There's a lot of innovation to take in when you boot up 'FIFA 21' for the first time.
The first thing that hits you is that colour scheme of the menu has changed. The interface design is the same as last year, but it's definitely more navy than grey in colour now.
The game throws you straight into your first game, a classic Champions League group stage match of Liverpool versus PSG. You know what? It looks and feels like 'FIFA 20'. That's it. There's almost nothing else here of significance to report.
Don't get me wrong, 'FIFA 21' is an improvement upon last year's game. The core game is obviously still exceptional, with competitive end-to-end football which feels closer than ever to the real thing. If you haven't played a FIFA game in a while, this is should be an easy decision.
The Career Mode has been beefed out with new player development options that allow you to run drills with specific players to increase their overall ratings. It contains a new Match Simulation option that allows you to quickly hop into sim'd games mid-match.
VOLTA, last year's new addition, now supports co-op. There's even a new VOLTA story mode called The Debut - a saccharine three-hour journey that culminates in your avatar showing off his tricks against Kaka.
The last few iterations of 'FIFA' have been all about refining the delicate balance of attacking and defending that the whole game is built upon. Subtle changes in everything from player stats to collision probabilities are the hallmark of recent releases.
So, perhaps some of these tweaks and innovations will become apparent after more time with the game. Maybe they're just aimed at a more competitive gamer, the kind who plays maniacally to gain that extra edge over his opponents online. If this all excites you, you've probably already bought the game - and there's nothing wrong with that.
At its core, the gameplay is good. Better than good. But this year, 'FIFA 21' doesn't have any improvements of consequence and doesn't justify its release.
I've heard this argument from others in the past, and yet had never been swayed.
"Of course annual sports games are going to have loads of similarity. The developers can only get so much done each year, it's all about the little things," I'd say with a knowing smirk.
But now, I finally get it. It's the same game as last year.
In isolation, it would be easy to see this game as a missed opportunity for EA. Perhaps the scope of the game was reined in, with COVID restrictions affecting developers like any other industry. We live in hope that the devs might take some big leaps next year when they can fully utilize the technology of the new consoles.
But to me, the reality is more insidious. EA know people will buy this product one way or another. 'FIFA Ultimate Team' still rakes in a magnitude more cash for its publisher than they could have dreamt possible back in the days of selling a single disk. The profit will roll in, regardless of new features or not.
Now more than ever, the 'FIFA' franchise represents a slick, impersonal corporate entity. This is the kind of game that slaps you in the face, takes the money out of your wallet, fixes you with a blank stare, and dares you to question it.
Like the Beautiful Game itself, 'FIFA 21' is a behemoth of commercialisation. In that way, this is the most accurate simulation of modern football I've ever played.