Forza Horizon's implied promise is in the name. You see something on the horizon, you can go there. Skyrim with cars. Far Cry with more cars and no weapons. Forza Horizon 5, the latest game in the venerable Xbox racing series, is nothing more and nothing less than that promise – only bigger, brighter and so much more beautiful than its predecessors.
Forza Horizon 5, developed by Playground Games and officially released on November 9th for Xbox and PC, is in some ways The Monte Carlo Casino Parking Lot: The Game – 5th Edition. Unless you're driving fast cars down long roads through breathtaking vistas, amassing a collection of obscenely expensive wealth mobiles for no other purpose than staring at them. And that others stare at her too.
There's an upbeat swing, an almost infectious buzz rooted in an utter absurdity that gives Forza Horizon 5 its own express lane on the crowded highway of racing games. This is a game where you can drive a warthog (the same military vehicle from Halo) through vine-covered Aztec ruins.
It's a game where you can get hold of a Porsche 918 Spyder with a Mario-themed paint job and then unceremoniously plunge it into a smoldering caldera. You can get a polished mahogany Lamborghini Aventador to speeds north of 200 mph, as if such an overtly ridiculous vehicle wouldn't fall apart at the seams at half speed in seconds.
Yes, Forza Horizon 5 is more than happy to embrace its goofy side, an ethos that's obvious at first glance. The opening sequences are (without exaggeration here) some of the most ridiculous thrilling moments I've ever played in a game. You start in a four-wheeler parked in the hold of a cargo plane that drops you on the side of a volcano.
A few minutes later, you're in a more sensible car, unless you're driving through a dust storm so big it obscures the entire horizon. Another smash cut, then you crash through the jungle in a custom coupé. A fourth, and you speed down the beach highways culminating in a drag-strip sprint against a neon-speckled airplane as hot air balloons soar overhead and heartbreaking electronics play in the background. I laughed with joy the whole time.
The rest of the game doesn't quite capture that magic – I haven't seen a sandstorm in 25 hours, for example – but it stays on track admirably. That said, maybe the lack of incessant thrill is because I've really walked this trail before. We all have.
Forza Horizon games are always set in deliciously digitized approximations to a real place. Earlier entries have visited places like the English Cotswolds (FH4) and the Côte d’Azur (FH2) on the French Riviera, although the latter are losing serious traces by somehow neglecting Monaco, the global capital of chic pants-car culture. The focus of these cards is always a moving car festival, the eponymous Horizon Festival, whose central area serves as a kind of home base for your escapades throughout the region.
Forza Horizon 5 fits within this framework to a large extent, with some welcome tweaks. The scenery this time – a Mexico modeled from coast to coast around the city of Guanajuato – is divided into 11 wanderlust-inducing biomes.
The Horizon Festival itself is no longer fully centralized. Your initial goal is to collect enough award points, which you earn by completing events, to set up five new “outposts” that appear on the map as Coachella-like concert stages. These outposts correlate to a specific event category in the game; for example, earn the apex stage on the east coast and gain access to road races. Set up the rush stage in the northern canyons for a series of high wire stunts and so on.
Once you've set up a phase, you can still unlock bespoke missions called showcases that relate to the discipline of that phase. If you go through the motions here, you'll come across some of the more creative events in Forza Horizon 5, like a headfirst sprint against a freight train. (I have won.)
That way, you'll also find some of the more annoying ones, including a stressful series of missions that require you to keep your speed above a certain threshold. (I've lost. A lot.) So Forza Horizon 5 quickly settles into a rhythm: make small events, get points, unlock big events, rinse, wash, repeat. It helps that the map is littered with symbols – so many symbols – until the finish line of one race is likely pretty close to someone else's starting gate that you will never get anywhere.
Or at least that's how I approached things. You could also just drive around aimlessly. Nobody will yell at you.
What does FH5's multiplayer look like?
