With World War II being effectively strip-mined for game content and ideas, itâ€™s always struck me as a bit strange that weâ€™ve never seen a decent World War 1 game. Sure, there have been those nerdy stats-heavy â€œproperâ€ war games, and a couple of completely unmemorable RTS games â€“ but action-based WW1 titles are extremely thin on the ground.
I got rather excited when I heard that Toy Soldiers was based around famous pivotal moments of WW1, but with the gameâ€™s tabletop plastic-soldier premise, I had horrible visions of this turning into something as bad as those old Army Men games. Thankfully, Toy Soldiers bears absolutely no resemblance to those. In fact, itâ€™s probably one of the best Xbox Live Arcade games of the year so far.
Signal Studios have managed to avoid the usual staid Tower Defence clichÃ©s by making Toy Soldiers instantly accessible, directly controllable and polished to a high sheen. The presentation will catch your eye to start with, offering a deliciously old-fashioned art direction that befits the gameâ€™s WW1 setting. The menus and loading screens look superb, and the gameâ€™s spot sound effects and scratchy gramophone music fit the gameâ€™s setting perfectly.
Unit graphics are also wonderfully done. Big chunky soldiers stand amongst blast craters, twisted barbed wire and beautifully painted backdrops. Itâ€™s oddly jarring to pan your in-game camera around and realise that behind all that, thereâ€™s a very modern room and your entire game world is actually on top of a table in someoneâ€™s lounge.
Toy Soldiers guides you through a simple tutorial that will let you get to grips with each of the gameâ€™s main units. The ultimate aim is to stop the enemy from â€œinvadingâ€ your Toy Box. Setting up units at strategic points along their route, you can choose where you make your stand and how youâ€™ll arrage various defensive measures as each attack wave is launched.
Basic units like machine gun nests and mortar batteries start off with a limited range and area of effectiveness. With every enemy unit you mow down, you earn a chunk of cash to spend on new unit types and, more importantly, upgrades for basic units.
Unlike most tower defence games, you can leap into the gunnery seat of a defence battery, and aim your crosshairs at the advancing enemy if you think your AI team arenâ€™t doing a good enough job. This makes Toy Soldiers feel like a particular retro classic that old C64 owners might remember, US Goldâ€™s sublime â€˜Beach Headâ€™.
Successfully defeating each wave means that the enemy will become ever more desperate until finally they launch everything they have at you, including â€œBossâ€-style superweapons like the Tsar Tank, a gigantic scenery-crushing wheeled monstrosity that takes a huge amount of hits to put down.
In between rounds youâ€™re presented with your stats for each level â€“ and naturally you can earn better scores by being economic with your unit spends and upgrades, and are also rewarded for keen marksmanship if you do take control of units yourself.
Once youâ€™ve progressed past using highly effective machine gun nests and mortars, youâ€™ll be rewarded with more sophisticated unlockable units like howitzers and chemical warfare installations. Each of these has a particular control method so placing them where theyâ€™ll be most effective becomes key to winning each level.
You can even leap in a sniper tower and take zoomed-in pot shots at the enemy. Sniper action is a lot of fun but itâ€™s very easy to get distracted, silently picking off individual enemy infantry units while huge swathes of them are breaching your defences in another part of the level. Not only that, but you can also leap directly into the cockpit of WW1 planes to take on the enemy from the skies. Chugging around in sopwith camels gives the game yet another fun element that puts it a cut above the Tower Defence competition.
In fact thatâ€™s probably what makes Toy Soldiers so appealing. Fighting a miniature war on several fronts means that on later levels you barely have time to think as your gun emplacements and barbed wire defences are overrun, and you slowly run out of cash as the enemy hordes advance.
Even when you become bored of the single player campaign, multiplayer LIVE and even a split-screen mode extend the gameâ€™s lifespan considerably. Itâ€™s probably one of the best split-screen sofa battlers Iâ€™ve played in the last few years, and certainly a great way to settle sibling arguments if you miss games that allow you to elbow your opponent in the ribs when they take out one of your finest units.
Iâ€™ve never been a fan of tower defence games, and Iâ€™m always surprised by the sheer number of different games appearing in the genre, pitting everything from zombies and killer plants against each other but not really bringing much in the way of innovation into this particular game type.
Signal Studios have proved me wrong though. Here is a game that goes beyond simple Tower Defence, immersing the player in a loud and bombastic world full of golden gameplay moments. Just when you think the game starts to become a little samey, itâ€™ll throw something else at you, forcing you to rethink the way you play. But it never throws you out of your comfort zone, putting the emphasis on fun and playability.
The world may still be waiting for the perfect gritty World War 1 game, but Toy Soldiers is a rollickingly entertaining game, superbly produced and definitely one of the high points of the XBLA releases seen so far this year.