The shaman is the perfect class for the type of D&D player who likes to hang in the back of combat, acting as a support unit for the front line fighters. But at the same time, the shaman’s spirit animal will be right there on the front line itself, dishing out bonuses to allies and ripping up the enemy.
The shaman is a leader with a primal power source. Almost all of the shaman’s powers come from summoning or calling on the power of nature spirits, and the majority of them are based on the spirit animal. You can focus on defense (with a bear-like spirit) or cunning (panther). Your actual spirit animal’s shape doesn’t have to be a bear or a panther – you can use anything as long as you can create a reason for it to fit your character’s background. Beware my spirit wombat!
Especially at earlier levels, it’s hard to get too excited about the shaman. The attack powers do mediocre damage at best, and the buffs are fairly vanilla. Other leader and controller classes provide similar buffs in more interesting ways. I think what bothers me most about the shaman is that you aren’t really doing anything yourself. The shaman just stands there, calls some spirits, then watches while the spirits do all the heavy lifting.
There are two ways shaman powers are focused on the spirit animal: it can make melee attacks, and many of the shaman’s buffs and debuffs affect allies and enemies adjacent to the spirit animal, respectively. Some powers let you teleport the spirit animal around, and it can move when the shaman moves. Beginning at 10th level, a shaman can summon more than one spirit animal at a time.
The shaman does have some of the most powerful pure healing spells in 4E right now. Once you get above 15th level or so, you can restore full hit points, give huge asaving throw bonuses and even bring the entire party back to life from a total party kill (assuming the shaman managed to survive long enough to cast Call the Dead).
If you’re really into the spirit animal thing and like playing a support role, the shaman class is practially tailor made for you. For any other combination of player attributes, though, there are other classes that do it better. A warden makes a better animal based front line fighter, a warlord is a better front line supporter, and druids make the combination of ranged support with melee attacks more fun. Maybe I’m being too harsh – there’s nothing wrong with the shaman, but it just seems too detached to be very enjoyable.