Wednesday 26 September 2012

UCS AT-AT : Tricky

Last time I wrote about the UCS AT-AT build (here) I'd completed one of the AT-AT legs and started work on the remaining three. It took me longer than expected to finish them up (doesn't it always ?) but I eventually completed them as you can see below. Astonishingly, the four legs alone are made up of a total of 2,120 pieces, which means that once I'd completed them the model was more than a third finished, in terms of part count at least.

Suitably confident after having largely breezed through the first part of the build, I decided to face my demons head on and attempt the AT-AT body next. This was really the only part of the build that I'd been facing with a degree of trepidation, on account of the complexity of the structure plus designer Pete's warning that there might be mistakes in the LDD rendition of his design. Having at times struggled through the distinctly illogical LDD-generated building guide while constructing the legs, I was also wary of what the building guide would throw at me this time round given the significantly greater level of complexity that it needed to negotiate. As it turned out, I was right to be apprehensive....

Above you can see a screen grab of the LDD file for the AT-AT body (click to enlarge). It's 'only' made up of 1285 parts in total, so significantly less than the legs. Once again I had the added complication that the LDD file had been tidied up a bit by Pete after I'd sourced the parts, so some of the hidden internal pieces I'd collected were a different colour to those in the LDD file. Thankfully however this didn't turn out to be too much of a problem.

I got a hint of the challenge to come as I waited for LDD to generate the building guide for this section of the model; the operation took almost 10 minutes on my (reasonably high spec) iMac, yielding an impressive 422 building steps. First to be built were the structures to which the legs would later attach plus the large cylindrical structures slung under the body which I assume are the engines, then a bunch of greebles, and finally the floor of the body and the internal skeleton upon which everything else would ultimately hang. At time of writing I'm up to step 343 of 422, so a good way into the build, and you can see a few pictures of the build so far below (click to enlarge).

Attachment points for front legs & forward engine section.
Attachment points for back legs & rear engine section
Work in progress : Body - floor
Work in progress : Body - underside
Contruction of the body has been, to put it politely, rather tricky.... This is in large part due to the ridiculous LDD-generated building guide which I've been struggling to follow. You may recall that while building the legs I wrote about the sometimes baffling and illogical order of the building steps, plus the expectation that the builder is able to make parts float in mid-air as if by magic. Well, the building guide for the body has taken these issues to a whole new level of absurdity, and it's been a significant challenge to follow along at times. I've attached a screen grab of one page of the building guide below to try and illustrate my point; at one stage there were up to 50 Technic pins, axles, sub-assemblies and various other loose parts floating in mid-air. These are positioned in 3D space exactly where they will eventually reside when later sections of the build drop into place, but you're given no guidance on how they attach to everything around them. At the point when later sections eventually drop into place en masse, therefore, you have to figure out what on earth all these free-floating bits and pieces attach to. This isn't too much of a problem for most of the larger sub-assemblies, but for the individual free-floating parts, and particularly the Technic pins and axles, it's a huge problem because you can't actually see them when everything else is in place - they're hidden by other parts and/or located deep within the build. All you can therefore do is study the final page of the instructions in minute, painstaking detail and, skipping backwards and forwards between the final page and earlier pages, try and figure out where everything goes.  It's a colossal and totally unnecessary pain in the arse.

LDD is a superb tool, but a build of this size and complexity has seriously shown up the limitations of the building guide generator. Even so, I'm getting there, slowly but surely, and next time I post an update I should have finished the body and decided on what to tackle next. Hopefully....

<-- Building the AT-AT : Part 3                                     Building the AT-AT : Part 5 -->

Wednesday 19 September 2012


Thinking back to holidays gone by, I can still remember how I used to agonise about which books to throw into my suitcase while I was packing. Given the lack of space, and the dire consequences of making the wrong choices and being left without suitable reading matter, such decisions were not to be taken lightly. The advent of the Kindle and the iPad has thankfully rendered such trials and tribulations largely obsolete, with a lifetime's reading material now available at my fingertips on a device weighing less than just one of the Stephen King novels that used to sustain me for a couple of days of leisure, but I now have a different choice to make. Rather than books it's now shelves full of unopened LEGO sets I stare at, waiting for inspiration to strike....

Every family holiday I try to take at least one LEGO set with me to build while I'm away, particularly if we're holidaying in the UK and space isn't at a premium. Last year a holiday we took in the UK just so happened to coincide with a 3-for-2 promotion at a prominent UK LEGO retailer, so on that occasion I left home with one set and returned with thirteen.... Good holiday, that, even though I did spend a good part of it in the doghouse as far as my wife was concerned. Usually I have just one set to build, however, so it's a decision that merits some deliberation. A pity then that on my most recent holiday I was in a rush and pretty much grabbed the last set I saw before I ran out the door. So would I regret my choice....?

