Forza Horizon 5 Review
A great, but familiar racing experience with a new backdrop
When Playground Games debuted their very first game in Forza Horizon, they had something special on their hands. The unique combination of great arcade racing and a music festival, alongside a proper story, was not something that other franchises had done. Few could have predicted just how much the franchise would grow over the years, taking players to exotic locations across the globe in the world's fastest, rarest, and most popular cars. Not only has the series become a success, it managed to continue to innovate with each new chapter, offering something new not only to their existing fans but also the racing genre as a whole. Forza Horizon 5 carries on this legacy, with another big open world to explore, a large amount of content, and the still excellent racing. It may be the smallest step up from its predecessor thus far, but it's nonetheless still the top racing game around.
The fifth entry in this racing franchise takes players to its interpretation of Mexico. The new large open world map has east and west coast lines, a jungle area, a desert area, swamps, a few small towns, and a large volcano. It's a typically varied map for the series, offering players a few different but fairly traditional environments to race around in. The roads intertwine and mix between paved and unpaved, from the long highway stretches to the twisting jungle paths that mix in some Mayan ruins. As always, the map is very well designed from a functional perspective, though the central volcano is quite a pain to get up to - but perhaps your reward is driving down the fastest and highest cliffs in the franchise to date. There are also multiple drag strips to push your tunes to the limit, and some of the longest jumps that the series has ever offered at the end of them.
The game lacks any notable urban settings - the biggest city is not that large and is not fun to drive around in. It contains a confusing maze of split roads, elevation changes, and a few very annoying tunnels that are full of protruding wall edges that are bound to instantly end your race (you might get some flashbacks to the tunnels in Forza Horizon 2). There are also some mountain tunnels across the map, which have no lights and so you are blinded by the contrast upon exit. Those huge jumps, and some tunnels, also cause some texture flickering/disappearing, but that is a minor issue.
Like its predecessor, the game world has four different weather seasons that will change on a weekly basis (or at any time if you create your own challenges), but the differences are minimal. There's obviously no snow, so instead the seasons are Hot, Wet, Storm, and Dry. Aside from a higher possibility of rain and puddles forming on roads, there's not much gameplay difference between the seasons. There is still an option to equip winter tires for some reason, as well as dirt, drift, drag, offroad, and others.
Storm season can bring in a Tropical Storm event, while the drier seasons may have a dust storm on the west coast of the map, and some seasons may also cause the top of the volcano to become active. These weather events look impressive on the horizon as you approach them, but inside the storms it's largely just very limited visibility and small debris flying everywhere. It doesn't affect the roads, or car handling, so it's not exactly all that impressive, and could be comparable (albeit at a smaller level of detail) to the Forza Horizon 2 Storm Island DLC, or perhaps the better (but of course scripted) Forza Horizon 4 Treasure Island intro.
Career mode has been slightly refreshed, but in general follows the same path of progression. When players first arrive, they can customize their driver's avatar, and aside from a few new options - such as being able to buy clothing items for money and picking a pronoun - not much has changed here. You also get to pick a voice this time, so whenever other characters talk to you in cutscenes or via radio, your avatar will have a brief conversation/response. The opening cutscenes make it seem like there is a renewed focus on the story, as you observe characters drive up, get out of cars, and have conversations. However, it's a fake out - the cutscenes are still almost non-existent, those that do happen are of very basic quality, and you don't even get one for beating the career mode and entering the Hall of Fame. Horizon Stories also return; these bite-sized adventures offer you a few races or challenges, under the guise of a thin narrative thread. You could be racing against a club of rich people, trying to convince them to join the festival, or helping local university gather data by going really fast into a sandstorm. These challenges are brief and the cutscenes are still of very low quality, with some characters standing around - quite the same as FH4.
The career progress is now centered around earning Accolades, by completing a wide variety of tasks. Everything from winning your first race in a D-class car, to completing the Showcases, to pulling off certain feats like slipstreaming enough times in a road race is counted and you get awarded Accolade points. Earning enough of these points unlocks the next chapter of the adventure, where you get to pick what type of events you want to unlock next. You also get to unlock a set of new Horizon outposts, instead of having just 1 in FH4, but it really doesn’t change a whole lot. The outposts are fairly small, and they essentially act as fast-travel spots. The purchasable player houses have been reduced in number to account for the new outposts, and they still offer perks when you buy them, such as being able to fast travel anywhere, or even getting a wheelspin prize daily.
You will earn more than enough Accolades as you play, so the campaign keeps a steady pace and you will be spoiled for choice on what kind of races or content you want to do. Unlocking new outposts and events doesn’t take very long, and you can reach the Hall of Fame (the end-game) in less than 10 hours. This feels rather quick; but the game of course doesn’t end here - you just carry on racing, and nothing much changes. The Hall of Fame is just a basic leaderboard where users are ranked by their total Accolade score. The career mode could have used a little more fleshing out and more worthwhile long-term goals; while the final Goliath races are apparently the longest in franchise history, making you drive the perimeter of the island again is hardly original.
Aside from the expected Showcase events, where you race against something crazy like a monster truck or a train, the story also offers a couple of missions where you have optional objectives. When unlocking new Horizon Festival outposts, you undertake Expeditions which sometimes put you into a small enclosed area where you can do a few optional things to earn some Accolades. This usually involves finding an item, or smashing a crate with your car, or achieving a certain Skill score. These are minor, one-off distractions that are fairly weak attempts to introduce new experiences to the campaign. Like the inclusion of a few extra cutscenes, these Expeditions are an undercooked idea.
