Children are known to have great imaginations, allowing them to create worlds for their action figures to interact in, and games to play with friends. Couple that factoid with boys’ traditional dreams of becoming superheroes, firefighters or soldiers, and you have the exact reasoning behind the success of little green army men toys. Despite being inanimate and rather basic in design, the iconic miniature soldiers allow for future-based dreams to be physically played out, with the victor always being the person who dreamed up the sandbox-containing conflict.
After thinking outside of the proverbial box, the Signal Studios team came up with a genius idea for a downloadable video game. Instead of creating a tower defense game with aliens and pathways, they decided to create a genre release that would make gamers remember childhood. The result of that development process was Toy Soldiers, a 2010 Xbox LIVE Arcade exclusive that created war out of dioramas, household objects and inanimate soldiers. Combining a unique premise with adapted gameplay, it became a smash success, and ended up spawning a sequel just over one year later. Entitled Toy Soldiers: Cold War, that action-packed and machismo masterpiece was my introduction to the franchise.
Although Toy Soldiers: Cold War was released during the summer of 2011, the game just received its first two major DLC add-ons at the end of April. Referred to as Evil Empire and Napalm, the two five-dollar packs offer an identical amount of content. Each one has its own three stage campaign, delivering a combined total of two hours of objective based gameplay. On top of that, fans will find two new mini-games, a couple multiplayer maps and a pair of digital survival mode locations.
Those who are new to the Toy Soldiers universe will want to at least play through Cold War‘s base campaign before tackling this DLC, as neither pack holds its punches, and no tutorial is made available. If you’re one of those folks, and you happen to be a fan of the tower defense genre, you’ve been missing out on one of the genre’s best series. It features involved mechanics, as opposed to an overlord style approach. Not only are you building, upgrading and maintaining varied defensive weapons; you’re also given the option to man them. That user-control mechanic is a neat touch that makes a world of difference, and creates a thoroughly entertaining experience. It’s like childhood scenarios have come to life as American soldiers battle against the Russian Empire in fictional Cold War battles. Plus, being able to jump into tanks, helicopters and fighter jets adds great variety.
The important thing to note is that these are individual campaign arcs, which don’t add-on to the game’s core story content. As a result, each one must be manually selected from the start menu. Doing so will bring up a level select screen, where available service accolades (earned for completing challenges,) friends’ scores and difficulty options are shown. After viewing those, it’s time to launch a level. As you’d expect, first timers will have to start from the beginning, allowing for each of the two arcs to be played through in their entirety, without forcing players to revisit the stage select screen. That is, unless you decide that your selected difficulty is too tough.
Like a lot of its peers, Toy Soldiers: Cold War is not an easy game. There’s quite a bit of challenge to be found inside of what is a strategical release; so much so that normal can become overpowering. That’s especially true with regards to this new DLC, which is far from easy, even on lower difficulties. The difference between casual and normal is quite noticeable, providing a surprising and somewhat annoying gap. While playing on casual, I had next to no trouble becoming victorious at the end of each 18-25 wave scenario. However, normal ended up being quite difficult. That created challenge adds replay value, but may frustrate some newcomers.
Evil Empire provides a different vantage point than both its predecessor and Napalm. Instead of playing as the American side, you’re actually tasked with fighting against them. Although there isn’t an incredibly detailed or very well set-up storyline to be found, the general gist is there. Acting as a Russian commander, your goal is to take it to the Red, White and Blue forces, creating a fictional Soviet offensive. It’s neat to be able to play as the enemy, but the problem is that Russia’s weapon towers and vehicles are almost identical to the ones made available to the American forces in the game’s core campaign. You can unlock a laser barrage special move, but that’s the only major change. Even then, its availability is based on kill combos and slot-based luck. Regardless, the campaign’s three missions are quite fun, despite their lack of individuality.
Listed as the third campaign on the aforementioned menu screen, Napalm once again pits us against evildoers as the good guy Americans. However, this time around, it’s the Viet Cong forces who are rushing to the attack. Three different and very detailed models end up playing host to the staged conflict, as players must take an extreme defensive position. The new enemy has strength in numbers, and there are more toy boxes (home bases,) which must be protected. This adds an extra level of challenge, but can also create overwhelming battles.
While playing through Napalm, there were a couple of occasions where I became confused as to what I had to do, because the game indicated that my toy box was about to be infiltrated by a close-by convoy. However, upon looking at my base’s entry point, I was unable to see the threat. Unbeknownst to my sleuthing eye, the mentioned vehicles were approaching a completely separate box on the other side of the map. Although I could not protect it through the use of weaponry, I could shoot artillery at its invaders, in order to partially damage their advance. Thankfully, the available (user-controlled) tank toy was able to make it out there with only 30% of its battery life needing to be sacrificed.
Although it’s not flawless, Napalm deserves commendation for trying to change things up. Not only does it ramp up the challenge factor by adding extra toy boxes to the game’s core formula; it also adds a napalm strike barrage, as well as a powerful laser tank. Yes, the latter item really is as cool as it sounds. After all, it blows things up with lasers!
Retailing for 400 Microsoft Points ($5 USD) a piece, both Evil Empire and Napalm are on the expensive side. Although that may deter quite a few people from making a purchase, the two add-ons do add a decent amount of content to what is one of XBLA’s best releases. A really neat (albeit very challenging) Whack-A-Mole style mini-game is included, tasking armchair generals with shooting at pink pigs that pop up through cut out holes. Unfortunately, that same level of enjoyment isn’t provided with the downloads’ second mini-game, which is a rather basic helicopter rescue challenge. Thankfully, the additional survival mode and multiplayer maps are quite well-made, making up for the one underwhelming piece of this two-part digital package.
When Toy Soldiers: Cold War was released almost a year ago, it delivered an unforgettable gameplay experience. Everything, from its unique gameplay mechanics to its beautifully-designed sandboxes and miniature-filled dioramas, was top-notch. That theme is predominantly carried over into the title’s two brand new expansions, but neither one is able to truly separate itself in a memorable way. Still, despite being rather formulaic and lacking variety, both packs deliver fun and interesting gameplay through the creation of interesting maps and scenarios. For that reason, fans of the series, and the tower defense genre as a whole, should take the ten-dollar plunge. Of course, it’s important to enjoy battling others online, and/or challenging others’ scores on mode-specific leaderboards.
This review is based on content that was supplied to us for review purposes.