LEGO is a building toy, not an action figure line. It's hard to tell with recent sets, but it's true. One of the most difficult things for licensed LEGO sets is to capture the where and what just as much as who. Star Wars was the low-hanging fruit... there are so many things to capture. Vehicles like the X-Wing and Jedi Star Fighter have a certain look that give something to build. Some places, like Jabba's Palace or Cloud City can provide a very solid where, in some ways as iconic as the ships.
While characters are important, capturing these other things really makes it feel like Star Wars (maybe in part because that's the cool thing in a sea of sub-par acting, who knows). When it comes to a license like Lord of the Rings, movies that are so intrinsically character-based, building sets that are anything more than glorified battle packs becomes much tougher. There are a limited number of places that can be done and really capture the "where," and pretty much no vehicles to do what (catapults don't really count in my mind).
A few scenes in the movie that could be done up well, and a lot of them showed up in the first wave: Weathertop, The Elven Council, Moria, Minis Tirith, and Helm's Deep. The Battle of Helm's Deep is the climactic battle of the second movie, and a place where the where was just as important as the who. LEGO chose to capture the battle as their top-tier set in the first wave... so how does it do that at $129.99? I talked about it in my Weathertop review... Castle has always been a big love of mine, and I was very excited when LEGO snatched up the LotR license. Helm's Deep is the first real departure from the "royal castle" rehashes we've seen in recent years. Seriously... LEGO has basically be re-releasing the same castle design every couple of years without pushing the bar at all. In fact, their first real departure from it was the last Castle set, the Royal Joust. It was only a departure because they didn't bother with most of the castle parts. Also, lots of red slopes for roofs.
Like I mentioned above, the Battle of Helm's Deep is really the biggest "thing" in the entire movie. Sure, the battle in Return of the King was larger, but it was also spread out and taking place in multiple spots. In this one, it's all about everyone's favorite Ranger, Dwarf, and Elf and the fodder getting killed all around them. At first glance, the castle is suitably epic. We get the main gate (needed for the end fight and the horse charge), the horn tower (which I'd forgotten about entirely until I watched the movie again... seriously, what the heck is that for?), some ramparts for fighting, climbing ladders, a throne area, and most crucially, the cistern drain that gets blown apart.
Think about if some of the more expensive Star Wars sets had that many play features packed into one set... we'd still complain about the price, but would be entertained while we do it.
For minifigures, we get an absolute smorgasbord of figures. For the bad guys, we get three regular Uruk-hai, the same as what we get in the Uruk-hai army battle packs, along with our torch-toting explosive friend.
For the good guys we get Theoden, Gimli, Aragorn and... Haldir? The elf guy who showed up at the last minute to fight alongside men (something that was unique to the movie... in the books, the elves fought elsewhere but it was mostly implied and not stated; the movie handled this better than the books).
Okay, this is full-on rant time... where is Legolas? Think back to all of the memorable fight-scenes in this whole thing. Haldir showed up and got to make a nice statement. Legolas and Gimli had a great contest going, he surfed on a shield, and showed us how cool CGI arrows can be. Haldir... died. I'm not saying I don't want more elf figures, I'm just saying that this entire battle centered around the actions of three guys, and we're missing one of them. Theoden is an important part, but given that Haldir isn't even all that special of a figure, it's just kind of an eye-poke to get him in here. This is what we should have gotten:
At the price-point, they should have just thrown in Legolas, or taken out one of the Uruk-hai, since there's another obvious option to get them cheaply, and added him in. Or they could have taken out the horse, since again, we can get it in the army. Something to get him in there! All of that work to build up the battle and you take away one of the chief players. There... rant done (for now). These are the same Uruk-hai that we get in the Army set. Alt faces, torsos printed under the armor, and those weird and impractical looking swords. These guys are still done quite well, and the armor captures the unique and impractical style of the orcs in the movie.
Our berserker buddy is a unique figure in the same style, much like the White Hand in the Orc Forge set. Interestingly, I think this is one of maybe four minifigures in the entire line that doesn't have an alt face (What with the no hair and all). Good printing, even if it does look a bit weird compared to the other Uruk-hai.
As for the good guys, we get the same Aragorn that we got in Weathertop. I'm not going to go back into the whole printing issues and colors, but he does seem to fit better into this set... ish. The biggest problem in the end is that the appearance is good for Aragorn running around giving advice. In the actual battle, he was armored up and armed. This figure does not look right in that context.
