So, this blog's first informed review of 4th Edition is going to be purely about presentation and aesthetic. The books themselves feel as chunky as the 3rd Edition core rules, with very nice matte covers incorporating pleasing spot varnish effects, and all of them are hefty tomes packed with good stuff. Page counts are pretty meaningless without seeing the content for yourself, but I never shy away from stating the meaningless (just ask anyone who's every talked to me), so the PHB runs to 300+ pages, the DMG to 220+ pages, and the MM to 280+. Your first impression, as you lug the combined weight of core 4th Edition away from your favourite retailer, is that you get your money's worth. With many places offering them at under 20 quid each, you can't really go wrong. That's amazing value for what could turn out to be thousands of hours of entertainment.
When it comes to the interiors, the first thing to hit me about them was how white they were, as opposed to 3rd's very pleasing textured page backgrounds, which I felt added a lot to the overall feel of the books. 4th is much more clinical, with lots of bold colours, larger text, a highly regimented, reference-like layout, and an obvious eye to making its information as easy as possible to look up during a game. This is a laudible goal, and probably an improvement over 3rd, but I can't help but miss the sheer impact and style of the 3rd Edition books. It might have become staid by the end of 3rd Edition's shelf-life, but it blew me away to begin with.
The artwork runs the normal gamut from gorgeous and evocative all the way down to the mostly bland but still well-drawn. We all have our favourite artists (Michael Komarck being mine... just look at the Monster Manual's 'Monsters A-Z' splash), and there's certainly a wealth of different styles to choose from here. In 3rd, the core art had a unified feel, with all of its sepia undertones and meticulous detail, and while it was superb technically, it was ultimately unstimulating when it came to the game. In 4th, there's almost always something to flash-inspire an adventure hook or a character concept, and I can't help but think they've nailed the artwork about 85-90% of the time. You can check out a lot of it for yourself at the Wizards of the Coast web-site.
On the flip side, the art is very rarely integrated into the text, and there are a lot of rectangular pieces just stamped unceremoniously down on the page. This is a pity, as I like the art to flow naturally with the text (again, 3rd Edition, I'm looking at you), and in 4th it sometimes just feels tacked on. There are exceptions, as you'd expect: the piece alongside the Skill Challenge chapter, of a Duke receiving whispered advice from his shifty-looking advisor is a bona-fide classic (and was part of Wizards 4th preview on Skill Challenges here), even if, as a friend of mine pointed out, the guy in the background looks a little too much like Eddie Izzard. The various splashes adorning the chapter headings across the series are also brilliant.
Overall? I prefer 3rd Edition's overall look to 4th's, but I have the feeling that in the long term the improved readability of the new layout and design means I'll get over it. 7/10