Surprising, and sure to upset more then a few with it's great re-wroughting of the Realms. Personally I find it a blast and a lot of fun. I am sure this is one of those extremely subjective things. Moving on, I don't intend to use the Realms as my setting right now, however I found plenty of material to use in my existing setting and for that reason I recommend it to people who are also using their own setting. At this stage of 4e evolution even seeing how the various encounters are put together is interesting.
ARTWORK, LAYOUT AND TYPESETTING
This product is in line with the the production values of the Core Books. There are pleasing icons and symbols of the Gods and various groups in the Realms in the right places. The Maps on the otherhand just don't look that great on my screen, compared to those in the DMG. My feeling is that this is simply due to white text with black outlines instead of black text with white outlines. I also prefer the hand drawn feel of Nentir Vale over the 'computer-aided' feel of the FR maps, (even though they were both surely designed on computer :-)
Typesetting is again just a little below the polish of the CB's in my opinion. Still very good, and it should be noted that I come from a print background and have ingrained quirks and ideas about what makes good typography.
One minor note, the cover you see here on RPG of what looks to be Drizzt, is not the cover on the product I received. The actual cover is a very fine replacment IMHO.
FRCG uses a larger pool of artists then the CB's and some did not appeal to me, although it's all very professional. Then again I fondly remember the line art of the 1st Ed AD&D PHB. hehe. A standout is definitely the chapter intro artwork. Each of these pieces is really outstanding in my opinion.
FRCG contains seven chapters. I'll provide a little detail on a few that I particularly enjoyed. Overall my feeling is that each chapter is a decent introduction to it's topic for the FR setting. No chapter goes into any sort of intricate detail and I believe this is actually the strength of the product at this time.
Despite the brief treatment given to many parts of the Realms, I do applaude the writers who appear to have sweat blood and tears into squeezing every last drop of their beloved settings flavour into each paragraph. It is a joy to read and for my devious DM mind, supplies hooks and ideas to develop on literally every page.
I couldn't help feeling that 'just a little more' on several areas would have been nice, but then the book approaches 300 pages, and in order for it to be a decent and useful standalone guide to the Realms, it has to provide at least a little information on everything.
If any Chapter had to go, as much as I enjoyed reading it I would say Chapter One may have best been offered as an official PDF supplement.
Chapter ONE is devoted to laying out the town of Loudwater, and is essentially both a small module and starting point for an FR campaign. I thought this was a good idea and a good way of showing off the 'flavour' of the Realms, for those who may be new to it. A number of encounters are provided, becoming less detailed as the chapter goes on.
Chapter TWO provides a very light treatment on Adventuring in FR, with pages on Travelling, History, Treasures and a small glossary. Just enough to whet the readers appetite, and I would have enjoyed much more. I suspect this is a page constraint issue as much as a design choice.
Chapters THREE and FOUR cover Magic and Cosmology, and these are certainly areas where you will find the massive changes required to make the Realms function under 4e, including the decidedly bizarre explanation of why the Feywild, Shadowfell and new races are present. Again I found this explanation enjoyable and the details interesting reading.
Chapter FIVE deals with Gods and although there are still many, I was pleased to see the mind-numbing plethora of the previous FR gone. YMMV... at least "Umberlee the Bitch Queen" remains, who I am fairly certain is modelled on my real life girl friend.
Chapter SIX is the meat of the book, and contains varying amounts of information on about 50 major locations in the Realms. Waterdeep has about 8 pages devoted for example whilst Baldurs Gate has two. Smaller maps are spread throughout to illustrate each region. Most are old favourite haunts, and it is fun to read how they have changed in 100 years. Others detail some of the very new locations that have been torn from Abeir. As a long time DM the content here suits my style, which includes a lot of filling in the gaps with my own ideas. For those who want the intricate details I suspect you will be left wanting more til the appropriate supplement appears.
Chapter SEVEN covers Threats. From a DM's point of view this is probably the most valuable chapter. Some old foes remain - The Church of Bane, The Drow and The Cult of the Dragon for example. You'll also find some new groups like The Order of the Blue Fire, who I would personally use in my Realms campaign in a second, and are an example of a deep and interesting organisation.
There are some DC settings based on various skills to grant the players knowledge of particular groups, and although I wouldn't use them in that way they make nice snippets of information to hand out to your Players.
The back of the book contains 8pgs that make up one big map of Faerun. This is always one of the things that is a little bit of a letdown for PDF products. The text is not vector and sitting on top of the art and the idea of printing the thing and stitching it together doesn't work for me which is why I always end up buying the print version of books like this as well. Perhaps WOTC will make a nice electronic version of the Realms map available online, or we can convince GoogleMaps to do one. ;-)
Well I hope this is of some use to people, as it just ate my lunch break.
Happy gaming to all