Posted Wed, Mar 27, 2013 by gunky
Neverwinter's closed beta phase is over now, and it has been a fun and informative experience. During the three beta weekends, I got a chance to try all five of the character classes and to put some serious time into three of those for the sake of research. It seems fitting, then, that I ended my closed beta experience with the class I found the most fun and engaging - the Great Weapon Fighter.
This is not a class that requires a lot of careful, deliberate thought. Not compared to the other classes, anyway. The Guardian Fighter is required to strike a balance between offense and defense, and to take measures to keep his teammates protected during group content. The Devoted Cleric has to divide his attention between smiting the foes of his god with righteous fury and using his holy purity to heal wounds. The Trickster Rogue has to try to find that most effective path to deliver his devastating stealth-stab, and the Control Wizard has to "shape" his attacks in a specific way and build stacks of buffs and debuffs to achieve the desired effect. The Great Weapon Fighter, now... he pretty much just hits stuff with his giant-ass sword until it dies. If the situation calls for special tactics, his tactic is to hit harder and/or faster.
It may sound simplistic - and it is, in a way - but the Great Weapon Fighter plays a lot more dynamically than it sounds. As with any class, the incautious and ill-prepared will not fare well, and having a set of long-term plans will help make the earlier choices seem easier.
As a primary dealer of raw melee damage, your main goal is dishing out the hurt as effectively as possible. That's not all that hard to do, really. The giant two-hander sword takes care of that fairly well. Some people refer to the class as a "skinny barbarian," but that label is inaccurate. The focus of the Great Weapon Fighter is Area of Effect (AoE) damage - spreading large amounts of damage over several adjacent targets - while still retaining the class progression of the base Fighter class. The Trickster Rogue will deal more damage against single targets, but in situations with a lot of mobs in a confined space (such as basically any dungeon ever designed), the Great Weapon Fighter will come out on top of the Damage Dealt leaderboard.
In the eyes of the Great Weapon Fighter, the best defense is an overpowering offense. The class has two abilities that can be loosely described as "defensive," but everything else is geared towards dishing out big, steaming platefuls of hurt.
The Great Weapon Fighter's Shift-key ability is Sprint, which uses Stamina. The Stamina meter is the tiny chevron atop the flaming d20, top-center of the toolbar. A full Stamina bar gives a good second or so of full-steam running. This can be used in smaller chunks, similar to the Trickster Rogue's roll or the Control Wizard's teleport, so you don't have to burn through all of your Stamina at once and can perform several micro-Sprints during a long boss fight.
This can be used defensively to avoid damage, but is rarely necessary - usually the character can just sidestep out of the way at normal speeds. However, because many attack animations root the character in place for a time, the occasional burst of speed can save a lot of healing potions. Sprint can also be used to close in on an enemy quickly before that enemy has time to take notice and launch a ranged attack. A well-timed Sprint gets the Great Weapon Fighter right up in his foe's grill to draw first blood. This was my primary use of Sprint during the beta; I used it only sparingly during boss fights to avoid taking damage, and even then usually only to kite until my health potions were cooled down and ready to use again. Mostly, though, I used it to launch myself at the enemy and get the first hit in.
The other key "defensive" ability is Unstoppable, which is permanently bound to the Tab skill slot. This skill is gained at level 10, and is fueled by Determination, which is built up by taking damage and killing enemies. The Determination meter, indicated by a split meter to the left of the character, must fill up to 50% or more before Unstoppable can be used - when the sword-axe lights up, you're good to go. This functions like a "Rage"-type ability - attack speed is much faster (but does less damage per hit), and the character takes less damage for the duration of the effect. The amount of damage mitigated by Unstoppable depends on how full the Determination meter was when the skill is used. At 50% Determination, the mitigation is fairly low, but at 100% it is significant. It also makes the character immune to controlling effects for a short time, making it particularly valuable in PvP.
