenging, but you unlock new turrets and vehicles (and face new enemies) as you progress, and it can take a while to figure out their respective strengths and weaknesses. You're also likely to play through missions more than once, and not only because you want to improve your scores on the leaderboards.

When you finish a level, you're awarded medals based on how many enemies made it past your defenses, how much money you finished the level with, and how much time you saved by manually triggering enemy waves prematurely. Score three gold medals, and you earn yourself a platinum grade, which is no mean feat. Furthermore, there are two decorations to unlock in each level that encourage you to mix up your play style. You might be required to destroy fast-moving ATVs using artillery, kill 100 units while using a helicopter's night vision, or torch infantry by dropping napalm on them from your F-14 Tomcat. Replaying levels in Cold War is never dull because there are so many different ways to approach them. There are also five difficulty levels to choose from, which, in addition to the requisite easy, normal, and hard settings, include two that change the gameplay significantly. Elite mode, which is carried over from the first game, prevents your defensive emplacements from firing automatically, so the game almost turns into a turret-based shooter. The new General mode does the opposite: emplacements can't be commandeered, so after positioning them on the map, you're at the mercy of the mostly smart AI soldiers that are manning them. Both are a lot of fun and pose a significant challenge.

Turrets can be significantly more effective when you man them yourself.

Regardless of which difficulty level you choose, your goal in Cold War is always the same: to prevent enemy units that attack in distinct waves from reaching your toy box. You do this by building defensive emplacements in predetermined locations that come in two sizes. Small build points can only accommodate machine guns, antitank guns, mortars, and "makeshift" weapons that include flamethrowers fashioned from upturned aerosol cans and the like. Large build points can also accommodate heavy artillery and antiair guns. All of these defenses and their respective upgrades cost money, and the only way to earn money is to kill enemies. At all times you can see which units the next couple of enemy waves are going to be composed of, so the challenge is to prepare for impending threats while dealing with current ones. Build too many machine guns when confronted by a massive wave of infantry, and you might struggle to deal with the tanks that arrive 30 seconds later. Place powerful artillery cannons on both of your large build points to combat enemy tanks, and the next wave's aircraft are going to fly into your toy box largely unchallenged. You always have the option to sell off emplacements that are no longer useful, but you get back only a fraction of the money that you spent building and upgrading them.

Upgrades are interesting in Toy Soldiers: Cold War because while they invariably make your defenses more powerful, they don't always make them better for your current situation. For example, when you upgrade a level 1 antitank gun to level 2, its rate of fire increases dramatically, but when you man the gun yourself, you no longer have the option to take control of the projectiles and steer them around obstacles toward targets. And when you upgrade a level 1 antiair gun, its rate of fire decreases but it gains the ability to lock onto targets, which is vital when you're being attacked by speedy MiG fighters but might not be up to the task if you have an armada of Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships hovering above. Less-than-ideal emplacements can be made to work if you man them yourself (your AI soldiers let enemies get relatively close before attacking and certainly aren't creative enough to, say, use antitank rounds against a helicopter), but there's only so much that you can do manning one turret on a battlefield, and while you're focusing on that, you're not managing upgrades and repairs elsewhere.

Antiair turrets not up to the task at hand? There's more than one way to deal with an enemy chopper armada.

There's very little downtime during battles, and what's great is that even at times when you could conceivably catch your breath and let your turrets do the work, you're encouraged to get involved. Destroy an enemy unit with a manually guided projectile at high speed, and you can earn extra money in the form of a "thrill ride" bonus, and if you manage to string together a combo of at least 40 kills or take down an enemy with a red star icon above it, you gain access to a randomly selected "barrage" ability.

From Dust Review

From Dust provides a rich world full of engaging challenges, though there are some frustrations even a god must suffer.

The Good

  • Rich interplay of movable elements and natural forces  
  • Attractive environmental design  
  • Surprisingly competition-friendly Challenge mode.

The Bad

  • Problematic AI pathfinding  
  • Controls not suited for fine manipulation  
  • Not optimized for the PC.
What if you had the powers of a god? The earth would shift at your whim and the seas would tremble at your touch. You could raise mountains, divert rivers, and transform dry deserts into lush forests. From Dust grants you these powers and more, and it's satisfying to wield them as you try to safely usher a small tribe of humans through a perilous world. Yet, for all your world-molding abilities, you are not omnipotent. Like the villagers you shelter, you must contend with the inexorable power of nature. From the subtle influence of gravity and erosion to the devastating forces of volcanoes and tsunamis, nature compels you to adapt to survive. This task can get difficult, especially when imperfect controls, finicky pathfinding, and unforeseeable disasters conspire against you. Joining these in-game problems are a number of PC-specific shortcomings, including limited visual options and an Internet connectivity requirement. Despite these unwelcome elements, the challenge of being a lesser god is an engaging one, and From Dust makes it even more enticing with appealing visuals and evocative music.

