I’m struggling to come up with something to say about Toy Soldiers. It’s a game that almost goes out of its way not to elicit any emotions from the player, which is kind of odd given its choice of World War I as a setting. World War I is not a conflict often visited by games, and this is probably because it’s difficult to design a game set amidst the stark horror of the trench warfare in no-man’s land when WW1’s younger, more attractive sibling is right there in the sunny Normandy bocage. There’s little strategy to human wave attacks and no real latitude for the ludicrous acts of personal heroism that FPSes are so enamoured with, and so the only thing you can really do with a World War I setting is make a tower defence game out of it.
This is exactly what Toy Soldiers does, and it sidesteps the potential moral issue of reducing the tragic mass slaughters of the First World War to a leisure activity where you try to mow down as many Germans as possible by setting everything inside a toy box. As the name implies, all those German soldiers dying in futile mass charges against your defences are toy soldiers. Your turrets are toys, manned by toy soldiers. The tanks and planes on both sides are toys. When you kill an enemy soldier he explodes into cogs and springs rather than limbs and organs, thus neatly removing the “Oh the humanity!” problem that might have occurred otherwise. However, while this decision does have other upsides — the mismatch of scale between different toys allows the developers to insert some truly outsize bosses — I feel that ultimately it detracts from the game by making everything rather… unreal? It’s unreal anyway, of course, what with being a videogame and all, but the stiff, stilted toy animations do little to imbue these tiny men running across the mud-churned wasteland with any sense of liveliness, and it robs the game of any real impact that it might have had.
I keep coming back to this word when describing a lot of games, but as a result of this Toy Soldiers ends up being rather sterile. World War I is quite a depressing setting at the best of time, but by insulating the player from it in this way Toy Soldiers ends up feeling rather distant and remote, like a game that isn’t really invested in entertaining me and is only doing so grudgingly and half-heartedly. I mean, Toy Soldiers looks excellent by tower defence game standards, but it’s a cold, cold kind of beauty like an Antarctic mountain range – nice to look at, but you wouldn’t want to go there. This whole isolated quality that permeates the game ensured that it elicited no emotional response from me whatsoever. Sure, I wasn’t horrified at the graphic depiction of gas attack in the trenches, but I wasn’t having any fun either.
Toy Soldiers isn’t helped by the rather stupid decision to severely limit the number of places where you can site your turrets. There’s no route manipulation here, and while there are a few maps where the enemy attacks from different directions the fact that they all have to be defended at once means these maps just give you more to deal with at once. Toy Soldiers is therefore a question of what you put down rather than where you put it, and since there’s maybe half a dozen turret types – none of which interact in any way – there’s very little strategy to it. It doesn’t help that each map is themed, either – here’s the airplane map! And the tank map! Remember to build your anti-air and anti-tank turrets! And then do… what, exactly?
Toy Soldiers at least makes an effort here with its direct control mechanic. At any time you can take over one of your turrets and start shooting at the Germans yourself for some bonus cash. This is undeniably effective, but I get the impression that the accuracy of the AI-controlled turrets has been sabotaged in order to make it necessary for you to do this, at least judging from the way they’d repeatedly fire several metres to the right or left of the giant enemy tank but never in the middle. This is frustrating to watch, to say the least; you have the correct turrets set up to kill the particular enemy type that’s charging your defences but they refuse to hit it, and unless you take control of one yourself it’ll barrel right through and into your base. It turns what could have been a fun little bonus and a way of releasing a little steam into a tedious necessity; it’s far less fun if you have to do it.
The same is true of the vehicles. Doing strafing runs on charging infantry in your Sopwith Camel is somewhat exhilarating, but any time you get in a tank you’re reduced to being just a mobile turret because there’s nothing you can really do here except kill the attacking waves. There are enemy turrets scattered around that give you a nominal reason to move forward; sadly, the unlimited ammo means you basically just hold the fire button down until everything dies.
And that’s it, really. Toy Soldiers isn’t a tower defence game as such, it’s more like a turret defence game in the vein of Incoming and that other game where you’re mowing down the Allies as they storm theNormandy beaches. Given that Incoming exhausted the possibilities of this genre in the space of precisely one game, and that Incoming had much prettier explosions despite being fifteen years older, it doesn’t reflect fantastically on Toy Soldiers’ potential for entertainment. I bought it because it was £3 and a game set in the First World War and I don’t see many of those. After playing Toy Soldiers I’m starting to understand why.