You better bend before I go in the first car to Mexico
Last month I had the pleasure of previewing Forza Horizon 5, the latest in the Forza spin-off series from developer Playground Games. It was my first time playing anything related to the Forza franchise, so when I referred to it as a “racing sim,” many people were quick to point out how wrong that description was. Not wanting to make that mistake again should I be called on to review the full game, I spent the last month playing Forza Horizon 4 to better familiarize myself with how others see the series.
And yeah, I get it now. While I would argue the unique handling of each vehicle, realistic road conditions, and fine-tuning options of Horizon 4 sets it apart from pure arcade racers like, say, Cruis’n Blast, the sheer number of jumps I went off and hovercrafts I raced would certainly make me refrain from referring to it simply as a sim. It’s more than that. It’s a playground for anyone who loves to get behind the wheel and drive.
Playing around two dozen hours of Forza Horizon 4 certainly prepared me for what Playground Games had in store for the sequel, but it also put a spotlight on just how similar the two games are. Jumping from the UK to Mexico felt like nothing more than a palette swap at first, with the same activities I completed on the snowy hillsides outside Edinburgh showing their face here. But those feelings of been there/done that dissipated when I discovered Forza Horizon 5‘s secret weapon: the weather.
Forza Horizon 5 (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S [reviewed], Xbox Series X)
Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Xbox Games Studios
Released: Nov. 5, 2021 (Early Access), Nov. 9, 2021
Forza Horizon 4 is most notable for its introduction of the season system to the open-world franchise. Every week, the look and feel of its English countryside would change from winter to spring to summer to fall. It was a stunning effect as the trees and forests of the U.K. would absolutely glow with yellow autumn leaves and shine with a fresh pack of cold winter snow. Arguably, the season system in Horizon 4 was more of an aesthetic advancement rather than something that changed how you played the game. With Forza Horizon 5, the seasons are less visually stunning than the last game, but the weather effects have been pumped up to the extreme.
Playground Games has been hyping up its new local weather mechanic, and with good reason. It is, in a word, stunning and possibly a game-changer for those who’ve been following the series since 2012. The gist of how it works is that the weather can change on different parts of the map at different times. So while it might be bright and sunny on the sands of the Baja, over in the beautifully rendered city of Guanajuato, it could be overcast or raining in the Riviera Maya. As storms move in and out, the conditions on the road can go from dry to rain-slicked while dirt paths will moisten with mud that’ll cake your tires and send cars sliding if they don’t adjust to the weather conditions.
My review period was limited to just the summer wet season, giving me a good glimpse at how storms can slowly move across the map and how cloud coverage and overcast skies alter the colors and light of the landscape. I live in the American Southwest, so much of what I see in my area is similar to what is found in several locations throughout the map. The skies I see in this game are pretty much the same skies I see every day, which is why my jaw dropped when I saw just how eerily accurate Forza Horizon 5‘s depiction of changing weather conditions and the day-to-night cycle is. It is astoundingly realistic, even on an Xbox Series S and even when playing in Performance Mode, which prioritizes framerate over graphics.
But of course, the weather isn’t here solely to be admired. Its real purpose is to alter how players attack each race and challenge they find on the map. Rain-slicked and muddy roads will require a different strategy than the bone-dry pavement you’ll travel on during the game’s hot and dry seasons. While I was stuck with just the slick summer roads, several of the events I took part in gave me a proper look at how the other seasons will work and just how extreme the weather can get.
I got to race through a monstrous sandstorm, which is the big draw of the hot season, and escape the soggy jungles of Cascadas de Agua Azul during what can only be described as a monsoon. These moments highlighted the impact extreme weather events can have on driving conditions and your field of vision. Both of these storm types, as well as the thick fog you’ll encounter in the twilight hours of the wet season, can greatly obfuscate your view, adding even more challenge and opportunities for visual splendor to the task at hand. And as much fun as I had with the events the developers created, I can’t wait to see how the community uses these new weather features in their creations.
