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By Thomas Wheeler

There can certainly be no question that the HALO franchise is one of the most popular video game series of the modern day -- and I maintain that this is not a thing easily accomplished. The video game world today is as diverse and extensive, if not moreso, than television, movies, or perhaps even music. For anything to rise above that cacophony is nothing short of incredible. And yet, HALO has done so.

Halo 3 holds the record for the highest grossing opening day in entertainment history, bringing in $170 million in its first 24 hours, going on to gross $300 million in its first week. More than one million people played Halo 3 on Xbox Live in the first twenty hours. As of January 3, 2008, Halo 3 has sold 8.1 million copies, and was the best- selling video game of 2007 in the U.S.

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. And one of these is reflected in the STEEL SPARTAN, who was a GameStop store exclusive.

The first two Halo games had Joyride Studios as the primary licensee for toy products based on their characters, and they did a good job with a series of figures about 9" in height. For Halo 3, the license went to McFarlane Toys. McFarlane's reputation and audience is, it is fair to say, quite close to the same that would be interested in the Halo games and their concurrent product. Needless to say, this presented an ideal match.

Possibly a better one that even McFarlane Toys expected. The first series of action figures, which included several store exclusives, blew out of the stores so fast that it was hard to tell if some stores had even had it in stock in the first place. Even retailers where one does not usually go toy shopping, such as Spencer Gifts and Hot Topic, shot through their supplies as fast as they got them in.

Needless to say, this made the exclusives that much harder to obtain. I'd heard about the Steel Spartan being an exclusive to GameStop. There are several GameStop stores reasonably convenient to me. One of them looked at me like I was out of my mind for even asking about them. Fortunately, I fared somewhat better at the second one I tried, but even there, the clerk indicated how fortunate I was with regard to my timing. They had just gotten a box of them in, and only had two left.

Now, I'll be honest here. I've never played Halo -- any of the versions. In the first place, I don't own an XBox 360. In the second place, I'm pretty terrible at video games. On the rare occasions I have played video games, I've sent so many characters to their untimely deaths that I almost started to feel guilty about it. I mean, come on, the characters have the skills to win this thing -- I'm just no good at getting them to use them! I suspect if I tried Halo, I'd last about as long as it would take for some alien something or other to turn my armor into recycled soda cans.

Better I should stick with the action figures. At least that's something I understand. And I certainly know a cool action figure when I see one. Now, I originally had in mind to try to round up a fairly complete collection of the Spartans. At this point in time, I don't think that's going to happen. Between general scarcity and the number and even greater scarcity of the various exclusives, it's just a little too much. But, I imagine I'll pick up the occasional Spartan or equivalent here and there, and I look forward to reviewing them as I do.

McFarlane has done a good job with these toys. They're solidly made, certainly extensively articulated, and at just about precisely 5" in height, they're a somewhat more agreeable size than Joyride's 9" figures, for those with limited display space who would like to pose a decent number of Spartans. Seeing as how this line has already been planned out through its third series, with a growing population of armored warriors including no shortage of new exclusives, that's probably a significant factor for those intending to snag every one they possibly can.

The Steel Spartan is not technically identical to the Master Chief. Although an armored combatant, he is officially listed as a CQB specialist. I had to track that one down, with a little help, since I honestly had no idea what "CQB" stood for, and frankly, how often do you encounter the letter "Q" in an abbreviation? I wondered if it even stood for anything.

It does. CQB stands for Close Quarter Battle. Whether that means this guy is especially good at hand-to-hand combat or just really good at opening fire at point-blank range (or possibly both), I'm really not sure. In either case, I can't say as someone this heavily armored and armed is someone I'd want to go up against anyway.

And there are some differences in the armor design that go well beyond just color. The bulk of the armor is a dark silver in color. And while the arms (except for the shoulder plates), lower torso, and legs are identical to the Master Chief design, the helmet and chestplate are distinctly different.

The CQB Spartan's helmet is somewhat later and rounder in appearance than the Master Chief style. The visor is differently shaped, and the helmet on the whole looks thicker, lacking the jutting brow, but seeming to offer more protection, including on the top of the head. Probably not a bad idea for a Close Quarters Battle specialist. Overall, it's really an interesting and impressive design.

The chestplate is decidedly more intricate than the Master Chief style, with more plating to it, a small knife in a sheath -- also a good idea for a CQB soldier -- and what looks like some sort of handle. Not sure what this is for.

The armor at the shoulders is also different. And here I should address something that is mentioned on the back of the Steel Spartan's package. It specifically cites "Interchangeable Armor", and shows examples of three different helmets -- CQB, EVA, and the Master Chief-like Mark VI, three different styles of Shoulder Armor, categorized the same way, three different styles of Chest Armor, and three different colors -- rather patriotically red, white, and blue.

The Steel one isn't mentioned, although he is the one pictured on the back of the package. Nor is the green Master Chief. Nor is the fact that some of these variants are store exclusives. Presumably some of these parts can be popped off, and indeed the shoulder armor is easily removable, almost too much so, but you'll still have to buy the entire soldier first to get any of the alternatives. I am not aware of any accessory sets that just include helmets, chestplates, and shoulder pieces. And at this point in time, good luck finding any of them. The tag line under "Interchangeable Armor" reads, "Create an Army of Spartans" -- which is probably the only way to get all the variants, and really, for serious Halo fans with the dedication and money to round them all up, isn't a bad idea at all.

Let's discuss articulation. It's really excellent on this figure. The package boasts "18 points of articulation", but that's almost a misnomer when you consider the range of motion that these areas of articulation have. The Steel Spartan is poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, mid torso, waist, legs, knees, ankles, and foot-fronts. However, all of these areas have a considerable range of motion, most of which is quite well concealed by the figure design. In this, the Spartans remind me a lot of Hasbro's Star Wars Clone Troopers. The very design of the character as portrayed in its original source material allows the toymakers to incorporate a considerable level of articulation without it being as evident as it might be on a figure with a different look. The design allows the articulation to be well-worked in and almost concealed.

I will say that I would not move this figure harshly or forcefully, especially on some of his finer points like his wrists. This really isn't an action figure that you want to hand to a six-year-old and let him tear through the playground or backyard with it. It looks and feels sturdy, but there are likely some fragile points on him, starting with the wrists, and possibly a few other areas.

The Steel Spartan is somewhat weathered in appearance, a practice I don't usually approve of, but given the level of battle these guys see, it's not really inappropriate, and given the heaping levels of weathering and dirtying McFarlane Toys has put on some of their previous toys from other concepts, it's positively subdued in comparison here. And certainly the overall paint detailing is excellent and precise. Some of the smallest areas, little slots in the armor, have been given a bit of color, mostly light blue. A lot of other toy companies probably wouldn't even have bothered.

The only other significant markings on the Steel Spartan are white stripes on his upper right arm and upper right leg, with the Roman numeral "VI" in the stripe, representing "Mark VI Armor", I'm sure.

The Steel Spartan comes with a fancy, futuristic, but not at all implausible-looking Assault Rifle, as well as several grenades, including a few that are so small that I recommend the immediate implementation of a Ziploc bag to keep them preserved.

So, what's my final word on this figure? Very impressive. The Steel Spartan is well-designed, well-made, well-articulated, and darn cool looking. I doubt very much at this point you're going to find one actually at GameStop, but there's always the secondary market. McFarlane Toys has done an overall excellent job with this Halo 3 line, and certainly it's proven to be massively popular, and I would expect it to continue to be over successive assortments. Meanwhile, assuming you can find one with relative ease, the HALO 3 STEEL SPARTAN definitely has my recommendation!