Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Race Against Time

I'm a notoriously slow builder. Set 10179 Ultimate Collector's Millennium Falcon took me the best part of 3-months to complete, and it's a source of some amusement to certain AFOL friends of mine that it takes me so long to finish my builds. It's not so much that the process of finding each piece and placing it in the correct position takes forever, more that I take frequent breaks while I build, some of which have a tendency to last days, or occasionally weeks, rather than minutes.... I certainly like to savour my building time, that's for sure, rather than rushing things too much. After all - what's the hurry?

Given all this, you might consider that a recent request from Fairy Bricks head honcho Kevin Gasgoigne for me to live-build a large model over the course of a weekend on behalf of the Fairy Bricks charity might be somewhat foolhardy.... For those who aren't aware, Fairy Bricks raises money to buy LEGO sets which it donates to childrens' wards at hospitals and hospices, and Gimme LEGO is proud to consider itself a Friend of Fairy Bricks. The charity was due to have a presence at the recent Bright Bricks and Bricks UK Exhibition of LEGO at Sandown Park racecourse, and the plan was for me to live-build Set 10234 Sydney Opera House during the show as a way of encouraging people to buy tickets for the raffle where the first prize was a new and sealed copy of the set. I have to admit that I had my doubts - at 2989 pieces the set is by my reckoning the 11th largest that LEGO have ever produced, and I was only going to be able to attend the show for a day and a half as I had a couple of other commitments to fit in. All that having been said, it was obviously a request that I couldn't refuse. I therefore agreed, albeit with some degree of trepidation, and so it was that a couple of months later I found myself heading down to Sandown Park racecourse in Epsom, South London on a crisp Saturday morning.

So how does a laid-back builder go about constructing a 2989-piece collossus in a day and a half? Well, apart from a generous supply of caffeine and chocolate, I figured that I'd just have to get my head down and focus - no mean feat given that I'd be building the model in a crowded and noisy exhibition hall. Shortly after arrival at the venue I was given custody of the set (above) and I wasted no time in slicing through the three tape seals at one end of the huge, bulging box and emptying out the contents - four instruction booklets sealed in a cardboard-backed bag, a bunch of blue baseplates, and a prodigious number of bags containing LEGO elements. Most of the bags are printed with a number corresponding to the instruction booklet that they're associated with, and in this way the build is split into four distinct stages. I'd brought along a few of the clear plastic crates that I use to sort pieces at home when I'm building large sets, so for each stage in turn I emptied out all the correspondingly numbered bags into a crate and roughly sorted them into small elements at one end and larger elements at the other to make finding pieces a bit easier. Parts-wise I've never seen so much dark tan in one place, so if you're looking for a dark tan parts pack then look no further....

The first instruction booklet, which consists of just 48 pages from cover to cover, guides you through construction of the area to the front of the Opera House (pictures above and below - click to enlarge). This part of the build is relatively quick and straightforward. Consisting mainly of a representation of the 100-metre wide ceremonial staircase known as the Monumental Steps which leads up to the two main performance venues, this first stage of the build sits on a couple of blue baseplates with a combined area of 32 x 48 studs. The separate structure which sits to the front of the Opera House is actually a restaurant, and its roof isn't completed until the very end of the build. The restaurant windows are comprised of black 6 x 6 and 10 x 10 round corner bricks which are cleverly positioned and held in place 'back to back', i.e. underside to underside, as you can (just about) see in the photographs.

The second instruction booklet, which runs for a total of 72 pages, covers the construction of the rest of the Opera House and its surrounds, with the exception of the two main auditoria with their vaulted, sail-like roof structures and towering windows at the front and back. This section is mounted on a blue 48 x 48 baseplate which is unique to the set. By lunchtime on Saturday when I needed to sneak off elsewhere I'd been building for a total of approximately three and a half hours during which time I'd polished off the first instruction booklet and about a third of the second booklet.

I arrived at the venue early on Sunday morning to crack on with the build, conscious that the pressure was well and truly on if I was going to finish up by 6 pm that day. I polished off the remainder of the second instruction booklet within a couple of hours, at which point Stage 2 of the build (pictures above and below - click to enlarge) was complete. The next job was to join the two completed sections together; this is achieved using just a couple of humble Technic pins, with the yellow Technic liftarms protruding from the base of each section acting as guides to ensure that the sections are correctly aligned relative to each other. While the second section took a fair bit longer to complete than the first, the build was nevertheless once again quite straightforward. I thought the curved terrace section that you can see in the picture above was particularly nicely realised - the curve is approximated via the use of a number of 1 x 4 hinge plates and the area inside the curve is neatly filled in with a variety of wedge plates; if you look closely you can see a couple of awkwardly-shaped areas filled with two 2 x 4 wedge plates.

