Skyrim Mondays Part Five: What's the *Deal* with the *Feel* of Combat?
This week, Lydia helped me fight a whole bunch of Trolls.
That's the big new development in my Skyrim playthrough in a world where a bunch of my brain time got sucked up by the new No Man's Sky patch.
My initial intentions were good. I wanted to get on with the story and finally go see the silly old men on the mountain.
But almost immediately, I felt the urge to wander and collect things. It wasn't helped by this chest full of gold randomly sitting under this table in Balgruuf's castle thing.
Because I know that when I want to store a chest full of money, I always put it under a table.
A guard in the town told me not to go towards a random tomb out in the wilderness, so I immediately made that my main destination.
Along the way, I found this cave near a waterfall, and decided that I would venture in.
It turned out that the cave was filled with Trolls. They can be some of the toughest enemies in the game, but with a little help from my fire spell and my buddy Lydia, they weren't too much trouble...though I did have to take several healing potions.
All of this combat made me think a great deal about the way combat feels in Skyrim, and combat in Bethesda games in general.
The combat design across the Elder Scrolls series has always been more "interesting" than it is "fun to play," in my opinion.
Now, I think that Bethesda is absolutely capable of making fun-playing combat encounters. They've proven that in their Fallout titles, which deftly combine sharp real-time shooting mechanics with the absurd slow-motion tactical joy of the VATS system.
In Elder Scrolls, things are a little more...hectic and mashy.
The first three games had some pretty interesting ideas in their combat systems. In Arena and Daggerfall, combat was based on the way you'd swing your mouse around. You'd hold down the mouse button and then swoosh your mouse around to make different attacks come out. Of course, unlike other old games like Die by the Sword, there wasn't much of an analog nature to the attacks, and so it didn't achieve anything that button presses couldn't do.
In Morrowind, there were still multiple kinds of attacks, but you made different ones happen by moving your character in different directions as you pressed the button. Of course, the different attacks came with different dice rolls for damage, and a lot of players just wanted to use the strongest attack no matter the weapon or movement...so Bethesda put this in as a menu option.
That basically turned off any nuance in the melee combat and just made it about hammering the button.
Oblivion introduced the ability to use normal and power attacks depending on the length of a button press, and it was easier to block and cast spells. Skyrim further refines this, allowing for simultaneous spell-casting and sword swinging, in a system that owes a lot to Bioshock.
There's just one problem.
It never totally feels like you're connecting with something.
Things have gotten better in each successive game. Animation quality, physics quality, and overall readability of the combat feedback have all improved. But even in Skyrim, attacks feel a little bit...light. I just hold down the spell button until an enemy gets close, then I swing my sword a bunch. Sometimes it feels dynamic...and other times it feels like I'm slashing at pieces of paper. Part of the issue is the sound effects, and part of it is the math going on behind the scenes overruling your performance.
I know this is tough to get right. Not every game can be Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, or one of the Dishonored games. I know that it's hard to make first-person melee combat feel good to the player. But you do a lot of combat stuff in Skyrim. And sometimes big battles end up feeling a little less impressive when you win them by strafing around and mashing the attack buttons.
Now, the combat in Skyrim isn't bad. Far from it! You can come up with a lot of different combos and mix things up to suit your playstyle. It just never feels totally awesome in the way that VATS does, or in the way that most combat-focused games strive to feel.
The random slow motion finishing animations help, and they added a bunch of extra ones to the game across a few patches, but you can only see those so many times before they repeat. They're fun, but you aren't causing them to happen in the same way you are with VATS in the Fallout games. They just sort of happen out of nowhere, and sometimes it's weirdly disjointed. I don't think I'm doing a particularly cool job, and then a cool combat animation happens.
Skyrim is still fun in spite of the sometimes-off combat. It has just enough complexity in its systems to remain interesting throughout its length. But if the thump of the combat isn't improved in the next Elder Scrolls game, I'll be a little bummed. It'd be so cool if I could knock weapons out of hands, or knock armor off, or know how well I'm doing without seeing a life bar.
This type of feedback/feel stuff is much better in Fallout 4, so I have hope!