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.
Planes are extremely susceptible to enemy anti-aircraft fire - which has considerable range - so these need to be taken out with long-range artillery or tank fire. It's an interesting addition to the game's tactical repertoire, and does a great deal to enhance the rock-paper-scissors nature of the weapon balance. It's also tremendously enjoyable, and I defy anyone who's ever even heard of Biggles not to make ACK-ACK-ACK noises as they swoop a Sopwith Camel across enemy trenches, raking infantry with machinegun fire (take that, Von Stalhein).
The fully three-dimensional maps are beautifully rendered and designed - covered in scorched shell holes and ragged ruins, littered with the hulks of broken vehicles and stitched with trenches. Initially enemies will all come from the same source, pouring towards your emplacements along predictable paths and generally directly into the teeth of your guns.
As the campaign advances, however, the battlefields become bigger and more complex, offering several potential routes of enemy advance. These are set for each level, meaning that the tower defence staple of trial and error is still very much in evidence, but troops will make occasional deviations.
Navigating these maps is accurate and easy, with a choice between top-down and positionable camera modes making it simple to switch between the perspectives of general and grunt. Upgrades and repairs are easily performed, too, with the d-pad offering shortcuts to these functions once a unit is highlighted with the cursor.
Every few levels brings an improbably sized 'boss' lumbering from the opponent's war chest, with giant tanks, zeppelins and armoured trains marauding across the battlefield. These take a far greater degree of planning to deal with, and generally require fully upgraded weaponry. This means that you're unlikely to finish them off first time, so you'll probably be repeating their levels a fair bit. This can be frustrating, but Toy Soldiers is always fair and consistent - proper placement and management of your forces will always bring you victory in a logical manner.
There's a generous chunk of content here, with the considerable single-player campaign unlocking the German-orientated "campaign+" upon completion. There's also the option of taking on Elite mode, where none of your towers will fire automatically. This ups the ante considerably - perhaps too much to be genuinely enjoyable - but you can't fault Signal for its inclusion.
Each mission also has a unique target goal, such as the acquirement of a certain amount of cash (earned by destroying enemy troops), or taking out three soldiers with a single bullet, earning a 'Ration Ticket'. Though their collection only unlocks an achievement rather than anything more concrete, they offer useful tactical insights and thought-provoking challenges.
Further to all this is the local and online multiplayer mode. This puts you in control of launching the waves of troops and vehicles necessary to overcome your foe as well as the usual battlefield management. There are new maps to choose from, each with a specific focus on a troop type or assault method, and money earned must be divided sensibly between attack and defence.
Holding Y brings up a menu of three attack options, which change according to the map, and these can be launched at a delay for cash. It's a strangely distanced way of attacking, and doesn't come close to the enjoyment of direct control, but it's hard to think of an alternative. Direct control is still an option in multiplayer, but it's not much use for direct assaults on the enemy toybox, although using direct control fills a gauge, unlocking a devastating artillery barrage once full, allowing generals to unleash a coup de grace when the enemy's defences are ravaged.
Overall, this is a wonderfully detailed and polished piece of entertainment, stuffed full of delightful touches and great ideas like the cogs which spew from your clockwork tanks and horses, or the high-stepping animations of troops on the run from artillery fire.
Its charm, and the very nature of its miniaturised models, lend it a levity which has some dissonance with the subject material, but it's a welcome one, entertaining whilst never feeling irreverent or disrespectful. Jolly gramophone records form an authentic, scratchy soundtrack, and a splendid 'tilt-shift' camera mode allows you to freeze the action and navigate it like a superbly detailed tabletop diorama.
Toy Soldiers is a lot of fun - full of freshness and subtlety. It's certainly the best tower defence game on Live, and for my money it's up there with the best games on XBLA in general. 1200 Microsoft Points (around £10) might be pretty weighty for an XBLA title, but there's a depth of quality and enjoyment here which justifies it in spades.
8 / 10