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How modders are cracking Halo Online to bring Halo 3 to PC

Halo Online spread

Halo 3 is coming to PC. Eight years after Master Chief’s last great multiplayer playground hit the Xbox 360, it’s coming alive, for free, on the PC—but not at the hands of Microsoft. Or Bungie. In one of the strangest things to happen on PC this year, Halo 3’s protracted PC birth is coming from a group of modders transforming the free-to-play, Russia-only beta Halo Online into their favorite Halo game.

For years, Halo was a crucial console-exclusive system-seller for Microsoft. When it finally came to the PC again earlier this spring but was region-locked, fans moved fast. They created Eldorito, a mod that cracked the Russia-only restriction within a week of Halo Online’s reveal. Named as a portmanteau of El Dorado, the name of the Halo Online executable, and Dorito, Microsoft’s favorite corporate sponsor, Eldorito has been programmed over the past few months by a group of between ten and twenty modders. Because Halo Online is built over the top of a more-or-less complete version of Halo 3’s engine, the Eldorito modders have been working to pull what they really want from the shell of Halo Online: Halo 3 on PC. I spent a week chatting with one of the modders to learn more about a project that, for better or worse, is the only version of Halo we’re likely to get on PC any time soon.

The Dorito

The Eldorito version of Halo Online doesn’t have a website. If it did, Microsoft would likely detonate it with a lawyer-bomb—as it proved this spring when it issued a DMCA takedown notice on in-game video recorded with the mod. Instead, Eldorito has a subreddit, which directs you to a shared Google Doc, which links you to an executable posted on the New Zealand-based file sharing site, Mega.

Once you download the file (named, naturally, Halo.zip), and run the Eldorito updater, the game is severed from the servers that run Halo Online as a standing, free-to-play service for Russian players.

I tracked down modder Sam Fish through his work as the lead developer of Dewrito, a mod that connects the cracked Halo Online program to multiplayer servers. I asked him to walk me through what exactly the mod does to get Halo Online running. “The Halo Online build that we are building off of had a timer that would shut down the game after 15 seconds if not connected to their servers,” he said. “We just had it load into an offline mode with the Halo Online UI, and from there we were able to load up Halo 3's UI, which was leftover in the code, which allowed us to access things like Forge, LAN multiplayer, and custom games.”

Image via redditor rexadde
Image via redditor rexadde

For people like Fish, the allure of a Halo game on PC was huge. These long-time fans were introduced to Halo or Halo 2 on consoles, then moved over to PC and brought their love of Master Chief with them. Hearing that a new Halo worked on PC was enough to light the fire. If Halo works on Russian PCs, it will work on every PC—and there’s no DRM in the world that can stop that from happening.

“Hearing that Halo Online was more or less a modified version of Halo 3's multiplayer had me extremely excited,” Fish said. “Of course, my excitement was quickly killed when I saw some of the ‘features’ that Halo Online was bringing to the Russian market.” When Fish uses scare quotes around “features,” he’s talking about the free-to-play mechanics and microtransactions—but not just that. “[I’m also referring] to the complete lack of a game that Halo Online is on its own. Not only does it have only three maps not from other games, it has no single player component, no Forge, and from what I have seen, no custom game support.”

That disappointment made him get involved with the project. “Just the idea that we could possibly get Halo 3 on PC was exciting enough for me to join the project, and others saw it as a great starting off point to create a new Halo Custom Edition.”

Luckily for the modders, Halo Online turned out to be more than a slimmed-down version of Halo 3. It is Halo 3 with a few quick memory blocks to discontinue features—probably only a temporary measure for the beta test. By editing Halo Online’s files, the Eldorito team is slowly bringing parts of Halo 3 back online. “I am not someone who does reverse engineering, but it is really tedious,” Fish told me. “The developers are doing an awesome job re-enabling tons of features taken out in Halo Online, like Halo 3 equipment and dual wielding, which are both currently being tested.”

Splitscreen in Halo Online. Eat your heart out, Halo 5. Image via redditor M0niak1
Splitscreen in Halo Online. Eat your heart out, Halo 5. (Image via redditor M0niak1.)

Growing pains

It sounds relatively simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s going smoothly so far. Twenty people working to crack a game the size of Halo 3 is bound to cause some problems. Whether it’s a somewhat involved multi-step installation process, the release of Windows 10, or the infinite variation in PC users’ hardware and software specs, a bi-weekly bug report thread on the subreddit is consistently full of hopeful players asking for help.

“Every time I try to connect to a server I get into an endless loading loop,” writes one user. “The game doesn't want to start,” writes another. After a week of correspondence with Fish, I’ve also been unable to get into the game and check it out. For all the drama and whining, though, there are also videos showing players getting online and exploring various maps. Multiplayer matches look frantic, twitchy, and, well, a lot like Halo 3. For every person who can’t seem to get online, there are others already there, making insane headshots and blowing things up with Covenant tanks.

