There have been many great racing games over the years, but none have reached the same heights as Playground Games’ Forza Horizon series. Despite being a spin-off, this much more arcade take on an Xbox staple has surpassed its predecessor, and stands as the greatest genre effort of all-time.
The above was true beginning with the first game, but things have steadily improved and gotten bigger over the course of several others. Now, about a year into a new generation of consoles, there’s another hotly anticipated entry to talk about, that being Forza Horizon 5.
In previous years, Playground Games took us to locations like Colorado, Australia, Great Britain and a collective take on Southern France and Northern Italy. These exotic (to some) locations delivered incredible vistas for high speed racing, and gave each individual entry its own theme, feeling and flavour. This continues here, in a game that is set in the beautiful and varied confines of Mexico.
We all know Mexico as being hot, with arid sands, beautiful beaches and popular tourist attractions. There’s more to the country than that, though, and the developers made an obvious effort to both celebrate and differentiate the country’s environmental regions. As such, Forza Horizon 5 promises and celebrates the fact that it offers 11 different biomes, each of which is unique in its own way. These include canyons, farmland, arid hills, sandy desert, urban environments, tropical coastlines, swamps, rocky coasts and beautiful jungle. On top of this, the game also allows you to drive up, around and within volcanoes, complete with hot lakes and magma.
Needless to say, Playground Games’ version of Mexico is as varied as the country itself, even if it’s obviously not to scale. This doesn’t keep the location from both feeling and being massive, though, because it’s both the largest and most diverse yet. That’s saying a lot, given how great its predecessors were.
The core campaign begins as your superstar driver arrives at Horizon Mexico, after having great success in Great Britain. Those behind the Festival have moved and set up in new digs, and they’re looking forward to seeing what their best driver will do within them.
Although you’ll begin at one festival point, you’ll quickly level up and become able to expand things outward. This introduces a lot of player choice, because you’re able to choose what your next stop (and event type) will be. Will you unlock road racing, dirt racing, cross country racing or PR stunts? It’s all up to you.
With that all being said, it’s important to also note that the aforementioned choices aren’t limited to setting up new outposts. No, there’s more to it than that. You can also choose to expand upon previous sites, to unlock new events and stories, and to also increase their sizes. Doing so usually unlocks a special event, be it a barn find or something where you’re sent out on an expedition.
Generally speaking, unlocking a new outpost involves driving to that new location and setting up shop. Sometimes this takes a bit of time, because said spot is numerous kilometers away. This time around, though, you’re also tasked with meeting specific NPCs and completing tasks for them. For example, one involves driving into the jungle to find a downed plane and a special car, while another involves exploring old ruins from a now extinct former civilization. These jaunts are both enjoyable and visceral, and they also introduce side objectives that can earn you accolades and help complete challenges. Examples include taking pictures beside old statues, finding a spot to drop a radio beacon, and collecting all of the flight equipment the aforementioned pilot dropped when he abandoned his plane. I tried to complete as many of them as I could, but some required an annoying amount of finesse, such as jumping from one crate to another in order to get a piece of flight equipment, despite it being close quarters and no jump existing.
The good news is that, even if these secondary objectives aren’t your thing, they’re not mandatory. Accolades are just another layer of the Forza Horizon 5 experience, and not all gamers will care about them. Those who do their best to complete them, however, can look forward to unlocking special cars and other items.
After reading the above statement, you’re likely wondering if the wheel spins continue to exist. I can assure you that they do, and that they continue to be a big part of the game’s experience system. If you’re like me, you look forward to spinning the wheels every time it becomes an option, and find it a great way to unlock new cars, items and helpful monetary rewards. The game would suffer if they were removed, that’s for sure.
At its core, this is mostly the same Forza Horizon that many of us immediately fell in love with on the Xbox 360. Hell, I still remember attending a review event, and being awed by the first game before it was set to release. After setting the controller down, I found myself itching to play the full version, and hoping that a review copy would arrive sooner than later. Since then, this has been my favourite series.
The old adage says that if something isn’t broken, you shouldn’t try to fix it. This goes for Forza Horizon, which I consider to be near perfect. Thankfully, Forza Horizon 5 hasn’t changed much about the core experience, but has gone out of its way to introduce things that accentuate it. Things like dirt storms, swamps and a Forza Horizon Arcade mode where you work with other players to complete goals, such as earning a certain amount of combined skill points. The dirt storms are especially neat, because they’re something new, unique and unusual, at least when it comes to racing games. Driving through one reduces visibility, changes the colour of the world around you, and seems realistic. Then again, I’ve never personally driven through one, or even been to Mexico.
