If any class comes charging at you in Guild Wars 2, you’ve got a pretty good chance of knowing what you’re up against. There’s only so many ways to play them, and only so many ways you need to keep in mind to counter what's coming at you. Keep your distance from the melee guys, and close the distance between you and the ranged. Simple. And then the Elementalist comes along and completely ruins all of your preconceptions, because it’s all things to all classes, all the time. It’s overwhelming. Which, coincidentally, is pretty much how it feels to be playing one.
The unpredictability comes from the fact that every single one of the weapon combinations that are available to the Elementalist (staff, sceptre, daggers, focus) don’t have just one set of five abilities that they can use to mess you up in a specific way, like with the Necromancer’s staff AoE, or the Guardian’s CC heavy greatsword. Instead, put a pair of daggers in an Elementalist’s hands and they might be slinging rolling ice spikes at you from a distance, riding lightning bolts at silly speeds right up to you before shutting you down with blinds and stuns, or just dominating the entire area with fire and rock.
Or, if you’re particularly unlucky, all of the above. As with all Guild Wars 2 classes, there’s a fancy mechanic tied to your F keys, but here it’s especially impressive. Fire, Water, Air and Earth are all tied to different keys, letting you change attunement on the fly (with a modest cooldown specific to the one you just switched from) from the more support-heavy Water to the straight damage Fire, or even the slow-and-stun focused Earth. Figure out how to juggle all four attunements and you’re going to be able to be everything to everyone, up there with the damage dealers while keeping everyone alive with heals and shields.
Which makes them sound pretty overpowered. And they feel pretty overpowered, when you look at it as a whole, where everything is available all the time. But it doesn’t feel like that while you’re playing; it’s more like trying to stay on a bucking bronco, attempting to tame chaos while it crackles at your fingertips. You don’t have the presence of mind to know exactly which attunement to use at exactly the right time, because you’re not psychic. Instead you go with the most appropriate for the most part, relegating you to one particular role for each fight. You might switch halfway through the fight, but you rarely see Elementalists using all four attunements during one engagement.
That’s because, even though each element has a clear intention and theme, they’re not necessarily matched to each stage of a fight. While Air does have a lot of mobility skills, it’s also got some good damage abilities too, and even though Water has the most heals, it’s also got a load of slows with anything icy. It’s only when you start to feel like you need to deal more damage, or your team is getting battered up, or you need to cover a retreat that you’ll switch to Fire, Water and Earth, respectively.
The utility abilities, because of these attunements, have interesting variance, with skills like summoning Elementals based on which element you have active, or conjuring up a storm that rains fire, or lightning, or just... rain, depending on whether you’ve got Fire, Air or Water active at that time, mean you’ve got versatility without actually getting bogged down in figuring out which element you need active to do which skill.
It’s tempting to write the Elementalist off as a jack of all trades, too weak in any one area to actually go toe to toe with their respective counterparts, but the truth is the way that they’ve been designed is so that they’re the master of whatever trade they’re currently going for. With the right weapons and the Water attunement, they can heal as well as the healiest Guardian. Fire lets them go up against the likes of the Warrior in terms of burst damage, and Air gives them all the mobility that the Thief prides themselves on. Even Earth, the least obviously useful attunement, has parallels with the Engineer in laying down area control and powerful slows.
The beauty of it is that they can’t ever be more than one of these things at once. The switch from one to another is quick, but it’s a dramatic one, leaving them with an entirely new suite of skills. It makes them invaluable in PvP, and even more impressive when you’re slogging it through a dungeon in PvE, as the instant your team starts to drop in health, your nuke can turn into a healer to keep you on your feet.
What keeps them from being woefully overpowered is a smaller health pool, making them into a glass cannon, albeit one that can belch four different shades of cannon ball. Sticking to the fringes of the fight and laying down as much hurt as you possibly can will keep you alive, and probably more than just you, if you play it right. But if you get focused, and focused hard, you’ll be going down regardless of how much damage you put out. Unless, of course, you can switch to Fire and hammer your Burning Retreat to dive away, leaving a line of fire in your wake. That might save you.