- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Plastic superpowers battle in the downloadable epic Toy Soldiers: Cold War (Microsoft Studios and Signal Studios, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated: Teen, 1,200 Microsoft points equal to $15).

This part tower-defense, part third-person action game improves upon last year’s World War I themed effort from Signal Studios.

Players take part in 1980s fictional combat between American and Soviet forces using miniature figures and equipment set in retro locations.

Imagine an elaborate war-themed diorama situated in a hobby room, on a living room floor or family gaming table.

Now, imagine that war comes to life as a player strategically places firepower on bases around the diorama while enemy units begin to attack in waves (counting down before each new wave) to add to the panic or anticipation of the firefight.

Bases automatically defend a position, or a player can jump into any piece and take control of the armament.

If a commander can keep a set number of aggressive foes out of his toy-box headquarters and fend off all of the hostile waves, he survives the battle.

It sounds simple enough, with easy-to-access menus and intuitive controls, but the devil is in the complex depth and details.

Each piece of firepower costs cash (accumulated as enemy forces and environments are destroyed) to install and can be repaired and upgraded.

Each offers variations on machine-gun nests (MS Browning), anti-aircraft turrets (M48 chaparral), artillery batteries (M198 Howitzer) and anti-tank guns (BGM-71 TOW guided-missile launcher). Fully animated soldiers that load chambers and even stand back from the recoil man all of the firepower.

More absurd weapons include giant aerosol cans used as flamethrowers and a classic-looking bug sprayer available to gas troops.

Now Signal Studios adds the hands-on control of vehicles and aircraft such as tanks, attack helicopters and fighter jets to the mix.

By the way, I found it near impossible to handle an F-14 Tomcat in such a confined space, but an AH-64 Apache copter was easy to use and could stop an enemy assault cold in its tracks.

One more feature that just cements the brilliance and enormity of the fun is the chance to use special attacks (called a barrages) on opponents.

Besides carpet-bombing with B-52s and a nuclear strike, the absolute best of these earned events unleashes a commando dropped down from the heavens packaged in an action-figure case.

He bursts out and — surprise — it’s a near ferocious version of John Rambo with rocket launcher and M60E3 machine gun ready to blast the commies.

In a solo (and co-op) campaign, players get 11 multiwave missions. They are loaded with Soviet forces out to conquer the world as American forces defend select pieces of West Germany (right up against the Berlin Wall) and France (with the Eiffel Tower in the distance) or battle in a sandbox right next to the Egyptian pyramids, to name a few hot spots.

Also, a welcome survival mode, available in solo and co-op, delivers three maps to extend the action.

Additionally, six minigames hone skills including shooting down massive flies (the insect), smothering troop deployments with a machine gun and grenade launcher (always blow up the matryoshka dolls) and using night radar to obliterate enemy positions from high in the sky.

Minutiae on the battlefield will impress constantly, be it parachuting troops and red smoke flares lit for drop points, soldiers exploding into pieces, the use of positionable barbed wire to block enemy paths, missiles with onboard cameras, tanks sporting wind-up keys, and junk scattered around terrain tied to the 1980s (and not war) such as a Rubik’s Cube, a View-Master and VHS cartridge.

Ripping through the campaign is not too difficult but always satisfying (gamers will appreciate the three multistage bosses) even with modes such as Elite (place weapons and manually control everything) and General (pure Tower Defense; set stuff up and watch the results). Unfortunately, it’s just too short, and I hated to see it end.

Thankfully, a multiplayer versus challenge (local and online) will keep a pair of warriors enjoying their Toy Soldiers long after the main campaign.

Players choose either American or Soviet sides and, as they accumulate cash, not only can build defensive weapons but also can send batteries of vehicles at opponents.

It also provides the opportunity for a lucky player to access deadly Soviet machinery such as an Mi-8 Hip gunship, Scud missile launcher and the country’s secret weapon, Ivan.

Toy Soldier: Cold War immediately tapped into my inner child with its colorful and explosive action and is sure to dazzle real-time strategists, model makers and lovers of vintage weapons in the family.

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