It is a good thing Playground Games put so much time and effort into implementing this incredibly effective weather system because when you strip that away, there isn’t much separating Forza Horizon 5 from its predecessor.
You’re still competing in a wide variety of races that are divided into four categories (road, cross-country, dirt, street) and trying to score three stars in all those death-defying PR Stunts like big jumps and speed traps. There are still seasonal events and story missions to complete, online competitors to drag race, hundreds of cars to collect, several houses to buy, and Horizon Arcade activities you can enjoy. It can be overwhelming when you see just how many different activities are available at any given moment. Thankfully, the game’s menus have been streamlined, making it easier to focus on earning the accolades that’ll unlock more races and events, including the big Showcase Events.
Those showcase setpieces might actually be the most disappointing part of Forza Horizon 5 as they retread ideas the series has used before. You’re going to race a plane, a train, and several types of automobiles, none of which feel all that original or really tap into the Mexican setting. The game’s story missions do a better job at implementing this country’s culture into the gameplay, even if they do so by limiting the elements of Mexico on display to those that are most easily recognized by us gringos. You’ll hear a lot about familia and vochos and lucha libre wrestlers, all of which is delivered with the type of Spanglish your dad would use to show off to the hotel staff while on vacation in Puerto Vallarta.
Even if Forza Horizon 5‘s storylines and dialogue only reference a small portion of Mexican culture, I think you still get a great look at the diversity this country has on offer with its all-encompassing landscape. This rendition of Mexico is huge, with deserts, farmlands, jungles, ruins, mountains, rivers, a city, towns, and brilliant beaches to explore. There is a great deal of variety to be found here, and the many events and races that dot the map do a spectacular job of making sure you see every last inch of it. Also doing a good job of making sure you see as much of the map as you can is the navigation system, which will routinely recommend a slow, winding route to your destination rather than what is the quickest option. I mean, there is a highway that runs east to west through most of the map, yet the nav system seems to think I should always be taking my Apollo Intensa Emozione on the backroads of an agave field.
While I didn’t care to try and operate my Apollo or Bugatti or any of the other vehicles I own that are classified as “Track Toys” on the backroads, the lack of barriers throughout the map—combined with the abundance of dirt and muddy paths—kept me behind the wheel of my off-road vehicles more often than those made for street racing.
In Forza Horizon 4, I felt compelled to stay on the pavement as much as I could with all the cobblestone fences that lined the streets, almost as if they were a visual-mental restraint on how I should be going about exploring the world. Remove most of that fencing, and you have a game that rewards you for breaking off the beaten path. It’s freeing to know that I can get behind the wheel of my GMC Jimmy and attempt to drive straight up the side of a mountain, and no matter what happens, I still make some sort of progress, either by gaining XP for myself or unlocking new features for that vehicle.
Any issues I found with Forza Horizon 5 are minimal at best. The game does have a nasty habit of vanishing NPC cars from the road or freezing them in place, and the nav system, as mentioned before, can be pretty lousy. I mean, it once sent me careening through an outdoor dining space like an old man whose family desperately needs to take away his license.
I spent most of my review session playing in Graphics Mode on Xbox Series S, which locks the frame rate at 30fps and features a minimal amount of pop-in when compared to Performance Mode. That mode runs at a nearly silky-smooth 60fps, but the pop-in is abundant, and depending on what you’re doing, can be very distracting. I actually had to use the rewind feature in one of my races after the shadow of an evergreen tree suddenly appeared on the road as I was driving over it, completely throwing off my concentration.
It would be foolish of me to say that Forza Horizon 5 is the best game in the series given my very limited knowledge of its history. However, I can say with confidence this is the most fun I’ve had with a racing game that doesn’t involve a plumber and a princess. There is just so much to do and so much to see that I can easily lose hours of my day exploring all it has to offer. And with continued support from the developers and community, I’ll have no reason to stop playing anytime soon.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]