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It's weird to think that Toy Soldiers: Cold War could be some gamers' first exposure both to playing with GI Joes and Communism, but statistically speaking, that's pretty likely. Thanks to the über-hip democracy-lovin' rockers at Rock the Vote, we know the age of the average Xbox Live user is a tender, impressionable 20. That means they were born after 1991, Bar Mitzvahed long after grunge's demise, and unless they were paying attention in high school, haven't really heard of Mikhail Gorbachev. Since Toy Soldiers: Cold War attempts to skate by chiefly on its charms and Toy Story-like sheen, the double-dose of nostalgia will largely prove as ineffectual as a duck-and-cover drill.
In a way, its reliance on kitschy historical references should be discounted anyhow, since here they serve to distract from the lack of considerable improvements made over last year's model, Toy Soldiers, which was set during World War I. The main gimmick remains the same: this is a tower-defense game where you're granted the ability to manually control your toy-soldier units, providing backup to the other AI-controlled stations. You can stand back and let your gunners and anti-tank soldiers do all the work if you really want, but their aim tends to be just spotty enough to necessitate you hopping in to mow down wave after wave of those crusty toy-Reds. If too many enemies storm your Toy Box base, it's game over for the good old US of A.
It's here where Cold War offers a couple new wrinkles on the familiar action. The addition of "wave list rewind" makes things perhaps far too easy, allowing you to hop back in time to a previous enemy wave and redistribute your turret investments more wisely. For example, instead of upgrading your poison-flinging soldiers, maybe it'd be smarter to install a few anti-aircraft stations instead. It's kinda like cheating, since there are no repercussions or penalties for doing so, but it's a nice make-good over the previous game, which would force you to replay the same 20-minute level after being stomped by a boss.
The scales are tipped more in the player's favor via two other additions: the commando and era-appropriate (for the '80s) battery stations for vehicles. The former is an unabashed Rambo homage, with the shirtless maniac toting both a rocket launcher and a machine gun, blasting everything in sight into oblivion while shouting half-baked one-liners like, "This one's for Jimmy!" or "You wanted a war?!" He's only controllable in certain instances, and is the only unit who lets you roam about the battlefield instead of holding completely still or rotating around like other soldiers.
The battery packs offer a nice sense of urgency to controlling the vehicles in every stage, because as powerful as the fighter jet or the tank might be, there's a built-in shelf life they have now - you can either return them to the charger in time or risk them self-destructing and therefore waiting a few minutes before you can use them again. It's also a clever way of building more paranoia into the admittedly easier stages, because if you spend too much time hot-dogging it with the tank, the enemy will inevitably use this as an opportunity to sink your weaker outposts. Constant monitoring is simply a necessity, as is repairing and upgrading whenever possible. But even then, the levels don't exactly start posing a challenge - or begin to get interesting - until the very end.
Once you've slaughtered every toy Russian in existence, extra shelf life comes in the form of survival mode, co-op, and minigames. Of those three, though, survival mode is the only one worth pouring your time into. Co-op is a nice diversion, but it has you replaying the same levels again. And with a few exceptions, the minigames are nothing but the tutorial levels served up again, only with a stricter time limit to encourage hyperactive leaderboard-climbing - except for the level that lets you blast an alarming amount of flies invading an unsuspecting cereal bowl.
Predictable though it might be, survival mode does give Cold War some more legs, and it offers difficulty that's simply lacking in the overall campaign. True, you can unlock harder versions of each level after beating them (elite mode disables turret AI; general mode disables controlling units manually), but you have to contend with being coddled first before facing a game that pushes forcefully back. Do kids today with their rock music and extreme ketchup have the patience for that?
Aug 15, 2011