Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Last Knight/Premier Edition Optimus Prime

I'll be honest: I didn't bother picking up any version of Age of Extinction Optimus Prime. I was vaguely interested by the improved CGI accuracy, remolded parts and superior paint job of Takara Tomy's Movie Advanced Armour Knight Optimus Prime, but the model itself still looked like a trainwreck. The entire robot was folded up inside the cab, most of nose of the truck ended up on the backs of his legs and the entire rear section hung off his back, untransformed in any way. Compared to the previous Leader class figures, it was a disaster of reduced budget and oversimplified transformation, mitigated only by the extra attention Takara Tomy lavished upon its appearance but, even so, the £150+ pricetag is way more than I'd ever be willing to pay.

Cut to the run-up to The Last Knight, when images of a smaller, yet more impressively designed reworking of the new Optimus Prime character model showed up, actually looking pretty decent. Despite my misgivings about the character's redesign, the toy certainly looked as though it would be worth a look, and so became something of an impulse buy...

...But was it worthwhile after all?

Like the Deluxes, the new Voyager packaging is a simple and tidy box, albeit with rather over-the-top print. The more I look at contemporary TransFormers toy packaging, the more I wish we could go back to the simple 'grid-and-gradient' look of the original Generation 1 toys - albeit with the excellent character art derived from the movie's CGI. The new packaging isn't quite as jumbled as some of the Age of Extinction packaging (specifically that of the hideous Bumblebee Evolution 2-pack), but it does feature too many clashing elements: the dark portion for the movie's logo (far too small, in my opinion), the light stripe down one side for the TransFormers masthead (clashing somewhat with the entirely different style of the movie logo), the red 'tech-texture' which bleeds into a weird mediaeval pennant section on the back, containing the cross-sells, and the utterly bizarre 'parchment and wood' panels on the back for the product shots and licensing info, respectively. I gather the new packaging style is intended to bring it more in line with things like the Marvel Legends series and Star Wars 'The Black Series' toys, with even Deluxes in display boxes... but, rather than emulating their classy simplicity, they've overloaded on too many colours and textures. Definitely not one of their better choices...

Vehicle Mode:
I'm still not sold on the custom Western Star 5700XE as Optimus Prime. The original Peterbilt truck worked because the CGI clearly retained significant aspects of the vehicle to give Prime a more familiar robot mode, but this truck has a very specific aesthetic that somehow looks too clumsy for TransFormers. It's all smooth and streamlined, and keeps the flame pattern that has been a questionable choice for Prime since the first live action movie, but there's also something overblown and puffy-looking about it. In much the same way as far too many contemporary reimaginings of classic cars, it feels like a smaller vehicle wearing a massive shell just for the sake of a few sensual curves on a machine that just isn't supposed to be sexy.

As with far too many Optimus Prime toys, Hasbro have used a blue plastic that's a few shades too light. On the upside, it's a nice, sparkly cobalt blue rather than weird, flat shades that are often used. Even so, I'd prefer something closer to Navy blue for the sake of contrast, if not screen accuracy. The red plastic used is an unusually dark, yet saturated shade and also features an element of sparkle, making it a vast improvement on the hopeless washed-out 'reds' that tend to be Hasbro's default choices. Just in terms of those two colours, this version of Optimus Prime looks pretty decent.

The paintwork is, of course, a vastly simplified version the flame design used in the movie. None of the pinstriping or the drop shadow effect has been transferred to the toy, and the level of detail in the flame pattern has been reduced, particularly over the wheel wells, the doors and the rear of the cab. Chrome is represented by silver paint, at least, rather than plain grey plastic, except on the exhaust pipes, the large plates on the back of the cab and the very rear of the truck. The hubcaps are also unpainted and, while the headlights are painted, they are devoid of any sculpted detail and the indicators aren't represented by any orange paint. Similarly, the lights on the rear plate are unpainted and the trailer hitch is just raised detail in the molding rather than being picked out with any additional paint.

Looking more closely at the toy versus photos of the truck from the movie, this is actually a common theme - there's an awful lot of quite sharply molded detail to the truck mode, from the running lights below the cab to the Western Star logos, to the vents on the sides of the nose, to the doorhandles, all of which deserved a touch of silver paint... but, I guess, if Hasbro did all that, what would the customisers have to do? In many ways, I'm surprised Hasbro felt that the side windows deserved the black paint they have, but it's certainly a plus point.

On the upside, virtually all of the panel seams are sensibly placed to minimise their impact on the overall look of the truck, and its clear that this figure is somewhat less a shell-former than the original because the legs are clearly visible at the rear of the truck, without being overly obvious about what they are thanks to the two-part trailer hitch panel folded over them. Also working in this model's favour is that its accessories can be stored, after a fashion, in this mode. A far cry from the awkward mounting of guns on some Titans Return figures, Prime's sword slots into the underside of the vehicle, reminiscent of G2 Laser Optimus Prime, while his shield simply pegs into the trailer hitch. The latter is a bit of a let-down considering it would probably fit on the underside, but it doesn't look terrible... And I'm sure that when one of the third party companies develops a trailer for this toy, it will feature a storage point within for the shield.

