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By Thomas Wheeler

As I have said with other reviews of the Halo 3 product line, it's pretty remarkable these days when a video game becomes as popular as the Halo series has. The video game world is easily as diverse as any other major category of modern entertainment -- music, movies, TV shows, even books. And yet is has managed to garner a very high level of popularity amidst all of the wide and varied competition.

The Halo 3 game features vehicles, weapons, and gameplay not present in previous titles of the series, as well as the addition of saved gameplay films, file sharing, and the Forge map editor; a utility which allows the player to perform modifications to levels.

Halo's story centers on the interstellar war between 26th century humanity, led by the United Nations Space Command, and a collection of alien races known as the Covenant. The player assumes the role of the Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced supersoldier, as he wages war in defense of humanity, assisted by human Marines as well as allied alien Elites led by the Arbiter.

Halo 3, like its predecessors, is set in the fictional Halo universe, taking place during the year 2553. According to the backstory, humans developed faster-than-light travel (using a Fujikawa-Shaw engine attached to a regular space shuttle) and colonized hundreds of planets before encountering the alien Covenant in 2525. The Covenant declared humanity an affront to their gods and began destroying human colonies by turning the planet's surface into glass. Despite efforts to keep the Covenant from finding Earth, a Covenant fleet discovered humanity's homeworld during Halo 2. By the beginning of Halo 3, the Covenant have arrived in full force on Earth, with most human resistance crushed.

The titular 'Halo' refers to massive ringworlds several hundred kilometers in diameter that are scattered across the galaxy. These rings were constructed thousands of years ago by an enigmatic race known as the Forerunners as a weapon of last resort against the parasitic alien species known as the Flood. When activated, the seven Halos would destroy all sentient life in the galaxy, thereby depriving the Flood of its food. The ringworlds were activated once in the distant past, and the Forerunners are believed to have perished.

Halo 3's protagonist is the Master Chief, a cyborg supersoldier who is one of the last surviving members of the SPARTAN Project, and one of humanity's greatest warriors.

But, if you're going to have a multi-player environment -- you're going to have to bend that rule a bit. Although there is technically only one Master Chief, who wears olive green armor, there's been no real shortage of Spartans over the course of the games, who wear virtually identical armor to Master Chief, just differently colored.

Although this is carried over into Halo 3, some additional divisions and types of armored warriors, with certain variations to the basic look of the Spartan armor, have been introduced, including some with some pretty wild helmet designs and unusual aspects to their armor. However, there's still plenty of good basic Spartans. One of these, released in the first assortment, now long since out of the stores is the RED SPARTAN.

For reasons I am not entirely certain, two particular colors of Spartans have gained a certain higher level of recognition than others -- Red and Blue. There was (and perhaps still is) a specific and I assume fan-based Web Site about them.

The Blue Spartan was released at the same time as the first assortment of Halo 3 figures. However, it was a Wal-Mart exclusive. And it was only by virtue of the fact that the Wal-Mart near me one day received a shipment of Halo 3 figures that was JUST Blue Spartans that I even got one. The Red Spartan proved to be more elusive until a friend of mine was able to help me out with a good specimen of one.

Action figures have been a part of the Halo concept practically since its inception. A company called Joyride Studios produced a superb series of action figures for the first two Halo video games. But with Halo 3, the company taking over the action figure aspect of the concept became McFarlane Toys.

The Spartan Soldier (Mark VI) is described on the package as follows: The Spartan Programs are a series of UNSC projects, designed to create physically, genetically, and technologically superior "supersoldiers" as a special fighting force within the UNSC Military.

Well, that's a pretty good explanation. Not too much excessive military technobabble. Let's face it, the average military nomenclature here in the real world has been known to describe a metal bolt as a "hexaform rotational securing unit".

But, let's break the Spartans down to basics. What you have here is a soldier in a REALLY nicely designed suit of futuristic battle armor.

Now, I've never played any Halo video game in my life. I don't own an XBox 360. And I'm pretty awful at video games. And if I tried, I'd probably end up sending so many Spartans to thoroughly humiliating deaths that I'd need to seek out therapy. But -- I like to think I know a cool design -- and a well-designed action figure -- when I see one.

And the Spartan certainly qualifies. I'm not sure who was responsible for this design. I doubt it was an individual effort, but whoever they were should be commended. Certainly there's no shortage of futuristic soldier types running around pop culture these days. You've got Stormtroopers, Clone Troopers, Hulkbusters, Battle Androids, and who knows what else. I've seen so many commercials for so many near-future video games of big-bad-military types running around in fancy armor that I just sort of zone out on them.

