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By Thomas Wheeler

The annual San Diego Comic-Con is almost assuredly "the" event of the pop culture world, with virtually every format of popular entertainment in attendance in some form or other. Comic books, toys, movies, video games, TV shows, you name it, it's there, generally officially represented by the major companies within any given genre themselves, on hand to provide whatever up-to-date information about their upcoming products that they can. DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Mattel, Hasbro, McFarlane, Disney, the list goes on and on.

Of course, for action figure collectors, one of the main draws is the fact that many of the toy companies that are present are also offering exclusive products of one sort or another. This has been true for a good number of years, and it was certainly true this year. McFarlane Toys manages to cross over a bit between a couple of genres, as generally, their exclusive offering, has been of an action figure representative of the extremely popular action figure line based on the also extremely popular video game series -- HALO. This year was no exception, as the figure offered represented the brand new entry in the Halo video game series -- HALO REACH, which as I write this review is still a few weeks from debuting. The commercials look extremely impressive, however. The figure is called NOBLE 7.

So what, precisely, is Halo: Reach? In one sentence, it's a prequel game to all the others. But let's go into a little more detail, courtesy of a bit of online research.

Halo: Reach is a first-person shooter video game, developed by Bungie and published my Microsoft Game Studios, for use on the XBox 360 console. The game takes place in the year 2552, where humanity is locked in a war with the alien collective known as the Covenant. Players control Noble 6, a member of an elite super-soldier squad, during a battle for a world called Reach.

Originally unveiled at E3 2009, Reach was preceded by a multiplayer "beta" available to those who purchased the most recent Halo video game, Halo 3: ODST, in order to gain player feedback for fixing bugs and making some other refinements to the game.

Among some of the gameplay abilities reportedly in the game, comparative to other recent Halo games; in Halo 3, players could wield one-use equipment power-ups that offered temporary offensive or defensive advantages. This system of single use equipment is replaced in "Reach" by reusable and persistent armor abilities which remain with a player until they are replaced. Among other abilities are a hologram, where the player spawns a "dummy" twin, jetpack, active camo (allowing the player to turn nearly invisible), sprint, and "armor lock", which makes the player invincible in exchange for the loss of mobility. That sounds like a bundle of laughs.

"Reach" takes place in a futuristic science-fiction setting during the year 2552, shortly before the events of the first Halo video game, Halo: Combat Evolved, which was released in 2001. Humans, under the auspices of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC), have been waging a long war against a collective of alien races known as the Covenant.

By the events of "Reach", almost all of humanity's interstellar colonies have fallen. Reach itself is an Earthlike colony that serves as the UNSC's main military hub. In addition to the military presence, the colony is home to over 700 million civilians!

The game follows the actions of Noble Team, a UNSC special operations unit composed of elite supersoldiers known as (what else?) Spartans. Players assume the role of an unnamed new addition to the team, identified by the call sign "Noble 6". Noble Team's leader is Carter-A259, a no-nonsense soldier. His second-in-command, Kat-B320, has a bionic arm. Together, Carter and Kat are the only two remaining original members of Noble Team. The other members include heavy weapons specialist Jorge-052, Emile-A239, and marksman Jun-A266.

If the names sound strange, keep in mind that the best known Halo character, Master Chief, who has been the main playable character in most of the previous Halo video games, has a real name of John-117.

Given the rather conclusive events of Halo 3, the game developers realized that to continue the Halo game series, a new game would have to be set either during or prior to that time period. Essentially, they did both. Halo 3:ODST takes place during the events of Halo 3. Halo: Reach is the prequel. Given that the game ends with the destruction of the planet, in keeping with Halo story continuity, Bungie focused on making sure that players still felt a sense of accomplishment and success. Said creative director Marcus Lehto, "It is a challenge overall to ensure the player feels they're doing the right thing all the way to the end."

The prequel concept also gave the design team an opportunity to redesign key enemies, weapons, and other elements of the series, although 3D Art lead Scott Shepard stressed that they remained true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original designs. Artists found inspiration in the original concept art for "Halo: Combat Evolved".