But, again, we return to the 'Premier Edition' branding of this toy, and the increased price tag - £32.99 for a truck that's not even 19cm/7.5" long and certainly doesn't have a premium paint job seems very steep, so we'll just have to hope that robot mode makes up for it...

Robot Mode:
Straight away, it's obvious that a lot of effort has gone into this figure - far more care and attention than with the Age of Extinction figure - though, obviously, that has come with the benefit of time and, very likely, better access to the movie's CGI models for the toys' designers. It's still not as svelte and compact as the on-screen character, but achieving that at any useful toy scale is a physical impossibility... So, what you get is a fairly compact backpack along with a much more clean and efficient means of compressing the front of the truck into the backs of his legs. There's no intrusive vehicle frame cluttering up the back, getting in the way of the legs and distracting the eye from the trio of exhaust pipes popping up behind each shoulder. Most importantly, the armour chunks on the shoulders and hips are pieces molded specifically to look like those armour chunks, rather than awkwardly repurposed panels of truck roof.

The paint job offers a surprising amount of coverage in robot mode, but uses only silver and metallic blue - any red is bare plastic - and neither are used especially effectively or with any sense of accuracy to the CGI. For example, the majority of the torso is molded in a dark, metallic-looking plastic, then the collar is painted metallic blue and almost the entire front is painted silver. With a slightly lighter shade of plastic, they could have forgone all that paintwork in favour of picking out the gold details on the CGI model, giving his boob-plates their required flame patterns, as well as their silver vents and door handles. Likewise, the shins have a massive coating of silver, but it finishes too high up and leaves the very tops of his kneecaps unpainted. I wouldn't necessarily expect the cables on his thighs to be picked out in red, but the armour panels on his hips really needed some of the metallic blue paint. Several parts of the awesomely detailed shin armour should have been painted gold and a bit of flame pattern should be visible above his ankles. The feet are entirely unpainted, but should have red panels on the tops. The arms have silver panels right on the biceps and metallic blue on the forearms, but no red flame patterns, and the backs of his hands are left bare. The spiky chunks of shoulder armour are molded in blue plastic, but the molded detail of the shoulder beneath should have been given a coating of metallic blue paint, and the flap of armour at the groin really didn't need much paint, but has been given a large coating of silver, even across the structural support part in the middle, that shouldn't have been highlighted in any way.

Thankfully, the amount of sculpted detail - and its screen accuracy, even versus Takara Tomy's improved version of the AoE Leader class figure - is phenomenal, and easily a saving grace for this figure. The chest is more minutely detailed than just about any other figure from the live action movie lines and, while there's no 'Mech Alive' feature, this figure looks far more 'alive' simply due to the intricacy of detail most evident in the upper body. There's even detail in the backs of the lower legs - the insides of the petrol tanks, etc. in vehicle mode - and, while I'm pretty sure it's not designed to look like any part of the robot's CGI, it does at least draw the eye away from the large slab of truck roof covering Prime's back.

One of the biggest disappointments for me in the more recent movie toys is the sudden shift from guns to swords and shields - I'm sure it's an integral part of the Arthurian legend portion of The Last Knight's plot, but it's always struck me as daft for beings made of metal to use metal swords. The superheated/energy blades wielded by Optimus Prime in the first couple of movies made some sense but, for me, the whole 'Sword of Judgement' thing was just another point of incongruity in Age of Extinction. The toy sword, like Prime himself, is beautifully sculpted and molded in the same pale grey plastic as Prime's exhaust pipes and feet... but then utterly ruined by an unnecessary coating of bright orange paint, when all it really needed was some red at the base of the blade and on the cross-guard... perhaps some blue as well for increased screen accuracy. This sort of choice on Hasbro's part is truly baffling but, let's face it, nothing unusual. The shield fares little better, molded in the darker, more metallic-looking plastic and them slathered with cyan paint. There were several different versions of this for the AoE toyline, and it was seen so briefly in the movie it's actually quite difficult to know what it's supposed to look like but, paintwork aside, it looks reasonably close to the box art, albeit lacking the blue and red accents. It even features a decent amount of molded detail on the reverse, though not to the extent suggested by the artwork. Either can be held in the hands, but there are 5mm ports in either forearm for a more useful mounting of the shield, and there's a slot on Prime's back for storing the sword when not in use.

The head sculpt is certainly one of the best movie Optimus Prime head sculpts, especially considering the scale. Like the chest, the detail is sharp and fine... but it's let down by a crummy paint job, with essentially just a stripe of silver down the middle, from his forehead crest to his chin, touches of silver for his eyebrows, and blobs of cyan paint for his eyes, rather that light piping. Considering the CGI has Prime's new head looking mostly silver, they might as well have molded the head in one of the grey plastics and then painted it in the few spots that needed to be blue. The lack of light piping and the smaller scale means that the back of the head is opaque and not marred by a screw, so there's plenty of detail back there as well, albeit without even a hint of paintwork.