With the first two booklets completed it was time to move on to booklet three which contains instructions for construction of the larger of the Opera House's two main auditoria, the Concert Hall. In the model, the space beneath the sail-like roof is almost entirely filled with the structures which support the different roof elements and hold them at the correct angles. In comparison to the previously completed sections of the build, construction of the roof was trickier and needed a little care and concentration. The roof sections are held in place by a number of Technic A-frames which are angled via the use of ball-and-socket joints; it's pretty ingenious and the result is instantly recognisable, although if I have a criticism it's that the gap running along the apex of the roof isn't aesthetically very pleasing. In truth, however, it's hard to see how this could have been avoided.

You can see pictures of the completed Concert Hall above (front view) and below (rear view), with the sail-like roof sections bookended by large expanses of glass. The picture below nicely demonstrates how the different roof sections are held at different angles via the use of ball and socket joints as previously described.

Once instruction booklet three was done and dusted I felt like I was on the home straight. Without further ado I dived into instruction booklet four and the final part of the build.  This commenced with construction of the smaller of the two main auditoria - the Joan Sutherland Theatre. I was on a roll by this time, and with the end in sight I steamed through this section in double-quick time.

While not identical to the Concert Hall, construction of the Joan Sutherland Theatre predictably followed along very similar lines which inevitably provoked a sense of deja vu. That having been said, a degree of repetition is almost inevitable in a build of this size. You can see pictures of the completed Joan Sutherland Theatre above (front view) and below (rear view).

The completed Concert Hall and Joan Sutherland Theatre sections could then be dropped into their respective slots in the structure below, at which point Sydney Opera House was almost finished. Both auditoria are only attached underneath by a few studs but that's nevertheless more than enough to hold them securely in place. All that was left to do was to construct the curved glass structures at the rear of each auditorium, build and attach the restaurant roof, place 28 lamp posts onto the boardwalk around the sides of the building, and I was done ! You can see various views of the completed model below (click to enlarge).

Total build time turned out to be a little over 9 hours which was less than I'd expected. I'm pretty sure that I could have shaved some time off that if I'd been more focused and less easily distracted by visitors on the day, but chatting to attendees was a lot more interesting and worthwhile than trying to finish up more quickly, and it made for a far more memorable experience as far as I was concerned.

Prior to getting started, I did have some concerns that the build might be a bit dull thanks to the degree of repetition and necessarily bland colour palette employed. In the event, however, while there certainly was some repetition, it actually turned out to be a surprisingly interesting build, not least because of the number and variety of clever building techniques employed; construction of the 'sails' was particularly ingenious. With regard to the finished model, while I'm aware that some people who know Sydney Opera House much better than I do have expressed reservations about the accuracy and proportions of the model, to my untrained eye it seems to be a pretty good approximation.

Much more important than whether or not I enjoyed the build was of course whether it had the desired effect on raffle ticket sales. Kevin stood close by and sold tickets while I cracked on with the build, and our double act did seem to bear fruit - visitors would watch me build for a while, whereupon Kevin would appear and casually inform them that they could win their very own new and sealed copy of the set for just the cost of a £1 raffle ticket. All told, around £2,000 was raised from raffle ticket sales by the time the raffle draw took place late on Monday afternoon, so a big hand to Kevin and many thanks to all those attendees who bought a ticket.

The Sandown Park show itself, which was being held for the first time, was a great success, attracting almost 4,700 visitors over the 3 days which was apparently way beyond the expectations of the organisers. I'd brought a few MOCs (above - click to enlarge) to exhibit, all of which have previously featured on Gimme LEGO at one time or another. Thankfully Kevin had arranged for them to be on display adjacent to where I was building Sydney Opera House so I was able to chat to attendees about the models and answer any questions that came up. Which reminds me - thanks to the Gimme LEGO readers and Bricksetters who came over to say "hi" - it was good to meet you!

I had limited time to check out the models that other exhibitors had brought along, but I saw enough to be impressed by the high quality of exhibits. In addition to a healthy line up of new builds and previously-displayed models from a host of noted builders, professional LEGO builders Bright Bricks were in attendance and brought a number of excellent models along with them, including the amazing tropical seabed scene above (click to enlarge).

