Thursday, 16 October 2014

Assault Kingdom vol. 6

I keep saying it, but it has been a busy year for Assault Kingdom. Volume six is now here, released in September, and it marks the third full set this year. Apart from these we've also seen two exclusive figures and unless production becomes delayed, there is a chance we will see volume seven hit the stores before the end of the year as well.

Volume six is going to meet a challenging crowd out there, because it follows on two successful releases and thus expectations are bound to be high. Just like in volume three, this is again a set entirely filled by Gundams. When the set was announced, this fact alone dropped my expectations significantly and I've remained a bit cautious about it, but with the figures now in hand I am happy to say that it turned out better than I had expected. Barely.

As you can see from the images the figures come in the traditional boxes and plastic bags. One nice little novelty is that the plastic bags are no longer machine sealed. They have instead been folded and taped shut, which makes it much more convenient top open them. This is also the first time I received no classic shokugan chewing gums inside the boxes, apparently this must be an export version of the set, which found its way to me from a seller in Hong Kong. As always with Assault Kingdom, the plastic bags seem to be full of parts and accessories, so let's open them up and take a look at each figure up close.

21 : The first mobile suit and Gundam to appear is the RX-0(N) with its wonderfully tongue-twisting name Unicorn Gundam 02 Banshee Norn (Destroy Mode). This figure was simply bound to happen. The classic ol' white Unicorn received both a Unicorn Mode and a Destroy Mode, so it would have made little sense for Bandai not to milk the Unicorn franchise on the Banshee as well. We now have a total of four Unicorns in Assault Kingdom and it wouldn't really surprise me if a few more variations get tossed into the mix in the future as well.

All Unicorns currently released in Assault Kingdom, from left to right: Unicorn (Unicorn Mode) from AK1 (released 2013-03), the Destroy Mode from AK2 (June 2013), the Banshee Norn (Unicorn Mode) which was a Dengeki Hobby Magazine special item for the March 2013 issue, and finally the new Banshee Norn  (Destroy Mode) figure from AK6.
Talking about the Banshee Norn itself, well, all I can say is that it has an awesome presence; it stands out from the pack in an almost brutal type of way. The Destroy Mode version basically recycles the Destroy Mode used for the regular Unicorn and adds more plating especially on its back and shoulders, making it seem very powerful. The same goes for its large shield which now becomes even bigger and meaner looking.

Equipment-wise, apart from the shield, the figure only gets one weapon, and it is the exact same Beam Magnum rifle as was included with the Unicorn Mode version of the figure released earlier. The Unicorn got a couple of Beam Sabers in its Destroy Mode and I kind of wish Bandai would have included a pair for the Banshee Norn as well, as the equipment is a bit basic. Thankfully, due to Assault Kingdom modularity, you can always mix and match weapons between your figures, but more accessories are always a good thing.

"Hey man, gimme dat!" - Double trouble as the Destroy Mode Unicorn kits up with two beam Magnum rifles or shields respectively.
 The base Unicorn figure retains the same features in terms of articulation and poseability as its predecessors, although the large armor plating on the shoulders and the increased size of the shield means the two will get in each other's way a lot. If you are going for a dynamic pose you might end up ditching the shield completely (you can always attach it to the backpack). The figure's slender frame otherwise lends itself well to posing, although the small feet don't give it a whole lot of balance when standing, and you'll have to fiddle a bit to get it right. The action bases help here of course.

The AK6 Banshee Norn as compared to the recently released Banshee (Destroy Mode) from STANDart volume 20, which appeared in May 2014. In Gundam lore, the Banshee Norn is an upgraded variant of the Banshee.
The Banshee Norn is an awesome piece of machinery and even though the base AK figure is a bit bland in terms of colouring it still looks great. It is definitely my favourite version of all the Unicorn variations released so far.

