So how is it? Well, it's a) pretty good in general and b) it has a very old-school take on the classes it contains. This is a very long post but I've found that with 4th edition a lot of the differences crop up in minor details so it's worth spending some time digging in to really understand what is new and how it compares to previous material. Consider yourself warned...
The book starts out with 30 pages of the rules of the game. It's probably enough to give someone an idea of what's going on but it's not a full set of the rules. (I do think a boxed set with this book and an adventure module would be better than the red box we got though. Make it a special training adventure and reference back to the page numbers in the HotFL book and you could really help someone learn how to play). It's good enough to get started, especially if you have an experienced player teaching them too.
Then there are 25 pages on character creation - ability scores, alignment, level advancement - the general part of how characters work.
Following this are 13 pages (wiith good examples) of how powers work and what the descriptions and terms mean. This almost seems like a waste of space at first glance but since so much of the game is presented in terms of a "power" I think it is important to make sure anyone trying to play the game has a solid introduction and reference to the concept and the presentation. This is the best breakdown yet of these things and it's a good move.
Next is the meat of the book: 170 pages of character classes, builds, powers, paragon paths, and epic destinies. Now overall compared to a PHB the selection here is limited. We get 5 new builds for existing classes, 1 built-in Paragon Path for each build, and 1 Epic Destiny that is usable by all classes. PHB's in the past have had from 12-16 builds of new and existing classes plus 4 or more paragon paths for each class (plus racial paragon paths) plus 4 or more epic destinies. So volume-wise it's not impressive. Quality-wise it's very good because each one is very old-school (as in AD&D-style) in its approach. Let's look at them class by class:
Cleric - the single build included is the Warpriest and it remains a divine leader class and build. In 4E terms it's roughly similar to the Battle Cleric build in the PHB 1 but it has some important differences. Now the problem with the PHB 1 cleric was that strength was the key stat for melee attacks, wisdom powered ranged attacks, and charisma was a kicker stat for many powers - trying to keep 3 stats up to a decent level is very difficult so it was almost impossible to make a general old-school cleric that could fight in hand-to-hand and throw nasty spells and heal his companions well. Most people specialized, and since there were plenty of melee characters much better at bashing heads than a cleric they specialized in ranged radiant damage and healing - thus the term "laser cleric". It appears that the goal of this new cleric build is to make the generalist old-school cleric a) possible and b) reasonable by not making it a sucktastic spread-too-thin choice. It does this by making all of the warpriest powers (if they are an attack) wisdom vs.something. No more strength, no more charisma - it's already more effective than the battle cleric could be. It's the most single stat focused build I've seen other than the Wizard so slap down that 20 wisdom and go nuts!
The warpriest adds another level of customization by adding Domains. Now domains go all the way back to 2E as a cleric feature. Back then they mainly affected what spells you could choose. In 3E they determined what bonus spells you could choose at each level. This is a new version for 4E and they determine your initial at-will powers, some of your encounter powers, and some daily powers, as well as granting some class features at certain levels. The storm domain looks very flavorful with a lot of melee, close burst and close blast powers - it's basically what you would expect of a cleric of Thor: up front smacking down orcs and blasting them with lightning and thunder. The sun domain is mostly radiant damage melee attacks with a secondary healing or defensive effect - use a healing surge, take another saving throw, gain some temp hit points - but it also has a fair number of blinding effects at the mid to high levels too. I think both builds look solid, fun, and flavorful so what more could you ask? More domains of course! I'm betting we see those through the online DDI stuff or an expansion book down the road. Mechanically both builds rely on Wisdom for attacks with Con showing up as a kicker for heals and some other utility powers. I expect to see a lot of Dwarf Warpriests in the near future.
The old school feel continues with the other class powers and features too: Level 1 Channel Divinity power = Smite Undead; Level 2 utility powers - Bless, Cure Light Wounds (among others); Lvl 6 utility power Cure Serious Wounds (among others); Level 8 utility power Resurrection; Lvl 16 utility power: Cure Critical Wounds (among others); Lvl 22 utility power: Heal (1 other choice). Some of these were in the PHB 1, but combined with the other traits of these classes you can replicate many of the powers of an old-school cleric in 4E AND not suck while doing it - it's a triumph of design and intent over rigorous adherence to system rules and I am very impressed.