Along the way, radio DJs, Horizon organizers and other NPCs will highlight and introduce you to certain areas of Mexico. This is slightly different from what I talked about above, because we’re talking about named, real life locations. Simply put, you’ll find yourself racing through a digitized take on Tulum, La Gran Caldera, Ek’ Balam, Guanajuato and Cabo San Lucas. If you’ve ever been there on vacation, you’ll likely also recognize certain landmarks outside of the above. The attention to detail found within Forza Horizon 5 is both impressive and downright staggering.
Of course, the core of this experience is racing, and that’s what’s most important. However, given what series we’re talking about, it’s almost to be expected that the core driving mechanics are stellar. That’s always been the case, and it continues to be here, within what is perhaps the greatest racing game ever made.
The ‘campaign’ presents a shitload of events, all of which encompass the aforementioned types, like road racing, dirt racing, cross country and street racing, which is a newer focus that attempts to please the Need for Speed crowd. If your goal is to complete everything, you’ll spend a good amount of time driving many incredibly detailed real world cars, all of which handle like a dream. If, for some reason, you dislike how a car handles, you can also tune it to your liking.
Along with regular events, you’ll be tasked with partaking in visceral showcases, which continue to be designed so that the final seconds are pulse pounding. Playground has upped the ante some, with regards to their spectacle, which is evident from the start, when you’re dropped out of planes and then get to race against stylish motorcyclists wearing wingsuits. The showcases never stop being fun, and they’re always a highlight. Plus, they’re something that no other racing series — in my memory, at least — has ever done.
All of the above is complemented by racing stories, which add variety into the mix. One involves driving a university scientist around, so that he can document Mexico’s unique geography, which is a story that concludes with your second trip into a dirt storm. This is just one of the included stories, however, and the goal is to try to earn three stars on each of their chapters; something which leads to special unlocks and achievements.
The driving is consistently great throughout, and it has a great way of straddling the line between too much and just enough. You’ll often feel on the edge of your seat, and that’s one of the things that this franchise does best. Its sense of speed is phenomenal, as is its wealth of available vehicles, which runs the gamut from sports cars and regular passenger cars, to trucks, buggies, SUVs and more. Once again, this list features highlights from today, as well as recent years, and the past as well. Muscle cars, for instance.
Rewinds also continue to be available, which is a good thing. I know that purists aren’t a big fan of them, but they’re certainly helpful, especially if you screw something up a long way into a hectic race and would rather not start over the from the beginning. If you’re not into using them, you’re free to turn them off. I’m glad they exist, and it’s nice to know that they’re there.
Accidents do happen, after all. Plus, no matter how perfect you try to be, and no matter how great the AI tends to be, the unexpected can occur.
My time with this game has mostly been spent on ‘average’ difficulty, although I’ve occasionally bumped it up to ‘above average.’ While I’m pretty good at racing games, I’m not incredible, so I steer clear of the highest difficulties. I do, however, wish that there was something in-between average and above average, because it can be a frustrating jump. This isn’t to say that I went from first in one race to last in another when I made the switch, because that isn’t the case. I did go from winning every race to usually ending up in second or third, though, because there’d often be one or two cars that were very difficult to catch. Then, after placing second or third for a few events, the game would recommend that I drop back to average, after having recommended upping the difficulty not that long before.
The polish found within this high octane, adrenaline-fueled, package is second to none as well. There’s the odd issue at the time of writing, but it’s likely due to launch having just occurred a couple of days ago, and will surely be addressed. The main problem I encountered was messages saying that I’d lost connection to the server — something I’ve received a few times thus far, but was able to quickly address by pressing a button to reconnect. Other than it, there were odd bits of slowdown, where the game would slow a bit before catching up. Nothing major, though. Most of my time with this thing was incredible, not to mention seamless and polished to excess.
Granted, I am playing on an Xbox Series S, which is something else to take into account. I look forward to one day playing this on an Xbox Series X, with a new 4K TV, because I’m sure it’ll look even more stunning than it already does. That’s saying a lot, too, because it already looks incredible on Series S. As such, if you’re thinking about getting an S while you wait for an X to become available, there’s no need to worry about this flagship title. The same is true if you’re someone who already has an S.