22 : Now, the Zeta, or MSZ-006 Z Gundam, probably needs no introductions. Wherever it turns up, it usually means an awesome looking figure guaranteed. The Assault Kingdom Zeta seemed very promising when I began putting it together but soon its quirks began to appear. The figure looks great for an AK Gundam, which often tends to be quite bland and white. The overall feel of the Zeta is more appealing here, but still falls monumentally short when compared to other fully painted variants of the mobile suit.

Front and back views of the Zeta as it appears in the following series, from left to right: Z Gundam (with A.E.U.G. markings) as released in STANDart vol. 16 in January 2013, the Zeta from Ultimate Operation Plus 1 (released September 2005), the Zeta from AK6 and finally the Zeta with Z logo from STANDart volume 4, released March 2009.

I can imagine that the Z proved to be a bit of a challenge to the engineers who crafted it. There are many bulky pieces of armor that have been slimmed and trimmed to give the figure a bit more movement in its limbs, but it still feels clunky and difficult to pose. I had the shoulder armor pieces pop out and fly away more than once, and the flight pack on the back effectively hinders much movement of the arms as well (not to mention how scrawny they look when compared to other versions of the figure).

The Zeta Gundam comes with a good range of accessories; apart from its iconic BOWA Beam Rifle two beam sabers are also included. Still, no translucent or spiffy colours on these, but a dull white. One of the sabers has a handle that attaches to either of the fist type closed hands, while the second is an accessory to the beam rifle. You can remove the barrel from the rifle and insert the saber to turn it into the world's most awkward melee weapon. The words "lancer droid" come to mind.

Almost as long as its name; the saber extension to the (BOWA) XBR-M87A2 Beam Rifle.
Overall, the Zeta is a decent figure, but it comes off as a bit bland and the limited articulation is kind of a disappointment. Of course, you can always ditch the flight pack and use smaller beam rifles or beam sabers to strike up interesting poses more easily.

23 : The third figure, and Gundam, of AK6 is an old friend. The RX-178 Gundam Mk-II in the Titans dark navy blue colour scheme. If you are a veteran of Assault Kingdom, chances are you have his white counterpart in your collection already. The previous (white) Assault Kingdom Mark II was a really successful figure, it had excellent likeness, poseability and an attractive colour scheme.

The Mark II of the Titans compared to the previously released white Mark II, from Assault Kingdom 2, released in June 2013..
The Titans version simply builds upon this fact and goes a bit further by ditching the ol' white thing and converting the Gundam into something darker and meaner looking. I knew this figure was going to be successful even before I laid eyes upon it.

There isn't really a whole lot to say about the new version of this figure since it shares the excellent properties of its predecessor. The Titans version has one new accessory though; the head mounted Vulcan Gun Pod. It clips around the head as an optional boost to the RX-178's firepower. Again, it would have been nice of Bandai to include at least one beam saber here -and why not the bazooka too?

The AK6 Titans Mark II compared to one of the two released in STANDart, this one being armed with a Hyper-Bazooka and belonging to STANDart wave 13, released in May 2012.

All things considered, the RX-178 is one of the better Assault Kingdom figures in terms of its versatility. You can have a lot of fun with it, as it lends itself very well to custom poses, just like the original RX-78-2 did.

24 : The last figure of AK6 is a real novelty, and an odd one at that. Here comes the GF13-017NJ Shining Gundam, whose main claim to fame appears to be having an oversized green hand. Out of all the extraordinary and weird mobile suits out there, Bandai actually settled for a very basic looking white Gundam with green fingers. Uhm... ok.

Not a whole lot going on in the equipment department here. The Shining Gundam's signature weapon is its right hand turning immensely powerful and glowing green, and then becomes a crushing weapon. Alternatively, this energy can be channeled into one of its ordinary beam sabers, turning it extra long and green. The Gundam also has some additional support weapons mounted directly in its body, but at least Bandai could have included an unaugmented beam saber for some variation. And why on earth couldn't we get a right open hand in dull gray? Some of the Zaku II:s come with seven hands, I think it is not too much to ask for a fifth hand for such a dull figure as this one.