My last-minute selection was Ninjago Set 9448 Samurai Mech, not an altogether left-field selection given my recent dalliances with the Ninjago theme (here) and mechs (here). The front of the box (above - click to enlarge) features the now-familiar green Season 2 Ninjago branding and is dominated by an image of the titular Samurai Mech brandishing an unfeasibly large sword in the direction of a rather weedy trebuchet and a couple of odd-looking non-human minifigures, one of whom has been catapulted through the air. Despite my ownership of a number of Ninjago sets, I have to confess that the words "Samurai X included" on the box really didn't mean anything to me at all, but I assume that they carry deep significance for the considerably younger target demographic. The back of the box (below) highlights a number of play features of the set which we'll get on to later.

Inside the box are three large numbered bags of parts, each of which contains a couple of smaller bags. There are also two instruction booklets and a modestly-sized sticker sheet; while the sticker sheet contains a total of 11 stickers, all are thankfully small. I'm not a fan of stickers, but if I do have to apply them, please let them be small like these ones.... The covers of both instruction booklets are pretty much identical to the front of the box, and both booklets weigh in at 48 pages in length. The first booklet walks the builder through construction of the minifigures, the trebuchet and the torso and legs of the mech. The second wraps up the build and also contains an inventory of parts, pictures of a number of the 2012 Ninjago sets and spinners, advertising for the website and the LEGO Club, and the now-obligatory picture of a kid shouting "WIN !" on the back cover which is supposed to encourage us to take an online survey. There's also a two page centre spread (below - click to enlarge) showcasing what looks like all of the weapons which appear in the Summer wave of Ninjago sets. This looks very similar to the weapons listing that I highlighted in my review of Set 9455 Fangpyre Mech, albeit a Summer 2012 version.

Set 9448 Samurai Mech contains lots of interesting parts, some of which can be seen in the picture below. Pride of place goes to a brand new and potentially really useful part - an inverted 2 x 2 tile - which makes its debut in this set in dark bluish grey. While it hasn't appeared in any other sets yet, it's pretty likely that it'll start cropping up all over the place before long I reckon. The dark red slope curved 4 x 1 double with no studs and dark red window are also unique to this set, as is the flat silver propeller blade 2 x 16 with axle. Other noteworthy parts are the pearl gold mechanical arm and Ninjago Spinner Crown, both of which only appear in one set apart from this one, and there's a generous supply of pearl gold round 1 x 1 tiles, four of which are extras. The handful of dark red cheese slopes are also welcome, as are the red round 2 x 2 bricks with grille.

The set contains three minifigures. Given the shout-out on the box, I'm assuming that Samurai X (below) is supposed to be the star of the show. According to Brickipedia, Samurai X is the alter ego of Nya, another Ninjago character; Nya is one of the few female Ninjago characters, and younger sister of the fire ninja Kai. Apparently. The Samurai X minifigure features printed legs and a back-printed torso, although the detail is unfortunately hidden by her somewhat clunky armour which covers her torso front and back. She has a reversible head and a pretty neat 3-part helmet featuring a removable red face guard and pearl gold decoration on top. Apart from this set, Samurai X appears in Set 9566 Samurai X, a spinner set.

Nya's adversaries in this set are a couple of seriously ugly dudes called Aytar and Snike. Short and squat with an elongatated face and snake-like teeth, Aytar has half-height minifigure legs and a torso printed front and back. His headpiece is really the highlight, curving backwards and downwards to meet his back, and covered with bright orange lumps. I think he looks excellent !

Aytar is tooled up with a wicked cuved blade; spot the lightsaber which forms the handle. There's a trans orange printed 1 x 1 round tile on the hilt printed with a Constrictai symbol which only appears in this set and one other, Set 9443 Rattlecopter.

Snike is another creative variation on the snake theme, more humanoid than Aytar but still squat and seriously ugly, with yellow eyes and slightly protruding fangs. His torso is printed front and back with a scaly pattern and he too has a spectacular textured headpiece which curves downwards and backwards from the top of his serpentine face. Snike only appears in this set.

Samurai X is a perfectly fine minifigure with some neat headgear, but for me it's the baddies that steal the show; overall the minifigures get a big thumbs up from me.

