Spend just a few minutes with FIFA 19 and you'll wonder if EA has just re-released FIFA 18 with Champions League licensing. At first it can feel very familiar – more so than usual – but give it a couple of hours and you'll start picking up on all the little things, all the subtle improvements that EA Sports has carefully coaxed into being. Add them all together, and FIFA 19 is actually pretty darn good.

We can only imagine how difficult it is to correctly balance a game like FIFA. Over the years, the developer has often struggled to find – and maintain – a gameplay balance that allows for realism while also satisfying people who just want to see their homegrown striker score a bicycle kick in every match. Not too long ago, pace was the problem – super fast players that could get around the pitch at lightning speed and make everyone else look like they were running through treacle. Before that, it was psychic defenders who could seemingly read your plays before you'd even hit a button.

This kind of thing has never quite been enough to completely break a FIFA title, but it's the track record that makes fans wonder what the next inevitable issue is going to be. Fortunately for FIFA 19, it feels like it finds a very good balance across the park. Although defenders driven by the computer can sometimes frustrate with their ability to muscle attackers off the ball all too casually, nothing stands out as being especially overpowered or cheap.

Make no mistake, this is still FIFA – it's still the home of ridiculous skill shots and goal posts that are destined to be struck at least 200 times in one match – but it's not the FIFA that allows every player on the pitch to perfectly ping the ball around like they're Pirlo. It's not the FIFA that lets your pacey wingers take defenders out of the game just by holding down sprint. And it's certainly not the FIFA that gives your 6 foot 8 centre back the ability to do a Messi and dribble through an entire team like they don't exist.

Defenders feel like defenders and attackers feel like attackers – every position feels like it has an identity, which wasn't always the case in past entries. What's more, new gameplay additions like the active touch system allow for more nuance. With a flick of the right stick, a technical midfielder can immediately move into space or send their marker the wrong way. Strikers can use it to trap a pass and line up a much better shot, and defenders can take a touch to stop a pesky forward from nicking the ball after an awkward bounce. It can take a bit of time to really see the value of active touch, but once it clicks, it adds a silky new dimension to general play.

The same can be said of timed finishing, another fresh addition, but not quite to the same extent. By hitting the shoot button a second time, you can apply a finish to your strike. Time it just right, and your shot gains extra power and accuracy, but hit it wrong, and you dramatically increase your chances of scuffing it. Again, it's something that adds another layer of nuance to FIFA, but it's ultimately a risky proposition. Yes, you can use it to score some absolute worldies, but screw the timing and you're just as likely to blaze one over the bar in front of an open goal. Thankfully you can disable timed finishing whenever you like, but it's nice to have the option if you're perhaps looking for more demanding gameplay.

On top of that, a load of new player animations ensure that FIFA 19 is a cut above. Sliding in with a heavy tackle, for example, rarely results in players just kind of flopping over one another, as they so enjoyed doing in previous games. There's now a satisfying sense of impact when you decide that you've had enough of being 3-0 down to PSG and just want to break Neymar's legs. There appear to be so many more shooting animations, too, adding some welcome variety to your highlight reel.

The fresh coat of polish also applies to the ball itself, which looks a lot more natural in motion. It might sound a bit weird, but for a long time, FIFA's physics have felt stunted, like the ball's been magnetised to the pitch. Curves and swerves only occurred when you'd take a shot, but in FIFA 19 it seems to be way more organic, especially when it's off the ground. Ricochets and other chance happenings no longer result in awkward-looking moments where the ball lands and just... Sits there. It's a relatively tiny alteration, but it's all about that fluidity.

Last but definitely not least, we've got the new tactics system. You can now micromanage your tactical approach, changing how your team acts depending on the situation. So if you desperately need a goal and you switch to your regular attacking setup, you can now tweak things like how many players get into the box, or you can change the formation entirely. You're presented with so many options that it can be somewhat daunting initially, but the system brings a surprising amount of depth, and you really notice the difference in-game.

Indeed, the best part is that teams now have their own individual default tactics, meaning that they tend to play like they do in real life. For example, Liverpool come equipped with high pressing and immediate pressure after losing the ball, which, as many teams will no doubt attest to in reality, makes them a nightmare to play against. Meanwhile, Barcelona opt for a more methodical approach that can quickly snap into life with a precise pass, cutting your team in half in an instant. FIFA has never been so dynamic, even when you're playing against the artificial intelligence.

All in all FIFA 19 is great on the pitch. A number of both subtle and substantial improvements all add up, resulting in a refined, and more importantly, balanced feel. Now we just have to hope that EA Sports doesn't issue a patch that changes absolutely everything. In fact, let's not even joke about that right now.

Off the pitch, one of the big takeaways is that the menus are hugely improved. The input lag is gone from busier interfaces for a start – this is instantly noticeable in career and Ultimate Team – and information is displayed more efficiently. Looking at the league table in career mode, for instance, shows you the standings as well as results and a fixture list. You can also easily swap between competitions to get a better picture of your season so far, and the news section tells you about player of the month nominations and little things like that. It's just superior presentation across the board.

And it's necessary, really, because the game modes themselves haven't changed all that much. Aside from the option of playing through the Champions League on its own, there's nothing new to see. Kick off lets you fiddle with rules and create some potentially crazy matches – like taking a player off every time you score – and although these can be a good laugh with friends, they're never going to be the meat of the experience.

Which brings us to The Journey – the final chapter in Alex Hunter's it's-kind-of-okay-but-can-I-really-be-arsed-playing-it story mode. This time you take control of three different characters, but events feel disjointed as a result. The dialogue's never been top class in The Journey, but jumping from Alex to Danny highlights just how throwaway much of the writing is. Is it a fitting end to The Journey? Yeah, probably, but that's mostly because it feels like the three-part story mode has definitely run its course.

Oh, and one last thing: the commentary. The bloody commentary. Any Champions League action now features newcomers Derek Rae and Lee Dixon, and while it's shockingly refreshing to hear someone other than Martin Tyler and Alan Smith in a FIFA game, they're still terribly implemented. All four of them talk utter nonsense at times, and are we really still using lines from as far back as FIFA 14? You bet we are!

Conclusion

Truly egregious commentary aside, FIFA 19 is another winner for EA Sports. The improvements over last year's entry are subtle but many, resulting in a footie sim that feels incredibly refined. Better balance across the pitch opens options for more tactical play, and there's more nuance to explore than ever before. More casual FIFA players may not see the difference immediately, but there's a deliberate intricacy to FIFA 19, and it's enough to keep the series in top form.