At some point in the last few years 98.6% of the video game market became dedicated to Tower Defense games. Sure, TD is a fun game type, and it is perfectly suited to both casual and hardcore play, but the utter ease of producing such a game has led to every conceivable spin on the subject being done at least three times. Or so I thought, until I got my hands on Toy Soldiers. Believe it or not, this is a tower defense game with something new up its sleeve.
As the name would suggest, both sides of the conflict in this game are toys. When you are up close, that doesn’t mean much. The guns, the scenery, the soldiers, all of them are fairly standard looking. Sure, the tanks have cranks on the side, but other than that, it may as well be any other war game. Only when you zoom out or pan up do you see that the battleground is actually an elaborate diorama sitting on a desk. Just beyond the playable area are things like record players and desk lamps.
There are two things that set this game visually apart from most war games. First, the setting is World War I, not World War II. As a result, some of the war machines are almost comically primitive looking by today’s standards. They are fairly accurately represented, though, right down to the Red Baron’s triplane.
The other notable difference is that the game features British protagonists instead of US. This admittedly doesn’t effect the visual representation very much, except for slightly different uniforms and a higher percentage of stiff upper lips.
It is difficult to make any criticisms about this game’s looks, because almost all of them could very well be by design. The graphics are decently detailed, but in those few instances where a model is not as detailed as one would like, well, that’s just because it is a toy. That’s how toys look. The whole game trends toward muddy, murky colors and low visibility, but then, World War I trended pretty heavily toward mud, and WWI snipers weren’t known for their precision optics.
As I said earlier, this game is functionally identical to a tower defense game. There are a limited number of positions on the map where you can place a stationary weapon. These weapons include machine guns, mortars, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, and (gasp) chemical weapons. Yes, even the good guys douse their foes with toxic gas in this game. Each weapon can eventually be upgraded to level three, bringing various speed, damage, and range improvements. In place of the usual “slow” weapon, this game allows you to put down barbed wire. The money to buy these units or perform upgrades comes from destroying the waves of infantry, cavalry, tanks, aircraft, and even the occasional boss that will be sent after you. These units march toward your toy box, attacking any units in their way. If twenty of any unit get through, or a single boss, then you lose. Aside from the enemy occasionally having its own stationary weapon, and their annoying tendency to stray from the defined path, it is all very standard tower defense at this point. In fact, if you really wanted to you could play most of the levels of this game like straight tower defense, but you would have a very hard time, and you would be missing a lot. That’s because the meat and potatoes of Toy Soldiers is its direct control.
Basically, every unit except for the foot soldiers (which you don’t get more than a handful of in the single player campaign anyway) can be directly controlled by you. The benefits of doing so are massive. Some units, like the sniper tower, the tanks, and the aircraft, can only be used by controlling them directly. Taking control of the AI controllable units will at the very least let you target precisely what you want, rather than hoping that the stupid computer picks off that cluster of infantry rather than wasting its time on the tank it can’t damage. The bigger guns have even more benefits, allowing you to fire faster and take direct control over the trajectory of the shell. Yep! You can control the speed and even steer a shell, giving you pinpoint control over where and when it lands. Add in the fact that the computer will only target things within range and with the appropriate weaponry, but once you are at the controls there is nothing stopping you from turning that anti-aircraft gun on the hillside or blindly spraying the fuzzy blob that you happen to know is a zeppelin on the way. Having a tank, sniper, or plain at your disposal really opens up the strategic options. You can now directly target trouble troops, plant yourself in a choke point and mow down troops, or destroy all anti air defenses and then just carpet bomb the enemy. You can even do things that seem sneakily like cheating, like finding where the foot soldiers amass before releasing and sniping them by the dozen. You even get ridiculous cash bonuses for doing so.
Nice though it is to take control, it has its drawbacks. You get a very limited view of the field, making it easy to lose track of where the enemy is. Also, if you are anything like me you suck at aiming mortars, even with your magic force powers to help you, so some units are best left in the hands of the computer. You can also only control one unit at a time, and though the D-pad lets you jump directly from one point of control to the next, determining which one you’ll end up in can be a crap shoot.
Outside of the main gameplay is an assortment of features to extend playtime. There are special missions on each level that will earn you a collectable if you complete, for instance. Each level has a survival mode, and beating the campaign once unlocks a second campaign that lets you play as the Germans. Most of the changes to your military are cosmetic, but the levels are subtly to vastly different the second time around.
The audio experience is good, but nothing special. The usual troop cries, mechanical clanks, explosions, and bugle toots. Here and there you’ll catch a snatch of dialog from an individual troop. The music seems authentic, down to the scratchy Victrola it sounds like it is being played on. No complaints, but not much to brag about either.
Either it is World War I and two alliances of countries are fighting to restore the balance of power, or it is shortly after WWI and two creepy shut-ins are spending their afternoons blowing up each other’s toys. Take your pick.
Toy Soldiers isn’t just another tower defense game. Dog fighting, sniping, tank commanding, and a dozen other gameplay elements within it make this into something much, much more. Any flaws are minor, and there are so many ways to play that the chances are very good you can find some way to wipe out the enemy that you enjoy.
8.6/10: Certainly one of the best takes on tower defense I’ve seen in a while.