Given the success of the event, and the ability of the venue to accommodate larger numbers of exhibits and visitors if needed, I reckon there's a good chance that we'll be back there next year. I just hope my sore fingers have recovered by then....

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

An Art or a Science ?

The Art of LEGO Design by Jordan Schwartz is the latest in a procession of adult-oriented LEGO-related books from No Starch Press to drop through my letterbox. The timing was perfect - it arrived just as I was casting around for some suitable holiday reading - so I gratefully shoe-horned it into my already overstuffed suitcase and took it away with me. The book's a further illustration of the astonishing diversity of LEGO-related print offerings available at present; previous Gimme LEGO book reviews have included a Technic reference manual, a coffee table LEGO art book, a couple of books crammed full of instructions for MOCs of vehicles (here and here) and a Neo-Classic Space BibleThe Art of LEGO Design occupies yet another sub-genre, dealing as it does with a study of building techniques rather than just showing off a selection of finished creations.

According to the press release which accompanied my review copy of the book, author Jordan Schwartz became one of LEGO's youngest-ever designers when he landed an internship in Billund at the age of 18. While working for LEGO he was part of the Creator/Creator Expert team and worked on the likes of Set 10232 Palace Cinema. The Art of LEGO Design is his first book, aiming to provide practical guidance to LEGO builders, cast some light upon the thought processes underpinning the design choices of expert builders, and provide inspiration for those of us looking to build our own LEGO creations.

The book is a hefty, soft cover affair containing around 270 pages in total. The binding is nice and sturdy and the book feels well put together. The simple front cover features the image of a Nepali Tata Truck, a model which is featured in the book; similar to the cover of the recently-reviewed LEGO Space book from the same publisher, the image is glossy and therefore 'pops' against the matt background. The back cover (above) contains a succinct but representative summary of the book's aims and contents, plus a close-up of the author's model of Rob Serling from The Twilight Zone, so you know that he's got good taste in TV at least. After some introductory words we're into the first of thirteen chapters, each of which is split into a number of subsections. The ordering of the chapters seems a little random at times, for instance the chapter which focuses on the use of LEGO figures (minifigures, Fabuland, Belville, Technic and hybrids of these) in builds preceeds the chapter addressing fundamentals of brick, plate and slope geometry; that having been said, there's a comprehensive 3-page list of contents, and that together with the detailed 8-page index means it's easy to find what you're looking for.

Ming the Merciless by Jordan Schwartz
So here's the thing: designing and building your own models from scratch is a very personal thing I reckon - while there may be certain common behaviours and approaches among builders, when it comes down to it we all do things our own way. Anybody approaching the book looking for a definitive guide to MOCing is therefore likely to be disappointed I think - there's no 'right' way to do it, and each builder eventually figures out a style and approach of their own. While reading the book I was struck by how differently Jordan Schwartz approaches the task compared with how I like to do things; I tend to design my MOCs using computer design tools like LDD and don't trouble myself with tape measures and sketch pads which the author deems "indispensable building tools". That being said, I did find it interesting to observe the design and building process through the eyes of another builder, particularly someone with such an impressive track record, not to mention a different building style to mine.

Battle of the Leviathans by Ryan Rubino
What struck me most when I initially dived into the book was the sheer variety of content; I guess some might perceive the choice of subjects covered as idiosyncratic or even incomplete, but in reality it's just a reflection of the author's own modus operandi and preferences and it once again highlights the subjective and individual nature of the design and building process. Having discussed "Inspiration and Preparation" in the first chapter, followed by the use of the various types of LEGO figures in chapter two and then basic brick, plate and slope geometry in chapter three, there's a lengthy section on planning, building and framing mosaics. This chapter features the first of a number of brief interludes where the author 'interviews' renowned builders who specialise in some of the techniques, styles and MOCs featured in that particular chapter. In this case there's a short Q & A with Katie Walker a.k.a. eilonwy77 on Flickr whose mosaics are I think among the best in the business. I like these digressions - they reinforce the point that there's no "right" way of doing things and provide insights into the way that a number of outstanding builders go about their business. After patterns the book moves on to textures, predominantly the use of fabric and rubber elements; while some of the techniques presented give rise to effects which perhaps don't look sufficiently 'LEGO' for my taste there's no doubting the fact that the techniques are ingenious and impressive. We then move on to ways of creating organic effects and stylised models; this was a particularly interesting chapter for me as I really struggle to create realistic curves in my designs. Battle of the Leviathans (above) is one of the examples presented to illustrate the use of bows, slopes and wedges to produce organic effects, and the chapter also addresses the use of flexible elements such as hoses to produce believable curves; to wrap up the chapter, Tyler Clites a.k.a. Legohaulic is interviewed about the distinctive style of his models (such as Mind If I Wet My Whistle below).

