Review / Toy Soldiers: Cold War (XBLA)

The great 1970’s soul-singing philosopher Edwin Starr once begged the question, “War. Huh, good god y’all. What is it good for?” To which developer Signal Studios answers, “video games!”  Toy Soldiers: Cold War, the sequel to Signal’s resoundingly successful World War I inspired XBLA release Toy Soldiers, eschews the sepia-toned canons and cavalry of the great war for the fighter jets and nuclear missiles of the cold war, in all its super saturated and super paranoid 80’s glory. While the first game was charming, with its vintage twist on the classic tower defense formula, its sequel is nostalgic. And nostalgia kicks charm’s ass any day. Personally, my journey into adulthood didn’t take me straight from crayons to perfume, but through the patriotic propaganda of G.I. Joe, Red Dawn and Top Gun, lovingly spoofed here in every electric guitar riff and cheesy catch phrase. It’s everything the first game was, but bigger, better and definitely brighter.

Like its predecessor, Cold War’s battles are epic in scale if not size, unfolding in different battlefield playsets, from dense jungles to sunny beaches to gritty cities. Your home base is a toy box situated across from the enemy’s garages and barracks. Your goal is to prevent the red tide from sweeping into your stronghold by placing the appropriate defenses on the weapon emplacements scattered along the various paths leading to your toy box, upgrading and repairing them as the battle rages. Between waves you’ll need to choose the right weapon for the right enemy, as that anti-tank cannon might have been great at halting the last wave’s vehicles, but can’t be aimed high enough to take down the next wave’s helicopters. Likewise, an anti-air gun will drop a fighter jet, but can’t match the speed of a machine gun for felling advancing infantry. Keeping an eye on the next two or three enemy units in the queue and adjusting your defenses accordingly will pave the path to victory. But back to the jets and tanks!

In addition to having more turrets than the first game, Cold War has more controllable vehicles. You’ll be able to pilot jets, tanks, helicopters and ATVs. The vehicles can change the tide of battle, but they have a super short shelf life – all run on batteries, which means you have to collect the glowing blue batteries scattered throughout the battlefield or return the to the charger before your ride self-destructs. If you run out of juice, or get blown to pieces, you’ll have to wait a few minutes for the vehicle to be available again, so choosing when and how to use them will decide whether or not your countrymen should start brushing up on their Russian. The turrets will automatically fire at enemy units, but like the vehicles you can commandeer them at any time, turning Cold War from a third-person strategy game into a first-person frag fest.

Taking over a turret has new benefits this time around. Aside from the thrill of mowing through your enemies with a minigun, the hands-on approach builds up a turbo charge meter that, when filled to 85%, grants increased firepower and unlimited ammunition and, when filled to 100%, grants a barrage. The randomly selected barrage is sorta like a slot machine super weapon, which can take the form of a gun ship, bombing run, artillery strike, nuclear strike or the commando. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to a certain fictional former United States Special Forces soldier, the headband-wearing, mullet-sporting commando can take out an entire wave with his double-fisted machine gun and bazooka, all while shouting decidedly Stallone-esque one liners like, “You wanted a war? You got a war!”

It’s one of many delightful and detailed touches that remind you you’re only playing war, emphasis on playing. As if a battlefield dwarfed by lava lamps and aviator glasses weren’t reminder enough that Cold War isn’t Call of Duty, enemies oftentimes stiffen and totter when killed, once again becoming inert pieces of plastic. There is no blood. There is no cursing. This is as family friendly as all out warfare can get, not to say it’s child’s play. After the first few forays into the 20 mission strong single-player campaign, the difficulty increases. But unlike Toy Soldiers, making a mistake in placing your turrets won’t result in having to replay the entire mission, as wavelist rewind lets you go back as many waves as you’d like as often as you’d like. Using it too much would take out all the fun, but sparingly applied it will prevent you from unleashing your own personal campaign of shock and awe (read: feet and fists) against your politically neutral television.

Signal has also made minor tweaks to so the vehicles drive better, the buildings crumble faster and the enemies think smarter, but the first game’s annoying camera control issues remain. Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t it seem silly to set the player up as god of all they see, and then make it so really, they can’t see that damn much? Your bird’s eye view of the battlefield is limited to your toy box and the area immediately surrounding it. You have more range of motion when driving, flying or charging in as the commando. But the extremely limited nature of these tools means reconnaissance will often take a back seat to blowing up as much as you can, as fast as you can.

Toy Soldiers: Cold War makes up for any minor frustrations with major replay value, adding plenty of reasons to keep coming back after the single-player campaign is won in the form of co-op, versus and survival modes, as well as a collection of six unique mini games.  As any seasoned soldier will tell you, you haven’t known real conflict until you’re forced to reflect on why you’ve spent the better part of an hour trying to guide a missile through a funky disco hallway. In the words of the commando, “They keep pullin’ me back in!”