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.