The haphazard nature of the mod installation process is untenable, but the Eldorito modding team know it. Fish and the other modders knew that getting multiplayer working would be a big challenge, and now they recognize that making the game more user-friendly is the next step to growing a community around the cracked game. “Our current challenges involve finding ways to make Eldorito more accessible to people,” Fish said, “by adding things like plugins and working on custom menus to wrap everything we have made … Eldorito has come a long way [as far as] usability, and I think that [the] updater has helped a lot to make it easier to install.”

Eventually, the goal is for Eldorito to become a stable, moddable version of Halo 3 on PC. “I feel strange saying I want an almost ten-year-old game on my PC with nothing new, but there is something about Halo 3's simplicity that I enjoy,” said Fish. “I think that having Eldorito at least getting to Vanilla Halo 3 status would be an insane starting point for modding and going crazy with the game. We have already seen an insane amount of support with the community with people making Forge maps and mods and posting them on our subreddit almost daily. I think that if our community stays this awesome, Eldorito will have an amazing year.”

On the next page: where Microsoft stands on the legality of modding Halo Online.

The ODST Helmet modded into Halo Online. Image via redditor Xe_CREATURE
The ODST Helmet modded into Halo Online. (Image via redditor Xe_CREATURE.)

Legal borders

All of this work and community growth is taking place in a rarefied no-man’s-land that looks a lot like a gray area to me. Halo Online is owned by Microsoft as a free-to-play game, and the work of its developers and artists is meant to be supported by microtransactions from Russian customers. Worldwide customers were never supposed to be part of the market, but now that they are, there’s no doubt that they’re enjoying a lot of hard work without the mechanisms in place to pay for it. Though removing microtransactions and the in-game cash store wasn’t the main goal of the Eldorito mod, it’s an unavoidable consequence of severing the game files from the host servers.

The project has been brought offline by a DMCA request from Microsoft once already. The modders screwed up: they accidentally pushed the actual Halo Online executable, which indisputably belongs to Microsoft, to their Eldorito Github. Since then, they’ve gotten more savvy. The Github still stores all of the team’s files and source code, but that is all original programming work that belongs to the modders. It just so happens, wink wink, that the modders’ original work exists solely to crack open the Halo Online executable that you’ll have to find elsewhere, nudge nudge.

Still, even the Halo Online executable isn’t really a product of piracy. Since Halo Online is a free-to-play game, Microsoft is happy for the executable to be hosted and downloaded freely—after all, a wide install base connected to the Russian game servers should mean more in-game purchases for Microsoft. Except, in this instance, it doesn’t. The creation of a Russia-only game, in effect, created its own worldwide gray market for that same game.

Halo Online's fully functional Forge mode, modified with a trainer. Image via redditor Apoc2.
Halo Online's fully functional Forge mode, modified with a trainer. Image via redditor Apoc2.

Microsoft, for its part, is aware that the huge, pent-up desire for a Halo game on PC is driving efforts like Eldorito. When reached for comment about this project, a Microsoft spokesperson praised the “excitement and dedication” of the Eldorito modders, but refused to budge off of the company line: “Right now our focus is on learning as much as we can from the closed beta period in Russia. Theoretically, any expansion outside of Russia would have to go through region-specific changes to address player expectations.”

Player expectations, in this case, could mean Western players expect an overhauled graphics engine, or dramatically different F2P economics than those designed for the piracy-heavy Russian market. Either could mean big changes to Halo Online, and big changes take time and money.

When asked if releasing a mainline Halo game on PC would hurt Xbox One sales, the same source issued a non-answer. “It’s about delivering on the right Halo experience to meet expectations for PC gamers. We’re excited to be bringing Halo Wars 2 [a sequel to Halo Wars, the 2009 RTS] to both Windows 10 and consoles in fall of 2016. Additionally, PC gamers will also be able to stream gameplay from Halo 5: Guardians on Xbox One to their PC using Windows 10.”

Basically: PC gamers are welcome to play Halo on PC, as long as they purchase an Xbox first. That seems to suggest that, at least in Microsoft’s eyes, Halo on PC really would have an impact on Xbox sales.

All of this is background detail for the Eldorito team, which feels confident that they’re not doing anything illegal, and they don’t want to be seen as trying to take any cash that should belong to Microsoft. “We are trying to distance ourselves from official Halo Online because we don't want to appear as pirates,” Fish says. They don’t want to crack Halo Online, they want Halo 3—and the fastest path to Halo 3 is straight through the heart of Halo Online. “We are just working with what we have.”

What they have, for now, is an almost-ready, almost-stable version of Halo 3 that is almost completely cracked open. There’s definitely a beggars-can’t-be-choosers mentality at work in the small community. Would they rather have Halo 5 with full modding tools released on PC? Of course they would.

But they don’t have that, they have this. And for them, until Microsoft decides to stop protecting their console interests with the mother of all exclusives, this will have to do.

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