Mind If I Wet My Whistle by Tyler Clites
Subsequent chapters touch on the use of natural and artificial lighting, perspective and colour to create specific effects, after which the focus shifts to designing and building specific types of models - animals (both real and fantastical), trees and foliage, large-scale figures, cars and other vehicles, buildings (both exteriors and interiors), mechs, spaceships and dioramas - see, I told you the content was diverse ! Some of these chapters feature interviews with notable builders, including a couple of builders whose creations just so happen to be among my favourites; I was particularly pleased to read the interview with Luke Hutchinson a.k.a. Derfel Cadarn who is responsible for some of my favourite MOCs ever and whose work I've previously featured on Gimme LEGO. There's even a brief section on photographing, Photoshopping and sharing your work, although to be honest this is probably too high level to be of much value unless you're a complete novice.

Twilight of the Gods by Luke Hutchinson
As previously stated, anyone buying this book in the hope that it'll hold their hand and walk them step by step through the proces of designing and build their own models is likely to be disappointed - it's not a MOCing instruction manual. What it is is one experienced builder's account of where he finds inspiration for his builds. some of the things he considers when designing models, and a selection of building techniques, tips and tricks that he employs, rounded off by a showcase of MOCs which he uses to illustrate some of the points that he makes. This is supplemented by choice insights from other renowned builders. I definitely enjoyed reading it, and not just because I took it away with me on holiday and read it while sitting on the beach sipping cocktails.... Whether or not a particular reader will end up inspired and better equipped to design and build their own masterpieces is hard to say, though; I actually suspect that everybody will walk away with something slightly different. I took away some ideas for a few new MOCs of my own and learned a couple of new building techniques that I'll definitely try out; others might be blown away by one or more specific example MOCs in the book and try to reproduce them, while some folks might not find much at all that's new to them.
Woolly Mammoth by Jordan Schwartz
In summary, if you're an enthusiastic builder looking to develop your skills then you'll almost certainly find some content of interest regardless of your ability. If however you're hoping for a step-by-step guide to designing and building your own creations then this isnt't really it, and nor I suspect did the author ever intend it to be. You could argue that much of the building technique-related content can be found for free on the web, but the inclusion of interviews with renowned builders adds welcome value by bringing some different perspectives into the mix, and overall it's a decent read.

The Art of LEGO Design has an RRP of $24.95 US, although at time of writing it can be obtained for less than this from Amazon in the UK (click here to buy) and the US (click here to buy). My thanks to No Starch Press for sending me a copy of the book to review on Gimme LEGO.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Agents Rebooted

Some say you should never go back, and LEGO has some history in that regard, not least with their 'Legends' series of classic sets which failed to hit the commercial heights. The rights and wrongs of rebooting rather than innovating aside, LEGO's decision to revive the cult Agents theme under the "Ultra Agents" banner took me by surprise, not least because the original sets weren't retired that long ago. Consisting of 13 sets released in 2008 and 2009, I missed out on the original Agents line while it was still available at retail and have been playing catch-up ever since. As I've discovered to my cost, some of the sets have become quite sought-after in the aftermarket; not surprising, given the quality of sets such as Mobile Command Center, Volcano Base and Aerial Defence Unit which recreate larger-than-life scenes from your average Bond movie and are crammed with cool play-features and neat details.

I first spied the Ultra Agents sets at the London Toy Fair earlier this year and was, if I'm honest, a bit underwhelmed. One of the things I liked most about the original Agents sets was the consistency of the colour schemes and design DNA running through the different sets, and at the Toy Fair at least this wasn't so evident in the new sets, giving the range a less than cohesive feel. The best of the new sets was perhaps Set 70165 Ultra Agents Mission HQ which seemed to be a remake of the original Agents Mobile Command Center, but the other sets were a decidedly mixed bag. For me, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the reboot wasn't even the actual sets but what appeared to be a close tie-in to a complementary app which would, we were told, enhance the play experience. I left the Toy Fair very much on the fence about the reboot and needing to be convinced.

