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Skyrim, like previous Elder Scrolls games, is a bit strange where combat is concerned. That's because it operate as a first person fighting game (there is a tedious third-person view available, but it doesn't change the combat mechanics).
There's no combo system, and few special moves. For the most part, it's all about the basics. When you swing your weapon, you must make sure that you're aiming it at the enemy. When they swing back, you should try to dodge or block.
Still, there are some special moves you can make. A Power Attack can be accomplished by holding down your attack button, which will cause your character to make a heavier blow that does twice normal damage, with a chance to stagger the target. However, stamina is used by these attacks - quite a lot, actually. Most characters can only do one or two power attacks at first level before running out of juice.
You can also make sneak attacks if you are hidden when you pounce on your prey. Sneak attacks can be accomplished with any weapon, but better damage bonuses can be unlocked with perks in the Sneak skill tree. Bows can be used to accomplish sneak attacks, as well.
You also will be able to unlock some extra moves by investing into perks in the One-Handed, Two-Handed and Block skill trees.
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Warriors who choose sword-and-board will be able to block easily, which means that you can absorb damage from blows. Blocking is accomplished by holding down the right mouse button or left control pad trigger. Because you have a shield, you can block both melee and ranged attacks. You can't block spells without the right perks.
It's wise to use block generously when you go this route, because it's a great defensive boon. As a one-handed warrior with a shield, your damage output isn't great, but you can decide the pace of combat with your shield by allowing enemies to exhaust themselves on it.
There are several special moves you can learn besides standard power attacks. In the one-handed skill tree, you can pick up Critical Charge once your skill level is 50. This is a double-damage power attack that is activated when sprinting at a target. At skill level 100 you can pick up Paralyzing Strike, a backward power attack (you must be moving backwards, then perform a power attack) that has a 25% chance to paralyze your target for a short time.
In addition, you can attack with your shield with a bash. You do this by pressing your normal attack button (left mouse or right control pad trigger) while holding your shield up. A bash will stagger an opponent, interrupt attacks, and do some damage. At skill 30 in the block tree, you can take the Power Bash perk. This unlocks the "power bash" which can knock down an opponent and does more damage. At skill level 100, you can unlock a Shield Charge that knocks down opponents. It's a lot of fun - kind of like turning yourself into a bowling ball.
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One-Handed Dual Wield
If you go one-handed, you can drop the shield and pick up a weapon in your off-hand. If you're doing this, you'll want all of the perks that you can obtain from one-handed, plus you will want to take the dual flurry perk, which drastically increases dual-wield attack speed. You can grab it once your skill level in one-handed weapons is 30 and take a second tier of it at skill level 50.
However, if you dual wield, you can't block at all, not even with your off-hand weapon. This is an entirely offensive style, and as such, you can be vulnerable when overwhelmed by multiple opponents. You might want to find some other means of defense. Grabbing a magical skill like Alteration can increase your armor. However, a lot of players ignore it because dual wield does so much damage, that there's hardly any need to defend.
Otherwise, your offensive one-handed attacks remain the same. You can still access perks like Paralyzing Strike and they're activated in the same manner.
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Your final option for melee combat is a two-handed weapon. These do a lot of damage in a short period of time, but they are slow, so they don't do as much damage overall as someone dual-wielding two one-handed weapons.
Basic attacks with two-handed weapons, like power attacks, are the same as one-handed. Of course, they do a lot more damage because of the higher base damage on a two-handed weapon, and the first power strike from a two-handed weapon user can be nasty. It becomes even worse when you reach skill level 50 and can unlock the Great Critical Charge perk, which causes your power attack to do double critical damage if you attack while sprinting. You should always try to get a charge attack in as your first strike - often, you can one shot an enemy with it.
At skill level 70 you can unlock the Sweep perk. If you perform a power attack while strafing, your attack will hit multiple opponents in an arc in front of you. It's incredibly useful for dealing with groups of weaker enemies. Finally, at skill level 100, you can unlock a Warmaster perk which provides a 25% chance to paralyze a target when you perform a backwards power attack.
You can block with two-handed weapons, but with a reduction of usability vs. a shield. Shields can block arrows and you can pick a perk to reduce elemental spell damage, but you can't do those things when blocking with a two-hander. It's only effective against melee. However, a two-handed weapon can be used to perform a bash, and also benefits from the Power Bash, Deadly Bash, Disarming Bash and Quick Reflexes perks in the Block tree. Shield Charge doesn't seem to work, however.
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Don't Forget Sneak!
If you are playing a thief or simply a stealthy melee character, sneak will be of great benefit. But even if you aren't, you may want to raise the skill a bit to obtain some useful perks.
At 30 skill in sneak, and with a previous tier of the stealth perk, you can obtain Backstab. This increases sneak attack damage with one-handed weapons to 6x, which is pretty handy for any melee character who ever sneaks, even if stealth isn't always your mode of attack. At skill 40 you can obtain a 3x multiplier for bows, and at skill level 50 you can unlock the Assassin's Blade perk, which increases dagger sneak attack damage by a whopping 15x!
You also can obtain Muffled Movement at skill level 30, which decreases noise from armor by 50%. This leads to Light Foot at skill level 40, which prevents your character from triggering pressure plates. If you're clever, this makes traps a boon to you, as you can lure enemies to traps.
But the one I find really useful is Silent Roll, which lets you execute a forward roll if you sprint while sneaking. It can put you in melee range quickly. It can also be used as a poor man's dodge.
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- Image Credit: Bethesda