Toy Soldiers, the downloadable tiny tower defense series from Signal Studios, leaps almost a century from the mustard-gassed trenches of World War I to the soaring F-14s and guitar solos of the 1980s with its new sequel, Cold War. The core gameplay hook--tower defense that lets you jump into any of the turrets and emplacements you build so you can control them directly--remains more or less the same here, but a few key mechanical additions, a healthier selection of gameplay modes, and a lighthearted nostalgic tone make this a well-rounded package that closes out the Summer of Arcade with flair.
I really appreciated the uniquely antique stylings of the first Toy Soldiers; after all, how many World War I-themed games are even on the market? The whole America-versus-the-Iron-Curtain thing has been done to death, by comparison, so I approached Cold War with some hesitation. But the developers really run wild with the setting in a way that anyone who grew up in the '80s will probably appreciate. There are stylistic touches all over the place that nod toward G.I. Joe, Top Gun, "The Final Countdown," Ivan Drago, and more. Like in the first game, the action is framed in a bedroom toybox motif that lines the edges of the battlefield with stacked-up VHS tapes and monochrome-green CRT monitors. It all feels like it's of an era that I personally find very comforting, but maybe that's just me.
The move to a modern setting allows the use of better military hardware, and that's where the tower defense feels a bit more robust and action-oriented in Cold War. Your towers, such as they are, still fall into the same basic categories of anti-infantry machine guns, armor-piercing rockets, long-range artillery, and so on, and now there's an anti-air category that helps you deal with the presence of personnel helicopters, fighter jets, and so on. There are quite a few vehicles of your own (battery-operated, of course) that you can hop into and fight with directly, including a couple of kinds each of helicopters and tanks, and an F-14. You can gain occasional super weapons like a massive artillery barrage, controllable AC-130, or the pinnacle of '80s destructive technology, the nuclear warhead. There's even a Rambo-lookin' commando you can control on foot to run around and mow down everything in sight with rockets and a machine gun. Suffice it to say, there's ample diversity among your units.
The 10-mission campaign does a decent job of letting you play with all this stuff and throws you into a wide array of environments, from a jungle to numerous cities, Egypt, and an aircraft carrier. These missions are all pretty straightforward, though. On the normal difficulty, it's generally quite obvious what sorts of turrets you need and where you need them to handily deal with the waves of enemies rolling through. At least hard difficulty is unlocked from the start, and there are two higher difficulties available for each mission after you finish them once. Also, the last boss is a real bastard, which kind of comes out of left field. Mission by mission, the campaign is chock-full of internal achievements (called decorations), challenges, and other milestones that chart your performance in about a zillion different ways, so there's a good feeling of progress throughout.
In addition to the new toys, Cold War feels more diverse than its predecessor thanks to a better array of multiplayer options. The versus mode seems like the one you'll come back to the most, with three maps that pit you against a single opponent in a battle to use every single turret, vehicle, and special attack the game offers as you vie for supremacy. Since you make money from killing the other guy's stuff, these matches can go on for a long, long time--my first versus match lasted for a grueling 50 minutes--and can feel pretty epic as a result. There's also a cooperative wave-based survival mode that provides a pretty stiff challenge and makes you work together in a fast-paced, dynamic way. A smattering of bizarre minigames that use the game's mechanics to make you shoot down giant flies and guide missiles through weird rotating carnival obstacles rounds out the package and gives you even more to do once you're done with the story mode. Taken as a whole, there's a lot to do here, and it's all pretty good stuff.
As a ridiculous aside, I have to recognize this game's avatar awards as perhaps the best ever offered, with a mullet-and-headband combo for your head and a patched leather bomber jacket combining to make your stupid Xbox person look like an authentic Vietnam-vet peace protester of some sort. It's just nice to see a developer put some effort into this sort of thing well beyond the usual t-shirts and cheap bric-a-brac we typically get.
The sheer bulk of things to do in Cold War does a good job of offsetting a core campaign that's merely pretty decent, and the overall presentation of the package, wailing guitar solos and all, make it a game that tower defense fans ought to feel good about playing.