I got to dip my toe into the water a couple of weeks back - I needed to place an order at S@H in order to secure a promo Classic Spaceman and it was the perfect excuse to pick up one of the Ultra Agents sets so I could run the rule over it. I chose Set 70162 Infearno Interception and it duly arrived a few days later. The front of the box (above) features an action shot of Agent Solomon Blaze battling the dastardly Infearno, with the Ultra Agents logo prominent on the packaging and the availability of a free app highlighted in one corner. The back of the box (below - click to enlarge) highlights some of the numerous play features of the set as well as once again pushing the accompanying app.

I ignored the two thumb tabs on the back of the box, slipped a sharp knife under the left end flap, popped open the box, and surveyed the contents. Two large bags of parts numbered '1' and '2' and an instruction booklet were all I saw initially; when a quick flick through the instruction booklet revealed that that there were supposed to be some stickers in the box as well I examined the packaging again and discovered the errant stickers clinging to the inside of the box. Thankfully they were still intact (picture below - click to enlarge) and mercifully there aren't too many of them to apply.

The instruction booklet (cover shot below) has a footprint of around 12.5 cm x 20 cm and contains 56 pages from cover to cover. In addition to the building instructions there's a two page inventory of parts, further advertising for the Ultra Agents app in seven languages, and a request by a green Ninja for the reader to provide product feedback.

A selection of rare and/or interesting parts to be found in the set can be seen in the picture below (click to enlarge). Considering that this is a relatively small set there are quite a few elements of note including six which are currently unique to this set - the black printed 45 degree slope, the dark red surfboard, the flat silver 2 x 2 and 4 x 1 curved slopes, and the trans-light blue 6 x 6 webbed radar dish and 8 x 4 x 2 windscreen (not shown). The blue Technic axle and pin connector toggle joint, flat silver air scoop and trans-light blue cheese slope appear in this set and one other, while the trans-orange 8L arrow, the black 6 x 6 inverted dish and spoiler and the flat silver pin connector have all featured in less than 5 sets. All the other elements in the picture have appeared in ten sets or less, with the exception of the curious light and dark bley 1 x 4 brick-like element in the top right corner which I'd never seen before but which has nevertheless surprisingly graced 27 sets to date; it's actually a spring shooter, of which more later. Like the previous incarnation of the Agents theme there's a sprinkling of silver, albeit flat silver rather than the sexier metallic silver that featured in the original sets. There's also a goodly quantity of trans-light blue elements which in addition to those mentioned above also include no less than sixteen 1 x 2 plates, a couple of 4 x 4 inverted dishes, and eight round 1 x 1 tiles.

The set includes two minifigures. Agent Solomon Blaze (below - click to enlarge) appears in this set and one other - Set 70165 Ultra Agents Mission HQ. Striking a blow for age equality, it appears that Solomon isn't a youngster but a grizzled old pro complete with grey hair and a weather-beaten face. His hair is actually a new element for 2014 which is thus far restricted to just Solomon Blaze and General Airen Cracken from Star Wars Set 75050 B-Wing, and his head, torso and legs are unique to the Solomon Blaze minifigure. The Torso is printed with the pattern of a Suit jacket complete with the Ultra Agents logo and a gold tie Pattern, while his right leg is printed with what Bricklink describes as a "Silver Prosthetic Bionic Right Leg Pattern".

Solomon's torso is backprinted (picture below - click to enlarge) although it's easy to miss the subtle pattern unless you look closely. He has an alternative expression, again visible below, described by Bricklink as "Determined/Smirk"; it's the sort of expression that you might conceivably expect Indiana Jones or Han Solo to sport.

The other minifigure in the set is super villain Infearno (below) who's only available in this set. Every element making up this minifigure - the head, torso, armour, legs and flame head piece - is unique to this minifigure. While the armour undoubtedly makes Infearno more imposing, it's unfortunately at the cost of covering up the excellent torso print which features a furnace and a pressure gauge. The torso print extends downwards onto the front of the legs which feature extensive printing from waist to toe.

Infearno's armour also obscures the torso backprint, which resembles a furnace door. Neither his head nor his legs are backprinted, although given that the flame head piece is transparent a backprinted alternate expression wouldn't have worked well on this occasion anyway. Note the two 1L bars protruding downwards from the base of the armour and the hollow stud on his back - their relevance will be revealed momentarily....

