Dunes, Tunes, and Sunny Afternoons
The feeling of true speed is something video games often get wrong. 200 mph should feel completely unhinged. As though every minor correction to your path is riskier than jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Forza Horizon 5 absolutely nails that feeling.
To be fair, Forza Horizon 4 nailed it too. There’s something about this series that makes every second a white knuckle affair, masterfully balancing arcade with simulation, and confined circuits with 500m jumps off the top of a volcano. It’s supremely good at allowing you to feel on the edge of losing control, but somehow inspires the confidence to try something crazy. It all goes off with the backdrop of another Horizon festival, this time set in Mexico.
The map is outstanding and boasts a huge number of different biomes to explore. There are lush jungles, Baja sand dunes, muddy plains, mountain passes, and at least two different volcanoes to explore, and trying to see it all could take … a long time. The game says there are 574 discoverable roads, and there’s basically something to do on every one of them.
Race types have all the bases covered with circuits, street races, drag races, off-road and rally races, and of course, all the wacky nonsense races the series has become known for. Add in the ridiculous number of on-road events like speed traps (my favorite) and drift challenges, and you’ll always have something to do. Forza Horizon 5 is very much another one of those, but it’s also, crucially, the best one of those they’ve made so far.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of icons on the map – by the midgame, you need to zoom almost all the way in to make out individual icons – but Horizon is at its best when you just go with the flow. Playground Games have done a fantastic job of leading you organically between events. When you finish a sprint race, there’s almost always something else to do directly in your path. It makes trying out different kinds of races really easy, and you never have to drive clear across the map without a purpose. Unless you want to. I’ll tell you a secret – you want to.
Forza Horizon 5 is stunning. The Mexican landscape incorporates elements of many regions of the actual country and does it all without the dull yellow ‘Mexico’ filter movies often use. On the Xbox Series X, this is one of the best-looking games… ever. There’s fantastic attention to detail everywhere. The car models are works of art both inside and out obviously, but it’s the incredible vistas I found myself most impressed with. Nearly infinite draw distance, and geometry so detailed you’ll have your nose against the screen trying to get that little bit closer to the action. Sightlines were clearly a major factor in the design of the map, teasing your eye with far off mountains or a glimpse of an offroad trail as you scream past. And while you’re in motion, Horizon uses motion blur to great effect, enhancing the feeling of speed even more.
In the more technical sense, Forza Horizon 5 offers Quality and Performance modes, and I think they both have some merit. Quality is quite obviously more detailed, and razor sharp despite the substantial motion blur. You’re limited to 30 fps on console here, but it appears to be well-paced and is easy to adapt to if you want maximum beauty. Performance mode does give you that silky smooth 60 fps, but is substantially softer, with more obvious jagged edges here and there. I also noticed geometry popping in ahead of the car in performance mode, but only in rare circumstances where a lot of foliage was present on the roadside.
Still, there are places to go with the inevitable Forza Horizon 6, and a few things did stick out as markers of the existence of an Xbox One version of the game. Most noticeably, surfaces don’t deform as you drive over them. It’s most noticeable in muddy situations, and in particular, one where I attempted a stunt jump repeatedly. The ruts in the mud seem to be baked in, and you won’t find your car leaving a trail of havoc on the sand dunes either.
In other places, characters’ mouths don’t actually move in most cutscenes, while cars weirdly glide to a stop seemingly independently of physics. Again, it’s minor stuff considering how bonkers the vast majority of the game looks.
What’s less minor is the sheer number of types of points and credits. You earn credits and 2 types of XP for winning races, one for your driver level, the other to advance the Horizon adventure. On the points side you earn skill points which give you driver XP, invisible car points that upgrade your car mastery and unlock perks, and somewhere in there lay the points that help you complete accolades. For the most part, you can ignore the points and just grab things as you see them in the menu, but you’ll be alarmed by the number of unlocks and on screen notifications you get all the time.
Let me put into context how many different screens and places there are to check for things. This game has barn finds – cars you discover in the wilderness that need to be restored – and I know I’ve accepted at least one of the restored cars. I can see the menu interface in my mind. Only now, 20 some hours of play later, have I found that menu again (turns out it’s only visible when you’re at ‘home’). It’s overwhelming most of the time, but it also means there are a trillion things to do.
Honestly, I think Playground could have slowed down the progression system quite a bit. Multiple times I’d unlock another chapter in the Horizon Adventure not having completed the previous event, and it rapidly led to a messy, overcrowded map that I didn’t want to scroll around. Granted, you can always find events organically, but trying to scope out a street race I hadn’t completed yet became an unnecessary chore.
All that nonsense barely hits my radar though, because the core gameplay feels phenomenal. Driving in Forza Horizon 5 is the perfect balance between arcade and simulation, allowing for the ridiculous to happen regularly, but still reminding you you can’t take that corner at 100 mph. It’s extremely customizable too, with options to adjust steering feel, assist modes, and AI difficulty that cover a huge range of player ability. Turn the AI all the way up and they’ll smoke you unless you put in a perfect race. Turn it all the way down and even a novice could have fun ripping around the map. Along the way, the game doesn’t really penalize players for being less technically skilled. You’ll earn more credits the harder you make it, but it’s more for personal satisfaction than out of necessity.
Something that’s become a necessity in recent years – thankfully – is having accessibility options, and Forza has at least a few that should make people’s lives easier. High contrast options, colorblind options, and cockpit camera drift settings are a few that stood out to me. I’ll also give a strong shout out to the fantastic list of nicknames that makes characters call you Bromeo, or Master Chief. It’s a great list.
At its core, Forza Horizon 5 is about having fun behind the wheel. It’s technically excellent and plays brilliantly, but it never takes itself too seriously. I mean, I jumped a pinata float off a mountain at one point. That balance makes the Horizon series the most grin-inducing racing games out there, and arguably one of the largest feathers in Xbox Game Studios’ cap.
*Xbox review code provided by the publisher*
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Forza Horizon 5 Review – Vamos Muchachos!