Wednesday 28 September 2011


OK - confession time. I was one of the millions who recently helped to further swell the George Lucas coffers by shelling out for the HD version of the Star Wars hexalogy on launch day. It was with a sense of palpable excitement that I sparked up the plasma, spooled up the DTS, dimmed the lights and watched the opening crawl of Episode IV making its way up my screen, accompanied by John Williams' famous score. And then came possibly the highlight for me - the appearance of Tantive IV, quickly followed by the Imperial Star Destroyer Devastator which rapidly filled my screen while my subwoofer did its best to loosen my fillings and cause structural damage to the very foundations of my house.

Honestly, I love the Imperial Star Destroyer. I'll speak in reverent tones about the Millenium Falcon and go all misty eyed as X-Wings peel off into the Death Star trench, but there's something about the sight of the hulking, menacing Imperial Star Destroyer and the low rumble of those huge engines which trumps them all.

I love this....
It shouldn't therefore come as a surprise to anybody that Set 10030 Imperial Star Destroyer (picture below; click all photographs to enlarge) is one of the highlights of my LEGO collection. A total of 3096 pieces and almost a metre of bonkers LEGO excess guaranteed to induce gasps of amazement in all but the most hardened cynic. We've also been blessed with the somewhat less awe-inspiring playset (Set 6211 Imperial Star Destroyer) and 2004's Mini version (Set 4492 Star Destroyer).

Set 10030 Imperial Star Destroyer - awesome

Set 6211 Imperial Star Destroyer -
not so awesome...

Set 4492 Star Destroyer

I was obviously delighted when LEGO announced that they would be releasing Set 8099 Midi-Scale Imperial Star Destroyer.  This appeared in the Summer of 2010, although like the first Midi-Scale Star Wars offering (Set 7778 Midi-Scale Millenium Falcon) it was not if I remember rightly greeted with universal acclaim. Given the existence of Mini, System and Ultimate Collector Series-scaled sets, some viewed the appearance of yet another scale of model as a cynical move designed to squeeze more money out of the LEGO Star Wars fraternity, while others predictably bemoaned the lack of minifigures.

So is the Midi-Scale Imperial Star Destroyer just a cynical cash-in, or does it in fact have merit ? Well, let's take a look....

You can see the box above. I love the combination of the dark blue 2011 Star Wars branding and the red planet below upon which the model is superimposed. The front of the box also features a picture of a hand holding the finished model which gives a useful indication of the size of the ship. The back of the box (not shown) provides other views of the ship and also a full parts inventory, which aside from the Midi-Scale Falcon I don't recall seeing on a Star Wars box previously.

The cover of the instruction booklet (below) is identical to the front of the box. The booklet, which is not far short of A4 sized, consists of 48 staple-bound pages. The building steps are clear and easy to follow, with part call-outs at every stage and no colour discrimination issues evident, apart from some momentary confusion between white and trans-clear 1 x 1 round studs on my part.

The parts come in a total of 6 bags - 3 large and 3 small - none of which are numbered. The first task is to construct the Technic 'core' onto which the ship's surfaces and structures attach. The upper and lower surfaces attach to the white clips you can see in the first picture below, while the command bridge sits on top of the blue 2 x 3 brick; the second picture shows the lower surfaces attached to the core; in the third picture I've flipped the build upside down so you can see the underside. Note the black, T-shaped stand protruding from the underside; this provides a nice, stable base for the ship to rest on while holding it horizontal.

Technic 'Core' plus stand

                                   Core with lower surfaces attached

Next up is the construction and attachment of the distinctive engine section (below). This is hands down the most fragile part of the build - the whole section accidentally breaks off far too easily for my liking. To make matters worse, the grey dishes which make up the larger engines have a tendency of detach at the drop of a hat. Fragility apart, at least the engines look the part.

Once the engines are in place it's time to build and attach one of the upper surfaces, followed by the command bridge. Nice use of Technic Ball Joints, which form the scanner globes on the roof of the command bridge, and also binoculars which are used for the guns on the dorsal surfaces of the ship.

