Armies of Middle Earth
Helm's Deep Playset

Guest reviewer L is back tonight with a very complete review of the AOME Helm's Deep playset.  It's all yours, L!

There's a new product in the Lord of the Rings toy world, and it stirring up a lot of excitement for some.  Entitled "Armies of Middle Earth," it's made by a small company based in Florida called Play Along, and it's easily their first big license.  They've handled it in a big way, with a huge debut wave of product and much more planned for the coming year.

As Michael has already reviewed the line from a general perspective, I won't waste time discussing the design or scale of the line itself.  Instead, I'm going to focus on the flagship play set of the line, the massive deluxe Helm's Deep set.  It seems to me that most of the figures in this line are designed for use with play sets -- they are nice on their own, but they would be mere novelties were they not compatible with wonderfully realized play environments.  A great deal of the first two waves fit in perfectly with Helm's Deep; the other two play sets, Moria and Orthanc, are quite worth having, but it's the Helm's Deep set that really shows off this line.  (Incidentally, there has already been a Helm's Deep scenery piece made, though it was not technically a toy -- it was a resin scenery piece for the Games Workshop tabletop battle game, and I reviewed it when it came out. That review can be found here.)

Packaging - ***
It's not a perfect package, though it's certainly not awful.  The design for the whole line features the light blue color scheme being used for Return of the King, as well as a picture of armies massing, appropriately enough for a line of this nature.  In the case of the Helm's Deep set, however, a prominent shot of Helm's Deep from the movie would be more appropriate, or even an atmospheric shot of the set itself.  Instead, there is a big photo superimposed against the backdrop, but it's been hastily dropped in front of the photo, and the two don't match up well.  A well-lit photo of the set in proper context, instead of floating in front of a ghostly army, would look better.  There is a window to show off the three exclusive figures that come with the set, a nice touch, and  the box could easily be used to store the set when not on display (the set must be assembled, so once opened and displayed you will not be able to re-seal the package and have a near MIB piece again -- but the box itself need not be shredded to get to the set, so if you want to keep the box for the future, you can do so with no difficulty).

Sculpting - ****
The set would be worthless if the sculpting fell short, and it does not. The sculpt of the stones themselves is detailed enough to make them feel like solid rock instead of plastic, and the wood of the mantlets also looks good.  The causeway (the ramp leading up to the door) is full of cracks and again looks like it's made of solid stone.  The ladders and mines are well sculpted, as is the rock cluster at the base of one of the towers (which includes fallen swords and broken arrows!), and the two massive statues inside.  The statues deserve special mention:  one is in ruins, the other whole, and both anchor a set of stairs.  They look wonderful, and the interior of the set looks fantastic because of their presence.  The only possible drawback is the lack of sculpting details on the inside of the set -- the floors, stairs, and statues are well sculpted, but the back of the walls is smooth plastic, which makes the interior look slightly less impressive than the exterior.  They lose a little credit (not quite a star, but maybe a quarter of a star) for not detailing the inside as well.  I only take a little away, however, because 1) It doesn't seem like it would be easy (or cheap) to detail both sides, given the design of the walls and 2) There's so much in the set that's so well sculpted, this ends up being a rather minor quibble.

There is also one feature of the sculpt that should be noted, though it does not concern the verisimilitude of the stones.  The set comes in many pieces -- two large towers, a causeway, a staircase, two statues, two corner balconies, a front wall, many floor pieces, and two wall pieces.  Basically, almost everything comes off.  This makes storage a breeze, which might not
have been the case with something this large.  It also maximizes the flexibility of one's display:  you can use just the center section, or you
can attach one wall, or you can attach both side walls, or you can leave out the causeway, and so on.  Not only is storage made easier, so is display -- if you don't have room for everything to be out at all times, you can leave out some parts and only display the basic essentials of the set, and it will still look good.  The sculpt is therefore not only attractive, but incredibly useful.

Paint -  ***1/2
As with the sculpting, much hangs on the paint jobs, and the paint job is fantastic.  There's enough dry brushing, airbrushing, and ink washing going on to make this feel weathered, to make it feel old, and to make it feel real. Again, the lack of paint details on the interior walls harm the illusion somewhat -- the statues are painted, but not weathered, and the floors don't appear to be painted at all.  They all stand out somewhat as a result, as some of the pictures here show.

Features  - ****
Here's where I'd like to give more than four stars, if possible.  (I'm considering "features" instead of "articulation," though of course the figures that come with the set are slightly articulated)  Most action figure accessories these days, if they are  made at all, are designed in what I (and many child development authorities) consider to be the worst possible way. They either make use of electronics or, slightly better, they use springs and levers to much the same effect:  the toy plays with itself.  You either launch missles or make noises with it, and either way the play pattern is quickly reduced  to pressing buttons, and the toy, rather than engaging the imagination, engages only hand-eye coordination.   Cars, planes, headquarters, all feature little more than missle-launchers and explosion sounds, it seems.