To be honest, I've never played any Halo game. This is not due to lack of interest, but simply do to the fact that (a) I don't own an XBox system, and (b) I'm really pretty horrible at video games. I own a PS2 that sees so little use I sometimes feel sorry for the poor thing. And Halo doesn't exist for any PlayStation system. Even if it did, I'd probably get shot clean out of the game in about a minute and a half, and what fun is that? Video games are a little beyond me, I think. Action figures, I understand, and I know a cool set of action figures when I see them. The Halo figures have certainly been that.

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive, even if his identity is perhaps a mild mystery. I mean, if the playable character in the game is called Noble 6, and he's part of a six-person unit, then who the heck is Noble 7?

What, you never heard of back-up? Actually, I really don't know. I am of the opinion that this is a character that was created by McFarlane Toys, authorized by Bungie and Microsoft, of course, specifically to be produced as an exclusive for the San Diego Comic-Con. Unlike Halo 3, I don't believe there are the same extensive armor varieties and colors that have been the hallmark of previous Halo games, since it takes place in such an earlier time period. Since it is reasonable to assume that all six established members of Noble Team will be part of the main action figure line at some point, and a few of them are out already, along with some assorted nameless Spartans, the only thing McFarlane Toys could do was to create an individual character that nevertheless fit the profile of the game -- hence Noble 7.

Of course, it's just as possible that there is a Noble 7 somewhere in the game, as some sort of unlockable character dependent on certain achievements by the player. Certainly that sort of thing is not unheard of in many video games, including Halo. But that's just speculation on my part.

The figure has an impressive look to him. The armor design definitely looks very much like the Spartans which are the core of the Halo concept -- genetically engineered warriors wearing some of the most advanced combat armor ever devised -- and yet at the same time one also gets the impression that the armor at this stage is still a "work in progress".

This sort of thing can't be that easy to achieve. Certainly video game technology has advanced in the past nine years since the release of the original Halo game. And yet the designers had to take full advantage of modern computer capabilities, and still make the game look like a prequel. This is really the Halo version of "Star Trek: Enterprise". For years, the Star Trek series took place nearly a century after the Classic Series, so all the modern technology that was available to use pretty well fit the setting. But then they decided to do a prequel series, and had to use all the modern technology to design a show that was still cool, still impressive, and still managed to look like it took place about 100 or so years before the events of a TV show that had been produced roughly 35 years prior. That's a serious challenge, and while the first Halo game is not that far in the past, it still must have been a similar challenge to come up with the combat armor for Halo: Reach.

Noble 7 has a Spartan-ish look to him, but then that could be said about a lot of the characters in the new game, and certainly, it's appropriate. The figure is wearing a suit of futuristic, rugged-looking battle armor, that is mostly a dark blue in color. The lower arms, lower legs, and feet are a dull silver. The helmet manages to evoke the basics of the Master Chief Spartan without being a precise duplicate of it, and without looking too close to other helmet designs of other Spartan specialties as seen in Halo 3. It has the somewhat angular look, but is a little more rounded in some respects. As one would expect, it has a bright gold visor.

The armor overall, as well as the black "undersuit", which is somewhat armored itself, is very extensively detailed, sculpt-wise. Armor platings, assorted exposed gadgetry, various markings -- this sort of rugged sculpted detail is something that McFarlane Toys does very well on most of their assorted figure lines, so they're a good choice for the Halo license.

Along with the armor, Noble 7 has some various equipment attached to the front of his uniform. There's a series of pouches attached to his chestplate. These are dark green in color, very nicely detailed, with some colored clasps on a couple of them. There's also a row of what look like shells of some sort -- they're way too big to be bullets and they don't particularly look like grenades -- strung along what would be his belt. There's eight of these, and they're a matted yellow-gold in color with dark gold stripes.

The armor has been painted in such a way as to make it look distinctly battle worn. Usually I don't like this sort of thing, but McFarlane can do it better than most, and for the Halo concept, it's not inappropriate. This is some serious hardcore battle that these guys get into. They're not going to keep their armor pristine. There are occasions where a certain amount of weathering is appropriate. No one would expect to see a new and clean Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. And no one would really expect to see a new and clean armored Halo soldier, unless one were to start the game from the first day he's issued his armor right out of the training facility.

For Noble 7, the blue areas of the armor have some silver scuffing on them, as if he's worn off some of the blue paint, and the grey areas have some black spatters on them.