Minifigures constructed, there's the small matter of a trebuchet to build before getting cracking on the mech. And small it is, albeit perfectly functional. I think the majority of buyers would probably be quite happy for LEGO to refrain from throwing bits and pieces like this into the sets if it brought the prices down a bit, but there's no sign of LEGO doing this so we'll just have to learn to love this stuff. Just about the best thing about it is that it heralds the first apearance of the inverted 2 x 2 tile in any set ever, which is something to celebrate for me at least. There are also a few dark tan parts, which are nice to have, including a couple of modified 1 x 2 bricks with brick pattern. The trebuchet seems designed to fire Aytar and Snike through the air at high speed, and this it accomplishes with some aplomb, although how effective this strategy is likely to be against the Samurai Mech is in some considerable doubt....

And so on to the mech. After guiding the builder through construction of the minifigures and the trebuchet, the remainder of booklet 1 is dedicated to the construction of the mech's torso, feet and legs. Booklet 2 then takes up the mantle, leading the builder through construction of the arms, shoulders and head. It's an interesting and quite fiddly build at times, and you can see the finished mech below in all its glory.

You'd expect the mech to be readily posed into an almost infinite number of positions on account of a generous number of articulation points - the torso rotates 360 degrees on the hips, rotation joints permit both forwards/backwards and outward movement of the legs, there's a ball and socket joint at the ankle, and there are also ball and socket joints at the shoulder and elbow. And yet I unexpectedly struggled to pose the mech into many good poses. This was partly I think because the ball and socket joints in the ankles are quite weak and therefore the positions often didn't hold for long, and also because movement of the arms is significantly restricted by the epaulets on the shoulders. You can lift the the epaulets in order to allow more arm movement, but the guns which are mounted on top of them then bump against the mech's helmet (which is actually the hatch to get into the cockpit), so it's far from ideal.

Similar to Exo Force Set 7714 Golden Guardian which I reviewed a few weeks ago, the Samurai Mech isn't short of weaponry.... The primary weapon is obviously the huge silver sword, but if Samurai X grows tired of using her exo-suit for close quarters combat, the two shoulder-mounted guns offer some ranged options. One of these guns is a good old-fashioned cannon, capable of firing a trans blue and gold projectile via a spring-mounted firing pin at the back. The other is a blue-tipped laser or somesuch. Both guns can be rotated and elevated or lowered to secure the perfect shot.

Too many LEGO mechs have a distinctly unfinished look when viewed from behind. This one is better than many, with gold detailing on the backs of the feet, part-tiling on the rear of the torso, and a pair of red tanks mounted on the upper back. The exposed red 2 x 3 brick looks incongruous, however, as do some of the exposed grey areas. Just a little additional effort here would definitely have lent a more polished air to proceedings.

Samurai X fits snugly into the cockpit on top of the mech's torso (below). When the mech's hatch is closed she's barely visible, but the black fan-shaped 'windscreen' is hinged at its base and can be dropped down to provide Samurai X with an unobstructed forward view.

The finished mech certainly assaults the eyes, with the garish red and gold colour scheme making it look decidedly bling... It's a brave, bold design, perhaps a little too fussy and ornate for my tastes, but undoubtedly pretty spectacular. There's commendable attention to detail in the design and it's certainly anything but boring....

At an RRP of £29.99 / $39.99 for 452 pieces, I think this set offers reasonable value for money. It's an interesting build, offers a selection of interesting pieces, and I like the three minifigures it comes with, particularly the baddies. I do have some concerns about play value, though - it's trickier than expected to pose, and unless I'm unknowingly heavy-handed, it feels a bit too fragile to cope with robust handling. Even so, if you're a fan of mechs, Ninjago or both and don't plan on giving the completed model too much abuse it's easy to recommend. Amazon are currently selling the set at 20% off RRP in the UK (click here to buy), while our American cousins can get it here, albeit at only 5 cents under RRP....

