Version tested: Xbox 360
According to the Inverse Principle of Sequel Design, the quickest way to differentiate the follow up to any game is to take a superficial but obvious detail from the original and flip it. If the aliens invaded Earth in part one, part two should be about Earth invading the aliens. If the first story was at the bottom of the sea, the sequel takes place in the sky. If the hero was a man in the first game, in the sequel he becomes a Ms.
Toy Soldiers: Cold War seems to adhere perfectly to this unwritten rule, replacing the lead figurines and miniature World War I battlefields of the original game with gaudy action figures of the 1980s and scenarios that take obvious inspiration from era-appropriate movies such as Rambo, Top Gun and Red Dawn.
It's an inspired choice, in many ways, not least because it gives the game a sense of cheesy fun that the Somme can't really muster, and a commercially canny one. Mostly, the change in tone and era works because it brings with it lots of opportunities for fresh gameplay ideas. Signal Studios has resisted the urge to let its retro fetish carry the game and has instead taken the opportunity to expand and enhance its action-based tower defence template.
The fundamentals remain the same. Waves of enemies arrive from points on the map and make their way towards your toybox HQ via a variety of pathways. You have specific turret points where you can place machine gun nests, mortars, anti-tank positions, artillery and other defensive measures.
Where Toy Soldiers differs from its genre peers is in the ability to drop in and take manual control of any emplacement, switching to a first-person targeting view. The same is true of the battery-operated vehicles, which can only be player controlled. These allow you to trundle or fly around the play area until the batteries wear down.
A new layer of arcade-style features has been added to this familiar base. Key among these are barrages, similar in style to Call of Duty kill streak bonuses. Raise your score multiplier to 40x and you'll earn a random barrage which can be stockpiled for later. You can also earn these by killing star-marked enemy commanders on the field, but only if you pull the trigger yourself.
You might earn a simple artillery strike or a bombing run which can clear a straight line through advancing enemies. More exciting - and in wonderfully bad taste - is the nuclear strike, which is effectively (and inevitably) a smart bomb that clears the map. The best barrages are the ones that you take control of, however. One places you in the gunner seat of a circling support plane, using night vision to bombard positions below with gunfire, shells and bombs.
All pale beside the Commando, however. This shameless Rambo rip-off drops onto the battlefield, bursts out of his action figure packaging and can then be controlled in a rudimentary third-person shooter style, shooting thousands of rounds from his M60 and firing his bazooka with wild abandon. All the while he grunts and bellows, in garbled Stallonese, classic dumb action movie riffs like "You're pushing me!" and "This one's for Jimmy!" It's a moment of beautiful, idiotic catharsis.
The barrages create a nice intersection between Toy Soldiers' duelling action and strategy strands, which can sometimes grind against each other rather than working in harmony. You need good shooting skills to earn a barrage, but once it's in your inventory it becomes a tool to be deployed tactically, holding out for a wave that's just too tough to beat with your current turret set up.