You learn early on that your villagers are accustomed to a certain standard of living.

Before you begin to bend nature to your will, you must first secure an Internet connection. This is not only necessary to download the game from Steam, but also required each and every time you play the game. From Dust syncs with Ubisoft's uPlay service and won't launch if you can't connect. Once you are connected, it's best to let the game load to the menu screen before trying to use any in-game Steam functions because any activity may cause the game to freeze or prevent the menu from loading properly. Alt-tabbing out of the game also caused a visual glitch when we resumed playing. And speaking of visuals, don't expect a full suite of options to help you maximize performance; screen resolution, display mode, refresh rate, and adapter version are all you get. These issues don't spoil the experience, but they do make it feel like you aren't playing the best version. The PC version does boast sharper visuals than its Xbox 360 counterpart, however, and it allows multiple save files to better accommodate multiple users.

You slither around the world of From Dust as a small wormlike cursor called the Breath. Your basic ability lets you gather substances into a hovering ball, move them wherever you please, and then release them. You begin with simple applications of your skill, like gathering soil and building a land bridge across shallow water or sucking up water and dousing a fire. The Breath acts as a holding tank, but once you release a substance, it conforms to the laws of nature. Water flows, soil settles, and lava hardens into implacable rock. In addition to exhibiting these natural tendencies, the three substances interact with each other in important ways. Flowing water can wash away soil, and lava evaporates water even as the water cools it more quickly. Understanding these elements and the underlying rules of the physical world is crucial to success in From Dust, and Story mode introduces them to you at a manageable pace.

Watching your early attempts to manipulate the landscape get balanced out by natural order is not only instructive, but also visually pleasing. Water sluices down hillsides, resisting your control, and deposited soil spreads out, diminishing your earthen works. Lava is a particular highlight. It oozes and flows, changing density and temperature, and watching its mottled glow cool into shiny rock is a delight. These natural processes are accompanied by rich sound effects that punctuate your every action. Grinding and sucking noises give your substance-gathering efforts some weight, while an outburst of birds cawing and flapping signals that disaster is imminent. If you toggle your view in closer to the action, you can hear fire crackling, villagers singing, and the creaking, burbling flow of lava. The sights and sounds make the world of From Dust look lively, and the interplay between substances and natural laws make it feel alive.

While there is joy in simply wielding your powers and experiencing the effects, your goal is to safely usher a tribe of people through each level. In Story mode, you must guide them to all of the tall ivory totems in each level so they can build villages and then send them through a stone passageway to complete the level. Making the villages accessible and keeping them safe are your two primary endeavors. Sometimes this can be accomplished simply by manipulating substances, but more often than not, you need more than just your basic abilities to ensure safe passage. Many totems, once settled, grant you temporary powers that are crucial to success. Being able to evaporate water or put out fire can save your villages from annihilation, while jellifying water enables you to carve out a biblical seabed passage for your people. As it expands your abilities, From Dust also makes things more challenging, ensuring that you have to make good use of your full repertoire.
In addition to the power of breath, there are a few other helpful elements. Stones grant villages the ability to repel fire, lava, and water, and sending a villager to retrieve this knowledge from a stone is often your best hope for survival, especially when tsunamis roll in and volcanoes erupt. Unfortunately, this is also where you can run into problems with From Dust's pathfinding logic. You can only set destinations for the humans; it's up to them to get there. Though they are generally good at finding any bridges you have built, they are sometimes stymied by a puddle of water or a small hitch in the terrain. These obstacles can sometimes be tough to identify, especially given the (admittedly realistic) translucence of water. Traveling villagers do recalculate routes in an effort to take the quickest path, and though they are often successful, they also take some baffling walkabouts. Furthermore, because the game automatically determines a knowledge bearer's return path, you might watch him run right by a village that is threatened by lava to first deliver the protective knowledge to another, safer village. Depending on your current situation, these pathfinding problems might merely irk you, or they might derail your plans with disastrous consequences. It's one thing to deal with the capriciousness of nature; it's another to suffer from the flaws of man.