Determined modder gets 'Halo 2' running at 720p on the original Xbox — after tweaks to the console hardware, kernel, and game

Official screenshot of the Halo 2 HD project from its GitHub page. Technically 1080i is also supported, but not considered playable.
Official screenshot of the Halo 2 HD project from its GitHub page. Technically 1080i is also supported, but not considered playable. (Image credit: grimdoomer on GitHub)

Ever wanted to see an original Xbox run Halo 2 at HD resolutions — or at least a non-distorted widescreen image at 480p? Hardware and game modder Ryan Miceli, aka grimdoomer on GitHub, has made the dream of Halo 2 in HD on Xbox a reality, though you'll need to make some modifications. Miceli has listed the project on GitHub and described it in depth on his blog.

This doesn't run at 720p on the original Xbox as you may have bought it years ago. That requires getting into the system's guts. Fortunately, the mod and a number of its fixes — including disabling anamorphic scaling that distorts a 480p widescreen image in the original game — should still work fine on the original Xbox hardware.

Miceli lists the following features in his mod:

  • Support for 480p (proper), 720p, and 1080i (1080p) resolutions.
  • Triple buffering support to increase FPS performance.
  • Utilizes extra RAM if you have 128MB RAM upgrade.
  • GPU overclocking for performance improvements.
  • Increased HDD transfer speed for faster load times.
  • Customizable field of view.
  • Customizable split screen divider (horizontal or vertical).

While it's possible to achieve significantly better graphics on unmodified console hardware than it ever achieved in its lifespan, Halo 2 was already pushing the limits of Xbox when it was released. 

To achieve the actual boost to playable 720p or even 1080i at low framerates, Ryan Miceli consulted a friend called "doom" known for upgrading original Xboxes into "god boxes" with amped-up specs and custom kernels to allow higher performance.

Before starting the Halo 2 HD project at the request of his friend in modding, Ryan insisted that the existing god box, which swapped the stock 733 MHz Pentium 3 for a 1.4 GHz GHz Pentium 3, be modified to overclock the GPU. While the CPU upgrade (achieved with a custom interposer board) would indeed provide more horsepower and could even be OC'd to 2 GHz, this wouldn't matter if GPU bottlenecks were too severe.

That's when Miceli got to work his magic. (You should absolutely give his blog a read for the full, code-filled details.) The project included making changes to Halo 2's rendering engine, to get the game running at true 480p, making adjustments to memory usage for the RAM shared between the CPU and GPU, resizing the game's rasterizer targets, and even developing a custom tool to see how the game was using RAM. The work was heavy in memory adjustments, including work on the Xbox kernel. That's all before overclocking the GPU and further adjusting memory and cache.

What you need to run the project is a bit different from the original god box. Miceli notes that a CPU upgrade isn't necessary, "nor does it provide any benefits over a non-CPU upgraded console."  To run the game at 720p, you'll need the 128MB RAM upgrade. A GPU overclock can be performed through the configurations file (though you'll want to replace the thermal paste and put a fan on the heatsink if you do). If you want the faster HDD transfer speeds the mod provides, you'll need to use an 80-pin IDE cable.

"There’s still room for improvement with a lot of the performance and memory changes I made," Miceli wrote. "But overall I feel this HD patch has pushed Halo 2 and the Xbox console to their limits and I’m satisfied with the results without trying to go any further."

Even users of a regular old hacked Xbox should be able to enjoy a slightly better Halo 2 experience with the HD project. Fixes to widescreen scaling at 480p, FOV sliders, customizable split screen, and even triple buffering support are all pretty much straight upgrades to the experience, even without hardware upgrades.

Freelance News Writer