But somehow, the Spartan design stands out. There's something more ornate, more complex, more dangerous-looking, and to a fair degree, more plausible-looking about it. What gets me about some of the other designs I've seen is the exposed areas. Open faces, bare arms -- look, if I'm going to be fighting some alien bad guys on a hostile planet, I'm not going to worry about showing off my pretty face or my big muscles. I want as much protection as possible that's still going to let me do my job. The Spartan armor accomplishes this.

The figure reflects the overall design superbly well. The figure is designed to appear to be wearing a thick black undersuit of some sort of protective fabric, although of course this is sculpted plastic for the figure. Over this is the armor, very well-detailed and very intricate-looking, consisting of the chest and back plates, lower torso, arms, legs, boots, and helmet.

It is with regard to the helmet and some aspects of the armor design where Halo 3 differs from its predecessors. There are more specialties of Spartan soldiers this time around, and they tend to have different-looking helmets, and sometimes moderate alterations to their armor. However, the Red Spartan that I acquired, which was the one I wanted, has the Mark VI Spartan helmet, which pretty much makes him identical to Master Chief -- not to mention the Blue Spartan.

There's something a little mean-looking about the armor, too. It's rather angular in its appearance, even the helmet, which is a superb design. Although you can't see the face underneath the gold-toned visor, there's something about the design of the helmet and the armor that gives off a certain intent, that says, "I am here to fight and I will do so until I can do so no longer."

And that's pretty much regardless of color. Heck, Halo 2 had a PINK Spartan in its lineup and got away with it.

Detailing on the Red Spartan figure is superb. The "fabric" areas have a very rough texture to them, and the armor areas are evenly done and very deeply detailed. The figure does have quite a bit of black weathering paint over the red armor. I probably would have either eliminated this step, or at least minimized it. However, this is something that McFarlane Toys lines to do, and in fairness to the concept, Halo 3 is a pretty grim-and-gritty environment. Nobody's going in or coming out well-polished. And it's not like you can't tell that he's red.

There is a surprising intricacy to come of the markings. Along with yellow stripes on the right arm and right leg that have the Roman numeral "VI" in them, there are little areas of detail that have been painted very carefully. The legs just above the knees have two little stripes of light blue on a sculpted detail area, and there's a couple of little spots of light blue on the backs of the lower legs.

Articulation is superb. The package advertises "18 points of articulation", but there's such a range of motion that it seems like more. I was especially impressed since McFarlane Toys has not always been known for large amounts of articulation, but they certainly are here. The Red Spartan is poseable at the head, arms, elbows, glove tops, wrists, mid torso, legs, knees, ankles, and "toes". Most of these areas have multiple ranges of motion, which allow for plenty of different poses.

One thing I would caution, and I have encountered it on other Spartans. Sometimes the wrists stick a bit. And they're on a pretty fine mounting point. If your Spartan's wrists don't want to rotate, and I say that regardless of what color Spartan you have -- don't force it. Just try to leave him be if you can. Maybe a little WD-40 or something might help, I'm not sure.

I earlier mentioned that there are several different helmet designs, and apparently it is possible to swap not only the heads between figures, but the shoulder armor plates, as well. This creates a slight problem in that these plates do not always stay put very well, and they're rather small. If you're disinclined to be swapping parts, I recommend a couple of drops of a good glue in the peg holes.

The Red Spartan is an interesting height. He's 5". That's actually quite unusual these days. Marvel Legends and DC Universe figures tend to be around 6" or so. Power Rangers are close to 6". 3-3/4" seems to be increasingly popular, with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, G.I. Joe, and even a particular branch of the WWE coming in at this height. So why 5" for the Spartans? Who knows? Just a decision on McFarlane's part. But it's actually a good size. The previous Halo figures from Joyride Studios were closer to 9" in height, and as impressive as they were, they did tend to take up a fair amount of space. At 5", it's easier to build a decent Spartan army, and there's a better potential for to-scale vehicles, should McFarlane Toys ever decide to do so.

Let's discuss accessories. The Red Spartan comes with a very nicely designed Assault Rifle, appropriately futuristic looking but just as plausible in appearance as the armor itself, and several very small grenades, that I recommend placing in a bag and marking it "Halo 3 Red Spartan" or some such, because otherwise, the potential for these little pieces of plastic getting lost in the carpet and turned into vacuum cleaner bait is simply too high.

So, what's my final word here? Granted the odds of finding a Red Spartan anywhere other than the secondary market are virtually nil at this point. McFarlane Toys has a very definite hit on its hands, and we can but hope that production levels will be scaled upwards for future assortments. But unless they decide to revisit the Red Spartan at some point, those future assortments will feature other color schemes. That doesn't mean it's impossible to find a Red Spartan, just difficult. And certainly it's an extremely cool figure, and any Halo 3 fan would enjoy having him around. The figure is well-made, well-articulated, well-detailed, and seems very sturdy. And he looks very cool, too. The HALO 3 RED SPARTAN definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!