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Mass Effect 2
by Artemis

Personal bias is always an issue when writing a review, so rather than try to edge around it, I'll just put my cards on the table right now: I f---ing love Mass Effect. So when it was announced that there'd be action figures based on Mass Effect 2, to say I was pleased would be to criminally neglect the opportunity to use the word "joygasm." And I remained pleased. For months. And months. Seriously, the insert in the packaging says "in stores August 2010," and besides the monumental delay itself, whatever explanation DC Unlimited handed BioWare (creators of Mass Effect, and the likewise-action-figure-delayed Dragon Age, plus Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, if you wanted any more evidence that they're kind of a big deal, games-wise) caused them to publicly state that they'd never have anything to do with DC Unlimited ever again, and cancel the second series of Mass Effect 2 figures - regarding the whole kerfuffle, I side entirely with BioWare. So this review will be biased, but it'll be biased both ways at once: pro-Mass Effect, anti-DC Unlimited. Hopefully it'll all even out in the end.

Commander Shepard is a highly-trained soldier with an unmatched sense of purpose, who has seen a lot of combat duty in covert operations with the human Alliance military. Shepard is strong, athletic and intelligent (everything you'd want a hero to be).

Weird bio ("everything you'd want a hero to be?" Okay, true, but it's seriously odd when whoever writes copy text tries to get chatty), but if it seems generic, there's good reason - before the game even begins, the player is given various multiple-choice options to customise "their" Shepard's background, so who the heck knows. Like BioWare's own promotional art, DC Unlimited have gone with the default male, John Shepard: born in the urban slums of Earth, grew up among street gangs, joined the military in the hope of a better life than an early grave in some gutter somewhere, and gained the attention of his superiors by somehow clawing his way alive out of a mission gone catastrophically wrong, where the rest of his unit was killed by Thresher Maws, which are like Dune sandworms but weaponised. (If you're wondering about mine: Elizabeth Shepard, daughter of two naval officers, raised in space, earned fame as the Hero of Elysium; also wears scarlet Aegis armour, carries an M-96 Mattock heavy assault rifle, 99% Paragon, and loves asari.)

Whoever Shepard is - including gender, appearance, armour type and colours, weapon choice, and whether or not he or she heals up in the face, or sports cybernetic scars and glowing red eyes like a Terminator - at least the existence of the John Shepard default means we get a Shepard figure (unlike Dragon Age: Origins, where nobody at DC Unlimited could even guess which species the protagonist was meant to be, and had to just admit defeat); even I'd rather have a male Shepard than none at all, and my Mass Effect fandom is such that this is one of those rare lines where I'll buy all the figures, not just the girls. (Of course, due to DC Unlimited being unmitigated arse-clowns, there won't be any more figures now. What? I said I'd be biased.) So, unless you're one of those rabid Tali fans (yup!), this is the headline figure.

Sculpt-wise, they haven't let us down - Shepard's default N7 armour (N7 is the "elite badass one-man/woman-army" branch of the Alliance military) is replicated in all its rugged-yet-figure-hugging glory; Mass Effect is very space opera, so the dominant aesthetic is looking cool and sexy as well as functional. The suit boils down to a textured body sleeve with solid armour plates fixed to it - since it's a third-person game, and packed full of cinematic cut-scenes, you get very familiar with the armour, and the figure's reproduction is solid. The paintwork holds up its end admirably too, with no cheap cheating - the solid outer armour and flexible inner layer are different colours, and further distinguished by a wash on the body sleeve to bring out its cross-hatched texture, while the armour plates sport silver wear-and-tear scratches in addition to a handful of black details, and the trademark N7 chest logo and white and red arm decoration. The back - a high-detail area on Mass Effect suits - isn't neglected, will the same level of sculpt and paint attention as the front. The figure stands 6¾" tall, good enough to mix with the Dragon Age: Origins or World of Warcraft lines, the usual fare from DC Direct, NECA and so on. Also Diamond Select's Stargate and Battlestar ranges, so you can put Shepard on your shelf between Vala and Six and see who's a tremendous geek when they get it.

The face is a fair likeness too, so far as it goes - John Shepard has a thick, powerful neck (yes, you can adjust neck thickness as well) and replacing that with the thinner balljoint mount, painted black to disguise it and to accommodate the optional helmeted look, throws the likeness off a bit, but it's not bad for all that. The face looks the way it ought to, the expression is concentrated without being too intense to work with an at-rest pose, and the paintwork on both his short-shaved hair and five o'clock shadow is genuinely good.