Continuing the streak of "not really unique" figures is Gimli identical to his figure in the Mines of Moria. I like the Gimli figure and all, but he's a pretty proto-typical dwarf. What I don't get is why did they give him an alternate face? The eyes basically look the same for both, so I really don't understand why, unless is just getting more blatant about their head reuse and we're looking at, I don't know, maybe a new Banshee face or something?
Not Legolas has a nice pretty torso, those crazy cheekbones printed on, and the same hairpiece as Legolas. I really dig the torso, and the addition of the cloak makes him just look better than Legolas did. That being said... the biggest problem with including Haldir in this set is that one elf does not reinforcements make. An entire battalion of elves showed up at helms deep. Hopefully LEGO can really push this farther, and give us another battle section that includes some elf foot soldiers (and more Orcs), otherwise there's a big gap in the whole Helm's Deep set. As it sits... this figure doesn't fit the set or the line, he's just too... one off.
And like most other figures, he does come with an alt face. It also has scary cheeks. Part of me wishes it was the "shocked and dying" face when he gets stabbed a couple dozen times by Orcs, but maybe I'm alone in that sentiment. We've got a lot of angry faces, not nearly enough "oh crap, I'm screwed" faces.
For the defenders of Rohan, we get King Theoden. Would have been cool to see one of the militia, maybe even the kid or the old guy that shot the first orc, but that's mostly wishful thinking. Otherwise, we get the ornate armor and helmet that are unique to him and a Rohirrim shield. All of the Rohan soldiers look top notch, and these give us more soldiers.
Of course, these are horse lords, so we get one of the new horses for Theoden as well, in brown. My opinions haven't changed much since I did the Weathertop review... I still like the black one more than the brown, but a nice addition. But if losing the horse would have given us another elf or two, would have rather seen that. You won't be building armies with this set, so it's not all that important to get with it.
One of the problems with reviewing these big sets is that there are often so many minifigs that you get almost 2000 words into an article and haven't even gotten around to showing off the set! That being said... there's a whole lot to this set other than the minifigs, and a lot of it is worth checking out. Sure, Helm's Deep is actually a massive fortress, and there are more than a few MOCs that really show exactly how amazing LEGO can make the scene look... but I don't have a few grand to drop on a set. We have to deal with what a $130 set gives us.
The entire build is set up as modular and pieced out into several sections. We get the main gate (complete with a dwarf tosser), the horn tower, a throne room, two curved walls and an explosive wall section. Plus, it's built so it can have the wall section from the Uruk-hai army tacked on to extend the wall.
The entire build is divided into numbered bags, something that I personally love. I know some purists like to sift through a bunch of parts looking for that one, but you know what? Building the UCS Falcon made me over that... forever. More than making things easier, numbered bags make it easier to walk away from a build and pick it up easier later. The central gate is the most prominent feature, which is a little strange since it was featured in such a small part of the battle (the end with said dwarf tossing, while they were trying to ram through it, and eventually when the horses charged out of it).
It uses the same general build methods that are in other LotR sets, like Weathertop and Uruk-hai Army. Thin windows, turned to the side, staggered "brick" bricks and normal tiles, and no BURPs. These are all good things in my book! The front of the includes the walkway, which is somewhat hinged and angled to create the curve pattern. While functional for a playset, where this really lacks is trying to show off exactly how "high" it was in comparison to the keep.
It's the biggest problem with using Helm's Deep... the entire thing was a mountain fortress. The walls were high, and that walkway was high enough that you could knock someone off to kill them. On this, you couldn't knock someone off and sprain their ankle. The interior of the gate is somewhat of a let-down as well. In the movie, it's a narrow hallway that's fortified with spars and boards while the orcs hack away at it. Here, it's a small ramp. Not even a cross-spar to brace it, which is a shame.
The window slits also suffer from the same problem, at least in the middle, where they set back farther and are generally unfinished. Along the the curved part, the window area is finished to set up supports above, which works out a lot better and makes those windows just look cleaner. The little catapult and arrow gates on the rampart are a nice touch, but the flag and torch come off way too easily and those catapults are in pretty much every set that LEGO can imagine putting it in (Ewok Attack, the Pirates sets, probably even a City Set or two).
The last little play feature is on the side, which does include the small door that is used by Aragorn and Gimli to play Whack-a-Orc on the bridge... a Dwarf Launcher! It's great in theory, but in practice, it works about as well as other figure launchers we've seen lately (like the one in the Avenger's Cosmic Cube Escape). That is to say "not at all). The figure sits too closely in the plates, which make it impossible to launch more than an inch or two. Worse than that (and evidence that the set designer never took a basic physics class), the launcher is so short it's going to hit your hand. Seriously LEGO, when you make these, go google the words "lever" and "fulcrum" to understand how pivots work.