Finally, the remaining upper surface is built and clipped into place and we're done....

Similar to the UCS Imperial Star Destroyer, the finished model is somewhat 'gappy' where the various surfaces meet, as you can see in the pictures below. That having been said, for me this doesn't meaningfully detract from the model.

I have to say I'm a big fan of this set. Unlike Mini Scale, Midi scale affords the opportunity to introduce sufficient detail to make the ship instantly recognisable and indeed in many respects a good approximation of the source material. Unlike System scale, however, it's small enough to easily swoosh around the room and it takes up relatively little display space. It's also solidly built and robust, apart from the fragile engine section. I found it very refreshing that rather than just rehash an old set like they've done with Slave 1, the X-Wing and others, LEGO had the imagination to give us something significantly different to what's previously been available.

On the downside, the build seemed to take no time at all, to the extent that I almost felt cheated - it was hard to believe that the set contained 423 pieces such was the speed of the build. Also, the engine section is fragile as described earlier. Finally, the lack of minifigures is clearly an issue for some. Regarding the latter point, however, I was actually delighted that LEGO didn't include a couple of token figures with this set - they would have been entirely redundant and ridiculously out of scale, as was the case with the minifigures included with Set 10221 Super Star Destroyer, while also inevitably bumping up the price.

Talking of price, with an RRP of £34.99 the set lies comfortably within the realms of 10p/piece which is becoming increasingly unusual for Star Wars sets. That having been said, many of the pieces are small so it's not exactly a bargain. If however you don't already have this set and are UK-based, you can at the time of writing pick it up from here (Amazon) for less than £20 + free delivery, which IMHO at 43% off is an absolute steal....

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Neo- Neo- Classic Space ?

I've previously waxed lyrical about my love of the classic LEGO Space sets of the late 1970's and early 1980's; Set 928 Galaxy Explorer is one of my all-time favourites, and every time I see that signature combination of blue, old grey and trans yellow it gives me chills !

Set 928 Galaxy Explorer from 1979
I'm far from being the only one who has a thing for these sets, of course. A whole movement, dubbed Neo-Classic Space, has grown out of a desire to update the classic sets for a whole new generation. Some of these Neo-Classic Space creations are truly updates of previous sets, while others have sought to develop the theme in new directions while still retaining the feel and design DNA of the original sets. I've featured creations from one of the main protagonists, Pete Reid a.k.a. Legoloverman, on these pages before and I make no apology for mentioning him again and showing pics of a couple of his superb Neo-Classic Space creations below (click to enlarge).

Pete Reid's Homage to Set 928 Galaxy Explorer
Another of Legoloverman's creations

But is 2011 the year when the LEGO company finally rejoins the party ? I'm referring of course to the new Alien Conquest space-themed sets, which with their predominantly blue, grey and yellow colour scheme, albeit with neon accents and the odd flash of lime green and purple, hark back to the days of Classic Space. LEGO have of course released a multitude of space-themed sets since the late 70's, some of which have themselves become much-loved in their own right and have spawned sequels of their own (such as Space Police). For me, however, none of them have quite captured the magic of the Classic Space sets. Until now, perhaps ? Well, let's see....

Including poly bags and battle packs, ten Alien Conquest sets have been released to date, and I've been attracted to these like a moth to a flame.... Set 7050 Alien Defender was the first of the Alien Conquest sets I got my hands on, managing to grab a couple when Amazon had them on sale at around 35% off RRP a couple of months back.

I'm a big fan of the bright, colourful box art which really stands out on shop shelves, and there's a lovely retro feel to the Alien Conquest theme branding. The box itself has the same footprint as a Star Wars Battlepack, although it perhaps sits a couple of millimetres higher.

The 32-page instruction booklet (below) shares the same cover art as the box. I have an irrational hatred of folded-in-half instruction booklets as the pages always seem to turn themselves over while I'm building; this booklet was a major offender in that respect, and it took a lot of straightening out before I could photograph it. The building steps are clear and easy to follow, with part call-outs for every step and no major colour discrimination issues.

