One of my favorite things regarding the entirety of D&D, since I began playing, has been the cosmological aspect of it. The Great Wheel, in particular, was one of my favorite concepts--the simple idea that there was a verisimilitude within the cosmos, between the various Heavens and Hells out there. Fittingly, one of my favorite campaign settings has been Planescape, with its wacky, Victorian philosophical factions, its plane-hopping nature, and the omnipresent city of Sigil looming overhead.
When 4e came out, I was slightly perturbed that The Great Wheel, a D&D institution since First Edition, went the way of the dodo. In fact, I asked Mike Mearls about this change, last year at Origins, just after 4e's release. While he was not able to give me a whole lot of solace in this regard, I kept an optimistic outlook regarding the new cosmology, and was looking forward to this release greatly.
One of the reasons for my optimism was newness. The Feywild, The Shadowfell, the Elemental Chaos...all of these seemed to reek of the old Modernist adage, "Make it new!" Unfortunately, upon my reading, this seems not to be the case.
Manual of the Planes, in format, is a typical 160 page, full-color, hardcover release from Wizards of the Coast, with all the high quality that comes with it. WotC is the gold standard for book design in the RPG world, and has been since 3e, and nothing has changed here. I could even overlook the reused 3eartwork, if not for a few major sections...
My geek senses kicked off in this regard as I read (ironically enough) the section on Sigil. As I read, I could have sworn that I had read the section before, despite the fact that this was the first read through of 4e's Manual of the Planes that I had done. Then I realized it!
the text for Sigil, as well as the City of Brass and several other locations, was taken nearly word for word from 3e's Manual of the Planes and the Planar Handbook
To say the least, I was chagrined. I was promised newness, and this was borderline plagarism. Entire sections of text were copy-pasted, with changes only made to eliminate 3e mechanics. For example, text was copy-pasted on the City of Brass's architecture, but the 4e version is shorter only due to the Planar Handbook's mention of "Continual flame spells"--something that no longer exists in 4e.
Lazy writing aside, I was further surprised by the utterly laziness in design decisions on the creators' choices. The Elemental Chaos was promised to be a "more accessible" elemental plane system, but the only three locations presented therein are ZerthAd'Lun (a githyanki city), the aforementioned City of Brass, and a few Abyssal layers--all of which had seen extensive treatment in prior books, both 3e and 4e. Nothing new.
While I was pleased with the creativity showing in the Feywild section--based around pseudo-Celtic fey courts and the 4 seasons--this pleasure swiftly dimmed in my reading of the following section on the Shadowfell. If you know me at all, you know my games tend towards darker themes (Ravenloft, anyone?), so the idea of the Shadowfell had peaked my interest. However, despite the fact that its chapter is a full page longer than that of the Feywild (16 pages, compared to 15), it includes only 1 locale, and few other stats. Oh, and the Dread Emperor gets a full page...that wonderful throwback to the decidedly mediocre Book of Vile Darkness. Yeech.
There were bright spots in this book, primarily in the new material. The "domain of night", Tytherion, was an intreguing addition, and the inclusion of various fey demesenes were a plus. By and large, though, these areas were hit or miss. Shom, a blinding desert wasteland, is included, but few details are given save that it was once the home of the illumian empire. Were illumians really so popular that they needed a one-page entry? Somehow I doubt it. It would have been nice to see that page, and other wasted space, go towards giving Far Realm (a fan, and personal, favorite) a better treatment--it currently gets 3/4 of a page, with a sidebar on Mak Thuum Ngatha--or, for that matter, a section on Dreamspace or more information on spelljammers, which only get touched on.
Players get a wee bit of material at the end of the book, with a handful of paragon paths based on the planes. However, this chapter feels tacked on, and really brings little to the party in terms of creativity. It feels as if the designers each picked a core class and a plane, then cobbled together a paragon path to combine them. And the Doomguard reference in the fighter entry? It might have been nice had factions actually been discussed in any length in this book, but such was not the case.
All in all, Manual of the Planes is a decidedly mediocre book, made worse by recycled material, a lack of focus, and a dearth of usable campaign hooks and the like. While the Feywild section was strong, it's the lone real jewel in a sea of muddy water. I still love the mechanics of 4e, but right now, the 'fluff' of the system has yet to sell me.