There's an endearing irony to Signal Studio's Toy Soldiers; a game that takes place in the miniature world of an antique table-top board game. Toy Soldiers pits two toy armies against one another in a charming title that fuses the strategy of tower defense titles with the action of third-person shooters. With detailed miniature replicas of weaponry, artillery and vehicles, Toy Soldiers will have War enthusiasts and strategy nuts swooning with delight. Veterans of the tower defense genre shouldn't ignore the game based on the childish connotations of its title; Toy Soldiers is as deep and rewarding as the genre gets.
If you haven't played a tower defense game before (and shame on you), this paragraph is just for you. Towers, in this case weaponry in the style of World War 1 toys, must be placed at strategic positions around a map to stop the relentless advances of an opposing army. This army is hell-bent on gaining entry to your Toy Box, which must be protected at all costs. The enemy will arrive in waves of increasing difficulty, and should one manage to break through your defences and reach said toy box, you'll lose a life. Lose all your lives and it's game over.
The start of each game will give you enough money to set up a few towers, but you're going to need a lot more to create a solid defence. Thankfully, each defeated enemy yields a set amount of money based on their type, which can be used to create new towers or repair and upgrade existing ones. Towers can only be built on specific build sites, which come in two different sizes. The smaller ones allow for anti-infantry guns, mortars and chemical weapons, whilst the larger sites allow for long range canons and anti-air guns. Knowing the best place to position your weapons is vital for impeding the enemy's advances. The addition of a few more towers might have been nice, as well as changes to the aesthetics of upgraded ones, but this is a very minor gripe.
The formula itself has been well used many times before, but Toy Soldiers introduces some welcome new mechanics to the genre. Artillery and vehicles (including Red Barons) can be physically manned, switching the gameplay to that more reminiscent of a third-person shooter. You can hop in and out of towers at any point, allowing you to move about the map based on where the action is. It works incredibly well, not just from a control perspective, but also from that of the game as a whole. In similar games enemies often follow a set path to your base, but in Toy Soldiers they take a variety of paths, changing their approach from wave to wave. The option to actually take control of a turret makes dealing with this much easier.
Tower defense connoisseurs might worry that this new mechanic will distract them from the overall strategy, and that their time would be better spent building or upgrading. Signal Studios has dealt with this problem by restricting the number of build sites and upgrades available to each unit. Once you've set up a few towers, you have more than enough time to sit back in the comfort of your gunner seat and await the enemy. Should you have to make any vital changes to you defence, however, it only takes a second to switch back to the main overhead view and modify your units.
Progressing through the campaign will unlock different turrets and upgrades, and by the latter levels you'll have access to a wide range of units allowing for numerous tactical options. Bosses later on in the game require specific strategies to bring down successfully, which only become apparent through spending some time with the game, and learning the traits of each unit. As well as three difficulty settings, each level has an elite mode that is unlocked after its completion. Upon completion of the main game, there's a Campaign + which allows players to play through the game as the opposing side, Central Powers. Adding even more life to the game is the multiplayer mode, with options for both split screen and online play.
The tower defense game is a rare breed on XBLA, but Toy Soldiers waves the flag for its genre valiantly. The strategy is in depth, the shooting is solid, and the combined blend of the two is executed with charm and finesse. Despite the new mechanics, the addictive core at the heart of all tower defense games remains intact. At 1200 Microsoft Points (just over £10) Toy Soldiers can be considered a premium arcade title, but the quality and longevity of the content on offer more than justify the price tag.