Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Different World

As someone brought up in an era of basic bricks and plates with few specialised pieces to call upon, it's perhaps not surprising that the joys of Bionicle and more recently HERO Factory have eluded me. Hell, I'm even suspicious of Technic, although I am slowly starting to come around to that in my old age.... I genuinely struggle to see the attraction of LEGO pieces which don't have studs and which are therefore barely compatible with my huge existing LEGO collection. I fully understand that many others love Bionicle and the rest, and good luck to them, but it just doesn't appeal to me, in the same way I guess that I've never 'got' Meccano while millions of other people swear by it.

Given all of the above, therefore, something extremely unexpected happened last weekend. For the first time ever, I was tempted into buying one of these "non-LEGO" LEGO sets on a visit to a LEGO brand store. The 'something' that happened was LEGO producing a series of HERO Factory-style Super Heroes figures. Not a stud in sight, and an awful lot of frankly alien-looking pieces evident in the publicity shots, but Batman is Batman, so I handed over my money and took my first step into a strange new world....

The box for Set 4526 Batman (above) is smart-looking albeit unusually tall and narrow. It has strange, incomprehensible things printed on it like "FRICTION JOINT FOR BIGGER BUILDING", a reminder me that I was indeed intruding on a previously uncharted corner of the LEGO universe.

The instructions (above) feature the same artwork as the front of the box; they're the shape of a DVD box but smaller. Maybe it's just my imagination, but the pages seem thinner than those of other instruction booklets and I'm wondering if with the size and shape of the booklet and the texture of the paper LEGO are trying to recreate a comic book-like feel. This suspicion becomes stronger when you open the booklet and find a comic strip featuring Batman and the Joker inside the front cover (below; click to enlarge). It's a very slim instruction booklet, although still manages to accommodate an inventory of parts and 5 pages of advertising as well as the building steps.

In addition to the instructions, the box contains two sealed poly bags of parts and a larger loose black part which will form Batman's 'spine'. You can see a selection of parts below; for those like myself unaquainted with the likes of Bionicle and HERO Factory, the parts probably won't seem like LEGO at all....

Despite consisting of a paltry 12 building steps, the build itself took longer than it should have done, probably because I found myself a little disoriented by all the unfamiliar parts. The majority of connections seemed to be of the ball and socket variety; this allows for a substantial range of movement and ensures that Batman can be posed like a bone fide action figure. Even most of his body panels attach via ball and socket joints.

Batman cuts a surprisingly imposing figure once built, and he's bigger than I thought he'd be. By way of contrast, I introduced him to fellow do-gooder Buzz Lightyear from Set 7592 Construct-a-Buzz (below) and he's slightly taller. Batman's ball and socket construction technique, and his consequent expanded range of movement, means that he can be posed in a more realistic fashion than Buzz and adopts a more natural pose.

Close up, Batman's mask and face have a slightly matte look and feel compared with your average LEGO brick, and his classic comic book square jaw is nicely captured. The Batman symbol on his torso is printed - no stickers in this set, I'm pleased to report.

Overall, I'm really not sure what to make of this set. It doesn't look like LEGO to me, and the building experience was totally alien and not particularly enjoyable if I'm honest. I also can't see much likelihood of finding a use for the pieces in the kind of MOCs that I tend to build. I do however have to confess that I quite like the final result, and I suspect that there's a fair bit of play value for a particular demographic given that Batman can be posed like a fully-fledged action figure and looks quite cool.

Batman is part of a first wave of Super Heroes action figures, along with Set 4527 The Joker and Set 4528 Green Lantern. Three more figures - Iron Man, Captain America and The Hulk are expected to join them later this year. I'm undecided as yet whether I'll look to pick up more of these or not, although if I find them at a reasonable discount it might just tip the balance...

Batman consists of 40 pieces and has a MRSP of £10.99 ($14.99 U.S.). At time of writing he's available on Amazon's UK site at 11% off MRSP and comes with free delivery - click here to buy. Folks in the U.S. can get hold of Batman here, although you guys will have to pay the full $14.99 MRSP I'm afraid.... 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

One step back and two steps forward....

You could be forgiven for thinking that I'd given up on my city layout, last the subject of a blog posting almost 6 months ago. I'm well aware that things have gone rather quiet on that front, and apologies to those who've e-mailed me asking for progress reports. To be fair, my activities came to a grinding halt not as a result of unforgiveable sloth, but as a consequence of not having the pieces I needed to proceed and the delays I encountered while trying to source them. To my delight, however, I eventually took delivery of a few thousand light bley bricks of various sizes at the end of November, and it was game on....

City Layout : Lower Level on LDD
For those of you that haven't been following along, here's the story so far : the design of the lower level of my layout is done and has been consigned to LDD (screen grab above - click to enlarge). I've cleared sufficient space for the layout in my study, found some tables of an appropriate size to support it, and started to lay down some baseplates and railway track. While waiting for a large order of parts, I experimented with brick-built roads, which I decided to go with, and investigated the possibility of linking the upper and lower levels of the layout by way of a inclined loop of track (see picture below - click to enlarge) which I eventally decided not to do. And now you're caught up with everybody else....

