In the past, reviewing a FIFA game has been a tricky affair. How can one wax lyrical over minor updates, no matter how many there are? Last year the series stepped foot onto the next-generation consoles, with PS4 and Xbox One showing off their graphical powers to great effect. But that surely makes FIFA 15, the franchise's 22nd seasonal instalment, even trickier to talk about?
Not so. FIFA 15 for Xbox One and PS4 is by far and away one of the biggest single leaps forward for the series, one that defines all FIFA games and, indeed, football games yet to come. Here's why.
Off the field FIFA 15 changes little from last year's FIFA. You will know just by glancing at the menus and game modes. Indeed, there's a distinct sense of "if it ain't broken, don't fix it". The career mode is nigh-on identical, featuring the same league structures, cups and rejigged scouting and transfer system as FIFA 14.
You do get to set more complex tactics or, at least, create different team systems to suit different opponents through refreshed Team Management options though. Plus, you can assign different commands to each player, ensuring that defenders stick where they are during attacks or make sure just one of your chosen strikers presses opponent defenders, for example.
But this change is applicable to all game modes and any match you play, so is not just restricted to career. Instead, you definitely get a feeling of déjà vu when playing through seasons as your favourite or other chosen team. Player growth has been modified to be more realistic, but we haven't managed to play numerous seasons yet to see how much that might alter things.
Try before you buy
Ultimate Team has become the most popular game mode (we were told by Electronic Arts, the game's producers) and it's similar to what has gone in the past. You must collect a team of players and a manager in trading card fashion, which you can either pay for through earned-in-game cash, or spend real moolah to speed up the process. However, in FIFA 15 year you can play in friendly seasons against pals, more for bragging rights, and you can loan players to try them out before parting with significant coin (virtual or real).
There's also a return for Ultimate Team Legends on the Xbox One (exclusive to the Xboxes again). A whole new batch of legends are available, including, quite rightly, Bobby Moore and Peter Schmeichel. But also Roy Keane and Jay Jay Okocha, which kind of makes us think that another word for "legend" could be "licensed" at least easily.
The final significant change to the main menu system and hub where you'll spend a fair amount of time is the Match Day Live metadata the game draws in from Goal.com. It expands on previous years' efforts to add news feeds from the real world of footy or radio presentations and gives latest news stories and data of your pre-chosen favourite teams and leagues. You can even play your real world team's next fixture to see how you fare before the actual match takes place.
For fervent football fans, it's a nice touch, but is a mere distraction. More time will be spent playing the game than looking at news info that can be gleaned from elsewhere - and, if you're truly a fan of a team, you'll invariably already know.
Pitch and yaw
None of these above minor additions are enough to warrant a seasonal purchase of FIFA 15 if you have last year's game. Nope, that honour comes down to what happens on the pitch itself in the next-generation formats.
First, there are changes that are mainly aesthetic. As fans of the Premier League we're thrilled that all 20 clubs' genuine stadiums are now fully rendered. And what's more, there's presentation flairs for each that make them feel even more authentic. For example, the "This is Anfield" sign above the entrance to the pitch shown before Liverpool home games at Anfield, or the exterior shots of the Emirates, Arsenal's stomping ground.
The camera and cut-scene action is also much improved, with player entrances and pre-kick off viewpoints looking more realistic and TV-like than ever before. And then there are the highlight packages, which are shown in a slightly different filtered effect to make them more like the end clips of an episode of Match of the Day. Including dedicated commentary over goals.
One of the biggest graphical enhancements is with the "Living Pitch", which is EA Sports' attempt at making the actual turf respond visually to the action on it. It works a treat.
Every scuff, sliding tackle, twist and turn leaves a lasting legacy on the pitch during a match. It makes no difference to the action itself, but as the game progresses, the on-screen effects bear a striking resemblance to the real thing. It helps immerse you in the game world even more.
The other big change in graphic terms relates to the players. They are no longer built around weighty blocks, therefore looking more squat and chunkier than their real-life counterparts, but instead their bodies look more like the real thing - even with kits layered on top that look like they are worn rather than painted on. Plus, the player faces are dramatically improved.
Admittedly, we play predominantly with Liverpool, and that's one of the showcase teams in FIFA 15, so all of the players have been very accurately rendered. But we could say the same for the vast majority of the other footballers plying their trade in the Premier League this season. And many in major teams abroad too.
On the bench
But it doesn't always work. The animations, while there are many more of them this time out, can sometimes glitch or break enough to put a player in an unnatural position - especially with twists of the head on a sometimes seemingly boneless neck - but it doesn't happen too often and certainly not enough to spoil things. This is a game after all.
Whereas some animations are very welcome indeed. The goalkeepers, for example, have been completely rebuilt from the ground up and move much more realistically. Plus, their new animation sets make a difference to how they play during matches. You might now get a goalkeeper pulling of a fluke save using a flailing leg while he's diving the wrong way. Or they can rush out of the box and punt a header back up the field. They are more intelligent too, so actually feel like an extra player rather than a computer controlled patsy, like in the past.
The one new feature we haven't quite seen enough of an effect from, and one much touted by EA, is the "emotion engine". Players heads drop when their team goes behind, and we've seen strikers have a right old paddy in the box when they miss a sitter, but if that affects them later in the game, it's only subtle, we feel.
A game changer
Far more effective in changing the way the game ebbs and flows is the new ball spin system. With a football now spinning authentically, bouncing off the ground, legs, goalkeepers' hands and other objects depending on the spin on it at the time, you'll find your tactics and techniques having to change even during the same match. Players who exhibit great control one minute might lose the ball the next because of a weird bounce. It is, quite simply, a game changer. And in a good way.
As is the finer control you get over players this year. We've managed to weave Raheem Sterling through a tight Evertonian midfield like the ball was stuck to his feet - only to shank it too far ahead of our on-rushing full back and out of play. It's moments like this that make you simply go "wow" at times.
And that's just playing against the computer. Playing against a real world opponent online is a treat, especially as the level of randomness can make a match more even at times. Get a lucky bounce and you could find yourself one-nil up against a player you'd never have beaten before. And if you've selected your tactics right in the team management screens, you could find that FIFA 15 is a real leveller.
In fact, we found that for the first few match-ups, we felt like we were starting afresh with an all-new football game. Methods we employed in FIFA 14 just didn't seem to work for us anymore, and the goals scored on both sides were far more varied than we've ever encountered in a FIFA game. And that just about says it all.
It would be churlish to say that FIFA 15 doesn't have its faults. We find the menus and game options are overly familiar as one example. But even so it's the pinnacle of footie games.
Indeed this year's addition to the franchise puts our high praise of last year's next-gen FIFA 14 in the shadows. Yes, last year's game was pretty and featured some excellent tricks that only more powerful consoles could achieve - such as enormous, artificially intelligent crowds - but FIFA 15 has shown us what a next-generation football game can truly offer.
FIFA 15 looks fantastic, bar the occasional graphical glitch, and the new stadiums and crowd effects are a joy to behold (we've reviewed the Xbox One title, but the game is also available on PS4 and PC with full graphical flourishes, and in less graphically impressive forms on the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii). Plus the audio is dramatically enhanced, to the extent that someone thought we were genuinely watching the start of a Liverpool match, such was the detail in the rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone".
But it is on the pitch during play, with the ball at your players' feet, that you will understand how far EA has come with a series that is an open love letter to the beautiful game. FIFA 15 is just that: a beautiful game.