Melee Combat in Savage 2
The melee system was in a lot of ways the central point for discussions and arguments covering gameplay concerns, balance, etc. Savage 2 is so heavily focused on intense action-packed melee encounters that it's important to have a system that is easy to work with, flexible, intuitive, and both fun and satisfying to use. The melee system in Savage 2 has gone through several iterations, each of which has significantly improved the melee system and made it more refined than ever before.
The Original Melee Combat System
The original system in the earlier versions of Savage 2 (pre-release) was based on a rock-paper-scissors system of having a quick attack, a slower and more damaging strong attack, and the ability to block attacks. Quick attacks were fast and easy to use, but could be blocked to stun the attacker. Strong attacks dealt more damage, and could cut through a block to stun the defender. Strong attacks could be countered with a quick attack and would stun the person using the strong attack.
Quick Attack Combos
Over time, more depth was added with a series of quick attacks in part of a chain (also known as a combo or flurry of swings) rather than a single swing being repeated with varied animations. This allowed you to use a few quick attacks in a row for additional damage, but of course made it easier to predict and block or avoid attacks. Also, the pause after each combo gave enemy players an opening where they could move in and deal damage.
Interrupt Replaces Strong Attack
Strong attack was eventually replaced with a quicker variation which dealt less damage and was called "interrupt" (a sort of guard break). It was generally a quick shoulder charge, kick, etc. which broke through a block to stun an opponent. This change made it easier to get in and damage a blocking enemy without the excessive risk of having your strong attack countered by a quick attack.
Using a quick attack while jumping allowed players to perform a jump attack, which generally did more damage than a quick attack and pushed enemies away, but consumed a lot of stamina and had a high lead time. Various iterations saw jump attack dealing more or less damage, replenishing various amounts of stamina on success, and even acting as an additional way to break a person's block (similar to interrupt).
Tweaks, "Soft Counters"
Various tweaks were made to balance out the timings, damages and other variables in order to refine the system. At one point, successfully blocking, countering or interrupting a target dealt damage in addition to stunning the enemy. Originally, the person who had been blocked, countered, or interrupted would be completely immobile, rather than just unable to perform a non-movement action (currently being stunned is more of a disarm in most cases, where you can still move, and simply cannot perform most actions) - basically a system of soft counters.
Hellbourne units provided some exceptions to the rules, where they didn't have an interrupt move (retaining the old strong attack move), could not be stunned via interrupt (although they could block), and their quick attacks would function as an interrupt against players who tried to block them. In addition to hellbourne, melee abilities such as double swing and acid spray would cut through a block and stun the defending player (despite this being redundant for double swing). Quirks like these made the system less intuitive than it could have been, particularly for new players.
Charge and Dodge
In addition to basic combat moves, a couple of special movement techniques are also available in Savage 2. The charge move would allow players to quickly cover a short distance, giving players more control over when to engage targets. The charge move could also be used to supplement their normal moving and sprinting. In its original incarnation, the charge move had its own exclusive "charge meter", which you'd expend as you charged. Once you completed the charge, the remaining portion of the meter would be cleared and you'd have to wait for the meter to regenerate before you could charge again. Later on, the move was modified so that partial charges would not drain the entire meter, and you did not need a full meter to execute a charge. While it wasn't present for the release, a dodge move was eventually added the allowed players to expend stamina to quickly move to the sides or back. The dodge technique ended up being tweaked to share the charge meter rather than using stamina, and was made into a much quicker, shorter move. This helped to reduce the combat system's over-dependence on stamina for all actions while allowing stamina to retain its important role in melee combat.
The Importance of Stamina
Stamina has played a strong role in the melee system, being essential for various actions such as sprinting, attacking (attacking is significantly slowed with low stamina), jumping, and other actions. Various tweaks have been made over the lifetime of the melee system in order to make sure that stamina never becomes overbearingly important/scarce to the point of excessive conservation and difficulty of use, or abundant/underutilized to the point of not having any strategic use. This of course had to be balanced out against the various ways to replenish stamina (be it items, abilities, or quick attacks which replenish stamina with each successful hit).