Having rejected the notion, I have to confess that it was still with a somewhat heavy heart that I dismantled the lengthy section of inclined track and supports, thus stripping things back to the bare bones of basically just a loop of track on a bunch of 16 x 32 baseplates (below). I loved the idea of linking the two levels of the layout, but given the relatively small area I have to work with, it just wasn't practical and would have seriously limited what I could have built on the upper level, so it got the boot.

As you were....back to basics
Once the debris had been cleared, there was one final thing to figure out before I could start building in earnest. Having previously convinced myself that a one-stud clearance between the track and the outer tunnel walls of the lower level would be sufficient to allow my subway train of choice (the red Passenger Train) to be comfortably accommodated during its travels round the loop, I started to wonder whether it wouldn't in fact be better to give myself the option of using other trains as well, for the sake of variety if nothing else. Predictably, a one stud clearance wasn't nearly enough to allow most other trains I own to travel round the track, specifically at the corners where at least a 2 or 3 stud clearance was needed. Cue another delay while I pondered whether to just press on as planned and restrict myself to only using the red Passenger Train in the tunnels for all eternity, or whether I should bite the bullet and increase the clearance to give me more options. In the end, I decided to do the decent thing and increase the clearance between the track and the outer tunnel walls from one to three studs; this of course rendered my LDD mock-up somewhat obsolete and meant that I'd be to some extent flying blind. It also meant that the edges of the layout would overhang the tables by around 4 cm on each side. While this doesn't sound like much, only time will tell whether the loss of support around the edges will turn out to be a problem....

Having made my decision, I could finally get building. A combination of dark bley 32 x 32, 16 x 32 and 16 x 16 baseplates were used for the corners and held together with dark bley tiles; as well as loosely holding the baseplates together, the tiles also serve as support for the curved track sections. The curved sections are only attached at their very ends to the baseplates via a couple of 1 x 2 plates, but having run the red Passenger Train round and round the loop with my little boy more times than I care to recall, this hasn't been a problem thus far.

Below you can see the first few light bley bricks that I put into place. Having waited so long for these bricks to arrive, it was strangely exciting to be finally using them in earnest.....

From a very early stage I've planned for the layout to be modular. This'll allow for easier disassembly and subsequent reassembly, and hence potentially enable me to eventually display it at AFOL events if it turns out OK. The sections will be joined to each other via the track connections plus a few technic pins which fit into holes in the adjoining wall sections as you can see below. The intent is not to produce a strong join, merely to hold the sections in place and prevent them from moving around too much, while making it relatively easy to pull the different sections apart when desired.

A few subsequent build pics can be seen below (click to enlarge); it was actually pretty liberating to be able to temporarily stop scratching my head about design issues and instead just do some building and watch my LDD mock-up start to come to life.

The pictures below (click to enlarge) reveal where I'm at currently - an enormous amount still to do to complete the lower level, of course, but it's a start at least. The rear right corner section has reached the required height, and next it's just a case of building the walls up to the same height all the way round. Reassuringly, the red Passenger Train is comfortably accommodated within the tunnel and can move without obstruction; I suspect that this would also be the case for all the other trains that I own, with the notable exception of Emerald Night which needs an obscene amount of space when it negotiates curves, certainly more than I'm willing to provide it with....

As an aside, you can see from some of the pictures above that I'm afflicted by that scourge of AFOLs the world over - storage issues. I've had to resort to using the area to the right of the layout for 'temporary' set storage while I make alternative arrangements. I guess that subsequent layout progress reports will reveal whether I've been successful in doing this or not. I'm not a gambling man, but if I was, I unfortunately know where I'd place my bet....

Further updates to follow, as and when I have more to show you.

<-- LEGO City Layout : previous blog entry            LEGO City Layout : next blog entry -->

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Taking the Plunge

A couple of months back I wrote here of my disappointment that LEGO had decided to abandon its much-loved minifigure in the 2012 girl-focused Friends theme in favour of a new, doll-like creation.

Since I posted my initial impressions, LEGO have launched the new Friends sets amid a blaze of publicity and explained the reasons for the decision not to use standard minifigures in the theme. It seems to boil down to a belief that girls "hate" (LEGO's word, not mine) the standard minifig and want a more realistic character that they can identify with and project themselves into. So there you go. Those looking for more background on the extensive market research that underpins the new figures and the design of the sets can click here to read an interesting article about this in Bloomburg Businessweek.

Sceptical or not, I'm loathe to dismiss anything LEGO-related without first experiencing it for myself, so following the launch I visited my local John Lewis store and picked up one of the small Friends starter sets from the shelf for the purposes of my own, homespun market research....

