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Preview: NHL 2011

Perhaps it's my Canadian roots and the fact that I am one of two staff members that enjoys sports games but NHL 10 was one of the best titles released last year. After a shaky start in the current generation of consoles, the team at EA Canada has transformed the NHL brand into the premiere video game sports franchise.

Not content with adding a few adjustments to last year's winning formula, EA Canada is making drastic changes to NHL 11 – the 20th anniversary of the longstanding sports franchise. Unfortunately, of the gameplay changes I've seen, there may be some cause for alarm.

Gallery: NHL 11 | 6 Photos

If you're not a fan of the Madden NFL series this comparison may be lost on you, and for that I apologize. When Madden NFL 06 was released, one of the newest and highly touted features was the QB Vision Control; unfortunately, the feature was largely considered a disaster. The issue is, and many EA Sports games have this flaw, when a new concept is envisioned it is usually thrust upon the player so that it sneaks its way into what we consider "the norm" for the series.

One of the newest features in NHL 11 is independent physics for all players on the ice. Rather than have a bunch of canned animations for checking that look like a few frames of a player falling down, the game now has independent physics for every part of a player's body. Now, hard checks into the boards look realistic. As for realism, the overall skating model looks more authentic than it has in previous NHL titles and hard shots have the ability to shatter a player's stick.

All of these additions look great and feel wonderful in the beginning, but quickly problems start to set in. Like the QB Vision Control feature I mentioned previously, the new physics system in NHL 11 is turned on too high. While it certainly shows off how much of a spectacle the game of hockey can be from time-to-time, it does it too frequently and violently. Not violently in the sense that I became shocked and appalled but violently in the sense that, in one game, on default settings, this new feature yielded about seven game-ending injuries.

Hits are so brutal and "realistic" that the character models can't seem to keep up with the system, forcing players to swap out their favorite skaters. There are injuries in hockey and it's nothing new to the EA Sports franchise, but this isn't Mutant League Football.

Where the physics do shine is in some of the new animations and moves players can do. Players can send skaters flying with devastating hip checks, pass or shoot from their knees and pull off dekes that look and feel like they belong in a simulation sports title. The good news for fans worried about the new physics system is that the online mode will not be compromised. The new system is drastically turned down by default for online play but offline modes do have the physics set higher to "show off" what the system can do.

Hopefully EA Canada finds a good balance when the game ships later this year. The last thing anyone wants is the best simulation sports game of 2009 to turn into the best arcade brawler of 2010.

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