The set features 2 minifigures. The first is an Alien Defence Unit (ADU) Soldier (pics below - click to enlarge) and he's apparently unique to this set. His torso is printed both front and back, and he also has printed legs and a reversible head, to be used when he's stressed, presumably.... For me the most exciting thing about this guy is his dark azure colour. This colour, a striking blue with more than a hint of green, is to my knowledge brand new for 2011 and not widely available as yet, although it has appeared in a few 2011 sets including Sponge Bob Set 3815 Heroic Heroes of the Deep.

.....and back

The other minifig is an Alien Pilot (below) who's also available in a number of other sets. There's no back-printing on his torso, although his legs are printed and his arms are a rather nice (and unusual) magenta colour. He has an interesting rubbery head, not previously seen outside this theme I believe, on the back of which you can see his brain....

Once the minifigs have been assembled it's time to construct the Alien Pilot's ship. This isn't a major undertaking, given that it consists of only 13 pieces.... Small or not, I like it ! Most of the pieces seem to be lime green or trans neon green, and both the design and colours complement the Alien Pilot perfectly. Lime green barbs sticking out of the back add a nice finishing touch.

Next up is the ADU Soldier's vehicle, a heavily-armed buggy of sorts. Again, I love the colours, which are an agreeable mix of blue, yellow and light and dark greys with trans neon orange accents. As well as being deliciously zoom-able, it also features flick fire missiles and a rotating dorsal gun turret. There's also a neat use of dark grey guns as front suspension struts (purely for show, obviously...). Downside is the lack of printed parts; instead we're supposed to apply 5 fiddly little stickers.

And that's it - we're done. This is a cracking little set. At £8.99 for 105 pieces it's hardly a steal, but having picked it up for £6 it felt like a bargain.  I mean, what's not to like ? The minifigs are good (the ADU Soldier's slightly lack-lustre body armour is more than made up for by his dark azure colour) and the vehicles are great, if a little small. There are even 8 extra parts, which must be close to being a record for a set of barely 100 pieces in total. Overall, it's an excellent taster for the theme, and I can't wait to get to work on some of the larger Alien Conquest sets, particularly Set 7066 Earth Defence HQ, which are waiting patiently in the wings until I have some uninterrupted building time.

So is Alien Conquest really the second coming of Classic Space ? Well, it's clearly impossible to tell for sure on the basis of building one small set and just seeing pictures of the rest of the theme..... What I can say for sure, however, is that no other space-themed sets (with the obvious exception of Star Wars) have grabbed me to quite the same extent for a long time. Interesting designs, some great minifigures and an evocative colour scheme are all part of the successful recipe. All that's currently missing is at least one good-sized standalone ADU spacecraft - the Earth Defence HQ set features an extremely nifty Interceptor Shuttle, but this just makes me yearn for more.... LEGO could of course remedy this omission by releasing more Alien Conquest sets in 2011, but the meagre shelf-space being dedicated to the theme in the LEGO brand stores that I've visited suggests to me that we might not get any more sets, which would be a crying shame IMHO.

Classic Space is special to me for more than just the superb designs and colour scheme - it's part of my childhood and thus brings back some great memories. Alien Conquest clearly can't compete with the latter, but it nevertheless seems to be a worthy addition to LEGO's space heritage.

"They came from outer space...."

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Favourite Sets #6 : Tractor

I'm the kind of LEGO collector that doesn't throw anything LEGO-related away at all. Be it set boxes, the poly bags in which the pieces are packaged, random leaflets or whatever, none of it is discarded. It wasn't always this way, however. When I was a child, just about the only thing that didn't get binned was the pieces. Sets were built and then disassembled, with all the pieces being mixed together in a multicoloured plastic soup, and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Set 851 Tractor is the one that escaped the destruction, however. For reasons I'm at a loss to explain, I kept the box, the inner parts tray and the instructions as well as all the pieces. It's the only set from my childhood that I still have the box for, and that makes it special. Critically, however, that's not the only reason why it's special - it's a fantastic set in its own right, which is why it waltzes into my personal hall of fame with consumate ease.