There are also some small stamped markings on the figure. The initials "UNSC" are stamped on either side of his helmet. Small stripes and little yellow triangles can be found elsewhere on his armor. Of particular note is the insignia on the chestplate. It's a white shield with a blue fist holding onto a blue lightning bolt, with the number "7" in the upper right corner, obviously designating him as Noble 7. These have all been very neatly imprinted.

There's a little bit of additional detail, a few little areas of light blue in some indented spots, that I believe are meant to represent lights on the uniforms. Noble 7 is also wearing some sort of device on his left wrist that has what I am assuming to be a small screen with a nondescript image on it in red and black. Frankly, I'm not entirely sure what this is supposed to be. Looks cool enough, though.

Now, I would like to discuss the height and construction of Noble 7. He stands slightly under 5-1/2" in height. This is notable because the average Spartan figure from any of the previous Halo lines tends to stand between 5" - 5-1/4". And the Spartans in the other Halo games are all very tall, large individuals. So I wondered -- is Noble Squad supposed to be even taller? Not according to a friend of mine, who is more of a Halo expert on this sort of thing than I am. If anything, Noble Squad is probably a little shorter.

So, it would appear that McFarlane Toys has slightly tweaked the scale of their HALO line, with the advent of Reach, which is clearly going to be dominating the world of Halo action figures at this point. I'm generally not too fond of this sort of thing, and it's hardly the first time it's happened in the action figure world. I like a decent amount of compatibility. But, since Halo Reach takes place in a different time period than that of the rest of the Halo action figures, I can live with it well enough.

Especially since -- McFarlane Toys has basically completely redesigned the construction of the figure, and everything they've done is an improvement. Not that I had any real problems with the previous figures, although they were sometimes known for stuck joints and a somewhat peculiar hip design.

Noble 7, as representative of the entire Halo Reach line, I am assuming, is a much sturdier, less fragile, and just as well articulated figure as his predecessors. The leg design, although somewhat atypical, works a lot better. The fragile wrists are gone. The figure feels more solid. The articulation points mostly work on a very fine ratchet design, which lets them hold a pose well and still have a wide range of movement. Parts previously prone to falling off, like the shoulder pieces, are now securely attached.

The figure's head is on a very good ball-and-socket design, which gives it a wide range of motion. The arms move back, forth, and out. The elbow has a built-in swivel, which is the best place for a swivel on a figure of this design. There's also a rotational swivel jusy below the elbow joint, allowing the lower arms to pivot around. The wrists are almost triple-jointed, with two rotational areas at the hand and arm, with a back and forth movement in between the two rotationals. The figure has a mid-torso joint, but the armor design lets him get away with it, and it has such a range of motion that I'm really hoping for an "Active Camo" version of this guy at some point so maybe I can figure out how it works. The legs are almost triple jointed, as well, with a back and forth movement attached to the main body, and then a rotational and somewhat outward movement just below this joint. The knees move, and have a rotational pivot to them, as do the ankles. And the fronts of the feet (I can't quite call them "toes"), are also articulated, and with a much better design than before. Everything except the head and the mid-torso has a slight ratchet to it. It's an excellent design well-suited to these figures, and I believe the days of worrying about broken, stuck, or distorted parts may well be over.

Noble 7 comes with two accessories -- a tiny little grenade -- and I recommend starting a Ziploc bag NOW, and just labeling it "Halo: Reach" and get ready to fill it with these things; and an impressive futuristic blaster rifle. The hardware in Halo games, unlike, for example, Star Wars, has an extremely militaristic look to it that's not too far removed from plausible. Sometimes I wonder how much inspiration they took from the movie "Aliens" for some of this stuff. And, as with the armor itself, the rifle doesn't look quite as advanced as some of the hardware carried around by Spartans from Halo 3, but it still certainly looks like it'll get the job done.

So, what's my final word here? Noble 7 is a very cool figure in his own right, and as the "shape of things to come" for the Halo Reach line, shows off the best of the new armor design and figure construction. As a Comic-Con exclusive, I well imagine he's pretty hard to find, but he'll make an excellent addition to any Halo collection, certainly one that will include the new Halo Reach figures! He's worth tracking down, definitely.

The HALO: REACH figure of NOBLE 7 certainly has my highest recommendation!