With every new year comes a new edition of NHL, EA Sports‘s award-winning hockey simulation. But with each new installment comes new promises that the series is taking a big step forward – sooner or later, making that a reality is going to demand some massive changes.

Although NHL 14 won’t be releasing on the Xbox One or PS4, the adjustments made to the core gameplay – and yes, the fighting system – should offer fans enough improvement to make the purchase worthwhile. After playing NHL 14 ourselves at E3 2013, we’re even more excited for what next-gen NHL has in store.

It’s no surprise that NHL 14 will once again be refining the core skating, with hundreds of new animations added to make players moving at speed look more than ever like the real thing. Telling the difference while playing isn’t easy, but in the case of player movement, that’s probably a good sign.

For those fearing that heightened realism would make the basic elements of gameplay even more complicated, the developers have attempted to streamline the experience simultaneously. One example is the introduction of one-touch deking – replacing the need to use both sticks to maneuver around an approaching defender. The deeper deke system is still present, but now a touch of the left bumper cues the player to pull a simple deke in whatever direction they’re travelling, making it easier to avoid being separated from the puck.

NHL 14 E3 Demo Preview

And that will be a much higher priority than ever before, thanks to the new collision physics being used to reshape hitting. Previous developer diaries have explained how the new physics will be adopting those used for the FIFA series, making hits more realistic and randomized. In practice, the shift represents the biggest improvement from a gameplay standpoint, and what left us walking away from the playable demo satisfied that the developers had once again found something to improve year-to-year.

Where hitting used to be what took place when one defending player simply skated into the puck carrier, that simple ‘collision’ failed to capture the truth of hockey hits. Mainly: that the hitter prepares to do the most damage, and the carrier is capable of seeing the hit coming. With NHL 14, the problem of an anticipated crushing hit resulting in little more than a dull ‘thud’ or shove has been solved, as hitting players drop shoulders prior to impact, drive through the check, and deliver bigger hits depending on speed and size.

The significance of player height and strength is also increased, since equal-sized players are more likely to do equal damage, where larger opponents are nearly guaranteed to not only send the puck carrier onto their backs, but change the face of the game entirely, thanks to NHL 14’s other most noticable adjustment: fighting.

NHL 14 Preview Hitting Fighting

Although the NHL governors have yet to come to a consensus on the role of fighting in today’s game, gamers have made their opinions known for years: if you’re making a hockey simulation, it better include the chance to trade fists with an enforcer. In their pursuit of realism and simulating the experience from both a player and spectator standpoint, the developers of NHL 14 have done away with the first-person-fighting seen in the last number of yearly releases.

Claiming that the mode felt “like a mini-game inside of a hockey game,” triggering fights no longer breaks the sense of immersion that EA Sports has continued to emphasize. Thanks to the team’s new Enforcer Engine, fights are triggered by the same actions as seen in the real game – crashing the goalie, delivering a devastating hit, on one of the team’s best players, or getting rowdy after the whistle – if the players agree, the gloves are dropped.

Both fighters no longer square off at center ice, but wherever they stand, as the camera stays locked as it was, the rest of the players on the ice pair up and exchange ‘why-I-oughttas’ and the fighters do what they’re trained to. Not just by blocking, jabbing or uppercutting as in the past, but leaning, pulling their opponents off balance, or simply overpowering them and taking it to the ice. Seeing it in action makes the significance of the change clear, so check it out for yourselves:

Fighting and hitting may not be what some hockey fans long for, in either the real sport or a digital simulation, but EA Sports is giving both systems a much-needed update. And with the Full-Body Deformation physics being introduced with EA Sports UFC, we’d expect to see that physics system carried over when NHL 15 makes the leap to next-gen consoles next year.

The update may not be as revolutionary or immediately apparent as an upgraded graphics engine or presentation package, but for hardcore fans of the series, the changes are more than enough to get us looking forward to this year’s installment.

NHL 14 launches September 10, 2013 for the Xbox 360 and PS3.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.