In game development, the visual improvements, non-player character AI tweaks, and new storytelling philosophies are all for naught if the base activity the player performs the most frequently is uninteresting or unrefined. In the case of an action role-playing game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, those activities are swinging swords, shooting arrows, or casting spells at the myriad bloodthirsty enemies rushing toward you in foreboding dungeons of Tamriel. Aware of the combat shortcomings and exploits players used in Oblivion, the developers at Bethesda Studios went back to the drawing board to forge a new direction for Skyrim.

“We wanted to make it more tactile in your hands,” game director Todd Howard says. “I think if you look at our previous stuff I sometimes equate it to fighting with chopsticks – you sit there and swing them in front of yourself.”

Bethesda’s solution is a new two-handed combat system that allows players to equip any weapon or spell to either one of their character’s free hands. This flexible platform opens up countless play styles – dual wielding, two-handed weapons, the classic sword and shield combo, ranged weapons, or even equipping two different spells. Switching between loadouts on the fly is made easier thanks to a new quick-select menu that allows you to “bookmark” all of your favorite spells, shouts, and weapons for easy access.

Taking Up The Blade

Repetition can be a game developer's worst enemy. As players move through the world slashing at enemies thousands of times, the gravity of the action dissipates to the point where it becomes as thoughtless an exercise as flipping a light switch. With Skyrim's combat system, Bethesda wants to restore the visceral nature of hand-to-hand combat. The first step? Changing the pace of the close quarters battles.

In the early stages of development, Bethesda watched fighting videos to study how people react during melee battles. The team found that most encounters featured more jostling and staggering than was present in past Elder Scrolls titles. Using the Havok Behavior animation system, the team is more accurately mimicking the imbalance prevalent in melee combat by adding staggering affects and camera shake. Don't expect button-mashing marathons where the attacker with a bigger life pool wins the war of attrition. If you're not careful on defense you may get knocked around, losing your balance and leaving yourself exposed for a damaging blow that can turn the tide of the battle. Knowing when to block, when to strike, and when to stand your ground is key to prevailing in combat.

“There's a brutality to [the combat] both in the flavor of the world, and one of you is going to die,” Howard explains. “I think you get very used the idea that enemies are all there for you to mow through, but it doesn't seem like someone's life is going to end. We're trying to get that across.”

Nothing drives this brutality home more than the introduction of special kill animations. Depending on your weapon, the enemy, and the fight conditions, your hero may execute a devastating finishing move that extinguishes enemies with a stylistic flourish. “You end up doing it a lot in the game, and there has to be an energy and a joy to it,” Howard says.

As with Oblivion, players have several options for melee combat. Your warrior can equip swords, shields, maces, axes, or two-handed weapons. Specializing in a particular weapon is the best way to go, as it gives you the opportunity to improve your attacking skills with special perks. For instance, the sword perk increases your chances of landing a critical strike, the axe perk punishes enemies with residual bleeding damage after each blow, and the mace perk ignores armor on your enemies to land more powerful strikes.

A good offense must be accompanied by a good defense. To make defending a less passive activity, Bethesda has switched to a timing based blocking system that requires players to actively raise their shields to take the brunt of the attack. If you hold down the block button, your character will attempt to execute a bash move. If you catch a bandit off guard with the bash while he's attacking, it knocks him back and exposes him to a counter or power attack. Players can block and bash with two-handed weapons as well, but it isn't as effective as the shield. Warriors who prefer the sword-and-shield approach can increase their defensive capabilities with shield perks that give them elemental protection from spells.

Bethesda also smartly changed the pace at which characters backpedal, which removes the strike-and-flee tactic frequently employed in Oblivion. In Skyrim you can't bob and weave like a medieval Muhammad Ali as you could in Oblivion. Players can still dodge attacks from slower enemies like frost trolls, but don’t expect to backpedal out of harms way against charging enemies. If you want to flee, you must turn your back to the enemy and hit the sprint button, leaving you exposed to an attack as you high tail it to safety.