So what a relief that the Helm's Deep set, without the use of springs or batteries, is so overflowing with wonderful, fun action features!  At the most basic level, it includes three levels of play inside the castle itself -- floors divide the walls into three, providing separate locations for battles on the ground floor, the middle floor, and the battlements.  The main gate opens, there are ladders to raise (and knock down) and mines to
place.  There is also a side door, hidden in one tower, which opens up to a rock cluster -- Aragorn (and Gimli, if they ever make him) can slip through the door and then jump to the causeway to fight off the attacking forces. The mantlets above the gate are hinged, to allow soldiers to drop things on the army below.  There is a large set of stairs inside the castle (so Legolas can show off, I suppose) and more places for figures to hide and fight.

It's an old-fashioned approach, but the sheer size of the castle allows Playalong to make the most of it.  Several opening doors (one secret), ladders to place, mantlets to open, and many places to hide and fight provide a great deal of activity within the walls, all of which make the most of imagination over everything else.  This is precisely what a playset was originally meant to be:  a setting for the figures to engage one another, rather than a giant plastic gimmick.  The Armies of Middle Earth line has been announced as an alternative approach to the toy representation of Middle Earth.  While the Toybiz line is character oriented, providing relatively few figures and focusing entirely on the heroes (and occasional villains) of the piece, the AOME line is designed to recreate battles, and while it includes the heroes and villains involved, it is more aimed at consumers who want to create whole battles with massive armies.  The Helm's Deep set is a fantastic setting for these battles, and the figures, which look perfectly adequate on a shelf or computer monitor, really come into their own standing on the battlements or defending the gate.

Accessories -  **** or ***
I've already alluded to many of them, but this set does come with a host of accessories.  Two ladders, three Uruk mines, plus three unique figures exclusive to this set -- Aragorn and Legolas in Helm's Deep armor (the first release of Legolas for this line, and the first non-exclusive Aragorn) and an Uruk berserker with a torch.  The ladders are huge, the mines are solid and well sculpted and painted, and the figures are some of the better figures done so far -- Legolas is easily the best, and while the berserker Uruk is a solid figure, the Aragorn is unfortunately the weakest of the three, suffering from a somewhat bland face sculpt and lacking enough detail in the sculpt of his outfit.  There is also the causeway and a clump of rock, both of which I'm counting as accessories because they are optional; the rock, in particular, can be left out without noticing its absence. Considering the causeway, the mines, the ladders, and the three figures, I'd rate this category at four stars.  However, many fans have noted that in order to take full advantage of the Helm's Deep set, one would have to buy many Uruks, many Rohan soldiers and elves, and of course the battering ram and the ballista.  Without at least a minimal investment, the set feels a bit bare -- from that perspective, it may not feel like it comes with enough, hence three stars.  (if you already planned to get the figures, or have them already before buying the set, it deserves four stars -- if you buy the set alone and then feel like you're being bilked into spending more to buy an army for it, then you probably should consider this category more of a disappointment).

Value - *** or **
As with the accessories category, this may depend on your previously existing AOME collection.  As a set itself, I think $50 is a good buy.  $40 might be slightly better, for those really looking for a bargain, but at $50 this does not feel like a rip-off.  It is huge, 28" from end to end, 18" long (from the start of the causeway to the edge of the interior) and 11" high.  It dwarfs everything around it, and is full of places for figures to be displayed, with lots of fun features. However, since the set makes use of almost every product in the AOME line so far, it is easy to consider the cost of the entire line as part of the cost of the set, which of course seriously increases the expense.  I don't think it's fair to Play Along to view it that way.

If Toybiz released something like this at this point, many people would consider it a great value, a place to display their figures.  Had it been released a few years ago, their response might have been different, and people might have been saying "Oh, you have to get the whole line of figures for the set to be any good."  Any play set makes use of figures, and I think it is only fair to evaluate it from the perspective of someone who already has the figures, rather than to assume that it exists as a way for the company to force us to buy them.  I don't know how Play Along could have avoided this sort of complaint:  the line exists for the sake of army building, and some people seem to be complaining about how expensive it is to buy an army.  Do they complain about how many Star Wars figures have been made, or how many Gundams?  I'm not sure why a large release list with many characters and a chance to buy a vast army counts as a flaw, and I think part of what has happened is that the large amount of product suddenly available is a bit daunting.  If Toybiz had released six horse sets and 30 figures in their first wave of LOTR product, there might also have been complaints about the cost of getting everything in the line.  Certainly the cost of building an army is daunting, and had the line been 10-20% cheaper it might be less so, but I think the cost is fair all the same.  Looking around at the cost of toy soldiers made by other companies (21st Century Toys, Unimax, King and Country, for example) makes it clear that the Play Along line fits in fairly with the market as it currently stands.

Overall - ****
This is a fantastic toy.  It's large, it features enough moving (and moveable) parts to keep things interesting, and there are many detailed locations within its walls to display the AOME figures in battle.    While the cost and size may be prohibitive for some, it is only fair, I think, to compare it to great toys of the past like Brave Maximus, the AT-AT, or the GI Joe Mobile Command Center.  This is not a "get it on the way home" kinda toy -- this is a "special occasion present" kinda toy, the centerpiece of a collection, the breathtaking future memory that turns kids into toy collectors down the line.  For any LOTR fan, it's at least worth checking out.

Figures from the collection of Lawrence Horsburgh.

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