I can’t remember if this option was in previous games, but I was happy to see that Forza Horizon 5 has a ‘music focused’ audio setting. The base setting is geared towards the cars, which sound great but can get tedious to listen to when they’re that loud. Part of the fun of Forza Horizon — and almost any racing game for that matter — is being able to drive around and listen to a good soundtrack of complementary music, so tuning the audio so that the music is louder than the cars is key in my opinion.
The soundtrack, itself, is pretty good. There are some really good songs, and some that leave something to be desired. At least in my opinion. While I originally thought it had the potential to be the best in the series, I don’t think that anymore. That said, it’s good and above average for sure.
Several different radio stations continue to be available, including all of the favourites from past titles, like XS. As someone who generally prefers metal, but has also grown up loving classic rock and certain rock bands, that’s almost always been my go to. This time around, it includes ‘Holding Poison’ and ‘No Son of Mine’ by the Foo Fighters, ‘Trouble’s Coming’ by Royal Blood, ‘Smile’ by Wolf Alice, ‘Teardrops’ by Bring Me the Horizon, ‘Caution’ by the Killers and ‘You Can Get It (feat. Klay)’ by the Arkells. I enjoy racing to all of those songs, but they haven’t appeared as often as I’ve liked. It seems like mediocre at best songs by Plague Vendor, Death Valley Girls and Blah, Blah, Blahs keep coming up.
If you’re not an XS fan, you have other options, like Hospital, Pulse, Block Party, Bass Arena and Radio Eterna. Some highlights of songs and artists from these channels include:
- ‘Levitating’ by Dua Lipa
- ‘The Valley of the Pagans (feat. Beck)’ by the Gorillaz
- ‘Straight to the Morning (feat. Jarvis Cocker)’ by Hot Chip
- ‘Intergalactica Remixed’ by Beastie Boys
- ‘Industry Baby’ by Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow
- ‘It’s Like That (Jason Nevins Remix)’ by Run DMC
- ‘Burn Out’ by Kings of the Rollers
- ‘Boundless’ by Logistics
- ‘Techtonic’ by Metrik
- ‘Jungle Fury’ by RIOT
- ‘Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2’ by Sandor Falvai
The classic music channel leaves something to be desired this time around, after games full of iconic songs. It’s not something I’ve ever listened to a lot, though. Just on occasion, and during special events.
As mentioned above, the cars look and sound phenomenal. They’re incredibly true to life, feature a staggering amount of detail, and react to the game world in very realistic and impressive ways. Mexico, itself, also looks downright stunning, and has great sound effects to match.
There’s also some extreme weather to deal with, such as intense lightning storms, not to mention the dirt storms themselves. This game handles such weather events better than I’ve ever seen, and it truly ups the ante while also making for more intense driving.
The NPCs you’ll deal with — who usually take the form of fellow racers, Horizon promoters, guides and the like — also sound quite good. There’s a big British influence, because this is a sequel where it’s noted that the Festival has moved from the UK to Mexico early on. However, you’ll also meet characters voiced by Mexican/Spanish actors, who do a good job bringing their avatars to life as well. The only surprising thing was that there were only a couple of decent, but unspectacular voices for the (player created) female drivers.
If you’re on the fence about picking Forza Horizon 5 up, there’s no need to be. It’s an incredible racing game, which carries on a tradition that dates back to the Xbox 360. Although this may well be the best series entry yet, I always struggle to pick a favourite because each of the six (including the Fast and the Furious spin-off) games have provided me with many fantastic experiences. There’s no doubting that it’s the biggest, and that it offers the most content, not to mention the most bang for your buck. Then again, if you subscribe to Game Pass you won’t have to worry about spending any extra money to play this thing, which is an unbelievable perk.
There’s simply nothing like Forza Horizon, and Forza Horizon 5 exists as a fantastic extension of the greatest racing series of all-time. Although it has a couple of small issues, and is similar to those that came before it, it’s so good that it’s hard to really fault. It’s a masterpiece, and exists as a fantastic system seller.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with.
- A ton of content, across the largest game world yet
- Looks, sounds and plays incredibly
- Accolades add more replay value, at least for some
- Minor server issues at launch
- If you've never liked these games in the past, this one likely won't change your mind
- A very tiny and rare bit of slowdown (at launch) on Series S