Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC

The Champions League is here! I’m not simply referring to the annual return of the Union of European Football Associations’ insanely popular football (nee: soccer) tournament. Electronic Arts has committed a huge coup with FIFA 19 as it’s the first title in the franchise to feature the European tournament in fully-licensed glory, along with the Europa League and the Super Cup. The inclusion marks another step forward for the franchise in EA’s quest to create the total digital football experience.

The addition of the world’s most prestigious international club tournament (my apologies to the Club World Cup) isn’t the only game-changing addition to the franchise. There are also numerous changes to the gameplay and to the game’s various modes. EA hasn’t reinvented the franchise from scratch nor has it simply applied a new paintjob of stat updates and nicer graphics. FIFA 19 is a wonderful midpoint of the two that provides what gamers expect along with a few things they’ve demanded and a few extra surprises.

What's new?

In-game tactics have been redone this year to give the player more freedom to dictate their team’s preferred playing style. In previous FIFA titles, the left/right D-pad buttons controlled the team’s “mentality.” The default is “balanced,” and players had options to drop back on the field with a defensive mentality or push forward with an attacking mentality. It was helpful but very limited. Not so anymore thanks to Dynamic Tactics.

Dynamic Tactics gives players the freedom to edit each of the five mentality nodes (two defensive, one balanced, two attacking) as they see fit. For example, in my Career Mode, my chosen team’s balanced approach is a 4-3-3 that emphasizes possession. My most defensive approach, accessible with two presses on the left D-pad button, drops my team back into a 5-4-1 that emphasizes long balls and counter-attacking. Finally, my team’s all-out attacking approach, accessible with two presses on the right D-pad button, is a high-pressing 3-2-4 formation.

The on-the-fly, in-game tactics, accessible via the up and down buttons of the D-pad, have also been modified. The new attacking tactics are Get In The Box, Attacking Full Backs, Hug Sideline, and Extra Striker. The new defensive tactics are Striker Drop Back, Team Press (similar to High Pressure of previous games), Overload Ball Side, and Offside Trap (unchanged from previous games).

Gamers have numerous ways to enjoy the Champions League: exhibition, tournaments, and via Career mode. The latter also features the Europa league and the Super Cup one-off match. The official tournament mode follows the real-life tournament bracket and results but can be edited to create a fantasy Champions League as well.

A champion's story

The Champions League also takes centerstage in the game’s story mode, “The Journey: Champions,” with Alex Hunter, Danny Williams, and Kim Hunter all return (no Gareth Walker however). Not to be outdone, the tournament will also feature in FUT Ultimate Team.

Exhibition matches not only include Champions League friendlies but also include new House Rules. The setting gives gamers the option to customize the rules of each match with different requirements to score (Headers Only, Volleys Only, etc.) but also includes a wild No Rules mode where the only rule is that there are no rules!

Finally, the Champions League also brings the commentary stylings of Derek Rae and Lee Dixon for all UCL-related outings. Beyond that, the usual cast of Martin Tyler and Alan Smith hold the fort elsewhere.

If this title seems like a dream to some fans, well, those fans will also be pleased to know that FIFA 19 plays like a dream. Let’s ignore all the public relations jargon and get straight to it: the best compliment I can give the game is that it plays more like a certain competitor; which is to say that an EA FIFA title controls far more like a realistic simulator than the arcade-style game the franchise has been known for. Things just got real (and it’s about time too)!