If, like us, you loved playing pretend wargames with tiny plastic soldiers when you were a kid, then Toy Soldiers is made for you. The upcoming downloadable game for Xbox Live Arcade combines a lot of different influences: tower defense, real-time strategy, and shooter all combine in the gameplay and are bolstered by World War I weaponry, appealing retro toy art, and goofy humor to boot. That might sound like one too many cooks in Toy Soldier's kitchen, but as we found out today playing the game at the Microsoft booth on the show floor at CES 2010, all of those elements add up to what seems like will be a fun mix.
Toy Soldiers will feature both single-player and multiplayer components; in the single-player game, you'll play through two separate campaigns (Britain and Germany), each with 12 missions to play through. Each mission will require you to defend your base from wave after wave of enemy unit attacks. Throughout your base, you'll have specific areas where you can build military placements--machine-gun nests, Howitzer cannons, and so on. Once a defense placement is built, it will automatically begin to take part in the battle and you can upgrade or replace your placements with money you earn by killing enemy units.
So far, this is pretty straightforward tower defense stuff. The twist in the Toy Soldier formula here is that you can take direct control of any unit you've built--be it the sniper tower to take out enemy soldiers from hundreds of yards away, the machine-gun nest to mow down hordes of bad guys, or the Howitzer cannon that will let you guide your explosive shell in midair to do the most amount of damage possible. While placements will be formidable when on autopilot, they'll be that much more effective under your direct control--for example, taking control of a machine-gun nest will make the gun shoot faster than it normally would otherwise. Watch out, however, because prolonged fire will cause the gun to overheat and temporarily take it out of action.
In the tutorial level we played, we had a chance to get used to the basics of moving around the different spots in our base, setting up our defense, and blasting enemy soldiers away. As a mission continues, the enemy units will change things up--what starts as a simple infantry rush quickly becomes a stampede of calvalry units or miniature tanks, and even a huge two-wheeled cannon that stands hundreds of feet high. As the enemy types vary, so too will your tactics--when they bring out the bombers, you'll need to make sure you have antiaircraft gun placements handy. If you're getting overrun by an infantry rush, you can place barbed wire barriers in their path to slow them down and give your gun emplacements time to take them down. Both the enemies you fight and the weapons you use will have their own strengths and weaknesses--your goal will be to use the right tool at the right time to get the job done.
Though you only defend your base in the single-player campaign, multiplayer is a one-on-one match that will include both defending your base and invading your opponent with any kind of unit available to you--including infantry, planes, tanks, and more. All of the units are based on real World War I units, though the game's art style gives the horrors of war a playful, almost nostalgic touch. In fact, if we had to point to one thing as our favorite aspect of Toy Soldiers it would be the art style--this is no blood and guts wargame; instead, the units take their inspiration from the plastic toy soldiers you might have collected as a kid. The toy theme carries through to the environments themselves, with the missions taking place in dioramas built out of the toy boxes the units might have come from. Amid the dramatic wartime landscapes filled with trees, bridges, and buildings, you'll notice the quotidian details of what might be a family living room in the background.
Completing the campaigns will earn you clothing items for your Xbox Live avatar (a gas mask for the British campaign and a German soldier's helmet for the German campaign, specifically), and beating the entire game will unlock survival mode for the various maps. Here the goal will be to survive for as long as possible against an unending wave of enemies (which will also tie to online leaderboards).
While there's a lot to like about Toy Soldiers, we're not entirely sold on the idea of predetermined spots for your gun emplacements--we prefer the relative freedom of traditional tower defense games that let you place your units wherever you like on the battlefield. Still, that's perhaps our only quibble based on what we've seen so far. From its appealing retro presentation to its seemingly addictive gameplay, Toy Soldiers is impressive both as a modern-day downloadable game and as a love letter to a bygone era of childhood amusement. We look forward to diving deeper into the game ahead of its release this spring.