So, firstly the box. You can see a number of box shots below (click pics to enlarge). I don't normally lavish anything like this much time or attention on the box, but because people probably won't have seen this set before I think it merits more than a cursory glance on this occasion. Something that immediately strikes you is the sheer number of alternative build suggestions plastered over the box, some of which are also captured in the instruction booklet (although unfortunately not the rather neat steam-roller on the back of the box, nor the combine harvester on the inside of the box lid). The instruction booklet resides in a special compartment within the box lid when it isn't in use - very nice.

Poignantly, the box lid still carries the original price sticker - the set was originally bought for £11.55 from Mary Rose's Toyshop in Charter Place, Watford, U.K. in 1977, and I got it for Christmas that year. £11.55 sounds expensive to me, and according to an inflation calculator I found on the 'net, it's the equivalent of £61.22 in today's money which is indeed pricey for a 318 piece Technic set.

On to the instructions, then, and what an instruction booklet ! It's an A4, staple-bound beauty which at first seems like unbelievable overkill for a 318 piece set until you take a closer look and realise why it's so big. As well as containing instructions for the tractor and a variety of what I assume are farm implements (I'm a city boy, me) which attach to the back of it, the booklet also contains instructions for motorising the tractor, together with alternate build instructions for a another couple of mysterious motorised machines of uncertain function.....

The instruction booklet - front cover

If that wasn't enough, there are also pictures of a couple of models (below) which could be built by combining the parts from a number of different Technic sets. If of course you were fortunate enough to own them all. Which I regrettably wasn't. :-(

And so to the build itself. My love/hate relationship with LEGO Technic has already been well documented on these pages, but compared with the finger-twisting, gear-grinding monstrosity that is Set 8480 Technic Space Shuttle (review to follow one day if I ever get round to it....), this one's a breeze. I suspect however that it probably posed a truly worthy challenge in those days when my age could be measured in single digits...

One thing I noticed while I was reliving my childhood and building this baby was the number of 'proper' LEGO bricks in the set. Unlike most modern technic sets which to me are basically wire-frame models with working innards (albeit with a few fairings and panels bolted on in some cases), this set is a brick-built tractor which just so happens to skillfully integrate working features such as a steering rack and steerable front wheels, a mechanism for driving the various bits of farm machinery which bolt on to the back, and a system for raising and lowering said machinery which is controlled by a lever on the right side of the cockpit. And it does all this while still actually looking like a tractor - fancy that.

And up....
And down again....
Furthermore, the 'Technic' aspects work well. Mostly. The steering mechanism is solid and reliable, and moving the tractor backwards and forwards spins the 3 sets of yellow 'blades' which form part of the thresher attachment. Only the mechanism for raising and lowering the thresher caused me some strife - I couldn't get it to work properly without removing an 8L axle, but that's just me - I'm hopeless when it comes to Technic.... You can see animations of the (properly working....) lift mechanism and steering at Blakbird's Technicopedia site.

I love this set. Even aside from the happy memories that looking at it and building it evoke, I think it looks great and the Technic elements are beautifully integrated without being too obvious. For it's it's the perfect mix of LEGO System and LEGO Technic, and if LEGO made more sets like this these days, where technic was an important element  rather than the be-all and end-all, I would definitely dive in and never look back. It's Technic for Technic-haters, and one of my all-time favourites.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Ultimate ?

LEGO have played pretty fast and loose with the "Utimate" tag over the years; we've had Star Wars Ultimate Collector series sets, an Ultimate Collectors Edition Batmobile, an Ultimate Accessory Set and even an Ultimate Jewelry Collection (and no, I'm not kidding....) to name just a few. And as of May 2011 we now have some further additions to the "Ultimate" family - three Ultimate Build Cars 2 sets - Lightning McQueen, Mater and Francesco.

