You know, I fully understand that there are a lot of people who will never like Hero Factory. And I respect that. Tastes differ, after all.
But something I'll never understand is how often I hear claims about 2010 Hero Factory sets being better than subsequent series. It seems like selective memory at its finest.
- Two-piece limbs. The beam is reasonable by Av-Matoran or Agori standards, but Av-Matoran and Agori standards are not very high. The ball cup is prone to breaking (as with the Glatorian heads and fists that these sets also reused), there are very few connection points, and of course it has a molded joint rather than a functional one. The shell is an extremely specialized shape with only one connection point. Some people have found other uses for this piece, but they are few in number, and in general it's pointlessly overspecialized even by BIONICLE standards.
- Three-piece torsos. The beam is a nice-looking shape with decent proportions, but its connection points are quite limited. It's a step up from the Av-Matoran and Agori torsos, so I guess it deserves at least that much credit. There were four styles of torso shell (1, 2, 3, 4. Functionally, they were interchangeable, with the same two connection points and the same bulky, highly restrictive shape and size. Again, pitiful even by BIONICLE standards. The Hero Core was purely decorative, and while their single connection point could be used to attach to all sorts of things, they were pretty limited in use except as a specialized torso decoration.
- The feet weren't too bad, and I still use the ones I got from Breez in the Breakout series. If used the way these sets used them, they have a disproportionately chunky ankle, but by adding a two-module axle you can make a foot with much more attractive proportions.
- As far as weapons were concerned, the rookies (Furno, Surge, and Breez) got the better deal. Each got two weapons with two connection points each. It shouldn't be any surprise that Furno's and Surge's continued to see use in future years. Stormer, Bulk, and Stringer didn't fare so well. Instead of having specialized weapon pieces and specialized limb pieces, their weapon arms were the worst of both worlds. Molded elbows? Check! Only one connection point? Check! Loads of specialized details? Check! They looked all right, at least from the outside, but as building elements they were pretty shoddy. Plus, this meant you got an odd number of fists and limbs. Joy.
- The helmets were not really a step down from previous helmets. They looked pretty cool and had lots of personality. It was nice when they came back for 2012. Not so nice that the Glatorian head with its brittle ball cup came back with them.
- Did I mention that each of these sets has less than twenty pieces? It's true! And as we just established, many of those pieces are overspecialized and extremely limited in use. The sets are also all built 100% identically except for their weapons.
"But that's just six sets! That's not even half!" Well, yes and no. The other sets include six villains, two vehicles (that come with their own lackluster hero clones), and one set that includes both a hero AND a villain. So more than half of the figures for the year are heroes. The villains are pretty good by BIONICLE standards, but they're all humanoid, and the mid-size villains have just 4050 pieces (the Glatorian, Glatorian Legends, Phantoka, and Mistika were the same price, had far more parts on average, and had far more diverse designs to boot).
The larger villains, Von Nebula and Rotor, are pretty solid designs, as are the two Technic-intensive vehicle sets. So if you focus on just those four sets, then 2010 was a pretty solid year for Hero Factory! If you look at the year as a whole, though, you have a year of sets that neither lives up to BIONICLE nor goes to great lengths to carve out its own identity.
Since 2010, Hero Factory sets have gotten more and more diverse, complex, and creative. The heroes in 2011 each had between 29 and 31 parts and had an armor layout unique to that set. Only one of them, Breez 2.0, used one-piece weapons: every other hero had a more elaborate multi-piece weapon design. The villains had between 48 and 63 pieces, much closer to BIONICLE's standards. Some of the summer villains had non-humanoid builds, and one of them was a massive titan similar in height to 2007's Maxilos or 2008's Takanuva.
Furthermore, there was a new building system in which parts were designed to be as intercompatible as possible. Want to stick a torso shell on a limb bone or vice-versa? Nothing's stopping you! Want to attach a limb bone to the midpoint on another limb bone? Go right ahead! This allowed for all kinds of creative builds in the years to come. Oh, by the way, the issue of fragile joints was almost completely eliminated, with only a few legacy BIONICLE parts still using the old, brittle ball cups.
2012 pushed things even further. Instead of all heroes being small canister sets and all villains being larger box sets, there were heroes and villains at all price points. The heroes broke away from formulaic color schemes and equipment Evo's reinforced boots and Tank Arm would not have been possible in the 3.0 series where all the limb shells in a hero set were the same color. All the villains had creative builds and equipment, though the larger villain sets were still humanoid in build and posture.
Also, the heroes had helmets, printed torso shells, and equipment specially tailored to them as characters. In BIONICLE, a claim often surfaced that sets were designed first and assigned to existing characters later, hence the discrepancy between different iterations of a character. Nobody could make that mistake about this series. Nex's precision laser, retro helmet design, and communications antenna all spoke to his role as the team's communications specialist, and Evo's heavy-looking boots and Tank Arm spoke to his role as the team's heavy weapons specialist. Likewise with the other heroes: the only one whose gear didn't strongly reflect his role in the team or his previous design sensibilities was Furno.
2013 was not so much of a step forward. The heroes' gear was more uniform, and the villains' builds were consistently humanoid (except for the glorious Dragon Bolt). But the weapons for the sets continued to get more elaborate, and most of the sets integrated action features of some kind (and no, not just launchers). Piece counts continued to increase, and color schemes became more diverse.
And this year? The piece counts for the mid-size sets have left all previous mid-size sets (including all BIONICLE canister sets) in the dust. The builds have become incredibly diverse (helped by the fact that there no longer needs to be a humanoid set for every hero). A Hero minifigure has been designed, with excellent proportions and helmets more or less accurate to the full-size heroes.
Are the recent Hero Factory sets flawless? No. But when were they ever? Certainly not in 2010, when Hero Factory was still in BIONICLE's shadow, and evoking more of that theme's worst characteristics than its best ones. It's not that there weren't things to like about the 2010 Hero Factory sets. The heroes had endearing proportions and aesthetics. The villains had diverse themes and expressions. And of course, if you like BIONICLE-style titan builds, the theme offered two of those at a reasonable price. But overall, I feel like the year's weaknesses were more crippling than its strengths were redeeming. Design quality has been much more consistent in subsequent years, and for the most part it's been improving.