Moving Past the RPS (Rock-Paper-Scissors) System
After much review, as well as debate over what a good melee combat system is meant to bring to Savage 2, the rock-paper-scissors system was eventually replaced in the test patches leading up to Savage 2 version 1.7. The overall goal was to make the system more intuitive, and to encourage more aggressive play (rather than the overly defensive "you make the first move" style of play that existed prior to the change). Interrupt was removed and a series of other changes were made to re-work how block would function - including removing the stun that applied to a player whose attack was blocked. At one point, a system was tried where players' ability to block was tied to their stamina, and running out of stamina meant that your attacks were slowed and you were unable to block, sprint, dodge, or jump. While the stamina-heavy system did have its merits and certainly made it very rewarding to push an enemy player to waste stamina, that idea was eventually abandoned. Eventually, block was changed to have a meter to indicate the integrity of your defense. The block meter would slowly decline while being held, and blocking attacks would remove a large portion of the meter and prevent the defender from being damaged. An empty block meter would result in the defending player being stunned for a short period of time (the player's guard had been broken). The block meter would automatically refill when not guarding, and successfully attacking an enemy player would replenish a portion of the block meter. Block was also modified to be able to guard almost all melee abilities (although they hit a block harder than normal attacks) as well as hellbourne attacks (hellbourne were modified to use the normal melee rules, but their attacks are still far more powerful than normal units). Jump attack can also be blocked, and can break through an enemy's defense quicker than a normal attack.
As well as making the system more flexible and intuitive, the melee system update in 1.7 also helped differentiate the classes by allowing them to further capitalize on their varying movement and attack speeds. Heavier, slower-attacking units benefited by being able to more comfortably participate in combat without the risk of being stunlocked by a faster-attacking unit that could reliably counter every one of the heavier unit's moves.
An additional skill component was added by having a series of bonuses and penalties when blocking a melee attack or having your melee attack blocked. Initially, blocking an enemy would temporarily slow the enemy attacker's movement and attack speeds, and temporarily increase the defender's attack speed. Eventually, the attack speed boost and reduction when blocking were modified to stack, making combat between classes with different attack speeds more balanced, and making it more beneficial to block successfully when fighting groups of enemies.
Advanced Combos and Canceling
The concept of advanced combos and canceling moves was introduced in 1.7 as well, where timings of various melee moves and abilities were tweaked to allow players to much more easily transition between melee actions. This offered a significant amount of additional flexibility and opened the door to much more skilled use of the existing set of actions. Players could dodge into and out of actions, attack quicker after using melee abilities, extend their combo by mixing in melee abilities, and more easily move into and out of jump attacks. This significantly reduced the "stiff" feeling for melee combat that existed in earlier versions of Savage 2.
Some additional changes to the melee combat arrived in Savage 2 version 2.1 which further tweaked the system to have a much more developed metagame. Block was tweaked to regenerate slower, but immediately begin to regenerate as soon as the key was released. In addition, successfully blocking an enemy player would now result in the block meter's regeneration rate increasing for a short period of time (block meter regeneration does not occur when blocking). This made it so that it was generally preferable to continue to participate in close combat to keep one's guard up rather than flee and wait for their block meter to regenerate. It also provides an additional opening for comebacks in melee combat through successful actions such as blocking or damaging an enemy player. The block meter was tweaked to not degenerate at all for the first 250ms after a player started to guard, but the degeneration rate would quickly increase while the player continued to guard. This encouraged smarter, shorter use of the block move and discouraged putting up a "wall" for players to grind away at in order to deal damage. Also, damages per swing were tweaked so that the risk/reward ratio for progressing through one's melee combo increased intuitively throughout. Pokes and partial combos still offered safety and flexibility, but completing your full melee combo against an enemy player would result in an appropriately large amount of damage.
As It Stands
Overall, the current melee combat in Savage 2 represents a far more intuitive, balanced, and flexible system than what was initially present. It's now much easier to learn basics of Savage 2's melee combat, with room for new players to grow and not be immediately locked out by skilled players. That isn't to say that the system has been dumbed down to cater to new players -- in fact, the amount of tactical options and advanced techniques that are now available to players along with the rewards for successful use of melee combat makes melee combat much more rewarding with skilled use.