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A Bridge Too Far: The World of Halo 2 Cheating
feature
game: Halo 2
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
developer: Bungie
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ESRB rating: M (Mature)
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date posted: 12:20 PM Fri May 26th, 2006
last revision: 09:40 AM Mon May 29th, 2006



Click to read.A recent post on the Bungie.net official news blog by resident spokesperson, Frankie, made the rounds on the interwebs last week thanks to a posting on game blog Kotaku. Frankie's posting is entitled "The Bungie Waaahmbulance", and in it he posts several letters from users who have been banned from Halo 2. Why would you get permanently banned from Halo 2 Matchmaking? Cheating.

These letters are an absolute hoot to read. Many can be appreciated with little to no knowledge of Halo 2 at all, such as this letter from a turncoat cheater:

Please! I'll destroy my mods. i'll snich on some people that r getting away with mods on matchmaking! Just PLEASE appeal my ban. i want to play matchmaking again. i want to be clean for the arrival of Halo 3! c'mon! i didn't know what i was getting into when i got mods from my friend and from [website censored]! you have to believe me!!! (which i believe got resently shut down.) I'm really not the dirty, xbox live cheater that you probably think i am! im just a weeeee little 13 year old. (and very hansom at that might i add. any waay, it really sucks with no matchmaking and no stats or clan listings. I have learned the errors of my ways and wish to repent. please help me!!!
P.S. I haven't even turned on my xbox with the mods on it since i sent my first message a few days ago. infact, i unplugged it!


It's fitting that Frankie begins his catalog of inanities with this letter, since it sums up the stereotype of the Halo 2 cheater: some snotty kid who doesn't know much about the world. These are the script kiddies of online gaming; the Action Replay is the DDOS Script of the gaming world. Of course, those are the kinds of cheats gamers are used to dealing with, patches and mods often facilitated on home consoles by devices like the Action Replay. The mods and cheats that come from these devices are pretty easy to spot: god-mode, flying vehicles, etc. These and other console modifications are relatively easy to detect, and Bungie does a good job preventing these activities.

But read deeper into Frankie's gallery of stupid excuses and you notice some new terms coming into play: standby-ing, bridging and boosting. These are techniques, often performed in groups, that are used to help cheaters raise their ranking in Halo 2, and at the same time these methods are extremely destructive to the enjoyment of other gamers.

I dont understand, I admit that I have had cheaters on my team, but Ive never cheated more then 8 times that I can remember, Not even close. Is that a Major Offense? I would like to know Why I have been permanently from Halo 2 Matchmaking when I have Never Manipulated files on my Xbox ( Modding ) Never MYSELF Bridged people out ( 2 times I can remember my Teammate did when I didnt want to ) and have never Standbyed MYSELF ( 1 time Recently when I ALSO said not too. ) I would Like to have my account Unbanned or put onto a Suspension at the most, but Please, I was banned on a "Major Offense" that I did not commit.


To an uninitiated gamer, even a casual Halo 2 player, this letter to Bungie may seem almost unintelligible. "Bridged people out?" "Standbyed?" These are terms that hold little meaning for players, other than the fact that the worst matches on Halo 2 are often accompanied by accusations of such cheating, which is often team-based.

An example of relatively mild "standby" cheating can be viewed on YouTube here. Simply put, Standbying means that you're deliberately interrupting your Internet connection during a game, effectively freezing everyone in the game but yourself. A much longer video is also on YouTube (click here), and it shows what must be the worst eleven minutes of Halo 2 online multiplayer ever recorded. Fast forward to about halfway through the longer video in order to see what must have been a very frustrating game of Capture the Flag. Every time the videomaker's team, which is red, captures the flag the blue screen pops up (the standby screen) to resync the game. When the game resumes, the other team's flag is mysteriously returned. The longer video was posted on YouTube last December, while the shorter video was posted just last week. In addition to these examples, the problem has become so widespread that other gamers have even parodied the effects of standby cheating in another video posted to YouTube.

Update (05.29.06): Obie sent a link to a Halo 2 machinima movie that satirizes some of the more annoying aspects of Halo 2 online multiplayer ranging from open mics to standby cheating. Check out Gameplay May Change During Online Play" (mirror part one and part two).

These videos clearly illustrate how annoying the problem is, but they don't do much to answer either of the two biggest questions that follow a cheating encounter: 1) How do they do that? And 2) Why doesn't Bungie stop them from doing that?