Infearno comes with a host of accessories, and you can see him fully tooled up in the picture below (click to enlarge). A pair of fire-spitting flamethrowers attach to the 1L bars mentioned above and wrap around the sides of his body; the flamethrowers are supplied by a fuel tank which attaches to the hollow stud on the back of his armour. As if twin flamethrowers weren't enough, he also carries a bundle of dynamite in each hand. Infearno gets about on a flame-powered hover board; this is made up of 8 elements including the rare dark red surfboard mentioned earlier which is propelled by a large trans-red flame with marbled trans-yellow pattern.

With both minifigs assembled it's time to get cracking on Solomon Blaze's vehicle, perplexingly described as a "convertible car" on the relevant page of the Ultra Agents microsite. It's a fairly quick and simple build, and you can see the completed model below (click to enlarge). The vehicle is certainly not 'convertible' in the traditional automotive sense, and it looks more like a 4-wheeled version of the iconic Tron Light Cycle than a car thanks to the black and trans-light blue colour scheme and the distinctive, sleek side-on profile, but that's fine by me.

Each front wheel is made up of a pair of black 6 x 6 inverted radar dishes with black curved bricks sandwiched in-between and trans-blue webbed 6 x 6 radar dishes on the convex surface of the black dishes. Although the front wheels are designed to rotate, the absence of tyres and consequent lack of friction means that they don't turn well on a smooth surface. The sides of the vehicle are greebled with a number of flat silver elements which further reinforces the high-tech feel, and a pair of forward-facing dual cannons complements the vehicle's main weapon which we'll get to shortly.....

The rear of the vehicle (above - click to enlarge) is a bit untidy on account of the big red knob sticking out of the back. Pushing hard on the knob activates a simple Technic mechanism linked to a rudimentary ejector seat with the result that Solomon Blaze is launched out of the cockpit. The two trans-orange bars protruding from the rear of the vehicle are actually the back ends of a pair of 8L arrows; push down on the rear spoiler and the vehicle's main weapon - twin spring-loaded missile shooters - are revealed (picture below - click to enlarge). Some gentle downwards pressure on the back of an arrow activates the firing mechanism and launches it a good few metres across the room - quite impressive.

In Bond movies the ejector seat often seems to be designed to get rid of the bad guy, but in this case Solomon Blaze uses it himself to get up close and personal with Infearno on his hover board and take him out. Our intrepid hero is ejected from the cockpit seated on a section of the cockpit floor (below - click to enlarge); once in mid-air it's presumably just a simple case of whipping out his mini blaster and dispatching the villain..... It's the first time I've encountered one of these weapons, which were only introduced this year. A small dark bley trigger clicks into the body of the blaster; once the trigger is in place you attach a round 1 x 1 plate to the end of the weapon, whereupon pressing down on the trigger makes the plate ping off quite energetically with a range of perhaps 1-2 metres.

I've already described a number of play-features, notably the spring-loaded missile shooters, but I've left the best 'til last - the vehicle has a hover mode which you can see below (note : the transparent stand isn't included in the set). This transformation is achieved by folding the front wheels inwards and the rear wheels downwards; pleasingly, there's sufficient friction in the respective mechanisms to keep the wheels folded like this even when you swoosh the model around. I'd somehow missed the fact that the vehicle had a hover mode until I'd bought the set and got it home, so it was a nice surprise.

You can see all the components of the set below (click to enlarge). I started out somewhat sceptical about the Agents reboot, and while I probably still need some convincing about the theme as a whole, so far as this set's concerned at least I like it. Infearno's an interesting baddie, and Solomon Blaze's car looks good and has some interesting play features, particularly the hover mode. For more information on this set and indeed other sets in the theme I'd encourage you to have a poke around LEGO's Ultra Agents microsite. I was a big fan of Crackdown on the XBOX 360 and I get a definite Crackdown vibe from the graphics and videos on the site; this impression was reinforced when I downloaded and played the Ultra Agents companion app on my iPad. The app, which is free and available for iOS and Android, offers a mixture of interactive comic book and minigames, and features distinct chapters each of which reflects one of the six Ultra Agents sets.

