Review: Forza Horizon 5

If you’ve played a Forza Horizon game before, you’re familiar with what it all entails. It’s a driving game, a spinoff of a hardcore simulation, but set in an open and exotic world. Whilst Horizon 5 doesn’t do much to evolve the series, it perfects a lot of the niggles and leaves you with an excellent if familiar taste.

Horizon 5 is set in Mexico, which is a great choice. Mexico has several different biomes and climates, all of which are reflected in the huge open world. It makes for a varied and exciting driving environment and affords a nice mix of open straightaways, meandering country and town roads, and off-road tracks.

Like any open-world game, Horizon 5 sets you a multitude of things to do in the world by going icon-overload on the mini-map. A loose story knits it all together – it’s best you don’t think about it too hard, but apparently, there’s a festival in town, and it’s expanding but can only do so with the help of a ‘superstar driver’ (that is you). I’ve never been to a car festival so I don’t know how the skills of one or a few drivers can really help boost popularity but maybe it’s a thing.

It’s all a bit ‘driving is cool dude’ but stops short of the full-on ‘driver bro’ attitude of the most recent Horizon. Still, whether you pick a male or female driver (and you have a choice of independent pronouns to use) you’re basically a young person straight out of Cambridge. Very straight and narrow. And you’re right in the thick of a Mexican community, who merge Mexican and English as they fawn over your driving ability. 

But who cares, Forza Horizon has always been about the spectacle of driving, and here it excels. The game begins as you control a number of cars launched out of a spray-painted aeroplane, and blast down the side of a volcano, then through the jungle and into sandstorms. It’s just showing off at this point in terms of how much you can see (it’s not just a name, you can drive into the horizon) and how good it looks. Forza Horizon 5 might the closest that a game has come to photo-realism. Gran Turismo Sport had an incredible photo mode that positioned cars on top of real-life photos which looked good. Here, everything is rendered in-game, and it looks just as good. Borderline unbelievable (especially if you’re running the quality mode).

Quality mode, whilst good locks the game to 30 frames a second. I prefer the 60 frames performance mode, which still looks spectacular and loses a lot of the motion blur which does a good job of masking the frame gap (side note: I hate motion blur). Obviously, there is a photo mode, and given how good smoke and dust effects look too, it’s a good thing as well. It really is impressive. 

Also impressive are the number of things to do. There’s an awful lot – from races (street, track, off-road, point-to-point) to speed cameras to set records against, speed traps, drift events. Showcase events return too, so you’ll race against planes, bikes, volcanoes – all sorts of crazy stuff that’s just too dangerous to happen in real life. But it is spectacular for a game.

New to the series wrapped up in the Showcase events and story (!!!!) are mini location challenges. These see you get to locations and have to find certain things based on clues. Adding a light puzzle element to Forza is a neat touch, and it’s not overly tricky but a fun deviation to add another layer to things. 

The driving is what it’s all about, and using a slightly arcade modded version of the traditional Forza handling, it is as brilliant as you could want it to be. Cars handle differently, all sorts of mods and tweaks can also affect this – there’s frankly way too much depth given the incredible car roster to really experience it all, but there’s as much as you would want to do (or as little, in my case). I’m more interested in liveries, and getting designs from people more talented than I to paste on my car is super easy and seamless.

UI improvements from the menu-vomit which was Horizon 4 are welcome. It’s clear and not too overwhelming where you can go to select each element. Some things are a bit too hidden – short, season challenges (as in literally, weather impacted season challenges) award you points which you can exchange for prizes, but it’s not super clear how to find these. Changing the clothes of your driver is also a bit tucked away, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker.

More frustrating is the auction house system. Essentially, cars cost a lot of money but you can buy them from other players who are selling, at a cheaper rate. The refresh rate on the server isn’t fast enough though to capture your bids and update in real-time, which can lead to a lot of errors in trying to bid for a car. In the end, I found myself more often than not just leaving the auction alone as it’s more hassle than it’s worth.

Not all interactions with other players are bad though. You’ll see other humans zipping about the game world, and can challenge any of them to a race at any time. Getting in and out of server game worlds is seamless, although there were some connection troubles at launch, this has calmed down now. Otherwise, you can join friends for a ‘Road Trip’, play vs. the AI in what is essentially a co-op campaign, or jump into matchmaking. It’s about all you could want from a racing game, alongside options to play fun games such as cat and mouse, or more extreme sports like car bowling. 

Of the few niggles there are, there’s probably a more tonal one which grates me the most. Something about driving around this incredible area of beauty, just to build a massive festival site in an ancient temple doesn’t sit quite right. I’m probably overthinking it, but festival culture can jar a bit with some of the serenity in virtual Mexico, even if you turn off the EDM radio mix and annoying DJs. Still, Forza Horizon 5 seems to be the ultimate casual driving game, that’s got enough hardcore in it for the hardcore, and enough fun for everyone else.

Reviewed on Xbox Series X

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