Great Weapon Fighters wear scale armor, which is tougher and more resilient than the leather armor of Trickster Rogues but less sturdy than the plate armor of the Guardian Fighter. Theoretically, this means the Great Weapon Fighter can "off-tank" in a pinch. While they don't have any specific threat-building attacks, Great Weapon Fighters can build up loads of threat with AoE attacks. They can't absorb and mitigate long periods of sustained damage like Guardian Fighters, but they can build up Determination and pop Unstoppable if given plenty of support by healers.
The Great Weapon Fighter is a balls-to-the-walls melee DPSer with a heavy focus on area-effect attacks. This guy is not an artful fencer who parries and ripostes in a duel - he hurls himself at a group of bad guys and swings for the fences, hitting everything around him with brutal roundhouse swings of his massive sword. Most of the Great Weapon Fighter's attacks are multiple-target area attacks, with a few strong single-target attacks for boss fights and such.
This class is actually somewhat weaker in single-enemy fights than some other classes - particularly the Trickster Rogue, which deals enormous damage to single targets. But in fights with lots of enemies, the Great Weapon Fighter is a friggin' beast. At low levels, he can take out entire enemy groups with one charged-up swing of a Reaping Strike, an At-Will skill that requires a second of channeling to charge up and then unleashes a brutal swing in a full 360-degree arc. Even at later levels, fights against regular "trash" mobs don't last very long and seldom require the expenditure of Encounter or Daily attacks. A 3-hit Wicked Strike combo is usually enough. Of course, the Great Weapon Fighter can certainly handle his own in a one-on-one fight as well. Sure Strike has a much narrower arc and slashes quickly, doing slightly more damage in a more focused zone.
The ultimate cost of all-out offense is a reduced capacity for damage avoidance. Attacks are slower, and the character is either rooted in place or forced to follow their momentum while the animation plays. Consequently, Great Weapon Fighters will want to stock up on as many health potions as they can afford. In my own personal experience, I found I had plenty for the first 14 or so levels, but when the difficulty ramped up in the Tower District, fighting lots of orcs and ogres, I burned through my reserves very quickly and had to buy a ton of them from the vendors.
As of the beta weekend, the only common weapon available to Great Weapon Fighters was the greatsword. There were a few other weapons available - I saw one rare-quality greatclub drop in a Cloak Tower run - but these were the very rare exception, and the big-ass sword was the rule.
The offhand item is a "sword knot," the icon for which looks like a tassle. Presumably this is affixed to the pommel of the sword somehow. It is not shown on the character model and only functions as a bundle of stats.
The Great Weapon Fighter uses scale armor, which is between the Trickster Rogue's leather armor and the Guardian Fighter's plate armor. It is heavy enough to allow the character to fight on the frontlines and absorb a bit of a beating, but not enough to withstand a sustained ass-kicking. The Great Weapon Fighter has the Hit Dice and physical endurance of the Fighter base class, but he is not built for a protective, supportive role. At least, not until the player starts stacking defensive feats and picks the defensive paragon path.
Strength (STR) is the main stat for this class, contributing significantly to damage output. Races with an inherent STR bonus (half-orcs, dwarves and humans) can start out with a superhuman STR score of 20, which gives them a slight edge in this class. Dexterity (DEX) also contributes to damage output, and a bit to damage avoidance, and Constitution (CON) contributes to total Hit Points and some kinds of damage resistances. These three should be your focus when leveling up.
There are essentially two paths you can take for gearing up: increasing your damage output or augmenting your mediocre defenses. Power, Critical Strike and Armor Penetration all make your massive hits even massive-er. Stacking Recovery, Defense and Deflect will improve your ability to take hits, but you will still need to pick mainly defensive feats if you plan on trying to off-tank.
My choice was to crank up the damage, slotting gear and enchantments with Armor Penetration and Critical Strike bonuses first and foremost. I didn't stack up on Life Steal this time, having seen less-than-satisfying results from it on my previous two classes... but the little bit I did have from one enchantment had a much higher health return due to the much higher damage output. If I had stacked it beyond that one enchantment, I probably could have done without my healer companion.