Thursday, 17 March 2016

WeiJiang 'Deformation Era' M01 OP Commander

It's very rare, when looking at photos of TransFormers toys, that I start to wonder if I'm looking at something that actually transforms, or a detailed action figure made to resemble a TransFormers toy. I remember being completely blown away by the first images of RotF Leader class Prime, and wondering how such an amazing robot could possibly condense down into a believable truck mode but, in retrospect, there were plenty of obvious visual cues.

For all its detail, and as amazing as it is for the size, AoE Evasion Mode Prime also leaves one in no doubt that it's a transforming toy simply because Hasbro's budget didn't allow for the toy's strengths to properly shine through. It's potential didn't go unnoticed, however, and dodgy knockoff company WeiJiang have taken my favourite interpretation of movie Optimus Prime, increased its size, improved its build quality, improved its paint job... and added some die-cast metal for good measure.

Can it possibly be as good as it appears to be? Is it truly...
...more than meets the eye?

A lot of knockoffs, regardless of their size, end up packaged in card-backed bubbles or flimsy cardboard boxes with ripped-off artwork. This product from WeiJiang comes in a large (50cm x 32.5cm x 16cm/20" x 13" x 6.5"), sturdy cardboard box featuring a Spot UV varnished, digitally painted image of Optimus Prime in action on the front, a photo of the figure posed with its blade accessories on one side, and detailed images of the contents on the back.

Inside the box is a manual written in Chinese and fairly broken English, as well as a photographic catalogue of WeiJiang's current range of figures - lots of Age of Extinction figures made larger, including various formats of the Dinobots, and even a Protectobots-style team of emergency vehicle robots - which appear to be original designs - that combine into one larger robot.

The manual, as well as providing a fairly detailed, step-by-step guide to transforming the figure from robot mode (as he's packaged in robot mode) into vehicle mode, it also features advertising for a trailer - based on the MP10 trailer - which can attach to truck mode's trailer hitch. I noted that Evasion Mode Optimus Prime was sorely in need of a trailer, considering the hitch detail molded into the soles of his feet, so it's nice to see WeiJiang pretty much completed my wish list for the original version of this mold, though I doubt I'll actually buy a trailer for this one. It comes with all the MP10 accessories, including a very non-movie-style Roller, but I couldn't really justify buying a trailer accessory, even if I had the money. Or space.

Both the manual and the catalogue, but particularly the latter, absolutely reeked of fresh print when I first got them out of the box. Some people like that scent... but it often gives me a headache (which is fun, considering I work in publishing) so I'm glad it faded quickly.

The robot itself and its accessories are packaged in a large polystyrene foam crate, the likes of which I haven't seen since the early days of Generation 1, so the feelings of nostalgia hit as soon as the outer box was opened.

Vehicle Mode:
After all Michael Bay's whining that a flat-nosed truck wouldn't have sufficient mass to accommodate the Autobot leader, I'm sure a lot of fans (not me, personally) felt vindicated by Optimus Prime's initial appearance in Age of Extinction. We may never have seen a proper, traditionally G1 sort of Prime, but the beaten-up rustbucket that became his disguise for a good chunk of the fourth movie is probably the best we're going to get in the movies. For the toys, meanwhile, Hasbro was content to G1-ise an excellent interpretation of the Age of Extinction junker, albeit with a less-than-vibrant red and too-pale blue, because they've virtually never used a blue anything like as dark as G1 Optimus Prime's in the 30 years since. WeiJiang's interpretation has a much bolder, richer red and a good, properly dark blue. Maybe still not quite the G1 blue, but certainly closer to the blue used by the movie's CGI.

At first glance there may not be many obvious changes and, for the most part, WeiJiang have just added a touch of finesse to what was already a fantastic model. However, a closer inspection reveals that the rear of the truck has been adjusted quite considerably - there are a couple of molded details on the central section, just behind the trailer hitch, and the rear mudguards are complete, rather than unexpectedly cut off above the rearmost wheels (not that the actual truck in the movie even had mudguards). Furthermore, there are molded - and painted - indicator light details on the mudguards. All of them are painted yellow, which may not be strictly true to life, but it's nice to see any paintwork on the back of a vehicle. The trailer hitch sculpted into the soles of Prime's feet isn't the actual trailer hitch for WeiJiang's enlarged MP10 trailer. The strange gap just behind it has been repurposed - and slightly remolded - to accommodate the trailer's clip.