Although Playground offered multiplayer sessions against members of the studio, for this review I chose to focus on single player gameplay. Any test of a multiplayer mode will not be representative of how it is actually to be played. Stay tuned for a look at the multiplayer experience when Forza Horizon 5 is live and open to all.
Each of the six outposts (the five you build and the one you start with) ends in a final competition for the category, an endurance test in which you have to navigate a route from one side of the map to the other in the road race, dirt- Racing, street racing and so on.
The highlight of this is The Goliath on the main stage. The so-called "boss" of Forza Horizon 5 and the "greatest race in the history of Forza" to use it in the parlance of the game, the event is appropriately named – a continuous race for the whole playing map. At nearly 35 miles in length, you'd expect it to be a half-hour endeavor, easy. I decided to race in an incredibly fast Lamborghini Huracán from 2014 and finished the race in just 15: 10: 748. To give you an idea of how close the Forza Horizon 5 street races can get, the runner-up pulled in at 3:10:48 PM.
If I hadn't finished first, I would have felt the urge to try again, as the podiums in Forza Horizon 5 only have room for one driver. For better or for worse, the game sticks to Will Ferell's “If You're Not First, You're Last” from the 2006 film Talladega Nights. Get gold and you'll get 1,000 points and a tick next to the event icon your world map. If you're anything but first, you'll walk away with 750 points – and worse, no tick. (You will get more award points for the "Boss" style events.)
There's no difference between a resounding loss and a nail-biting one. On the one hand, that made me feel better in the few races that I was last in. On the other hand, come on, couldn't I have at least some credit for those perfectly acceptable second and third places?
Forza Horizon 5 can be a difficult game if you want to, but it doesn't have to be, thanks largely to two tools that significantly lower the barrier to entry. The first is the optional driving line, a superimposed navigation guide that shows you exactly where to be on the road and how hard (or not hard) to accelerate to determine the best possible time for a race. It's tremendously helpful, but nothing like the Forza patented ability to rewind time. Driven off a bridge? Turned too sharply? Just tap Y to go back five seconds and try again. It has no ramifications for unlimited use. When combined, you can literally win any race with either tool, provided you have the patience to perfect every maneuver.
However, there is an incentive to learn to drive without such aids. As you make the game more difficult, you can earn more credits, in-game currency used to buy vehicles, houses (which are little more than pretty fast-moving places), and cosmetic options. It's a nice way to determine, on your own terms, how fast you want to earn all the things that there are so much of. Games like Destiny have proven that the grind can always be a marathon. But if you're skilled enough at Forza, it can be a sprint too.
As my colleague Mike Fahey noted in his preview of the game, Forza Horizon 5's character customization is pretty thorough. You can identify as male, female, or non-binary, a trio of options that unfortunately still deserves praise in 2021. Fortunately, your voice is not tied to gender. Neither does your wardrobe. In a series, you can have limbs first. (Some legs feature beautiful illustrations by Mexico City-based artist Raúl Urias, who also designed a mural that appears in the game.) And you can customize your character as often as you want, as often as you want, except when you're in the middle of it are a race.
Forza Horizon 5 has a veritable Nordstrom that allows you to dress up your avatar with hundreds of pants and dresses, shirts and shoes and accessories of all kinds, as well as dances and other emotes. As a sign of our pandemic-ridden world, you can have your character wear a face mask. Additionally, as the game's marketing loudly proclaims, there are more than 500 cars to collect – each with its own finely tuned kit. When you consider how much work Playground must have put into developing 500 vehicles that clearly work.
Yes, you can buy basically anything with credits, but let's face it, you're probably chasing those down to save up for the 1997 McLaren F1 GT (15 million) or other museum-quality cars. The easier way is by playing a slot-like mini-game called Wheelspin. Every time you level up, which happens when you get enough experience points, you can play a round. The rules are simple: spin the wheel. Get a free article. (Most of the time, it's a sizeable chunk of credits.)