Set 70162 Infearno Interception contains 313 pieces and retails for £24.99 / $29.99 US. At time of writing, discounts on the set are few and far between; UK readers can get it here for a pound off RRP, while US readers can order via LEGO shop@home.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Lost In Space

Having recently wallowed in Classic Space nostalgia with my review of Set 918 One Man Space Ship and in the process touched on the Neo Classic Space movement, I figured it'd be the perfect time to run the rule over what could conceivably be described as the Neo Classic Space handbook, A.K.A. LEGO Space - Building the Future. This book has been out for a while now, but as there were a glut of reviews upon its initial release I decided to hold fire and let the dust settle before diving in and sharing my thoughts on it. The timing's actually perfect right now, given the recent reveal of Set 21109 Exo-Suit, but more of that later.... Before I get started, I need to declare an interest - I know the guys responsible for putting this book together, so bias is possible.... That having been said, as you'll hopefully have seen from previous reviews on Gimme LEGO, good or bad I'll call it as I see it, so let's begin.

First impressions are extremely positive. My hardback copy of the book is a surprisingly weighty tome and looks gorgeous. The 24 cm x 28 cm front cover (above) has a predominantly matt finish, but the image of the spaceship is glossy and therefore 'pops' impressively, giving the impression that the ship is literally flying out of the cover. The back cover (below) uses a similar trick to highlight six panels which provide a sneak peak of a selection of images that you'll find within. Opening the book reveals 218 thick, glossy pages, and overall the book feels like it's been expertly put together and with laudable attention to detail, all of which bodes well for the actual content.

Authors Peter "Legoloverman" Reid and Tim "Rogue Bantha" Goddard are stalwarts of the Neo Classic Space scene and accomplished and renowned LEGO builders to boot, so levels of anticipation were high when news of this book started to leak out. I've frequently featured their creations on the pages of Gimme LEGO over the past few years, for instance here and here, and I was one of those eagerly awaiting the book's release. I was particularly intrigued to discover what form the book would take; my best guess was that it'd contain pictures of Pete and Tim's Neo Classic Space MOCs together with the original LEGO sets that inspired them, plus maybe the Neo Classic Space 'building rules'. I was partly right, but as it turned out the book goes well beyond what I'd imagined.

Rather than just being a showcase for Pete and Tim's superb space-related MOCs, the book tells a story. This begins with a brief history of space exploration to date before venturing into one possible future taken straight from the fertile imaginations of the authors. The journey is illustrated by way of a large number of exquisite photographs provided by Ian Greig and Chris Salt, the latter perhaps better known for his excellent stop motion LEGO animation. What particularly stands out for me about the photographs are the glorious backdrops; as you'll see from some of the sample images I've included here, such as the picture of Voyager 2 above, it's easy at times to forget that you're looking at LEGO such is the quality of the builds, and the superb backdrops really help to reinforce the illusion.

As previously stated, the first few pages of LEGO Space set the scene for what's to come by providing a factual if highly selective potted history of space exploration to date. The launch of Sputnik (above) in October 1957 is the starting point, followed by the Apollo landings, then Voyager 1 and Voyager 2's tours of the solar system and beyond in the late 1970's, and most recently the exploration, mapping and analysis of the surface of Mars by Opportunity and Curiosity (below).

With the scene appropriately set, we quickly move from reality into fantasy, whereupon the authors can really let their creative juices flow.... A possible Neo Classic Space vision of mankind's future is laid out for us, starting with the birth of the Federation in the middle of the 21st century and the establishment of a permanent lunar colony in the Sea of Tranquility. Profits arising from robotic lunar mining then help to finance the establishment of a permanent base in the Cydonia region of Mars. Construction of a frontier space station in orbit around Jupiter follows soon after with a view to outer-system expansion and exploration, and it's from here that the Federation's Inhospitable Climate Engineering (ICE) teams set out to explore Jupiter's moons and unwittingly set in motion a train of events that will threaten humanity's very existence....

While the Sci-fi story within the pages of LEGO Space is admittedly somewhat basic, what it does do is provide the book with a unique and welcome personality, something sorely lacking from many other LEGO-related titles. It would have been all too easy for LEGO Space to have ended up as a slick, sterile volume of photographs of cool MOCs and nothing else, but the inclusion of the backstory lifts it to another level, providing welcome context to the featured models and drawing the reader in. A nice touch is the naming of certain characters in the story after longstanding members of the AFOL community; they must be pleased as punch to get an affectionate name check !