I have to admit that I wasn't sure about the Ultimate Build Lightning McQueen set, really from the very first moment I spied the publicity shots. My eyes were immediately drawn to the high windscreen and angular roofline which just looked wrong to me. The proportions overall just didn't look right. Still, I'd already been proven spectacularly wrong with my first impressions of the Cars theme as a whole - I had to eat a whole bowl of humble pie when I got my hands on Set 8200 Radiator Springs Lightning McQueen and Set 8210 Classic Mater and found I loved them. I therefore wondered whether I would be wrong on the Ultimate Build Lightning set as well, so I splashed the cash, and opened the box....

The chunky box contained 2 poly bags of parts, instructions and a sticker sheet; each poly bag also contained at least 1 smaller poly bag filled with smaller parts. The sticker sheet was really something to behold (click pics to enlarge) :

HOW many stickers....?
A total of 22 stickers were crammed onto the backing sheet. Twenty two ! I have to admit that the prospect of having to neatly apply all that lot was not appealing at all. Still, at least a few of the parts were printed, specifically Lightning's 'eyes' and 'mouth'. Also, despite the prodigious number of stickers, none of them were STAMPs - it's looking like LEGO have really got the message about how much we hate stickers which simultaneously cover multiple pieces. Also, the stickers were helpfully numbered so as to avoid confusion during application

The instruction booklet (above) is unremarkable; perhaps smaller and thicker than I would have expected, but certainly clear, colourful and easy to follow. There's a full parts inventory near the back, various advertisements for other Cars 2 sets and the LEGO club, and a ghastly child shouting "WIN!" on the back cover which seems to have something to do with completing an online survery.

Time to start building. Bag one contains the parts for Guido and about half of Lightning McQueen himself. The first task is to construct Guido, who's a member of Lightning's pit crew, and a pleasure it is too. He may only be made up of 28 pieces, but Guido's predominantly Medium Blue and Light Aqua colour scheme is a delight. Light Aqua is a brand new colour, appearing for the first time in the 2011 Cars sets. Very nice, too, and likely to be very rare, so enjoy it while you can. His eyes and mouth are printed - no stickers on Guido, although to be fair he is carrying a flag which is bigger than he is and it does have a huge sticker on it.....

Once Guido is built it's time to embark upon the construction of Lightning himself. The remains of bag 1 form Lightning's chassis, and the contents of bag 2 finish the job. Some interesting parts, including 4 pearl gold rims which partially obscure the white wheel hubs. It would have been lovely to have proper shiny chrome rims, but I wasn't holding my breath and thus wasn't disappointed. You can see the finished build below.

So overall impressions ? Well, I think Lightning looks better 'in the flesh' than in the publicity shots, but reservations about his proportions remain undiminished. I really don't like the roofline which slopes downwards far too steeply for my taste. Also, the front of the roof peeks over the top of the windscreen which just looks plain untidy to me. I suspect it wouldn't be too hard to mod the roof so that it doesn't sit up quite as far, but I haven't attempted to do this yet.

What else ? Well, the stickers are indeed a pain to apply, but you knew I'd say that.... One thing I didn't expect to be doing is complaining about the printed parts, however, but I'm going to have to. My joy at being spared a few extra stickers quickly turned to consternation when I discovered that the printing on the two tiles which form the windscreen and also represent Lightning's eyes doesn't match up very well, as you can probably see in the picture below.

On the plus side, Lightning's solidly built and doesn't fall apart easily, so he's undoubtedly suitable for play - my son certainly thinks so, anyway.... And despite all my complaints, I'm looking at Lightning right now sitting on my desk and I can't help but like him despite his faults; maybe it's just the bright colours or my fondness for the source material that does it, but I certainly don't regret my purchase. And then there's Guido, who for me is probably the highlight of the set - I love the colours, the printed parts, and his cheeky grin.

Cheeky Chappie !
So in summary, Ultimate Build Lightning McQueen is actually a pretty long way from being Ultimate anything very much really.... That having been said, he does have a certain rough charm, and Guido is great. I think the set is expensive at the UK RRP of £25.99, but at the time of writing if you're in the UK then it's heavily discounted at Amazon and you can pick it up 38% off the RRP at £15.99 which is far more reasonable.

Not a must have, then, but not too bad if you can see past the gripes.....

Little and Large