The Bolshoi Gundam mastered the difficult pirouettes a long time ago...
You can of course cannibalize your other figures for some rifles, sabers or hands, but we shouldn't have to take away from one figure to breathe life into another. I was also put off a bit by the Shining's clunky articulation. Considering its rather traditional build I found it surprisingly hard to pose, it seemed to be mostly interested in doing graceful skips and jumps not entirely out of place in a ballet performance.

I don't have much in the way of G Gundam figures, here are the two God Gundam (a.k.a. Burning Gundam for you in the U.S.) figures from STANDart volume 5, released in September 2009. In the G Gundam lore, the God Gundam is a successor to the Shining Gundam.

Action Base component assembly

As usual for Assault Kingdom, each figure in a normal wave also includes a few pieces that can be used as a rudimentary action base for it. By collecting all four you are usually allowed to build something out of these parts, typically a quirky looking building or vehicle. In Assault Kingdom 6, you get to build two additional tank-like vehicles or transformable mobile suits.

I am not going to spill a great deal of words over these, as usually they don't work out all that well. In AK6 however, the outcome is really poor. Kudos to the engineers for trying and I bet children can have a lot of fun with it, but other than that... well these pieces will probably end up in a ziplock bag.

In summary, I suppose AK6 is a decent set, but I am not really feeling it. The Banshee Norn and the Mark II are the best of the four, with the other two trailing a bit behind. I don't think that AK6 is a must buy unless you are a completist, perhaps simply pick the figures you prefer the most and then move on.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Gundam Converge vol. 16

Gundam Converge, released in September 16 -but announced several months earlier- has had me feel like I have been waiting for it forever to arrive. The reason behind this was that I was both curious and suspicious about the fact that suddenly Bandai started reissuing old Mobile Suits. Was this set to be the water breaker from which they'd cheaply start reissuing figures forcing those of us who buy full sets getting loaded with junk we did not care about. Or would the reissues shine in excellence deflating the second hand market of the original versions? And might they perhaps even be so much improved upon that we'd embrace them willingly? As I said, I had my doubts. Anyway, Converge 16 is finally here at HQ, so let's dig into it!

Well, everything looks pretty conventional so far. Upon first inspection I did notice the absence of the classic Bandai chewing gum normally plonked into each box. I know these tend to be absent on export versions going to North America (whose boxes are also often molested with big safety warning stickers more or less ruining them from a collector point of view, it's a dangerous world out there...) but this was the first time I received a Converge set from Hong Kong which also did not feature the Shokugan gums.

Once I had gone through all the figures and assembled them there were a couple of small surprises along the way. Nothing earth-shattering or so, but enough to pique my interest a bit extra and nod approvingly.

Let's break down each figure in the classic GG way:

94 : GX-9900 Gundam X. if you know Converge, you know that opening each set with a high-profile Gundam is the order of the day. Now, with a long running series such as Converge, this means we can offer these slots to not only the usual suspects, but also let figures from lesser known series step up into the spotlight. Starting off volume sixteen is the white and navy blue Gundam X with its peculiar asymmetric solar panels that feed energy to its Satellite Cannon weapon.

The figure looks like it means business, and although it shares many features with the countless other white Gundams before it, is still a nice entry into your ever expanding collection. It features the usual articulation which means that head, arms and right hand wrist all sit on rotating pegs which offer some minor tweaking of the figure's pose. The Gundam is armed with two weapons, the two coloured Buster Shield Rifle which goes into the right hand, and the Satellite Cannon itself which is pegged into the solar array on the backpack. One commendable feature is that you can arm the X with the Satellite Cannon as well, although it sits kind of loose in the hand this is a very nice touch.

95 : The second Gundam in this set is the ARX-014 Silver Bullet (Gael Chan Use). It comes in no less than two plastic bags with a myraid of very tiny parts (the type that you can expect to see missing on many second hand items in the future...), but they are mostly decorational only, and the completed figure somehow seems less complex than the multiple parts bags indicated.

