It's kind of a precarious situation to discuss things like this. On the one hand I'm sensitive to the idea of spoiling content for people who want to experience it firsthand, and on the other I am also sensitive to the demands of those who want to know what's coming. The easiest way to deal with it is to load up on spoiler warnings (and in this case, not much I talk about in this column will be a spoiler, it's all things that have been revealed in other places) and to post behind the jump, which for the most part will be the tactics employed here.
First, however, let me say this much: I have seen my character, a shaman with Kara/T4 quality mail, take a large jump in his DPS. His attack power is up by an easy 300 points. If you are a shaman who has collecting what we used to call 'hunter mail' you will see a serious reward for equipping it in Northrend. The chestplate in the screenshot is what I'm wearing now: on live it grants 88 AP. On test, it's granting 156 AP, since I have the talent that converts int to AP. Clearly (and yes, I'm aware it's an unfair comparison, as that quest reward is leather) you're not going to be dumping your epics for the first quest rewards you come across.
However, you may well be switching gear as soon as you hit Utgarde Keep. The following gloves dropped while I was running it this morning, and I immediately upgraded from my now somewhat lackluster T4 gloves. The screenshot probably explains it better than I can. Obviously, they're not the Gauntletss of Rapidity, but they're solid for the first instance you'll run in Northrend. (Actually, looking over them, they grant 128 attack power while the Gauntlets of Rapidity grant 131 and a socket, so these are very close.) Quest greens may not be your immediate upgrades, but instance blues are solid for anyone in Kara level gear right off the bat.
The bad news for enhancement shamans? Well, if you've done what makes sense and collected either high strength mail or leather with strength on it, you're in for a DPS decrease. I traded in my Merciless Gladiator's Linked Helm for the Helm of Desolation due to the way the new itemization works. Rather than getting 72 AP from the epic, I now only get 37 AP from the strength on it, while I get 91 AP from the blue helm. Even with the crit dip, the blue simply outperforms the epic for a shaman in the new order of things.
At level 70, I don't have access to Lava Burst yet, so my Maelstrom Weapon build mainly relies on Chain Lightning. I haven't been able to tell for sure if using an instant cast CL resets my swing timer, as others have reported, but if it does the benefit of an instant cast CL directly after an Improved Stormstrike offset the loss. Enhancement, as the talent build I've been exploring so far (tonight I will attempt to heal an Utgarde Keep run) seems to be moving into a true hybrid feel, using both physical DPS and magic DPS in its rotation in a far more intricate way than simply using shocks. Maelstrom Weapon seems designed to reward shamans for sticking to mail with int on it, as you're going to be casting a lot more spells and will want the mana pool to sustain it. I didn't notice an enormous drop in mana efficiency, either: while the instant chain lightnings cost their full mana cost (they don't get the benefit of Mental Quickness in that regard) you're still saving a lot of mana on shocks with Shamanistic Focus and can use Water Shield to ensure that your regen stays up. Improved Shields is also nice for this purpose.
There's plenty of spell power mail from quests so far, if you're interested in either elemental or restoration (I'll be doing restoration tonight and hoping to do elemental over the weekend) - while we already have an 'Ask a Beta Tester" feature, if you have a specifically shaman related question you would like me to test out, I'll do it to the best of my ability. My orc shaman hasn't transfered yet for some reason, but once he does I'll have access to more options gear wise (as he has the better resto and elemental sets of my two shammies). From my admittedly limited experience with elemental so far in beta, it hasn't really lost any damage: the elemental shaman I ran around Borean Tundra with actually had great synergy with me, as his Elemental Oath actually worked really nice synergy with my Maelstrom-cast CL's. I kind of felt like while elemental hasn't backslid that it doesn't get the same kind of benefit for running with my enhancement shaman that he got for the inverse. I did drop Flametongue Totem for him, as he had Totem of Wrath down (and that also benefited me more now) - the way things seem, as I do both melee and spell damage in combat I get benefit from anything that buffs either of those, but as most of my buffs are towards melee rather than caster I'm not of much use to our caster brothers. One thing we talked about doing but forgot to do was to drop two Wrath of Air totems to see if the haste effects stack, which would at least be another way enhancement could give back to elemental or restoration shamans now that totems are raid wide.
Furthermore, while enhancement feels like it's undergoing a bit of a paradigm shift, more fully incorporating the magical side of the class into its melee heritage, I'm not really seeing so clear a direction shift for elemental shamans. To a degree that could be a relief... if you're elemental because you like standing back and slinging spells, then you won't have to worry that you'll suddenly be expected to tank or do melee DPS... but I also find it a bit disappointing for them that none of their high end talents really feel as awesome as Feral Spirit or Ancestral Awakening. I could be wrong, though, and even if my orc doesn't make it over soon I will be testing elemental and restoration to determine if my impressions are off base. One thing that seems nice is that my draenei now has a very solid set for either spec, due to the unified Spell Power changes. Spell Power definitely feels hybrid friendly, as does the change to Hit so that it works for melee or spells.
In general, my feelings are positive. The starter quests give you good options for either caster, healer or melee so if you're an undergeared shaman heading to Northrend you should gear up fairly quickly. The lore is sound and fun, and even ties into shamanism pretty heavily for both Horde (of course) and Alliance (I'm as shocked as you are!) and the questlines are not at all hard to do, but they're not simple to the point of ridiculousness either. I got to use Water Breathing heavily to fight sharks, saw into the spirit world, and killed a whole lot of big, ugly, giant vikings. At no time did I feel underpowered or outmatched, but at the same time nothing was cake, which can be a difficult balancing act for a newbie zone in an expansion (what a level 70 shaman in epics can do, a level 69 shaman in quest greens isn't capable of, so balance needs to be maintained).
I'm positive about where shamans are going here. There's a good balance in enhancement right now, and I'm hopeful for elemental getting more utility deep in the tree: restoration looks rock solid and I'll know more tonight when I start healing in earnest. Well, in Utgarde Keep, I don't want an instance inside Earnest, that would be creepy. Please let me know anything you'd like me to test within the limits of what's been implemented yet (no raids, sadly) and I'll try and do so.
Next week, back to Azeroth: we talk about gearing for T5 content. Not specifically what you should be wearing, but why you should be wearing it.