Thursday, 17 September 2015

Radical Regenerations: Power Core Combiners Steamhammer And Constructicon Drones

Okay folks, lets try something a bit different. I have many Transformers. Many, many Transformers. And I've come back to regular reviewing after an absence, where I'd got a little bit bored with how I was doing it. So rather than just blast out fifty bajilion “Concise” reviews(1), I'm going to run an irregular series called “Radical Regenerations”, where I talk about sometimes obscure toys in an informal manner. I don't mean radical in the 90's Bart Simpson sense here. And I don't strictly mean regeneration in the Doctor Who sense, although nearly. I'm talking about those times the designers took a character, and gave it a damn thorough reworking. Not a blatantly obvious trademark securing exercise, or a simple reuse of a name that kinda fits, but when they clearly were homaging something, but not merely recreating it. The opposite to Generations in general and Takara, basically. So, let us begin.

The Context
Cast your mind back to five or so years ago, and remember the Power Core Combiners (PCC) line. On paper at least, this should have been the best damn thing ever. They were to be a line of scout size toys, following just after the Revenge of the Fallen line, which was known for its scouts, and for generally being pretty damn good at whatever it did. These toys would also feature the return of two extremely well-liked gimmicks, Combination, and Mini-Cons. It was nothing, if not ambitious. In practice however, the line did not end well, the reasons for this being varied. One factor was likely a simple glut of product, with Generations and TF2010 on shelves at the same time. Another was probably the implementation of combination, this being achieved by spring-loaded, automorphing drones rather than teams of robots, and said limbs not looking that limb like at times. Another was the simple fact, like most Transformers lines, the designers didn't perfect things until later waves. But perhaps what hurt most was the vague fiction supporting the toys. While PCC characters and teams were often named after G1 legacy characters, the resemblance was slight, and the bunch of them get lumped in with the bayverse. You might think people are whining about Alpha Bravo and such now, but imagine that applied to an entire toy line. Takara eventually would come along and tie their version into G1, but back then, it wasn't clear whom the PCCs were aimed at, and by the time it had found an audience and resolved the bugs, the discount stickers were being applied. Whatever could have been done differently, this is still a crying shame. This is the line that gave us a combining Dinobot team. An evil fire truck. Destrons. Destructicons. A tank Autobot whom isn't Warpath. A little Mini-Con whom changes into a drill. And the focus of today's review, Steamhammer and the Constructicons.

Constructicon Drones
Occupying a middle ground between the classical green/purple and bayverse “opal fruits” palette(2), the Constructicon drones are superior examples of the type. First off, each drone is actually the first iteration of their altmode in the franchise, which makes for quite a distinctive look, and different play patterns. Secondly, the kinks were largely worked out by this point with respects to the automorph, my examples having the right amount of tension in the springs, while looking slightly more humanoid than some in the line. And thirdly, each “arm” drone has an adjustable thumb, which actually helps a lot. The basic strengths and weaknesses common to the drone play pattern do still apply however. Each drone does benefit from a mini-con post, with a cracking amount of detailing and no meaningful omissions of paint, this set being made prior to the budget cuts. On the other hand spring-loading entire limbs can cause some annoyances, when bits catch where they shouldn't, and be outright unacceptable for some. Let's look at each of them.

The Drill Drone is a big, f-off, drill machine, of a construction usage, rather than a sci-fi one. Cast mainly in grey, its the dullest to the eye of the four, although it does match well in the combined mode. The drill is articulated in two places, not quite enough for arm mode, but it can ram people in vehicle mode. Its mini-con post meanwhile is best used when the drill is pointing down.

The Front End Loader Drone is orange, but wears it well, and is the most characterful of the bunch. There's the visual illusion of an unbroken conveyor belt, and an articulated upper shovel to feed it. Its a vehicle that goes up to the nearest pile of detritus, might be rubble, might be a Junkion corpse, eat it up, and “poop it” into a waiting “dump truck”(3). It also makes for a long, possibly too long, arm which adds some grey into the mix. Just be mindful of that little black bit by the socket.

The Plow Drone, which I shall henceforth refer to as “Mister Plow”, is one where I'm not fond of the colours, but I do like the sculpt. Its got too much white in either mode for my tastes, with some paint splatter at the back, but there's merit here. The plow has some nice paint applications, while making for a great foot, and there's actual interior detail for the cabin. Mister Plow, that's his name, unfortunately is a bit stiff in the plow joint, so works best when springing into leg mode.

The Steamroller Drone, seemingly pre-empting Mixmaster by five years, drives the opposite way to which you might think. Seriously, this also has sculpted seats facing the back wheels. Anyway, coming in a nice JCB yellow with effective paint apps on the roller, this drone looks good. The leg mode is similarly pleasing, with some new detail exposed when the automorph operates. However, his wheels seem to sit a millimetre or so loose on their mountings, which looks odd.

