Playing with toy soldiers may not be such a big thing with kids nowadays, but I certainly remember many a childhood afternoon consumed with the imaginative joy of miniature green and tan warfare. Those were the days when a sandbox could be a vast Sahara and a tumbled bedspread became a pitted mountainside—ripe for artillery placement, tank deployments and soldier formations pulled from the depths of a heaping cardboard box full of plastic possibilities.
Signal Studios’ toy-centric strategy games are built on that very sense of toy-box charm and imagination. The original Toy Soldiers video game came out in 2010 as a downloadable arcade game for the Xbox 360. While placing toy-sized armaments on a scaled-down battlefield, players managed dining table and bedroom floor reenactments of actual World War I battles between the Allies and the Germans. Toy Soldiers: Cold War, also downloadable, focuses on imaginary conflicts between the U.S. and a 1980s-era Soviet powerhouse. And that means F-14s, helicopter gunships and nuclear strikes are added to the battling mix.
Through 11 missions that last 20 to 30 minutes each, the goal is simple: Keep the marauding enemy out of your toy box. Under the glare of overarching desk lamps or the shadow of a school book or two, the Soviets send in wave after wave of toy infantry, tanks, choppers, ATVs and MiGs. The dioramas and the attack formations are always different. And it’s the player’s responsibility to set up an opposing force and keep them at bay.
War Is … Polystyrene
The first order of business is the defensive gun placements. Predetermined locations come in two varieties: small build points that can accommodate machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, antitank guns and the like; and large points where you can set up heavy artillery and antiaircraft guns. And that’s where the strategy and battlefield management comes in.
You start off with only a limited amount of money to build with. So constructing a couple of machine gun nests to take out the swarming hoards of ground troops may very well tap out your initial bankroll. But once the tanks come rolling in, those machine guns are almost useless. So you’ll be tempted to splurge on a big artillery gun—which means you’re dead in the water when the bombers swarm overhead.
It’s not an impossible situation, however. With a little mix-and-match experimentation you start to get the hang of what works best against which onslaught. And each destroyed enemy unit pays out a few defense-building dollars. So managing your bankroll, planning properly for the next wave and replacing or upgrading your defenses becomes the ongoing strategy. Players can also choose to personally man any of the armaments (which can make a big difference in the heat of battle) or jump into the driver’s seat of a battery-powered tank or plane that might be waiting on your side of the battle line for short deployments.
On top of those constant demands for judicious marshalling, this Toy Soldiers sequel also offers a few new bonuses: If you manage to string together a combo of at least 40 manually aimed obliterations or take down an enemy with a red star icon above it, you gain access to a randomly selected “barrage” ability. These barrages are powerful but short-lived abilities you can hold at the ready, then use when you most need them. The special attacks range from a called-in bombing run, high-powered artillery fire and even a nuclear strike that can clear enemies in a hurry. One of the quirkier barrage possibilities is a Rambo-like doll who takes to the field with a bazooka over his shoulder, a machine gun in his hand and a cigar clenched firmly in his vinyl teeth.
A Mess-less Melee
That may sound deadly and gruesome on paper. But onscreen, the Toy Soldiers formula keeps things completely blood- and guts-free. Vehicles on the field or in the air simply turn red as they take damaging fire and eventually shatter into their plastic bits. Fired-upon troop formations stop charging, stiffen out like the plastic infantryman that they are, then fall over and disappear.
Beyond that, content-wise, it just a matter of enduring “I love the smell of plastic in the morning”-type dialogue.
Toy Soldiers: Cold War may not surpass my memories of those imaginative sandbox conflicts from days gone by (and it’ll certainly never replace them), but it did make me grin as I thought my way through a few more plastic battles. And the picking-up afterwards was a whole lot easier. I always hated that part.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.