Watching the Unifinished for for Rune II brought this on. I think Rune is not a particularly good game along with a lot of other 3rd person melee games from that era (American McGee's Alice, Heavy Metal FAKK2, even Jedi Knight). I realized that a lot of the reason why those games feel so bad is there's not any kind of lock on or system that basically directs the attacks towards an enemy. You're just sort of sliding around, wildly swinging, and hoping that the attack arc intersects an enemy. It looks bad, it feels bad.
I realize the main innovation that makes melee combat feel decent in a 3D game is lock on. Either hard lock on à la Dark Souls, or "soft" lock on that automatically directs your attack towards the nearest enemy à la Batman/Assassin's Creed. I know the first game with hard lock on, or at least the first notable one: Zelda Ocarina of Time. It's kind of funny that it seemingly took other developers almost a decade to learn that game's lessons put lock on in something with deeper melee combat systems.
However, I'm trying to think of what the first game with a "soft" lock on system was. I'm thinking maybe Devil May Cry? That game automatically directed your attacks towards the enemy right without you having to lock on, right - or am I misremembering?