Okay, we have been here before, with the Energon character of the same name. Steam hammers do exist, although in a realm of forging, not construction. This guy is just a bulldozer with a badass name. Well, I say just a bulldozer. More accurately, he looks like Bonecrusher on steroids, and more tasteful colour scheme. While an obvious Constructicon-in-waiting, the purple has been traded for black and grey. From a majority of angles, it looks good, although like Sledge from the same line, its got a slightly ramshackle and broken-up feeling, with a lot of the vehicle coming from the arms and chest, so displaying a lot of joints. Its also got a curious case of Double Visible Head Syndrome, with the robot mode head on top, and the super robot on the underside. There's also no real attempt to hide the blue PCC ports in the back, something which is a frequent line wide flaw. On the plus side, the blade covers a lot of sins, has a nice weathering, and is partially articulated. And this isn't a bulldozer that's going anywhere it doesn't want to, having a set of spikes out back to act as breaks. Factor in a well-placed Mini-Con post, its a hard mode to dislike.

The robot mode? Well, not as much.

The general appearance of the robot is that of a Decepticon through and through, mean, angular, and clawed. No new colours are introduced here, so he does look to be a Constructicon, although there's some fairly atypical design elements here. The claws for example, are a big thing, as bladed weapons aren't really a Constructicon trait, and a boon to play value. While definitely a “bad guy” sculpt, I remain undecided if the head is meant to be canine or porcine. 

If its porcine, we've basically got an Ork here, which would fit a bulldozer. If its canine though, I find myself looking towards the movie Bonecrushers, you know, either the clawed one who hates everything, or Michael Bay's dog. That would be a bit convoluted if that's the case. He does have tread legs like G1 Bonecrusher or Scavenger, but he's got separate toes too. His backpack is also a flaw all of his own, as is the arm kibble and he has those blue PPC connectors. Said backpack seems to have resulted in the hips being very restricted in the name of balance, as he is very back heavy, something which I find deeply annoying as these are balljointed. This area is the singular unambiguous negative, as the joints might as well not be there, and the thigh swivels are loose. There's also a set of securing tabs for the combined mode, which are easy to insert, but hard to remove without removing the leg too, which is a blight on an other acceptable transformation scheme. On the plus side though, those claws do mean a lot here, 5 pack moulds not usually having weapons, and enough articulation in other places to offset the hips a little. He has articulated toes, and a PCC connector as an adjustable heel spur, with rotation above and below, the knee. The arms are a bit more basic with three joints, but they work well. His head also swivels, although the waist is fixed, for a total of 21 joints. You can get good poses, and he's got more inherent play value than some PCC toys, but he's gonna need patience.


Super Mode
Steamhammer's combined form seems to have been designed by someone whom had heard of Devastator, but didn't feel beholden to that design. Yes, there are elements that evoke him, Mister Plow, that name again, Mister Plow(4), has a Scrapper style foot mode, the two arm units are tracked, but there's a clear distance between this and any previous Devastator. It skirts the bayformer aesthetic a bit with the arms, but otherwise, its something different. The head for example is a full faced visor, but he's got antenna ears, and what seem to be chin cannons. His chest is largely formed by the dozer blade, with the regular robot arms acting as securing points. The lower legs retain the tank tread motif, but gains a mecha loincloth, and I do like how the knees become hips. Something I'm less fond of are the big treads popping up from the shoulder, and there's not much you can do with them. The overall effect though is one of some monstrous pile of machinery come to life, as opposed to just awkward, oddly proportioned, and/or incomplete. As with Grimstone and his Dinobots, Steamhammer with is drones looks like a godless killing machine, if a skinny one with a Limb Length Discrepancy, and we should all be able to get behind that. That's what your average gestalt tends to be in fiction, if we are honest. Some big ugly monster turning up and leaving a trail of destruction, especially if we are talking about Decepticon ones. And this mode owns the look. Sculpted detail and paint applications are plentiful, and while the drones don't share all the same colours, there's a lot of overlap, with the back and grey being a unifying factor.

Functionally, he's nice. Articulation is fairly typical of the line in most ways, the automorphing drones preventing elbows for example, while Steamhammer's design places some too. He lacks a waist, the shoulders have an upward tilt of only 45 degrees, and he's loose in the hips. The head is also restricted, but I'm glad they didn't cut a corner and left the joint in . He does however have articulated thumbs with his drones, a major improvement on the PCC norm, while retaining Steamhammer's useful joints in the legs, for a total of 17 points. Play value is a selling point, and a hair above average. Unusually for a five pack set, Steamhammer has a flip down nini-con post on the chest in this mode, something which was otherwise limited to the two pack moulds. This means he can take mini-cons with armour modes, while his drones end up with ports in unobtrusive and useful places, on the knees and on the shoulder. Then there's the whole limb swapping aspect. Assuming you've got a few compatible toys knocking about, its a mode with a lot going on, and on its own terms, looks good.

The Power Core Combiners were a mixed success at the best of times, but Steamhammer and his drones are probably in the top three of that line. The combined mode works well, its nice to see some new alt modes, and play value is pretty high. As reinterpretations go, its a good one, a worthy successor to the Constructicon title, but one that has its own personality. Mind you, Steamhammer does have his problems, which serve to highlight how good in general Combiner Wars is. The robot mode is compromised by that dozer blade, and automorph is marmite, but let's be fair to him, this guy sold for 20 quid back in his day. Compare that to what you get for the same these days, and suddenly five years ago seems a distant and fruitful age. Ultimately, its a good set, but one best judged on its own terms, and not dismissed out of hand for doing something different. Consider him recommended.

Foot notes
1) Good for a lunch hour though.
2) Takara went for the green and purple. Because of course they did
3) Sorry. Had to be done.
4) Have I run this reference into the ground yet?

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