Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sternguard Weapons: Why I'll Be Making My Own

Not long ago the rumor started that GW was going to release a Sternguard weapons pack. Although GW already sells a pretty cool looking Finecast Sternguard set, many players like to make their own customizable plastic Sternguard squads. The biggest obstacle for these do it yourself Sternguard has been the difficulty in obtaining bolters with the large box magazines that have become characteristic of Sternguard weapons (though not essential, as seen by the fact that Tyrannic War Veterans still have sickle magazines) and the scarcity of combi-weapons.

There was a lot of speculation as to what a Sternguard weapons kit would contain. Many believed it would have bolters with box magazines while others thought that it might contain combi-weapons. Although you can already get a plastic combi-melta and combi-plasma in the Space Marine Commander box, the bits aren't well suited for models that hold the weapon in both hands. Combi-flamers (which don't have to roll to hit and therefore make a good one-shot weapon) were even harder to find. The only GW combi-flamer was attached to Chaplain Cassius while a resin one was available from Forge World. Although there are dozens of tutorials online for making box magazines or combi-weapons, many players would prefer to avoid conversions.

GW plastic combi-melta and combi-plasma (top)
FW resin combi-flamer and Cassius' combi-flamer (bottom)

Finally a few low-resolution scans from White Dwarf were leaked which showed the weapons that would be included in the kit. (It also finally answered my question of whether or not a Sternguard sergeant wears a red helmet, but that's a separate issue.) First, it was obvious that there were no bolters with box magazines. The three types of combi-weapon were included, which made a lot of people happy, but all of them had sickle magazines (the combi-melta on the Finecast Sternguard model, on the other hand, has a box magazine). Also included was a heavy bolter, a heavy flamer, and a pair of lightning claws for power armor. These latter three seemed out of place in a kit specifically meant for a Sternguard Squad.

Leaked White Dwarf Sternguard Veteran Weapons preview

The heavy bolter that is similar to the one included in the Scouts box left quite a few people scratching their heads. Many Astartes players simply don't put heavy weapons on their Sternguard. Those that do take heavy weapons do so mostly because 5 point missile launchers and 15 point lascannons are very tempting and the resulting squad can serve as a poor man's Devastator Squad. But even if all Marine players included a heavy bolter in their squad, there is already a perfectly serviceable plastic model in the Devastator set. And the Devastator version has the awesome ammunition backpack with the belt feed.

The addition of a heavy flamer has some logic; the one that was previously available was for Terminators rather than power armored Marines. However, a Sternguard Squad isn't intended to get too close to the enemy (this is even easier to do thanks to 6th Edition rapid fire rules). If your opponent is close enough for a heavy flamer to be effective, you're too close. If other power armored Marines could take heavy flamers, maybe this would be a more useful part.

And then there's the pair of lightning claws that can be put on the Sternguard sergeant. Huh? Sternguard are meant to be used for ranged combat; why would you equip the sergeant solely for close combat? For zero additional points the sergeant can fire Kraken, Hellfire, Dragonfire, or Vengeance rounds from his standard bolter. If you want the insurance policy of giving the sergeant a power weapon, just replace his bolt pistol with a single lightning claw for the same cost as a power sword (i.e., 15 points). He won't get the extra attack that comes with a pair of lightning claws, but he wouldn't get the extra attack with the power sword, either, since there's no rational reason to keep the bolt pistol and give up the bolter and its special ammunition. A left-handed plastic lightning claw is already available in the Commander box.

It's likely that GW included the pair of lightning claws so that Astartes players could put them on other power armored Marines. Right now the only power armored Marines that can have lightning claws are chapter masters, captains, Assault Squad sergeants, Vanguard sergeants, and Sternguard sergeants. With the possible exception of a Vanguard sergeant, who can trade his power sword for one free lightning claw, I would argue that paired claws on a power armored Marine are a waste of points. Those who can't get one free lightning claw will pay 30 points just to have an additional strength 4 AP3 attack with re-rolls for fails to wound. (I can't help but to notice that the cost of these weapons alone is only slightly cheaper than the total cost of a more survivable 40 point Assault Terminator with the exact same armament.) A 15 point power sword and a free pistol will give you the same number of attacks at an identical strength and AP value. Although you don't get the re-rolls, you pay less points and you retain the ranged attack. Personally, since our Cabal includes toughness 4 Grey Knights and Orks, I prefer to take a 30 point relic blade for its strength 6.

Okay, so the Sternguard set has three very useful weapons, one that is used only by a few Sternguard players who can simply use the cooler plastic model that's already available, one that is of dubious value to Sternguard and can't be used by any other power armored Marines, and a set of close combat weapons that makes no sense to include in a Sternguard Squad and are of limited use on any other power armored model. Well, at $13.50 the kit might be worth it, and GW finally released the set for advanced order, complete with a higher resolution image, so let's take a look:

Huh. So, these are the actual product images? The ones they're using to try to sell the set? Why does the heavy flamer look like it's sagging? The barrel of the heavy bolter looks a bit distorted, too. The combi-flamer and combi-plasma are just sad. Compare the new combi-flamer to Cassius' weapon or the Forge World one; the flamer portion on the latter two is a lot more substantial and better integrated into the bolter. This new one looks downright fragile. The plastic combi-plasma actually looks like a merging of a bolter and a plasma gun; the Finecast combi-plasma looks like half a plasma pistol was glued onto a bolter with an oddly positioned barrel. Well, at least the combi-melta, which is essentially a copy of the plastic one, looks pretty good. And then there's the pair of lightning claws...

Sergeant with Finecast lightning claws
Why are the blades touching each other? Were these parts really the best examples they could find to use in their own advertising? If this is what they chose to put on their own website, can we safely assume that most examples of these bits are going to be even worse? These parts are resin, not pewter. You can't simply bend the blades back into position without using special techniques.

What confuses me is the fact that GW already had much better pictures of the lightning claws. The image of the Sternguard sergeant from White Dwarf shows some distortion in the upper blade of the right-handed claw (which is also the case with the product image), but it's not nearly as noticeable. The left-handed claw actually looks pretty good on the sergeant but absolutely horrible in the product image. It makes one wonder; were the claws used on the sergeant better casts or did the modeler have to do some significant repair work?

I've been able to avoid Finecast items by preemptively purchasing every named Ultramarine character in pewter. I also decided to make my own Sternguard out of plastic bits rather than buy the resin set. I knew that I'd eventually have to buy something in resin, and figured that it might be worth it to buy this set rather than do my own weapon conversions. However, this simply does not look like a good product based on GW's own promotional imagery. It looks like I'll be using the Commander set's combi-weapons and will continue making my own bolters with box magazines.

Unlike some, I'm not a habitual GW critic. Overall I like the quality of their products and I understand both their profit motive as well as the cost involved in making new injection molds. At the same time, it looks like GW's insistence in using resin and these particular molds to produce something that had long been anticipated is going to cost them money and a lot of goodwill from their customers.

What I'd really like to see, and what I think could actually pay for itself over time, would be a Space Marine Veteran upgrade kit; i.e., one or two plastic sprues with all the goodies that only Astartes veterans can wield or wear. It could have combi-weapons, fancy bolters, relic blades, power mauls, paired lightning claws, power armor-sized storm shields, specialized helmets, snazzy shoulder pads, older models of armor, etc. GW could easily sell it as a standalone kit and/or they could bundle it with the figure sprues they include in the Tactical Squad box to make a generic Veterans box that could be used for Sternguard, Command Squads, sergeants, etc. I'd be willing to pay well over $13.50 for that.

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