Moving slightly forward, while Hasbro/Takara Tomy's Voyager class figure had a gaping hole in the back of the cab, where the insides of the robot's chest and the stowed head could be easily seen, this version has a metallic grey plastic plate covering the innards up. He also has a G1 homaging pair of chromed smokestacks rather than the single unit mounted on the righthand side of the original. The cab itself closely resembles Evasion Mode Prime in its paint layout, though the silver band is slightly narrower and the windows are of a darker, smoky plastic, to better obscure the robot parts within. The window frames and windscreen wipers have a more consistent application of silver paint, and the side windows are picked out in black, to better match up with the translucent plastic used for the front windows, and it's surprisingly effective. One very cool feature is that the wing mirrors are now separate, hinged pieces of metallic grey plastic with blocks of silver paint on the insides. While the paint on the front of the cab is much the same as Hasbro's, this model has the Takara Tomy version's silver paint on the wheel wells and the steps leading up to the cab door. Also noteworthy is that the lights on the roof are picked out in yellow paint... so it's almost as if the paint job is based on MP10.

The petrol tanks are mounted slightly further forward than on the original and, while it might have been nice for these to get a coating of either silver paint or chrome, they look pretty decent in the metallic grey plastic. Another massive improvement is in the wheels - not only are all of the hubcaps beautifully chromed, but the tyres are made of rubber, with a nice tread molded in.

While the fit of the central section of the front of the cab is barely improved over the original, the seams over most of the front are slightly less apparent - the most obvious being where the front grille is split horizontally (now with a handy slot to make it easier to get a fingernail in) and where the plastic parts of the front clip into the painted die-cast parts of the sides. The colour matching is phenomenal, giving a very impressive overall result.

Robot Mode:
When I first saw photos of this turning up online, I didn't believe it was a functional transformer - it seemed too good to be true. Even now, I find this oversized Evasion Mode Optimus Prime figure almost unbelievable, despite knowing how much of robot mode is cheated detail. The main drawback is that the robot mode's appearance closely references the movie character's CGI - even the pinstriping of the flame pattern is present - so you go from a G1-referential red-and-silver truck cab to red, silver and blue truck cab parts on the robot's chest, and that flame pattern just miraculously appears from nowhere. Ignoring this incongruity, just about every complaint I had about the original's lack of paint applications has been fixed (red flame at is ankles, blue flame on his wrists, blue paint on his 'belt' and the fronts of his hips, chromed fake smokestacks just behind his head, gold paint on the rims of his knee joints and several colours of metallic paint on the mechanical details of his inner ankles), and the end result is nothing short of beautiful. It's easy to forgive the faked chest details on a figure like this.

Also impressive is that the model - while significantly larger than the original - has been made more solidly: compare the backs of the thighs, where the original has large, deep slots cut in to save on plastic volume, while this one is fully enclosed with shallowly molded details.

There's a small amount of partsforming to this figure, in that the petrol tanks have to be removed from his legs and attached to the flame-patterned panels on his back, but this adds to the authenticity of the figure, so it's and easily forgiveable bit of cheating. Then again, considering the two tanks transform and combine into Prime's handgun (an inspired move, but then it just seems baffling that Hasbro/Takara Tomy didn't do something like this), it's not necessary to keep them on his back at all. The gun isn't entirely convincing - could have used a bit of paint, to be honest - and I find it can sag slightly in his hands as the hinge at the top of the grip is a touch weak, but the idea was a good one and I've certainly seen worse weapons packaged with TransFormers toys... like just about all the Mechtech bricks that came with Dark of the Moon figures.

As well as this handgun, WeiJiang have included cheeky upscale rip-offs of UFO's Glory Shield, Prime Axe and Blades... though sadly not their Hooks. The shield looks amazing - coated in metallic paint with translucent orange sections and an excellent grip on the inside which makes it just about possible for him to hold the shield naturally - and the blades are very well painted... but the axe looks very sloppy, with overspray of the metallic paint all over the blades, and it's clear that no attempt was made to keep to the details of the weapon's sculpt. Both the axe and the blades feel a bit flexible as well - not rubbery, by a long chalk, but certainly not rigid... though, given how thin some parts are, that's probably going to protect against breakage. The blades and the handle of the shield tab into the slots in his palms, but the axe has no tabs on its shaft, so it has to be balanced in his hand, with the fingers wrapped as tightly around it as possible.

Another bonus with this figure is the inclusion of a second face (insert "GIVE ME YOUR FACE!" joke here). Fresh from the box, this figure has the 'battlemask deployed' look of the boxed set versions of Evasion Mode Optimus Prime, but this can be unscrewed and replaced with the 'bare face' look. Both are very cleanly painted and the sculpted detail of the bare face is a refinement of everything that was present on the Hasbro/Takara Tomy original, only that much larger. While it appears that the head sculpt is supposed to offer light piping, the translucent plastic, being the same as is used for the windows, is too dark to allow light to pass through, and so the eyes are supplemented by daubs of pale cyan paint. I'm in two minds about which face to use on mine - on the one hand, I'd rather not use the 'bare face' because that's what Evasion Mode Optimus Prime has... but, on the other hand, just about every other movie Optimus Prime goes with the battlemask look, and that's a bit boring.

