|System: X360 (XBLA)||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Signal Studios||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Microsoft||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: March 3, 2010||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-2||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Steve Haske
January 18, 2010 - When it comes to historical time periods being represented in games, the first thing everyone thinks about is the second World War. And really, it's impossible, or damn near impossible not to-there's probably more games about killing Nazis in bombed out European villages or killing Japanese on the bloody shores of the Pacific islands than there are first-person shooters, cover shooters, and Wii shovelware titles combined. But, what about the "war to end all wars"? How many games can you think of with a WWI setting?
In any case, whatever number you happened to come up with (if any) is a much, much smaller number. And while that's not going to change anytime soon, it isn't stopping Microsoft Game Studio from releasing Toy Soliders, a new WWI-themed strategic war game. The premise behind the name comes from the fact that you're not actually fighting a real war with real men (though the game's levels are all modeled after actual WWI battles), but one made up of old-style toys and dioramas that you might have found in a child's bedroom in less contemporary times. I was able to experience the game hands-on at CES, and what I came back with were impressions of one of the best looking and unique XBLA games in recent memory.
The developers at Signal Studios are calling Toy Soliders an action strategy game, but in reality it's more of a hands-on approach to the tower defense genre (and a damn pretty one at that). Normally this isn't a genre I gravitate towards, because sedentary gameplay is usually, well, pretty boring. Not so with Toy Soliders. Taking command of an army of plastic subordinates, I went about arranging my defenses, preparing for German troops to invade my territory. Setting up placements in the game is easy. Each map has a number of pre-made spaces where you can set up AA guns, mortars, anti-infantry machine guns, sniper towers, barbed wire obstacles-even entrenched units that spray enemies with poison gas.
Units are placed by picking a free space and selecting which type of child's killspawn you want from a pop-up wheel menu. As soon as they're spawned (the countdown of which is stylishly presented as a hands moving on a period clock), AI will take over and start attacking the enemy. Aside from defensive placements, there's also a host of vehicles you can use to turn the tide of battle in your favor, although I only saw cavalry troops, zeppelins, a bi-plane and the theoretical Tsar tank, a two-wheeled artillery (it actually just looks like a giant cannon) that existed in the real war, albeit in blueprint form only. Any units you want to add to your battlefield cost money, which is earned from destroying the enemy; peppering a group of charging infantry with machine gun fire yielded small dollar amounts per hit. This profitable destruction is par for the course in this game. The final game will have over 50 units total.
Now, here's where it gets interesting: at any point you can manually go in and control any unit you want. While the default camera offers a bird's eye view of the action, selecting a unit zooms in, making the game control like a more typical action game. This allows you to manually man an anti-aircraft gun, spray down or gas enemy infantry, fire mortars (using an adjustable trajectory), hop in a bi-plane and spit machine gun fire at troops across enemy lines, or engage in some first-person sniping. Aside from being a lot of fun-I particularly enjoyed using the mortars (which features a shellcam that lets you follow your path of destruction across a map) and the sniper tower-there are also strategic advantages to manually controlling your units, like your soldiers delivering a faster rate of fire or reloading speeds. There's no penalty for switching between units, so taking care of whatever task your army needs to maintain the defensive only takes a few minutes to learn. As with any strategy game, however, units all have measured strengths and weaknesses against each other, meaning that you'll have to think carefully about which particular strategy will work best in any given situation.
Toy Soldiers' single-player campaign will offer 24 missions, with twelve afforded to both British and German campaigns. On the multiplayer side, the game will have local two-player split-screen matches, head-to-head, attack-and-defend matches online, and leaderboards. Overall, Toy Soldiers was one of the best surprises of CES, both for its unique approach to military strategy as well as its great aesthetic (not to mention the game's gorgeous visuals-this is an XBLA game?). It just goes to show that sometimes the best things do come in small packages.
CCC Freelance Writer