Fighter - for fighters we get two builds, the Knight and the Slayer.The knight is another defender but for the first time in 4E the Slayer is a Fighter build that's labeled a striker - odd, but let's see how they work.
Knight - Starts with the usual defender numbers and weapons but also starts with plate proficiency - nice. This is mainly a sword and board fighter - two-handers should look at the slayer. In a change from other fighters though they do not mark. Instead they have an aura (radius 1) that inflicts a -2 to hit on all enemy attacks that don't include the knight. That's actually nice because it affects multiple targets - you're not tagging them one at a time. The knight also gets another power - whenever an enemy in the aura shifts or makes an attack not targeting the knight then you can melee basic vs the enemy and even on a miss they take your strength mod in damage - however it's an opportunity action, not an interrupt . So this has much of the capability of a regular fighter mark but it works out differently in practice.The knight is not going to be quite as good at locking down movement (he doesn't stop movement like a fighter's combat superiority power) but he is better at punishing an enemy for violating his aura via the miss effect on his battle guardian power. It's an interesting difference but not a clearly better or worse option than what other fighter builds have.
The other big change with the knight is that they do not have daily powers. Daily powers for martial characters is something that bothered me when I first read 4E and while I've mostly made my peace with it I can see it being an issue for some people. This build eliminates that issue. This fighter has a selection of "stances" (starts with 2 gets more as they level up) which is basically a defensive or offensive posture - bonus to damage, bonus to hit, move self, move enemy etc - and combines this with their melee basic attacks and encounter powers to decide how they want to fight this round. Most of the powers gained as you level up boost your to-hit bonus or your damage bonus while a few give you a bonus to movement or defenses. There isn't a lot of flash here- it's all about hitting and doing damage and occasionally doing something else, which is very much the fighter from Basic, 1E, and 2E and even some in 3E. In short it's the old-school fighter in almost every way which should make a lot of people very happy. The only really important stat is strength. Con shows up in a few places but that's it.
Slayer - This is an odd animal at first glance - it's tagged as a striker, but it has defender hit points and surges and has scale armor proficiency, so it looks more like a PHB 1 fighter up front. It is aimed at two-hander (or great weapon) fighters and focuses on the greataxe or the two-handed sword. It also eschews dailies and traditional at-wills for stances + melee basic attacks. Most of the stances are based on boosting to-hit, damage, or movement. Most of the powers of the class are focused on damage boosts but there are a surprising number of mobility boosts, saving throw bonuses, and even a couple of heals in there, including an ally heal at level 6! It's a very focused class - do more damage and do it a lot - but it has some nice little wrinkles like that which should make it fun to play. Strength is again the main stat with Dex showing up as an important kicker stat in some powers so it's worth pumping up too, probably over Con. .
Thief - The thief is a rogue build that is again a martial striker. This one is much like the fighter builds in that it skips at-wills and dailies for "tricks" that combine with melee basic attacks to give you options. The tricks allow the thief extra movement, extra damage, combat advantage, free stealth checks, and some status effect options. They are more versatile than the fighter stances and there are more of them. There are two important class features beyond this though: 1) They start wih weapon finesse which lets them use Dex instead of Str for melee attacks. (that's a bonus to attacks and damage BTW) and they have the backstab power which is +2d6 at 1-10, 3d6 at 11-20, and 5d6 at 21-30. It's once per encounter at lvl 1 but goes to twice per encounter at 3rd, 3 per encounter at 11th, and 4 at 13th - that's pretty nasty. The only restrictions are that it's only with certain weapons (light blades, shortbow, hand crossbow, or sling) and they must be granting combat advantage but that isn't difficult to set up with the various tricks. The higher level powers include a lot of movement and shifting, some defensive boosts and that's really it - it's going to be a very mobile character that can set up conditions fairly easily that let it absolutely rip an enemy apart in a few strokes. The primary stat here is Dex Dex Dex. Charisma shows up in a few places but your other stats will really be dictated by what skills you want to excel at - you get a decent selection of them so let that be a guide. It's another very stat-friendly build.