Shep's got a lot of mobility too, especially for a DC Direct/Unlimited figure. The neck balljoint is tight, offering a little play for tilting, but nothing substantial, other than the horizontal swivel. There's swivel/pin shoulders and elbows, swivel wrists, a full three-axis sternum balljoint, peg hips, swivel/pin knees, and full balljoint ankles.

But... sadly, yes, there's a "but," and it's a big one. The technical stats of the figure are all solid, but the design is very disappointing, especially in the arms. The shoulder plates are solid, and attached to the torso, so the range of the joints there is limited. They're even more limited by being designed for a specific pose - both the shoulder plates, and the shoulder joints themselves, are positioned to have the right arm raised to the side, and the left angled forward, to allow Shepard to hold his rifle with the butt against his bicep, and the other hand cradling the barrel. All well and good, except that you can't do it. The left arm doesn't have the range at the shoulder to angle forward far enough, and neither elbow has enough bend to bring both hands onto the weapon where they ought to be at the same time. The best you can manage is to have the gun held way out in front of the body, which looks silly, or lowered with the free hand resting on top of the scope, which looks slightly better but not much.

So fail there, and it gets worse, because purpose-designing the limbs f--ks them for normal use. The left arm literally cannot swing back at the shoulder further than straight down, nor can it manage to get close enough to the body to really look relaxed, but it's plain sailing compared to the right, which is stuck out at a stupid angle and cannot be lowered past it. Do what you like with the legs - limited, with the one-axis hips, although the knees and ankles at least make it easy to keep Shepard's feet flat on the ground for stability - the arms just make it flatly impossible for any pose to look better than mediocre, other than the one the design intended. And that one doesn't look much good either. Honestly, they'd have done better just making a plastic statue, a la World of Warcraft - at least they've got the hang of doing those right by now.

The accessories are also a mixed bag - good on the surface, flawed when you examine them. Shepard gets the helmet to match his N7 armour, and an M-8 Avenger assault rifle, the default starter gun for his Soldier class (there are six classes, based on combinations of shooting, tech and biotic [telekinetic, basically] skills, and the all-guns Soldier is the only one who can use assault rifles by default). Both helmet and rifle are sculpted and painted well enough to pass muster - however, problems arise even before you start using them, with them being pressed into their molded trays so tightly they have to be virtually cut free, lest they be bent in the process of being removed. The helmet on my Shepard was badly deformed on the thin chin guard in any case, just by improper packing - luckily, being put on the head pushes it into an approximation of its proper shape. Speaking of the chin strap, though, it's inaccurate, as is the visor - the real half-face N7 helmet (as opposed to the fully enclosed N7 "breather helmet," which I think may have been a better choice, since regardless of your later fashion choices, you're guaranteed to see Shepard wearing it in the epic opening sequence) has a clear visor, and a much heavier, larger armour piece over the chin.

The rifle, on the other hand - if you manage not to snap off the thin spike just above the barrel - looks right, but presents issues by inference. Firearms in Mass Effect are sci-fi gizmos that automatically retract into compact forms when not used: the Avenger stows at about half its unfolded size, sitting on back of Shepard's shoulder until needed. You don't get a folded-up rifle accessory, only the full-size one. Furthermore, you don't get any other accessories, which begs the question where, at the very least, is Shepard's pistol (which ought to be on his hip - and is used in virtually every cut-scene that involves pointing a gun at someone, so it's kind of significant), never mind the shotgun (small of the back), sniper rifle (other shoulder) and heavy weapon (between shoulders)? It may sound like whining, but the guns in Mass Effect are goddamn cool, and even if action figures don't normally come with many accessories these days, this one should have. I paid $25 Australian per figure - if it had been $30, just to cover the extra guns, even if just in folded-up form so they could be stowed, and only the Avenger and the pistol unfolded to be in Shepard's hands, I'd have paid that without hesitation.

The final accessory is a base - just a plain black disc with a peg, too small for both of Shepard's feet to fit on, and thankfully unnecessary anyway due to the knee and ankle joints.

So that's John Shepard: flawed action figure, okay-looking plastic statue if you ignore the joints, since they won't do any good anyway. Would I recommend people buy him? Mass Effect fans, probably. He looks decent, if not particularly striking, in his intended pose, and you have to take into account the memorabilia factor - if you were a Batman fan, and there was only one Batman figure (as opposed to, what are we up to now, eighteen bajillion?), it'd take more than mediocrity to stop you buying it, wouldn't it? But if you're not a fan... well, go play the game and then you will be (if you have played Mass Effect and aren't a fan, you are wrong and don't argue), but hypothetically... no, it's not really worth a random purchase. He looks alright in his packaging, but when you get him out and play with him - even just to pose him for display - you'll find all those joints just don't amount to a fun figure.

-- 05/24/11

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