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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.

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