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Still Going Strong

Another week, another series of Collectable Minifigures. OK, so maybe I'm being unfair - it must be at least a month or two since the Team GB Collectable Minifigures appeared on the shelves, but you get my drift.... With the wonderful London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics now consigned to history, the Team GB minifigures have gone from "must have" to yesterday's news and now it's time for the eighth series of Collectable Minifigures to strut their stuff.
Series 8 Collectable Minifigures (image from Brickipedia)
I smile when I think back to the dim and distant past when I'd actually buy random foil packets in the hope of eventually getting the whole set. Pah - what folly ! As chronicled here, such idealism (or was it naivety ?) soon gave way to the use of iPhone barcode scanner apps in the face of a frustrating accumulation of multiple unwanted duplicates. All was then well until LEGO got wise to our use of technology, and for the next couple of series we had to resort to trying to decypher an arcane and baffling pattern of dots (more here) embossed on the packets in order to determine the contents. Some people were better than others at doing this and I, it must be said, was absolutely rubbish. And then LEGO cottoned on to that strategy as well, and so it was back to just buying random bags, or else becoming quickly adept at feeling the contents of the packets while standing at the WHSmiths checkout. It amazes me that so many people seem entirely comfortable loitering for long periods at their local LEGO retailer, lovingly caressing a succession of foil packets in full sight of the general public while making strange faces and occasionally crying out in triumph.... That's really not for me, however, so I've now resorted to buying whole sealed boxes of figures and splitting them with a couple fellow AFOLs so we can all guarantee getting a full set. It seems a little unsporting doing things this way, kind of like fishing by dropping a depth charge into a lake and scooping up all the fish when they rise to the surface, but you can thank LEGO for that - it was they that started all this by removing the barcodes....
So anyway, back to Series 8, which is actually the ninth series of collectable minifigures for us in the UK as we've also had the Team GB minifigures over here, not that I'm rubbing it in or anything....

I'm always interested to see the reaction when a new series of collectable minifigures appears on the shelves. While there are sometimes one or two figures in a series which seem to get the thumbs down by common consent, opinions are otherwise often surprisingly divergent, with one person's favourite not infrequently being one of the weakest for someone else. For my part, there are definitely a couple of Series 8 minifigures which rank as my favourites, and the first of these is the Alien Villainess (below).

Honestly, I just love this minifigure. As well as seriously looking the part, this female alien badass is also more intricately constructed than the average collectable minifigure. There's actually a standard minifigure head hidden beneath that alien exterior, albeit dark pink in colour and unprinted; her lime green face wraps round the front of it, and her transparent pink 'brain' sits on top. The magenta printed dress and torso with metallic highlights look great, and are appropriately accessorised by way of a purple cape and collar, of which even Ming the Merciless would approve, and a pink-tipped ray gun. As an added bonus, this figure will fit beautifully into any Alien Conquest dioramas out there.

My other top pick from this series is the Fairy (above) who is proof positive that the new Friends minidolls don't have a monopoly on cute. Her sweet face and endearing expression, neat flick hairstyle, lovely transparent blue wings (which I believe are unique to this figure) and pretty torso print are just perfect, and if those aren't enough, she's even got a transparent pink magic wand. My wife is seriously enamoured of this figure, which means that realistically it's just a matter of time before it magically disappears....

Although the Alien Villainess and Fairy are my favourites, a number of others have also particularly caught my eye. I love the DJ's headphones (which are unfortunately fused to his hair rather than a standalone accessory), his torso print and his prized old-school 12" vinyl. Another figure which brought a big smile to my face was the Lederhosen Guy, with his stereotypical little 'tache and monster pretzel, while the Actor looks superb with his Elizabethan ruff and quizzical expression; the Actor is even helpfully supplied with a LEGO skull so he can be effortlessly posed in an "Alas poor Yoric..." moment...

I don't really dislike any of the Series 8 figures; a couple of them - the Evil Robot and Red Cheerleader - are ever-so-slightly lazy rehashes of previous collectable minifigures, seemingly identical except for a different colour scheme, but even then I still quite like them. Truth be told, it's actually quite hard to pick out a single dud from among the 16, and I find it quite astonishing that after eight series LEGO are still able to churn out such imaginative, high quality figures as these; it's testament to the designers that after so many series I'm still looking forward to the next one and can't wait for the first images to appear so I can discover what they'll come up with next - very impressive.

If you're hungry for more on Series 8 I can highly recommend WhiteFang's exhaustive and superb review on Eurobricks which includes a ton of superb photographs - click here to check it out.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

UCS AT-AT : the build begins....

Busy, busy, busy over the past couple of weeks. After returning from a(nother) business trip to the U.S. I spent some time wandering around Paris with my family, followed by a few days on the beach down on the south coast of England soaking up the sun. I accept that many will consider my juxtaposition of the words "sun" and "England" to be an oxymoron, but to my surprise the weather was great - honest.

Not the LEGO version....
Anyway, all this time away from home has resulted in a distinct lack of building time of late, but as promised I did finally manage to make a start on the AT-AT between trips, having previously finished sourcing and sorting the 6,200+ constituent parts as described here and here.