While transformation is fundamentally identical to the original, a couple of points have been altered or added to this larger-scale model. For no obvious reason, the toe section must be rotated 180° for vehicle mode and, while it then sits rather more flush with the legs to form a coherent rear end for the vehicle, and the same joint serves to make his toes vaguely poseable in robot mode, it does seem a bit pointless. One of the rear wheels on each side is attached to an arm which swings at the knee to give Prime two rear wheels in vehicle mode and two thigh wheels in robot mode. On the original, the petrol tanks were attached to the knee, so this is another facet of the same improvement that turned those tanks into halves of the robot's handgun. One of the things I complained about on Evasion Mode Prime was the weedy shoulders and, while the joint parts are essentially the same size (proportionally) here, he has the vehicle's smokestacks collapsed down and back plate folded up to more closely resemble the CGI's armour panels, and it works remarkably well without overly complicating transformation. Vehicle mode's wing mirrors are no longer molded as part of the cab, they're hinged so that they can fold against the robot's elbows to avoid catching anywhere. Lastly, there are two rotating plates on his back which the petrol tanks plug into when they're not acting as his gun, to better match the CGI, and then fold in between the vehicle's front wheels. What's quite incredible about this is that, for all the improvements, the most complicated part of transformation is still getting the arms into the correct position for each step of the transformation process.

This model retains all the poseability of the Hasbro/Takara Tomy Voyager class figure, albeit with some occasional clash between the thigh-mounted wheels and other parts, particularly when trying to rotate the waist with the legs splayed. The top wheel on each hip is still on a hinged section which allows it to move out of the way, but the lower wheel often gets in the way of that, having to be unpegged and swung down slightly for clearance. The arms are basically the same, with no loss of range due to the additional parts on top, but the hands have been replaced entirely, and are now much more Masterpiece-style. The thumb is on a ball joint and the fingers, while molded together, have two pinned joints to allow him to grip his weapons, to supplement the connection via the palm slot. The wrists not only rotate, but a pinned joint right at the back of the hand allows him to raise his hands palm-out. Better still, the truck roof panel that got in the way of the fists on the original now hinges out of the way, back onto the forearm. The only other point of articulation not offered by the original is the door to the Matrix/Spark chamber in his chest. All of the joints are good and stiff, with some of the original's friction joints and soft ratchets replaced by proper, resoundingly clicky ratchets. The toe joint really doesn't add a great deal in terms of poseability because it doesn't move the right way - it might have been better to improve the range of motion offered by the ankle joints - but the fact that the ball joint allows it to tilt does mean it can give the impression of a firmly-planted foot even when the main part of the foot is actually balancing on its edge. The head and neck are separately jointed - hinged neck with a ball joint in the head, as per the original - and I've found the ball joint for the head can be a little wobbly in places and possibly isn't as mobile as the Hasbro version... though it's been a while since I last played with that, so I may be wrong.

I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this figure to anyone who (a) actually likes the movie TransFormers and (b) wants a nigh-perfect interpretation of movie Optimus Prime that transforms into a flat-nosed, heavily G1-influenced truck. WeiJiang's M01 Commander shows how close Hasbro/Takara Tomy were to having one of the best TransFormers toys ever on the shelves in toyshops, only to produce something that's 'merely' significantly above average in terms of design, utterly let down by it's pitiful paint job and a dearth of accessories. The die-cast parts - the sides of the truck/robot torso - are a strange choice, but don't make him excessively top heavy, and flipping these die-cast parts from one position to the other via a pinned hinge in a comparatively slim plastic block can feel a little scary, but it seems secure. I should also note that I found what looked like a smudge on the blue paint of his right hip but, upon rubbing it, discovered it was actually chipped paint... which I had just made slightly worse. It's barely noticeable and I doubt it's a widespread problem.

My only warning would be that the price varies considerably depending on where you look. I picked up mine, direct from China via eBay, for under £70 ($99) including shipping, but I've seen it offered for as much as £150 ($212). Honestly, it's worth the higher price, but it's always best to pay less where possible.

We're only into the third month of 2016, and I'm pretty sure this will be hard to beat as my Figure of the Year. All I need now is for WeiJiang to remake Dark of the Moon Megatron to the same size and quality.

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