While he's certainly not as complex and involved as RotF Leader class Prime, this new version of the new-look Autobot leader is certainly more involved than the AoE versions and is also far more satisfying than I'd expected. Granted, there's still a load of panels that clip together to form a truck shell, and the vehicle mode's nose is pretty much as empty as that of the very first Voyager class figures made for movie Optimus Prime, but the way the pieces are used is far more interesting and far less wasteful. The way the legs are dealt with is somewhere between the RotF re-do (where the hips shift to the very back of the vehicle and the legs open out to extend the feet all the way to the nose) and the original Leader class movie Prime (where they fold forward at the hips to form the underbelly of the cab), except that the hips stay in the middle of the vehicle, while the legs stick out and form the rear end of the truck, then open out to bring the nose of the truck back to the opposite end on a combination of hinges and ball joints. That portion of the transformation is so well engineered, it's easy to forgive the utter shellforming of the cab. All you have to do up the front is hide his head inside his chest cavity, lay the chest out in front of him (remembering to swing the boob plates down!) and swing the arms round in front of him... but here I have to admit that I was foxed by the fact that the forearms don't line up with the sides of the cab nose... The instructions weren't much use, so I did have to resort to watching a video of his transformation to find out that the bonnet panels on his forearms can swing forward on little arms pinned in just behind the wrists. Vehicle mode pegs together very securely, but I do find the backpack doesn't like to stay together in robot mode.

Given that I'm largely very impressed with this figure, and that the upper body is so poseable and expressive, I feel the lower half really let this figure down: the feet have no articulation beyond the requirements of transformation and aren't molded at enough of an angle to support wider-legged stances, while the knees are hindered by the folded-up vehicle sides stuck on their back (and it would only have needed a small notch to be cut out of the backs of the thighs, just above the knees, to improve if not entirely fix this issue). The hips are pretty much uninhibited by anything and the armour panel protruding down from the upper thigh is cleverly designed to avoid clashing with mid-thigh swivel. All that's missing from the arms is movement on the wrist - rotation would be good, but tilt might be more useful given that he wields a sword rather than a gun... Both would have been awesome. Even with fixed wrists, however, it's very nearly possible to have Prime reach back and grasp his sword when it's stored on his back - again, a wrist joint of some kind would have made this perfectly possible. The fact that the shoulder armour is independently mobile may be entirely down to the transformation, but it's yet another feature that puts this comparatively small figure far above the AoE Leader class figures. The head is mounted on a ball joint and, while its range is a touch limited by the massive collar either side, it's unlikely to be the worst in the range... though I do find mine has a tendency to pop off the joint rather more easily that I would have expected.

Considering I really don't like the new look of movie Optimus Prime, I'm surprised by how much I like and enjoy this toy of it - transformation may be comparatively basic, but it's not 100% shellforming and parts of it are very cleverly engineered. As with Dark of the Moon's Megatron toy, this is a Voyager that was more deserving of Leader class treatment than its most recent Leader class predecessors. The lack of decent posing options in the legs is disappointing, as is the paint job that manages to be fairly extensive without being remotely detailed. I've no doubt Reprolabels will come out with some improved flame decal stickers to fix the omissions in Hasbro's paint job, but the stock figure isn't terrible... Even so, I can't help but wonder how much better things might have been if the movies hadn't decided to go and dump a load of Swords & Sorcery into my favourite saga of warring alien robots. This is TransFormers, goddamnit, not World of Warcraft or Skyrim... You can get away with robot dragons in the right context, but this ain't it.

Amusingly, there will be a Japanese (7net) exclusive version of this figure - called 'Dark Optimus Prime' - which addresses most of the problems I had with the paintjob - virtually all the silver seems to have been removed, replaced either by bare grey plastic or grey paint, the gold details are painted in, the boob plates have their flame patterns, the metallic blue has been removed from his collar and applied to the hands, the head appears to be molded in grey and painted blue, darker blue plastic is used throughout, the hip armour is painted blue and the feet have their red panels... but, even so, it's not quite right, so I don't forsee myself paying over the odds to import that to replace this version.

The big question is whether or not it's worth the almost £10 price hike on a Voyager class figure... and I'd have to say it's really not. I do like it and, in some ways, it's far better than I'd expected... but it's still simplified and the paint job is the usual par-for-the-course, sub-par Hasbro paint job. When I picked up this, Berserker and Barricade, I paid almost half the total cost with vouchers left over from Christmas. If I'd had to fork out good money for the whole lot, I may have reconsidered Optimus Prime as I already own the excellent Revenge of the Fallen version and the mind-blowing WeiJiang/Black Apple oversize remake/upgrade of the already excellent Evasion Mode Optimus Prime... and I'd hardly call myself an Optimus Prime completist. I'm also still in two minds about whether I will make do with the decent-looking £32.99 Voyager class Megatron or wait for the probably stupidly expensive Leader class version with it's faceplate gimmick and flame-effect parts... Watch this space...

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