To be honest, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the original Army Men on PC. In the series’ heyday, as more and more titles were hitting the market at a staggering pace, the press would often look back on that original game and mention what a shame it was that such a fun game was buried under so much garbage. To finally experience that game and find that it suffered from many of the same ailments that could be found in its offspring; it was both enlightening and disappointing.
On the other hand, Army Men II hit the mark a lot better. Rather than shelling everything into a hostile little package of frustration like the first one did, it seemed to be built with a more playful mentality. Fun seemed to be the first item on the development team’s to-do list, and while still rough around the edges, they mostly achieved that goal. Army Men: Toys in Space has a different team with different goals in mind: the first goal is to take what was fun about Army Men II and expand that, while its second goal is to then step on that fun and grind it into the dirt.
ONE SMALL STEP FOR PLASTIC MEN
Once again, you’re placed in the plastic boots of Sarge, a generic toy soldier in the Green army. This time around, the Tan have teamed up with alien invaders and are out to take over the world. The Green, never the ones to be outdone, soon find themselves allying with their own team of spacemen, these ones led by Tina Tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure what makes Tina Tomorrow’s squad good and what makes their opponents evil because I could rarely hear the dialogue over the game’s music and sounds, but even based on aesthetics alone, it’s a fun piece of retro sci-fi.
It’s also a storyline that is perhaps the most bizarre in the series. Not that a story about plastic soldiers locked in an eternal race war has ever been very realistic, but Toys in Space twists the narrative in more ways than just the inclusion of sci-fi elements. For starters, it complete eschews the “plastic” world portions, and instead always features the soldiers in their own scale, that is to say, three centimeters tall. The series almost invariably insists that these soldiers are strangers to our world, but Toys in Space prefers to gloss over this. The Green army is depicted less as a cohesive military unit, and more like a helpful race of heavily armed gnomes fighting for the greater good. It even goes as far as presenting civilians in one mission, depicted as generic figures molded from various hues of plastic.
It’s a strange change of pace, for sure, but the way the series had already progressed from the comparatively straight-faced Army Men to the dark-ish humour of Army Men II, it isn’t difficult to just accept it as the inevitable next step.
HELL IS OTHER TOYS
While the original Army Men had a few encounters with fellow green squad members, Army Men II expanded on this and provided you with a more persistent squad. I found them to be completely useless, but was also able to completely ignore them and tear through the frontline solo. Toys in Space feels little need to accommodate this playstyle, and instead forces cooperation with your useless colleagues at almost every opportunity.
There’s a few tweaks that could have been made to create a more tolerable situation, but none of them have been made. The controls, for example, have consistently sucked for the PC series, and they continue to suck here. Figuring out how to break your units up into squads, how to individually select soldiers, and how to actually command them is a chore in itself, and one that seems hardly worth the bother. The units themselves are as daft as a bucket of gelatin, and are rarely effective, even when specifically directed against a target. Their pathfinding is absolutely atrocious, which necessitates babysitting your individual squads as they struggle to avoid danger while accomplishing their given objectives. The game then places the ludicrous requirement of defending multiple locations at once, something that the squads are just not capable of.
It’s infuriating to have to rely on these dunderheads, but it’s even more vexing when you have to rely on them during the dreaded escort and defense missions, which are numerous throughout the campaign. It’s bad enough that you have to manage your troops, since you can’t be everywhere at once, but the game has the gall to spawn enemies directly beside whatever it is you’re trying to protect, giving you little time to both take notice and react. That’s complete BS and infuriating beyond words. To make matters worse, Tina Tomorrow appears in a handful of missions, and despite her being tremendously impotent, her survival is necessary for completion of the mission, and I swear that the AI singles her out every time.
A GALAXY OF PLAYTHINGS
It’s really unfortunate, because Toys in Space is absolutely packed to the collar with new stuff. On top of additional enemies that add variety to your adversaries, you’re given a huge arsenal of new and ridiculous weapons. From airstrikes to globs of glue, the developers have taken to substantially increase your given combat options. You’re still limited to 6 guns, which is probably for the best, since switching between them can still get pretty confusing in the heat of battle.
The enemy variety has been greatly bolstered by the presence of aliens, and for once, an Army Men game actually features a boss battle. While there are a few annoying enemies, like the ants that are difficult to hit with conventional weapons, the game greatly benefits from the extended variety of baddies. Most of them don’t behave that much differently than the typical tan troopers, but considering all you would get in previous games were the generic tans, it’s a welcome addition, even from a visual diversity standpoint.
THEY CAN STAY IN SPACE, FOR ALL I CARE
Let’s be fair to the development team; Toys in Space was released the same year as Army Men II, so it’s entirely possible that a lot of the game’s problems were the result of a rushed development schedule. 3DO had a policy of getting games to market within 6-9 months, something that surely had an effect on the series’ quality. It’s possible that the team had plans for addressing the mechanics held over from the previous games to allow them to better mesh with the game’s overall design. Maybe those changes even existed in incomplete forms, but they ran out of time, so they had to fall back on the existing systems which simply don’t work adequately. Who knows?
Conjecture doesn’t forgive a bad game, though, and Toys In Space certainly resides in that territory. It’s sad, because the game’s actual content is exciting, but the execution is so horrendous that it doesn’t matter. It’s terribly disappointing to see a game that puts in the effort to extend the features of its predecessor, but still manages to fail so hard at making an enjoyable experience. I can’t explain how frustrating this is; Toys in Space provides all the ingredients for a fun time, then pushes you down the stairs. I’d rather swallow a package of 9-volt batteries than ever play this game again.
This review was conducted on a digital copy of the original game obtained from gog.com. It was paid for by the author.
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