The first AT-AT LDD file that Pete sent me back when I started out on this project was the beast's legs, so that's where I decided to start the build. The legs also seemed less daunting than other sections, notably the body, so I figured I'd hopefully be easing myself in gently....

Getting up and running was simple enough - boot up my Mac, start LDD, load the relevant LDD file (above), and produce a set of building instructions by clicking 'Tool Box" in the LDD menu and selecting the "Generate building guide" option. From this point on, I had hoped it would be plain sailing, but I hadn't factored in the vagaries of the LDD-generated building guide (sample page below - click to enlarge) which had me scratching my head in utter bemusement at times. Building guide offences included sequencing the build in a plainly illogical fashion such that I had to dismantle completed sections in order to make further progress, and randomly leaving sections only half finished in order to focus on different sections, only later returning to finish off what I'd started earlier. I also lost count of the number of times that the guide called for me to suspend pieces in mid-air as if by magic, only instructing me to join the floating sections together by way of invisible technic pins many steps later. In short, the LDD-generated guide left much to be desired, but I guess it's all part of the fun....

Despite all my complaining, by using a combination of the building guide, the parts listing and a few reference photographs, it really wasn't too hard to make progress. I'd normally have built all four legs at the same time for the sake of efficiency, but on this occasion I decided to build just one leg first of all to ensure that I'd worked through any issues in the building guide, prior to cracking on with the rest. As it turned out, I'm pleased I did this as it prevented some tedious reworking.

I started out by building the AT-AT foot and 'ankle' (pictures below). The design of the AT-AT extensively utilises SNOT techniques, and one way this manifests in the feet is via the use of numerous modified 1 x 4 bricks with four studs on one side in order that slope bricks can be positioned vertically to collectively approximate the circular base of the foot, as you can see in the pictures below. I love the "mock hydraulic" connection between the foot and 'ankle' which is acccomplished by way of a ball and socket joint, a 12L Technic Axle covered in greebles and a universal joint - little details like this are one of the reasons why I think the model is so special and worthy of my time and money. In terms of functionality, there's a modest degree of movement possible at the 'ankle' as you'll see later on, and the 'toes' can also flex and extend a little in the event of placement on uneven surfaces, although on your head be it if you decide to put the finished model anywhere that isn't flat....

Foot, inner aspect
Foot, outer aspect
A couple of people have pointed out that it's hard to get a sense of the size of the AT-AT from the pictures they've seen, which is fair comment. In an attempt to convey some sense of scale I've therefore posed a minifigure - a Snowspeeder pilot, although I did consider pressing General Veers into service - next to the foot of the beast in the picture below (click to enlarge). For the more numerically minded, each foot has a diameter of around 18 cm, or 7 inches. Suffice to say it's plenty big....

Once the foot and 'ankle' are done it's onwards and upwards with the 'shin' and 'knee' sections (below). I was initially confused as to why the design called for the use of so many stacked 2 x 6 plates. Pete explained that he did this in order to increase the strength of the legs - stacked plates confer significantly more clutch than stacked bricks, which anyone who has tried to prise two plates apart can readily confirm... The light bluish grey printed 6 x 6 inverted dish on the outer aspect of the leg has appeared in only 2 sets to date - Set 7675 AT-TE Walker, and very appropriately, Set 10178 Motorized Walking AT-AT.

Construction of the upper part of the leg continues in much the same fashion, with the use of lots of stacked 2 x 8 plates to provide additional strength, plus a nice greebled section and another printed inverted dish on the outer aspect. This dish is 10 studs in diameter and has appeared in only one set to date - Set 7748 Corporate Alliance Tank Droid. You can see a couple of views of the completed leg below (click to enlarge).

What's not immediately evident from the pictures above is that the design permits some limited movement at the 'ankle', and you can see the extent of this in the picture below. It looks as if the leg should over-balance in this position, but in fact the foot is sufficiently heavy that the leg can stand quite happily at this angle without the need for additional support. I was also quite surprised that the weight of the upper part of the leg doesn't cause it to snap off at the 'ankle'. 

Having completed the first leg and worked through a few glitches in the building guide in the process, I felt sufficiently confident to 'parallel process' the remaining three legs, and you can see where I've got to with these so far in the picture below. I doubt it'll take me much more than two or three hours maximum to wrap these up now that I know what I'm doing. 

Further updates to follow in due course.... I've not yet decided which section to move on to next after I've completed the legs - any requests ?!

<-- Building the AT-AT : Part 2                                        Building the AT-AT : Part 4 -->