Whole chapters of the book focus on spaceships, such as those above, and other vehicles germane to the story. This of course provides the perfect opportunity to showcase some of Pete and Tim's superb Neo Classic Space designs including a couple of my all-time favourites - LL-497 Explorer and LL-605 Marauder - not to mention Peter Reid's celebrated Exo Suit (below). This model, as many of you will know, provides the basis for the imminently available LEGO Ideas Set 21109 Exo-Suit having secured 10,000 votes on the LEGO Ideas platform and subsequently been given the green light by LEGO to go into production.

At various points within LEGO Space there are brief interludes in the form of building instructions for micro-build models with relevance to the story, such as Sputnik. There are some great-looking little builds included, although some readers may struggle to find the necessary elements in their collections to build the models as there are some fairly specialised parts used. Even so, it's a nice touch which adds further value to the book.

Overall, I really can't recommend this book enough, and trust me when I say that I'd be raving about it regardless of whether or not I knew the authors. It's beautifully presented, it's packed with inspiring MOCs and fabulous photographs, and everything is held together and given welcome context by an interesting Sci-fi backstory. Regardless of whether you're a child of the 1960's or 1970's and fondly remember LEGO's Classic Space sets from when you were a youngster, or whether you're a younger LEGO fan with an interest in space, you'll love this book.

At time of writing, UK-based readers can purchase LEGO Space here for the bargain price of £12.24 (an absolute steal I reckon) including shipping while folks in the US can get it here for $15.78. Although I didn't have to pay for my copy - thank-you to LEGO Space publisher No Starch Press for sending me a review copy - this is one book that I'd have had no hesitation in shelling out for myself. Epic !

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Who wants to be a Millionaire ?

A few days ago Gimme LEGO became a pageview millionaire.

Not bad going for an infrequently-updated LEGO-focused blog founded less than 4 years ago I reckon, so please indulge me while I pause briefly and celebrate this milestone.

The last time I wrote a celebratory piece was back in August 2012 when I marked Gimme LEGO's second birthday. On that occasion I shared a list of the top ten most popular posts on the site since launch. The most viewed article back then - my two-part review of Set 10221 Super Star Destroyer (below) ahead of its release - continues to occupy the number one slot now, almost 2 years later. This is mainly because a number of other sites linked to the review back when it was first published and have continued to refer visitors ever since.

Below you can see an updated list of the top ten most read Gimme LEGO posts ever, ranked in descending order of pageviews. The saga of my recreation of cavegod's UCS AT-AT was split into a number of different posts; the first of these was the third most viewed Gimme LEGO post ever, and also attracted more comments (56 to date and counting) than any other. Event reports are clearly of interest, making up a relatively small proportion of posts but occupying half of the top ten slots, and the end-of-year Gimme LEGO awards also seem to be popular - although only the 2012 awards made the top ten, if I'd extended the list to the top fourteen posts ever then the 2011 and 2013 awards would also have made the cut.

1. Set 10221 UCS Super Star Destroyer

2. LEGO Star Wars UCS Exhibition, National Space Centre July 2011

3. Building the Perfect Beast : The UCS AT-AT

4. MOC City Layout - Change of Plan

5. Great Western LEGO Show 2010

6. AFOLCON 2012

7. LEGO Inside Tour 2013

8. The Gimme LEGO Awards 2012

9. Great Western LEGO Show 2011

10. Sneak Peek : Star Wars Miniland

One small caveat to the ranked listing above is that fixed pages such as the Index of Previous Posts and Bargain Hunt listings are excluded; if they're factored into the equation then the most visited Gimme LEGO page ever is, as it turns out, the Bargain Hunt page with 50% more visits than any other. Go Bargain Hunters !

A third of all pageviews since Gimme LEGO started out have come from the US and around 20% from the UK, with Germany in third place; the other countries making up the top ten can be seen below. Overall, a total of 185 countries are represented in the readership to date, with 23 countries including Syria, Somalia, the Congo and Angola providing a solitary pageview each....

As well as giving me the perfect excuse to unleash my inner anorak and share some site stats, milestones like this are a great opportunity for me to thank readers of Gimme LEGO for visiting the site and reading my ramblings. Thanks also to those people whose support and encouragement helps to keep me motivated and posting stuff on here and the recently-launched Gimme LEGO Facebook and Twitter pages. And finally, particular thanks are due to Huw from Brickset for all manner of technical assistance and for allowing me to make frequent use of Brickset's library of images and data, without which my postings would undoubtedly be shorter, more boring to look at, and less informative. OK, so shorter might be a good thing, but hopefully you get my drift.... Thanks again, and leg godt to all.