It's easy to say that with every year that passes, it gets harder and harder to review FIFA. EA Sports' annual licensed franchise loves nothing more than to stick to its guns, and with no real competition for its popularity crown, it's no surprise that this is the case. FIFA 15 was another solid, very enjoyable instalment in what's been a great run of form for the series over the last five or so years, and FIFA 16 attempts to continue the trend – but we're not sure if everyone will be happy with the relatively drastic gameplay changes that it introduces.

Now, we used the word 'relatively' there for a reason. The only people who'll really be able to notice these gameplay alterations are those that have played FIFA 15 to death, while more casual players won't necessarily catch on without knowing about them beforehand. The franchise gets a lot of flak for its supposed inability to change, but it's hard to argue against the opinion that FIFA 16 represents a major shift in making matches more believable – but it's difficult to say whether its increased realism suits the fact that, at the end of the day, it's a video game representation of a real world sport.

FIFA's always been about condensing the best moments of the real thing into short matches that are peppered with incredible volleys, amazing last minute tackles, and sublime one touch football – but it's now harder than ever to perform these amazing feats on a consistent basis. The significantly reduced effectiveness of pacey players is a perfect example of this; in past titles, players with a lot of speed could easily run behind or through defences when fed with an accurate pass – they were without doubt the simplest and most efficient form of attack.

Here, however, pace accounts for very little since defenders appear to be capped at the same sort of speeds. Trying to dart past your man requires a lot more effort – especially against artificial intelligence opponents – and even when you're bombing down the wing, defending players seem to be able to eventually catch up to your run no matter how much distance there is between you. This reworked balancing means that offensive play is more reliant on your ability to pick the right passes at precisely the right time in order to cut through your opponents – simply gunning it into the box rarely has the desired effect.

Meanwhile, when it comes to defensive play itself, FIFA 15 players may find themselves a little lost. The developer's boasted of the game's enhanced defensive options, and while it's true that you're given more ways to contain, block the ball, and tackle, you need to be more aware of what each individual situation requires. Tapping the light tackle button when you're close to the player with the ball no longer results in a near guaranteed turnover in possession – there's a lot more emphasis on using all of the defensive tools at your disposal in order to close down attacks before they become dangerous.

Having said that, your AI team mates are generally very effective – perhaps overly so, as you can rely upon their defensive judgement to get you out of some pretty sticky situations when playing online. While it's nice to see that FIFA 16 features some of the best AI that we've witnessed in the series, it is a bit worrying that less experienced users can simply fall back on their CPU buddies when the going gets tough, and you're desperately trying to scrape that equalising goal in the last five minutes of a match.

Again, though, this all ties back into the sense that FIFA 16 is trying to operate with realism in mind. Because pacey wingers and strikers aren't as reliable, and because defending is more about positioning and forcing errors than it is about straight up tackles, matches tend to be scrappier affairs where much of the action happens in the middle of the pitch – and this is where personal preference is going to become a defining factor.

If you've always wanted FIFA to adopt a more realistic approach to the beautiful game, then you'll likely adore the changes that this year's instalment brings, as they undoubtedly amplify the need to focus on the tactical, methodical side of the sport. In contrast, if you've always loved the end-to-end excitement that the franchise tends to emphasise, then you may be disappointed that such happenings aren't quite as prevalent this time around. Don't get us wrong, you can still experience those heart-stopping thrills and spills that FIFA is famous for, but you're usually going to have to work a lot harder for them.

But don't worry too much if you find yourself somewhat unstuck, as FIFA Trainer – a new feature that's built directly into the gameplay – can help both newcomers and veterans refine their game. Essentially, Trainer gives you on-screen, in-action instructions depending on your current situation, and you can turn it on and off with a click of R3. It'll tell you which direction you should be moving, it'll list available commands, and it'll even provide you with button prompts if you feel that you need them. If you've ever been put off by the franchise's myriad input combinations, then FIFA Trainer might just help you get to grips with the title's finer points. With that in mind, you could say that this year's release is a great place to start.

FIFA 16's gameplay is going to be a bit divisive, then, so it's a good job that its buoyed by a number of positive design choices and additional content off the pitch. As always, the title's presentation is stellar, and menus are slick, easy to use, and engaging. Together with real world news updates, customisable main menu panels ensure that every time you boot the game up, you're presented with stuff that gets you into the right footballing mindset almost immediately. It's an impressive achievement, and something that FIFA gets absolutely right every single year.

Likewise, presentation during matches has also been altered for the better. New information graphics have been incorporated into gameplay, which feature details such as player transfer fees and individual player statistics, and although they don't represent a huge step forward, it's nice to see your team's current star get highlighted before kick off, and it helps the release build an even more believable campaign – especially in career mode.

Graphically, FIFA 16 hasn't changed all that much since last year's iteration. There's some better lighting and more detail to be found in many of the included stadiums, but player models still look slightly awkward at times, and some embarrassing clipping issues remain, if you know where to find them. Make no mistake, though – this is still an attractive footy sim, it's just that we'd like to see a bit of an update on the visual side of things by the time that FIFA 17 rolls around. As it stands, FIFA's looked just about the same since it first appeared on the PlayStation 4 – and that was three games ago.

There's some obvious visual variety to be found thanks to the inclusion of women's international teams, however, and although you wouldn't be blamed for assuming that a skin swap is all that they bring to the table, you'd be wrong to do so in this case. A huge step forward for the franchise, sports games, and even football as a whole, the 12 included women's teams bring a surprisingly fresh flavour to gameplay. A lot of effort has clearly been put into how to correctly differentiate the ebb and flow of women's football, and the result is a less physical, more deliberate style of play that provides an interesting, alternate angle on FIFA 16's systems. Of course, it's a bit of a shame that all of this is limited to online friendly matches and offline tournaments, but if EA Sports can build on what it has over the next few years, then women's football should turn out to be a very welcome addition.

The other new mode to grab the headlines on the path to the title's launch is Ultimate Team Draft. FIFA's most popular mode has taken one of its main hooks – the fact that you can build a ragtag team and guide them to glory – and moulded it into a offshoot that has the potential to provide an easier route to satisfaction. Draft grants you a random assortment of players and formations, and tasks you with making it all work. Higher rated players are gifted to you far more frequently than in the standard Ultimate Team mode, and right from the off, it's clear that this is an addition which is built for those who want increased rewards for their time spent grinding for coins – the currency that's used to buy randomised packs of players.

Despite being a good idea, there's one niggling problem on the back of Draft that doesn't sit too well with us. In order to unlock the new mode, you'll need to save up and spend 15,000 coins, which means that you'll need to grind a bit of Ultimate Team regardless. And if you don't want to? Well, you'll have to cough up real money so that you can buy 300 FIFA points and nab a Draft token. Given that Ultimate Team is so rife with real world money issues to begin with, this seems like the easy way out for EA, in which it's essentially telling people that they can get to the good stuff – the Messis, the Ronaldos, the Neymars – right now, as long as they're prepared to pay a little extra for it.

Conclusion

FIFA 16's rebalanced gameplay makes it the most realistic entry in the series to date, but potentially, that won't sit well with those who prefer the fast, constant, end-to-end thrills of previous instalments. This year's game still plays incredibly well as a whole, though, and by forcing you to rely more on the tactical aspects of the sport, it arguably offers up a more rewarding experience. With so much content on offer, both old and new, alongside its many accessibility options, it's still hard not to recommend FIFA to footy fans of all ages and skill levels.