To answer in reverse order, Bungie does all they can to stop cheating. In July 2005 they rolled out the fourth major update for Halo 2 which was mandatory for online play. This update included a new tool Bungie affectionately calls the "Banhammer." Banhammer looks for mod software and hardware, illegal game saves, and other evidence of cheating. Since implementing the Banhammer, Bungie has stepped up their policing of cheaters, but stemming cheaters in a game is a lot like stemming music piracy online: For every account shut down, there are more being created. Bungie tracks and compares habits of gamers and groups of gamers, then they analyze that data to look for trends that show evidence of cheating.

Since the point of cheating is to artificially raise the gamer's Halo 2 ranking (aka "boosting"), it must be relatively easy to identify accounts that are progressing up the rankings ladder more quickly than the norm. Any amount of in-game surveillance would then reveal quickly whether or not something fishy is happening. Because although these cheats may be complex and coordinated, they are anything but subtle. Bungie also provides user-feedback tools in-game to report cheating. Players are encouraged to help police the Halo 2 multiplayer universe. Thus, the answer to the first question is that Bungie does work to stop cheating, and they have put a lot of effort into their Banhammer tool, but it's the sort of thing that continues no matter how efficiently Bungie moderates.

So, what about the second question? How do they do that stuff?

Cheaters typically form into teams to rapidly increase their Halo 2 rankings. A team of cheaters will usually include a bridger, someone handling standby (possibly the same who is bridging), possibly a hardware or software moddder and definitely a "legitimate" account. (Of course, according to Bungie's rules, knowingly playing on a team of cheaters is a bannable offense.) The goal is to raise the ranking of the legitimate account.

The bridger is the center of power in a cheating set-up. They use a fairly complex method to run the Xbox's Internet connection through a personal computer. On the computer they use stock software including the popular Zone Alarm firewall program to control what computers the Xbox can connect to. By using some tricky methods, bridgers can completely control the hosting of the game. They can determine who can connect, they can lag out especially good players on the opposing team, and, most importantly, they facilitate the "standby" technique.

The standby cheat is simple: Cheaters with cable or DSL modems will push the "standby" button on the modem to force everyone else in the game to be presented with the blue screen of "waiting." During this time, the gamer who initiated the standby can move in the game world freely while all of the other players stand frozen in time. The cheater can blow away a flag holder, for example, return the flag, then press his modem's standby button again, resuming the game.

Standby cheating on its own can cause the cheaters to lag themselves out of a game, which is why groups so often work together. By combining the capabilities of bridging a game and the standby cheat, cheaters are able to better control the connection so that they can standby cheat as much as they want without lagging themselves out. Working in a group can also help cover up other cheats and mods that might otherwise be detectable.

Recognizing these kinds of cheaters is easy, as the videos above illustrate. If your game lags exceptionally during a round, then you may have been targeted by a bridger. If you are constantly presented with the blue screen (more than once in a round is probably not normal network congestion), then somebody may be standby cheating. Gamers should also be on the lookout for players using the words "trusted zone" or "blocked zone" in their GamerTags and in-game IDs. These are references to the settings in Zone Alarm used while bridging.

There are those who argue that bridging is useful for fighting cheaters: If legitimate players bridge a game, then they can automatically boot anyone they find cheating out of a game. However, given Bungie's stance on the practice, it's best for gamers concerned with staying "clean" not to trifle with those kinds of techniques. And with the new features of Xbox Live on the Xbox 360, there is much less need for additional tools to customize and control who you play with in games.

But the flow of cheaters is not likely to slow. There are many places to discover these techniques, including private Halo 2 "schools" that promise to help players gain levels. Of course, there are legitimate tips and techniques to enhance your Halo game, and these are often presented side-by-side with less savory tactics such as bridging and standby-ing. Sites such as Halo-Insider.com are perfect examples of locations where approved techniques and tips mingle with the darker side of Halo gaming.

Of course, why anyone would want to cheat to raise their Halo ranking is beyond us and Bungie and anyone else we've found to ask. The max ranking possible is 50, and many of the best Halo players have rankings in the 20s or 30s, which is very difficult to achieve. Artificially boosting your ranking would lead to mismatches in online games, pitting you against opponents far more capable than you are. Thus, cheaters are often quickly recognized and end up having a hard time when they try to "go legit" with their illicitly attained ranking.

As the capabilities and power of our gaming systems develop, the complexity of fighting off cheaters will continue to grow. The Xbox Live system and Bungie's in-house cheat-fighting tools have managed to keep Halo one of the most popular Xbox Live titles even on the Xbox 360. With luck they will be able to enhance their tools to create even more enjoyable online play experiences.

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