The Silver Bullet in its grey colour scheme reminds me of such Mobile Suits as the Delta and Zeta Plus, with many fine and pointy details. It is a magnificent little piece of engineering that you need to keep safe from bending, so don't store this in a careless way (and if you do, disassemble it first and place the pieces in a ziplock bag). Equipment-wise, there's not a whole lot going on, as this figure only sports a small Jegan-Type Beam Rifle. It also features the traditional head-shoulders-righthand wrist articulation which is par for the course.

96 : AMX-107 Bawoo (Glemy Toto Use). This was for me the anticipated highlight in the set. I love it when Bandai take the time and effort to dig up the more unusual Zeon figures to flesh out the sets. Everybody loves the Zakus, Goufs and the Sazabi, but there is so much more out there. The Bawoo for example, here in the red version of ace pilot Glemy Toto, is just such a figure. It has a distinct and menacing appearance with the iconic monoeye and a strong colour scheme.

There are, as evident in the photos, some minor issues with parts prone to slight bending. This is a property the Bawoo shares with many of the newer figures, as the plastic appears more rubbery and elastic than what was used in older figures. As for articulation, the figure is a bit static, primarily owing to the fact that the head has a tall horn which extends to in between the backpack thrusters, giving it a very discreet wiggle from side to side only. The arms rotate at the shoulder as per usual, and the right hand and shield are also on circular pegs enabling some mild variation in them. Overall an excellent display figure that will add to any Neo Zeon formation.

97 : MA-04X Zakrello. The stand-out oddity of volume 16 has to be the Zakrello. Apparently an early type of Mobile Suit primarily suited for melee action it certainly looks the part, but the first thing that comes to my mind when I see it is that bouncy Gundam mascot Haro...

It is always fun when they shake up the Converge series with unconventional figures like this one, and it poses really well on its clear stand. In terms of articulation, the Zakrello offers arms that rotate at the shoulder, and you can twist the blades around in their wrist sockets. The sculpt is really excellent for this figure, especially the insect-style eyes and the tiny little carved out Zeon logo which sits like a bull's-eye on its forehead. Job well done, Bandai!

98 : RX-78-2 Gundam (Detail Up Ver.). This is the figure that I had my deepest doubts about. Not only because I am a bit tired of RX-78:s but because this figure is also the first of, I suspect more, improved mold reissues of old figures. It seems Bandai has a habit of releasing the same old figures again and again, in new figure series, rather than going the extra mile to flesh out the selection of the existing figure series (come on Bandai, don't waste space on reissues, give us a Messala, a Gabthley, Geara Doga or Palace Athene, anything, something new).

So, here is the much toted "Detail Up" version of the RX-78-2. The figure has a more greyish-white base colour compared to the old RX-78 and has more details than the original. The new RX-78 features a new look to its face, shorter V-Fins, better looking Beam Sabers, small things like that. The torso and the legs are now separate pieces, but the joint is a shaped peg so there will be no new articulation here if you were hoping for that. Another of the more noticeable changes is the improved shield which now also has a see-through viewport, and you can now place it on either arm (which seems kind of pointless as the right hand is still the only weapon hand) or peg it onto the backpack. All things considered, I'd still say these are minor improvements only, not likely to cause much of a ruckus.

An RXetrospective, displaying some of the past RX-78:s released in Converge. From left to right: A classic white RX-78 from Converge volume 4 (released September 2011), the limited edition metallic style RX-78 released in a double pack with Char's Zaku II in March 2014, yet another double pack version of the RX-78 in Ground Type colours from the Art of Gundam twin-pack (July 2014) and lastly the new Detail Up version.

The best thing about this figure is that Bandai have seen it fit to give the figure optional equipment in the form of both a Beam Rifle and a glowing red Beam Saber. You might recall in the recent review of the Blue Destiny unit which had two separate figures, one with a beam rifle and one with a saber, so Bandai are clearly going in the right direction with offering alternate weapons loadouts within the same box. Now imagine if they'd also tossed in an upgraded Bazooka! There is something about the overall touch and feel of the new figure though, which makes it feel more rubbery, softer, more able to deform, than the more rigid material of the earlier figures. I've sort of noticed this recent trend in Converge figures, they seem to be made of a softer plastic compound that is prone to bending. In my opinion this is not an improvement since figures tend to be more and more unsteady on their feet and sometimes they will lean to one side or the other. ll things considered, the new RX-78-2 is a fine figure, but I am not really looking forward to more reissues of this kind.