Wizard - the wizard build here is the mage: an Arcane Controller that follows the traditional 4E power structure of at-wills, encounters, and dailies. Out of all the classes in this book this one is the closest to its existing companion builds - they get the spellbook feature (covered better here but really not different) the same cantrips as the PHB wizard, and they all start with the revised auto-hit magic missile which is nice old-school flavoring. The only new wrinkle here is the "school" feature so let's look at that.
Each mage picks a school at first level : Enchantment, Evocation, or Illusion. This is somewhat similar to 2E or 3E specialty mages and how they did things but it has more mechanical impact since spells are handled differently now. The school choice determines your other at-wills (you get three with this class build - magic missile and the two from your school). Evocation is ranged elemental damage of various types, Enchantment is a lot of psychic damage and your target hits someone close by, and illusion is a lot of psychic damage plus some secondary status effect. They are almost all ranged/close blast/area burst and all are Int vs. some non-AC defense. Most of the evocation spells are "creature" and not "enemy" targeting but the enchantment and illusion spells tend to be more selective. Primary stat is still Int Int Int. One nice wrinkle here is that mages do get some skill boosts by school at certain levels which helps broaden their talents. There's nothing revolutionary here compared to existing wizards, but if you want to play a blasting mage this is a good way to go, and if you want to specialize in enchantments and illusions there's a lot to be said for taking this path. New schools have already started appearing on DDI according to reports and it will be interesting to see what else they add.
After classes there is the lone epic destiny included in this book. It's solid but not flashy. I think it fits the fighter types and maybe clerics better than other classes. Considering it includes yet another stat boost, a 20 hit point boost and a +1 to fort, reflex, and will it definitely will make a character tougher, but it's not very flavorful for wizards and maybe even the thief.
The last big change in the book is the race section. This is 30 pages on Dwarf, Elf, Eladran, Halfling and Human and the change is that now instead of a fixed +2 to two stats for the non-human races it's a fixed +2 to one stat and a +2 to one of two other stats. Dwarves used to be +2 Con, +2 Wis. now they are +2 Con and a +2 to either Wis or Str. I'm fine with this change as it eliminates almost all need for subraces and gives a player more options while retaining the main flavor of a race. Humans are still a +2 to any one stat but lose the bonus at-will and gain a new encounter power: A retroactive +4 to an attack or saving throw. It's nice but I like the bonus at-will better for most characters. There's more background on the races and it's a better presentation to a new player so this section is a "good" almost all the way around.
The skill section is 16 pages and includes more examples and revised target numbers for a lot of things. It's an improvement over the PHB 1.
The Feats take up about 15 pages and have dropped the whole heroic/paragon/epic restriction and now just scale with tier or level . This is a much more efficient way to present them and one I heartily approve of. There are some nifty new feats too so most players should be quite happy with the options here.
The equipment section is much smaller. It includes the basic gear. weapons and armor from the PHB 1 minus superior weapons and any of the new stuff from the Adventurer's Vault. Not a huge issue. The magic item section is pathetic though, and if you thought the PHB1 had a limited selection, well, this is much much smaller, really a token effort that looks more like a "we had to have it" placeholder than a real usable selection of items. There is another magic item book coming so I assume that's where the bulk of it will be found.
Then a glossary and in index wrap the book up
So what do I like about the book overall? I like the old-school flavored class builds and I like the lower price point - those are both good moves.
Would I recommend it to a new player? Well, if they were just getitng into it and had no one to play with who already knew the game then it's really a toss-up between this and the PHB 1 - the PHB 1 gives you more classes and races and a more detailed breakdown of the rules. If you are joining an established group then this book is pretty good and is probably the way to go.
What do I not like - not much. The magic item section is weak. I am not a huge fan of the change to the human racial power but that's a small complaint. The 5 class builds and 5 races in this volume do seem very limiting compared to the 16 class builds and 8 races in the PHB 1 but it is a cheaper book.
Overall this isn't quite the home run that the Rules Compendium is but it's very good and has a strong dose of traditional D&D flavor without some of the rules artifacts and "weird" races that bothered people when 4E first came out. Call it 4 stars for this vs. 5 for the Compendium if you need a numerical rating. It's a very strong effort, I consider it a "win" and I am looking forward to the next book in the line to see what they do with the other classes.