After you build the center section, you build out the walls, including the horn tower that Gimli blows to signal all of the riders to charge out to their death. The tower should be much, much, much taller, but what can you do in a mainstream set? The bigger problem here is that the tower is such a diversion from the rest of the build. Stickers, BURPs, and ugly, ugly "horns." At first, I had to go look it up, because I thought these were supposed to drop oil or something... it wasn't until I attached the horn piece at the top that it made sense. Without doubt, this section is the worst feature of the set. Stickers, after so much brick-building... this was just phoned in. Sure, there are some nice slopes, but the ladders clipped together just compound the problem with this section.
When you build the wall sections though, you get some nice features, especially on the drain section. Make no mistake, that thing is fragile, but that's because it's supposed to be! The curved sections are also designed to put the orc climbing ladder on, which is way too short, but that's to make it so this is only a $130 set and not a $1300 set. The curved sections are fun to build, and they add little connections to secure the individual parts to the ones next to it, to keep this somewhat modular but still sturdy.
That exploding part, however, stands out as the play feature of the set. At first, it seems like another section of the wall (which i suppose it is). But you piece it together with just a few stud connections, and otherwise it's tiled. From the back, you can see the technic lever that puts a couple of levers on either side of it.
The entire structure is basically held together by tension instead of friction, and it's very fragile. Hit that lever and... blam! The tension actually adds to the playset here. Maybe someone on the design team has taken a physics class! This placement isn't clever camera work (I think it should be clear by now I have no skill for anything clever with my camera)... this is what it looked like after I hit the lever to blow it up. When you put it all there, it works quite well. Otherwise, that lever basically does nothing.
The last big piece of the set is the throne room section that acts as the center keep. From the outside, it's just a round tower. Inside, it's a little throne and dining hall area. Building it is fun, since it's a type of building that's been in the MOC community for years but relatively untouched in the official LEGO world. We need more rounded towers out there. Squares are so yesterday. At the top, we also have a ring of ramparts with a tacked-on "walkway" (a wide light stone plate) that connects this section to the rest. Unlike the other pieces, this section just sort of sits there, and does not connect directly to the rest of the set.
The section is odd, just because it's so disjointed from the rest. It uses BURP windows, which is a shame, but otherwise has some decent play details. The ramparts are done well, and are a fun build. The hinges make the rounded piece look nice and striking, and you get a good throne and banner. They're stickered, but this is the appropriate use of stickers in a set (not to fake having "bricks" on a set that builds them everywhere else). The flag and the torch get knocked off just as easily on this section as the rest, but otherwise, it's not bad. Just... odd. Part of me wishes that they would have just used all of these parts to build up the actual wall (also known as where all the action happens) a bit more.
In the end, this set comes down to promise. At times, it's really jarring... we get the best bits of castle (fun builds, unique shapes, interesting play features, brick built details) and the worst part of LEGO (BURPs, panels, stickers) in the same set. But as a playset, the whole thing just sort of works. And just like Weathertop, it shows off a lot of promise as to what LEGO Lord of the Rings can be:
That's two extra wall sections and minifigs from a few sets, in case you were wondering. Also, a Cave Troll. This set is not perfect, and there are some spots that could have be made a lot better. But it felt like a decent value for the money, and it did capture the location feel better than I thought possible, given the quality of other castles in the last few years. It's expensive, but feels like a worthwhile purchase.
What I Liked:
- Theoden looks fantastic, and the print detail on the helmet and armor is wonderful
- Some great building methods... it's a fun set to put together
- Lots of great castle-builder parts: brick bricks, plenty of light stone, and even some nice slopes
- Great play features sprinkled throughout the set. This set is designed to be played with, and it works.
What I didn't like:
- No Legolas
- Building method for the tower is inferior to the rest, and uses the worst features of castle stuff (BURP, stickers)
- No Legolas
- The entire build sits too low to really convey the "huge" nature of Helm's Deep. Changing a few choices in what was included could have easily made it sat higher
- Haldir is too much a one-off to fit into the set; also, he should have been Legolas, and I don't think I mentioned that he's not in this set
Verdict: Buy it, especially if it's on sale somewhere.
Get 9474 The Battle of Helm’s Deep at LEGO Shop@Home Today!