31R : MS-06S Zaku II (Char's Custom). I'm starting to feel like I've done nothing but assembling Zaku II:s this year. This is the fourth one I have added to the collection in 2014, and the third red one. It is also highly important in that it is the first item to be featured in the Revival Selection of reissues (there will be a Zaku I to follow in Converge volume 17 and I predict several more) of old hard-to-find figures. I would imagine Bandai have paid attention to the results from the old Operation Revive competition where users got to vote on which figures they'd like to see released again (refer to the Operation Revive review for more information). And in spite of all the recent Zaku II:s that have appeared, this is a really good choice, as the original figure is one of the most difficult to find. Up until this point it almost never appeared online (it will be interesting to see if the relaunch will change this as I'm still hunting for a copy just because...).

As you can see in the image, the reissued figure has a small Revival Selection logo on the box which makes it easy to tell the original figure and the reissue apart. Unfortunately as I do not have the old figure I cannot comment too much on how it may have changed, if there is any colour variation in its basic paint job (Bandai sometimes alter the base colours on reissues slightly, although they did not do so on the figures in the Operation Revive set) or so.

Some of the Zaku II:s released in Converge over the years. Fromn left to right: Char's Zaku II released with the Dengeki Hobby magazine in August 2011, Garma's custom Zaku II with Heat Hawk weapon (the secret figure from Converge volume 5, released November 2011), Char's metallic coated Zaku II from a limited twin-pack released in March 2014 and the new Revival Selection version of the Zaku II.
But I will say this: I was very surprised to see that Char gets both the old Bazooka and the Heat Hawk weapon. I have never seen an axe-wielding Converge 31 before, but it was the sole equipment of the secret version of the figure (Garma's Custom). Could it be that Bandai saw fit to give the reissue an extra weapon? If so, this is truly amazing! We will know for sure once volume 17 hits the market, as I have both the original Zaku I and the secret Black Tri-Star version which comes loaded with additional equipment. Now if the reissue of the Zaku I will be upgunned in this fashion this bodes very well for the Revival Selection figures; enough so to make me actually want to collect them.

Char Twins. The original issue, figure number 31, is to the left, and the reissue (figure 31R) is on the right.
EDIT: A while after this review was posted I was able to pick up the original version of this figure in an unopened package, and can confirm the following: One; the original figure comes equipped with the bazooka only, and two; there is a very subtle colour difference between the two, with the original slightly less pink but unless you hold the two figures close to each other you would not notice this. The camera can't distinguish between the two either.

Secret : AMX-107 Bawoo (Mass Production version). The secret figure in this set throws in some nice green Zeon colour into the set. I was very pleased to see that the secret version in this set was not only Zeon, but also a grunt type unit. I wouldn't try to army build in Converge, but if you like to, now is your window of opportunity before the figure turns ultra rare.

The secret version differs to the standard version in colour scheme only, coming with the same shield and beam rifle. A nice touch is that not only is the body now green instead of read, but the areas on the torso and shield which are black on the standard figure are now tweaked into a dark green which looks great. Another twist is that the secret figure has a pink monoeye, where the standard figure featured a green one. As you can see in the pictures, the beam rifle on my figure has a slight bend. This is type of bend that seems to be more common in the newer figures in the series, it should be fixable with a hot water cure though (out the rifle under warm water, this will soften the material allowing you to bend it into shape, then apply cold water to fix in place again).

All in all, Converge volume sixteen came out much better than I had at first suspected. It didn't feel half-baked as I had first feared, and there was not a single disappointing figure in the set. The fact that three of the figures also came with optional weapons is a definite plus and I can only hope we get to see more of this in the future.