Version tested: Xbox 360
The First World War is a bit of a white elephant for the gaming industry. Despite the abhorrently high body count, the wealth of interesting battlegrounds and the advent of both tanks and military aircraft, no one outside the strategy genre has ever really given the "War to end all wars" a fair depiction.
Perhaps it's the lack of a clear moral aspect, or that the weapons weren't very glamorous. Possibly it's because nobody wants to lie face down in a trench for three weeks before charging a machinegun nest with a two-ton rifle and a can of corned beef. Whatever the reason, Signal Studios has decided to redress the balance and bring the horrors of Passchendaele, Amiens and the Somme to Xbox Live Arcade in tower defence form.
Superficially, Toy Soldiers resembles any other tower defence game, save perhaps Plants vs. Zombies. Your base is a toybox sitting at the end of a battlefield, with various paths leading from enemy barracks and factories towards it. Along these routes are emplacements, upon which you'll be building the weaponry that will defend your precious base.
Enemies come in waves of various different flavours, and your job is to place weapons appropriately to halt their advance. Each enemy, be it infantry, cavalry, tank or aircraft, will remove one point from your total of 20 if it reaches the toybox, and running out of points means starting again.
What Toy Soldiers does differently to other tower defence games, and does very well, is allow the player to take direct control - not only of the various weapon emplacements but also of the tanks, sniper towers and biplanes which start to appear at your base once the campaign progresses. Jumping into the firing seat should, if you're competent, grant a bit of an advantage - as well providing a great deal of misanthropic pleasure.
There are also other advantages to be had, even if you're not too confident of your shooting skills. Taking over a howitzer, the game's large artillery pieces, will allow you to guide the shells toward their target once in flight, and also control their speed. Drop into a machinegun and you can fire at enemy infantry well before the AI normally would, mowing them down in large groups as they emerge from barracks in closely packed formations.
Still, pounding away at lines of enemy tanks with a mortar is enjoyable, but the real fun comes when you take possession of vehicles. The first of these is the Whippet tank, a steel box on a bigger steel box with a gun up front and a trio of gas-dispensing nozzles guarding the other sides.
Its bigger brother, known as 'Big Willie', has the same main armament but swaps the gas dispensers for slightly more effective flamethrowers. All the same, you'll probably be doing a lot of running over people in these.
Planes come in fighter and bomber varieties, with the cumbersome bombers replacing the agility of the fighters with recharging bombs. They're a joy to control, and add an important new tactical aspect to the game. Because emplacements are often occupied by the enemy when a level begins, and because they'll often be upgraded models with a long range, they'll be quick to target your towers and destroy them. Hop in a tank or plane, however, and your manoeuvrability lets you evade their projectiles and destroy them, opening a new emplacement and furthering your domination of the battlefield.
Another thing to note is that while dropping control of a plane will see it spiral into the dirt, jumping out of a tank gives the player a 10-second grace period to manage the battlefield before the tank explodes. (It's no disaster if you miss the window, by the way, because all vehicles respawn in your base after a few seconds.)
This grace period forces the player to manage time wisely. Emplacements are often the most effective way of taking out enemies, but they'll also fire autonomously, whereas tanks and planes will not. Sensible use of these vehicles often decides battles.
They're not super-weapons, though. Tanks are, accurately, incredibly slow, with main guns that only cover a fairly narrow arc in front of the vehicle. Enemy mortars and howitzers will make short work of you if you hang around, but shooting on the move is made difficult by the rutted and undulating nature of the terrain.