Saturday, March 20, 2010

XBLA Review -- Toy Soldiers

As I've said in previous reviews, I don't get along well with tower defense. I hate the pacing and the lack of control over what's happening. Previously reviewed Soulcaster fixed this by adding in elements from dungeon exploration games like Gauntlet and, holy crap, this turned the genre from something I avoid into one of my favorite games on XBLIG. WWI-themed Toy Soldiers by Signal Studios tries to do something similar where it mixes the tower defense style we've all grown used to with the ability to control any of the units on the front from the machine gunners and howitzers to, on some levels, biplanes and snipers and tanks (oh my). Interesting in theory, but how does it perform on the battlefield?

The premise of Toy Soldiers is that you're taking your British forces against the Germans in World War I. First off, this is probably one of the most refreshing things I've seen in a war game in like 15 years. World War 2 has been played to death and, if you're going to go with tower defense in a realistic setting, I couldn't think of a more appropriate era. The meat and potatoes of the game is your standard tower defense style. Put up your defenses, watch them mow down the offensive, earn money by doing so, and upgrade or place more units for the next incoming wave. The difference between this and the countless others out there is that you can man the guns yourself. Believe me, this turns the game from just another tower defense game into one of the best games I've played this year. Climbing into the sniper tower and taking out enemy toy soldiers one by one is almost worth the price of admission by itself, but it's especially nice to have only yourself to blame when the enemy breaks through your defenses. In addition, there are tanks and planes you get to control, turning your strategy from strictly defensive into aggressive and, as stated, very fun. You'll need to do this on some later stages to take out some of your opponent's defenses as well. This enables you to place your defenses further away from your base or fly your planes overhead without fear of anti-aircraft fire. Best of all, it gives you something to do when waiting for your forces to mow down a force you know you have beat, fixing that nasty pacing issue I have a problem with.

There's something about America during the first half of the 20th century that's interesting. Watching some of those things come alive puts a smile on your face, even when booting this game up. Right away you're greeted with some old songs that sound like they're being played off a record player and a title screen that, though obviously not war footage, plays out like an old film. Even losing is interesting to watch as your screen slowly gets grainier and loses color to match the look of a movie from a century ago. Loading screens before some levels look like wartime propaganda, other times show your soldiers as sets of toys, and all in all just bring a lot of character to the game. On the battlefield, you'll watch the opponent's soldiers turn back into toys once destroyed, or watch the horses and vehicles break apart into plastic bits, and far off in the background you'll see little things around the kid's room to remind you that you're playing war with plastic soldiers. All of these little touches, outside of being well done in their own right, come together to provide a lot of flavor.

The control for setting up your units is pretty standard point and click fare so I won't go into that. As far as controlling the units themselves, it varies from unit to unit. The obvious ones such as the machine gunner and sniper control simple and well, whereas the tank feels slow and sluggish. I'm sure that's done on purpose, though, because tanks ARE slow and sluggish. The planes get goofy at times when you turn too far, causing them to turn over and throw you off a little, but are otherwise okay. The only thing I had problems with was the long-range howitzers as aiming with them over such a long range felt pretty hit or miss (no pun intended). To sum all this up: if a game had only one thing to control and they controlled like they do in Toy Soldiers, it would be pretty unimpressive. All together it isn't bad, however, and each is simple and similar enough to not get in the way or complicate things if you haven't piloted it before.

I could spend days talking about all the great things in this game. From the amount of play time you get out of the game with each difficulty level ranging from Casual (pretty easy) to Elite (only the things you control directly will fire on the enemy) along with the much harder Campaign+ that allows you to play as zee Germans. Online and offline multiplayer, little extra goals for each stage, and my personal curse of leaderboards for each stage give you plenty of replay value for a game that can easily span for more than five hours on a playthrough. Best of all, the game is fun each time you play, even if it's a stage and difficulty you've played already. My one thing against this game (there's always gotta be one) is that the game's last level is insanely difficult. I wouldn't consider this a problem if I hadn't breezed through every level before that on Normal difficulty. After literally over a dozen tries, half of which were on Casual difficulty, I gave up. The level felt like a giant brick wall after five hours of an opposition-free stroll. If the level is that difficult, I'd prefer more of a build up so I feel like I'm better suited and more willing to take on such a difficult challenge.

That little bit aside, the game should see Game of the Year nominations. I don't mean just for downloadable games. I mean for all games. It's just such a good game I don't know how else to describe it. If tower defense is at all your thing, I recommend this. If it isn't, you should try the demo, get into the sniper tower, and see how you feel after that. Even with the 1200 MS Point price tag, the game is worth every little bit you spend on it.

Toy Soldiers from Signal Studios is available on XBox Live Arcade for 1200 MS Points. I was given a copy for winning a contest on (thanks again guys!). Played through all but the last stage on Normal difficulty, then tried the last stage for roughly three hours until I was approaching an anger level reserved for driving behind old women on the highway. Even still, I want to try it again tonight. Just hide my cats until I'm done.

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