It's important for any reviewer to do the following:
1) Get the game on the table and play
2) Remember that any game, no matter the system, is only as good as its players and DM
3) Speaking to D&D specifically: Remember that 1st edition players hated 2nd edition and 2nd edition players thought 3rd edition's skill system killed roleplaying.
I'm an old school, Fighting Man, white box gamer from 1978 and have seen the industry wax and wane over the decades. In many ways, I felt the same way about v3.0 back in 2000 as I did about my first look at 4th. A friend brought a copy of the 3rd ed Player's Handbook to a LARP I was running back in the day. I took one flip through and handed it back scoffing, "This isn't D&D."
Then I got 3.0 on the table and I was hooked. So many problems fixed--logical stat bonuses, a skills system that worked, classes balanced against each other, the Death of THACO and don't get me started on the art (Todd Lockwood is my hero). After a few games I realized 3.0 had its own problems; Rangers, Bards, Monks, and Paladins were less interesting than I'd hoped, and Clerics were outrageous powerhouses. There were so many issues, actually, that only 3 years later, v3.5 was released (to much grumbling from the net trolls of the day).
I blustered at 4th edition for a lot of reasons, many of the same reasons people in other reviews point out even. Yet after reading through the core rules several times and getting the game on the table, I'm finding myself in a similar position as I was with v3.*. I'm coming to love it. My opinion on the complaint that "now it's a miniatures game" is: D&D was born from a mini's game, and what made it into a roleplaying game was imagination.
What at first appear as limited combat options, aren't. Where a fighter's options were limited to "swing your weapon (read: Longsword) or come up with something random and have the DM make a rule", they now make balanced and effective combatants and defenders. Combats are more dramatic and suspenseful, with teamwork being the main focus of any encounter. For example, Save or Die/Save or Turn to Stone situations have been replaced by suspense-building mechanics that involve the rest of your party.
Non-combat in any game is about roleplaying--put the dice aside for a while and focus on the story. Non-combat is about heavy RP punctuated by the occasional die roll. Combat is about tactics and dice rolling punctuated by the occasional description of how you did what you did. Balancing deep, meaningful roleplaying with fast-paced dramatic teamwork-filled combats is what DnD (or I should say D&D) has always been about.
Clearly and unarguably, 4th and 3rd are as different as 3rd and 2nd. (At the time people believed 1st and 2nd were worlds apart, but with hindsight we can see 2nd is more like v1.5 than not.) What 3rd did was fix 2nd editions problems by revamping the game from the ground up. 4th has done the same.
There are a lot of things I wish they had done differently, like add more flavor text and history to monsters, races, and classes, as well as giving us original artwork instead of recycling pieces we'd seen for eight years. Putting in a comprehensive index is also a must. Non-combat racial and class abilities would have been welcome. I also wish they had put more emphasis on the idea that just because a power is described a certain way doesn't mean that's how YOUR character does it. Growing up on games like Champions trained me to tweak special effects like a pro, but new players may not understand that.
Many of the complaints I've read come from not getting the game on the table (believe it or not, people have bagged on it without playing it), playing with an unenthusiastic DM or from not understanding how the designers adapted previous rules to the new system. For example, "where are my out-of-combat spells, like Comprehend Languages?" is answered by the new ritual and scroll mechanic. I encourage anyone to playtest the game with someone who has read the rules well, not so the rules are followed to the letter, but so that everyone knows what really works and what still needs houseruling skills to make your own.
Originally posted on Amazon.com in September, 2008
Edited for reposting.
Edited for reposting.
Addendum: Blog on the skill challenges mechanic so often ridiculed by 3rd edition players: In Defense of Skill Challenges