You can speed up the leveling process by rushing through various XP-granting “bonus boards” dotted around the map. These boards, of which there are 200, are often a bit off the road so you have to slow down and bump right into them. They are ultimately nothing more than distractions from the main objective of the game: to drive as fast as possible and for as long as possible. I rarely or never looked for her. Why buy a YSL imitation when you can let off steam with a real Koenigsegg? (I've also found that on a satisfactory clip, I move up through events.)
As much as Forza Horizon 5 is a game of stuff, it's also a game of statistics. For example, I can tell you that my average speed is 81 mph. (Top speed: 250 mph.) I'm not a "safe" driver with an average rate of 21 collisions per race. (Most in one race: 116.) I'm certainly a dedicated trailblazer, however, having driven 350 of the game's 578 streets and spotting 52 of the 56 landmarks.
I have earned over 5 million credits, nearly 180,000 award points, and the most I listen to is Horizon Pulse – the one that tends to play trendy, upbeat indie rock that you will be hearing in a bar next year. That comes on top of a dizzying array of hyperesoteric stats that don't make sense to me and never will, like "maximum travel right front" (24.34 inches) and "average front left tire loads" (979.9 lbf), all too are silent about the vehicle-specific statistics such as torque or terms such as “displacement”.
To the right. OK. Disclaimer Time: I'm … absolutely not a dude of a car. In fact, I'm generally a car opponent, an ardent foot soldier in the War on Cars and so on. More than once I have wondered what all this meticulously reproduced grandeur – from the white-sand beaches of Tulum to the brick-layered cityscape of Guanajuato to the humble ancient history of Teotihuacán – is supposed to be for, if all we have to do is a damned one Driving a car over it.
My character Chunk seemed to share similar thoughts at one point. When she set up an outpost in the forest, she openly noticed that a number of old buildings had stood for a thousand years, but the Horizon Festival only lasts one and often pops up to put its stamp on all of them before disappearing forever. From what I've seen, this throwaway line is the closest Forza Horizon 5 can expect the devastating effects in its fiction, but otherwise glossed over it. I mean, the game's fleet is obviously wreaking havoc everywhere. I have to remind you: 21 collisions per race!
Despite myself, I found myself enchanted with Forza Horizon 5 every step of the way. It doesn't hurt, yes, the game is really an absolute eye-catcher – just waving your head beautifully in every frame. Digital Foundry will no doubt be doing a detailed analysis in no time, but to my untrained eyes Forza Horizon 5 looks only marginally better than last year's Xbox Series X “tweaked” update for Forza Horizon 4 from 2018. Most photorealistic console game of the 2020. The same can easily be said of Forza Horizon 5 in 2021, a game that was described in such detail that the developers made the individual needles on its cacti. Namely: every screenshot you see in this review was taken using the game's photo mode.
I doubt I'll be alone drooling with anticipation to see what virtual photographers – who to date Forza Horizon 4 for shots that belong in Road & Track – do to this game.
But to say that the inherent joy of this game is only the result of its graphics, as much as I'm a sucker for that sort of thing, would be silly. The cheesy but honest truth is that Forza Horizon 5 will have a different set of delights for anyone who plays it. For you, it could be the sheer number of cars you can calibrate down to shock stiffness, whatever that means. For your friend, it could be the endless collectathon or the sheer variety of modal races. It's just fun for me, man. It's just so relentless, infectiously fun.
If this all sounds a lot like Forza Horizon 4 and Forza Horizon 3 and so on, yeah, okay. So what? Sure, Forza Horizon 5 isn't reinventing the wheel. It doesn't have to. Forza Horizon 5 is a steady climb. It's 138 bpm. It's unabridged MDMA (at least that's what I've heard). There are few real thrills in gaming that come without a catch, and Forza's core is still one of them after all these years: it feels really fantastic to be on the open road with nothing else on your mind heading towards the horizon racing as the pulsating beat of a killer song and the unencumbered knowledge that you can go on for as long as you want without being able to tell you otherwise.