How friendly is Halo 4 to series newcomers?

The Halo universe can be bewildering at times. Like any good sci-fi franchise, it has its own vocabulary--Forerunners, the Flood, the Mantle, Reach. It also a lot of backstory, most of which has been parceled out in licensed books and other material over the years. Is it even possible to get into Halo 4 without knowing about the original games? Should you be playing Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary first? Here's the case for both approaches. The Case for Jumping Right Into Halo 4 Halo 4 follows on almost directly from Halo 3. Four years have passed, but Master Chief awakens right where we left him--aboard the shattered remnants of the Forward Unto Dawn. Cortana is there, too, and so are the Covenant. Beyond that though, Halo 4 makes a decent enough effort at being a stand-alone story with original characters. You don't have to know about the fall of Reach and everything else to know that bad guys are trying to blow up Earth. Halo 4 layers a lot of new lore on top of the existing stuff, but it's not overbearing about it. As with a lot of games these days, the info is tucked away in consoles and bonus videos, which keeps it from being completely overwhelming. Beyond that, the characters of Master Chief and Cortana are appealing on a level that doesn't require a lot of backstory to understand. The story of Master Chief is laid out right in the very first cutscene--he is a genetically engineered super soldier who was created to save humanity from invading aliens. He is for the most part gruff and quiet, but he has a soft spot for his AI companion. That core is enough to carry pretty much any Halo story. Halo 4 is being positioned as the beginning of a new trilogy, so now is as good a time as any to jump in and see whether the franchise is for you. And if you don't like the story, well, you don't need a compelling narrative or a deep understanding of the Forerunners to enjoy Infinity Slayer.

That's one big barrier to entry! Nah, it's not that bad.

The Case Against Jumping Right Into Halo 4 Halo 4 is ostensibly a new story, but don't be fooled--it's new villains draw directly from the franchise's backstory. Around the story's midpoint, there's a long, rather confusing explanation for their motivations. Fans of the series will probably nod and say, "Oh, that makes sense." Non-fans will be left scratching their heads. No doubt about it, Halo is an insular franchise. For all of its popularity among frat boys and the so-called "every gamer," it has an extremely dedicated fan base who are fiercely protective of the game's lore and characters. That goes for 343 Industries, who are clearly enamored with the series and its history. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it does create a barrier for entry. The franchise's insularity extends to the multiplayer, which has become something of a cult over the years. Many Halo fans have been playing since the very beginning, and the learning curve can be really steep. Halo has always had a first-rate matchmaking service, which eases some of the difficulty early on, but it's not the easiest community in the world to dive into. Be ready to die a lot. Halo 4 does its best to ease newcomers into its new trilogy, but the fact of the matter is that it's made by Halo fans for Halo fans. It's steeped in the franchise's established lore; and while enjoyment of the story isn't contingent on understanding the universe, it certainly helps. Luckily, being an established franchise, there are plenty of ways to put the story in context. Halo: CE Anniversary--the first and arguably the best Halo game--can be found for less than $30 on some websites. Within Halo 4 itself, there are terminals that offer a recap of what's come before (but you have to look for them). To be sure, Halo is an investment. The campaign is tough, the lore is dense, and the fans are almost cult-like in their fanaticism. But what it lacks in accessibility, it makes for in sheer depth. Newcomer or not, it is a franchise that is certainly worth your time and attention.
Be sure to check out Kat's review of Halo 4.