Set 3931 Emma's Splash Pool (above) cost me £4.99 and contains 43 pieces. Other than the predictable pastel shades adorning the box, you can see an interesting purple scalloped effect on the sides of the box. For this and the other smallest sets in the Friends theme, these purple crescents are just printed on the front of box, but in the bigger sets the purple areas are literally scooped away and the front of the box bows outwards, leading to a distinctive sculpted appearance. I actually found this sculpting quite agreeable when I inspected the bigger sets on the retail shelves BUT it's going to cause problems with respect to stacking and storing the boxes, so any points for aesthetics are unfortunately lost when one considers the practicalities.

The box contains a set of folded instructions (above) consisting of 12 pages of building steps, an inventory of parts and pictures of a selection of other Friends sets complete with check boxes so you can tick them off as you buy them. There's also a single sealed polybag containing the pieces (below).

The first thing you notice on inspecting the bag of pieces is the riot of colour, particularly the garish preponderance of bright pink, lime and medium azure on show. Medium azure is a brand new colour for 2012, a lighter shade of blue compared with the dark azure last seen sported by Alien Defence Unit soldiers in the Alien Conquest sets. I'm a sucker for new colours, and it's this in addition to my curiosity about the new figures which was my main motivation for buying the set. While bright pink isn't a new colour for 2012, it might as well be from my perspective given the almost complete absence of any pieces in this colour within my existing sets.

So then - on to the build. As usual, the first step is to assemble the minifigure(s), or in this case, the "mini doll" as LEGO is calling them. She's called Emma, and you can see her below.

Emma is slightly taller than a regular minifigure, with a distinctly curvier, slimmer, daintier appearance. In contrast to regular minifigures, her legs don't articulate separately, although they do both bend together at the waist, and her hands are fixed, although they're otherwise similar to those of a regular minifig meaning that whatever a regular minifigure can hold, Emma can hold too. Including a lightsaber (and yes, I've checked - rude not to....). Helpfully, Emma can also swap hair and headgear with regular minifigures; the hole in the back of her hairpiece (below) accommodates standard accessories such as the feathers which come with a couple of the Collectible Minifigures, although no such accessories are included with this set.

Building the set itself, which consists of a sun lounger plus parasol, splash pool and plant pot, is predictably a 2-minute job, although unless you've invested in one of LEGO's Pink Brick Boxes it still probably contains more bright pink pieces than you've ever seen in one place before. There's really not much else to say about these little models (below; click to enlarge) beyond the colour selection, and more specifically the medium azure macaronis which form the curved walls of the splash pool and are at present at least unique to this set.

So what's the verdict ? Well, only time will tell whether LEGO have finally cracked their target market with these sets, although early anecdotal reports do seem encouraging. Like many other AFOLs, I'm certainly enthusiastic about the huge number of new parts and interesting new colours that the Friends theme has brought with it. Furthermore, I can't deny that Emma is cute and appealing, with an almost anime-like quality. I've still not seen anything to change my mind that trying to integrate her into a diorama alongside regular minifigures would look ridiculous, however, which was my principal complaint when images of the Friends sets first hit the internet.

And so to the million-dollar question : having now had a chance to sample one of the sets myself, not to mention enjoying a number of reviews over at Eurobricks and elsewhere, will this be my only foray into the Friends theme ? In a word, no. While I won't be rushing out and snapping up all of the sets as a matter of urgency, I can certainly see myself picking up a few of the sets such as the City Park Cafe. Like I said - I'm a sucker for new colours. Plus I can hardly leave Emma all alone without her Friends....

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The 2011 Gimme LEGO Readers Choice Award.....

....goes to Set 10217 Diagon Alley !

574 people voted in the end, and the final result was in doubt literally right up until the final minute of voting. Three sets - Diagon Alley, Set 7066 Earth Defense HQ and Set 10220 Volkswagen T1 Camper Van were running pretty much running neck and neck until the last couple of days, at which point the VW camper van fell away somewhat, leaving Diagon Alley and Earth Defense HQ to fight it out; in the end, Diagon Alley won by just one vote !

While I have to confess that I voted for the Alien Defense HQ set, Diagon Alley is a worthy winner of the award. As I stated in my Gimme LEGO Awards blog posting a couple of weeks back, "The design of the buildings brings to mind the revered modular building range, and the variety and quality of the minifigures means that there's something for everybody".

The final rankings can be found below (click to enlarge) :

It was pleasing to see that all the nominations got some votes as every one of them is a good set IMHO. I have to admit to being surprised that "None of the above" didn't get more votes, however. Furthermore, only a handful of people who chose this option gave details of their favourite set; Alien Conquest Set 7051 Tripod Invader was the most mentioned set in this regard.

And here's something for the statto's out there. The poll ran for a total of 10 days, during which time there were 4,689 unique visitors to Gimme LEGO who between them racked up about 11,500 page views. Given that 574 votes were placed, that means that only 12.2% of visitors, or approximately 1 in 8, voted. So the conclusion ? Gimme LEGO readers don't seem particularly interested in polls....!

Thanks to all who voted, and hearty congratulations to those within the LEGO company who were responsible for taking the winning Diagon Alley set from concept to reality - we salute you !