Halo Online is pure nostalgia for shooter fans of a certain age

It's been a wild week for the scrappy band of pirates who cracked Halo Online, an aborted, Russia-only remix of Halo 3 for PC. After launching a new version late last week, Microsoft started throwing around legal threats and DMCA notices. The community, flush with thousands of new fans, took the only logical course of action: they began to freak the hell out. Now everyone is mad and Reddit and Discord are on fire, but wait—is Halo Online, the game everyone's suddenly shouting about, actually any good?

There's definitely an authenticity fetish at play behind the scenes of Halo Online.

Yes, it is. Thanks to the work of the ElDewrito modding team, the game looks and feels like Halo 3, right down to the color of the battle rifle ammo LED and the warm crescendo of a Gregorian chant in the main menu. As a PC gamer who hasn't owned an Xbox or a Halo game in a decade or more, feeling the nostalgia wave crest over me was sublime. From the sound of the chatter online, the community is seeing the same rose-colored things I am. Back in 2007, Halo 3 was one hell of a drug.

I hopped between a few dozen servers on Wednesday, and I saw the same messages over and over: "this takes me back to high school," "god, life was simpler then," "I used to tied an onion on my belt, as was the fashion." I suspect that these servers are all full of adults my age, and we're all having a grand old time until we leave to pick up the kids from soccer practice. 

Warthog killing sprees are just as fun as you remember.

There's definitely an authenticity fetish at play behind the scenes of Halo Online, a slavish devotion to recreating the Halo 3 experience exactly as it was, regardless of the present-day context in which Halo Online now exists. That's good for nostalgia, but it doesn't always make for a good game.

Here's one example: the weapon balance hasn't really changed, but Halo wasn't developed for PC-connected mouse-and-keyboard setups. In Ye Olde Halo, sniper rifles had generous targeting reticles and fast reload speeds. Squishy bullet detection and forgiving hitboxes helped make up for the challenge of trying to precision aim on a joystick controller, an activity so heinous it may actually be a war crime. In Halo Online, however, anyone with a mouse can aim sniper rifles with pixel-perfect accuracy. Sniper rifles are now hypereffective point-and-click death machines that lock down whole sections of any large outdoor map.

The same rigid adherence to Halo 3 orthodoxy gives even fewer reasons to use submachine guns and spray-and-pray weapons like the humble Needler. Controlling recoil at close range is now childishly easy, and there's absolutely no reason to choose a Needler instead of trying (and succeeding!) to no-scope a sniper rifle in cramped hallways.

Hop-in, hop-out servers are reminiscent of the old days of Halo: Custom Edition, rather than the matchmaking of Halo 2 on.

Embracing that idealized, higher-skill, weapon-sandbox-be-damned version of Halo has made Halo Online a draw for so many old fans.

Balancing weapon damage or speed for this new reality wouldn't be impossible, but I doubt it's the kind of change that Halo Online is interested in making. I'm ready to stand up and defend Halo Online as a categorically good game, but there's no doubt that the hand of nostalgia is weighing heavily on the entire project. I suspect there will be a direct correlation between how much you loved Halo—and when and where in your life you were when you last had time to play hours and hours of Halo—and how much you'll love Halo Online in the here and now.

Despite its devotion to bringing Halo 3 alive on PC, there's a throughline to the ElDewrito mod team's changes that make it close to the game Halo's most hardcore fans always wanted—those fans who lived for three-shot kills, with Halo: Combat Evolved's pistol on PC, from across the entirety of Blood Gulch. The same fans who insisted on battle rifle starts in every match in Halo 2 and Halo 3, because the assault rifle was boring, and railed against the BR's bullet spread at range. They wanted Halo's weapons to have a precision Bungie's designers never fully committed to. With ElDewrito 0.6, the Battle Rifle is more accurate and deadly than ever. Embracing that idealized, higher-skill, weapon-sandbox-be-damned version of Halo has made Halo Online a draw for so many old fans. 

For a free (albeit definitely copyright infringing) download, there's a ton of stuff on offer here. Famous multiplayer maps like Standoff, Last Resort (aka Zanzibar), and Valhalla are on heavy rotation, as are classic game modes like Capture the Flag and Team Slayer. But the entire project is infused with open-source PC community enthusiasm, populating servers with fan-made recreations of older maps and homebrewed modes like Griffball. I was surprised to find a deep customization menu overflowing with ways to personalize symbols, name tags, and armor sets. 

Thanks to ElDewrito's rebalancing (and a mouse), the Battle Rifle is deadlier than ever.

There's a baffling array of weapons—some of which are pulled from later Halo games, like the DMR—and many of them can be dual-wielded. Cracking someone in the back of the head with a rifle butt is still absurdly satisfying, and the crackle-hiss of the covenant Energy Sword sends fear chills down every spine nearby.

Because Halo Online is peer-to-peer, it's likely servers will remain online for as long as there's interest. And that will probably be years, as long as Halo veterans think this is the best way to play. The underlying files of Halo Online can't be legally distributed, but the open source ElDewrito mod remains freely downloadable in the open.

Basically: this isn't a knock-off bootleg version of Halo 3. It's an unpolished version of the real-deal Halo 3, actually improved and expanded in many ways, but definitely rough around the edges in its UI and some other areas. It's full of all the sci-fi maps, vehicles, and weapons that fans remember from the days when downloadable horse armor was still a scandal. Those were better days, I tell you. Simpler days. All the headshots were snappy and the NPCs were good-looking. You kids don't know what you're missing.