The game is also still quite generous with handing out cars. This level of accessibility for all players is part of the charm of this series, but the argument can be made that there's a lack of a sense of progress. You pick one of three starter cars - but they all get added to your garage anyway. You get cash and cars from the enjoyable wheelspins that you earn from events and from leveling up your experience profile. Even in the context of the story mode, you are already a superstar, just here in a new setting to dominate again, and everyone is quick to remind you how amazing you are. The cash flow does seem reduced however - you no longer earn money from your virtual Driveatar competing in other races, nor do any Horizon Stories bring you ongoing income.
The player-run Auction house can be a great place to get new cars or sell the ones you don't want. But you may have so many cars, that you will want to simply give them away. FH5 has a new option to just give your rides away to random people in the community, alongside a message. It's a bit of a strange feature since you can't gift directly to someone (makes sense, to avoid abuse), but that also makes it feel like you're throwing away cars into the void. You can also still discover and get new rare cars from Barn Finds, smash bonus boards, and so on.
If you've somehow haven't had your fill of racing through all the dev-made content, the user created initiatives also return. The Blueprint system has been replaced and renamed as EventLabs, letting players customize the events to their liking and share them with the community. From adjusting the car restrictions and weather conditions, to applying new logic chains that can do silly things like play music when you pass through a checkpoint, there's a lot of flexibility. You can even make your own routes, place gates, and so on. The Super 7 returns from FH4 post-launch content, allowing players to create whacky and wild challenges with custom props, and share them for others to complete and earn rewards.
Just as the slightly updated (but structurally similar) campaign design and all of the activity types, Forza Horizon 5 will be very familiar to fans who spent any time with its predecessor, and doubly so if you've played it in the past year. The fifth game comes chock full of structured content, as the map is totally littered with icons, so you will never be at a loss of what to tackle next. There are the expected racing disciplines - road races, dirt races, off-road races, and so on. Street races are formally accepted as part of the festival now, but this makes no difference - they are still night races on public roads. You've also got various challenges to conquer and compete on the leaderboards for, from speed traps to drift zones and danger signs for jumps. Trailblazing events return from FH4 DLC. Everything looks, plays and feels much the same as in the previous game.
As the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but the game is lacking a bit of forward momentum. Forza Horizon was a breath of fresh air to the arcade racing genre, offering the unique mix of a music festival, with a proper story and great racing. Forza Horizon 2 took things to the next level with a highly enjoyable open world, a formula that the series uses to this day. Forza Horizon 3 brought back the auction house, expanded radio choices and event types. And of course, Forza Horizon 4 introduced the innovative weather season system, and revamped the online experience for a truly connected world. In this context, Forza Horizon 5 doesn't really have a big feature that pushes the series or indeed the racing genre forward, as its predecessors have. This by no means takes away from the overall great experience that it still is, but it may feel like an incremental refresh rather than a full blown sequel - particularly for those who played FH4 extensively and thus would be already familiar with "new to FH5 at launch" modes/events, such as Eliminator, Trailblazer, and Super7.
Much like the gameplay, FH5 doesn't make any big leaps in its user interface, or takes advantage of the opportunity to improve. For instance, there is still no way to easily see / sort what cars you have duplicates of. When shopping at the Auction House, you can't tell the retail price of a vehicle, or if you already own it. When using the new Gift system to send your rides into the community, you have to go to a separate menu, instead of being able to do it from your garage. There's a new car collection tracking screen, which gives you small rewards for getting all cars from a manufacturer, like you're collecting cards. But this screen is often fairly slow to load; and even the traditional car list screen can lag.
No matter your feelings on the "meta" of the franchise, the cars and the racing remain excellent. The roster of vehicles at launch caps out at just over 500, which is more than FH4 had at launch, but less than the 700 that it has now. Many of the expected top manufacturers of the world are present, from Porsche to Lamborghini and Ferrari, and the cars are nicely detailed inside and out. There are only about 20 or so cars that are actually new to the series, with the rest being ported over from the previous game. Fans can be assured that new cars will be added over the lifetime of the game, and a lack of rides has never been an issue. You can still apply a wide variety of visual customizations to the cars, now including painting your brake calipers, and import your existing liveries from the other games. Sharing content is still easy, and it's also nice to make some more cash from people using and liking your paint jobs.
In mechanical customization, fans will be very pleased with the expanded options for engine swaps on most makes and models. More cars can be outfitted with more engines, as well as body kits, bigger spoilers, and AWD/RWD swaps. It continues to be a game that offers deep, satisfying customization, not just by swapping engine parts, but tuning all the way down to your shifting timing and tire pressure. You can also just as easily share your tunes with the community, and again earn a bit of income. Cars also still possess their individual upgrade trees, as you can unlock various permanent and temporary bonuses by spending skill points, which you earn by performing various feats and stunts.
The actual act of driving also remains very good. Forza Horizon 5 is the most enjoyable and accessible racing game around, thanks to superb car handling and the feel of the terrain. Whether it's barreling down the highway in a hypercar, or pushing through the forested areas in a huge truck, the vehicles are simply fun to drive. The handling model has been tweaked and improved slightly, with a more noticeable difference between high-rated and lower rated cars beyond just their speed and acceleration. Flying off the road in cars without a good braking rating is now more common, and losing control of a drift will send you careening way further than in the past. Handling also has a wider gap between best and worst performing cars, that you can feel in-game. It's an excellent racing experience that has been tweaked and made better, to have a wider gulf between the car classes.
You'll probably feel the differences between cars the most when competing online. The multiplayer mechanics have been slightly reorganized, but will again be very familiar to those who played FH4. The classic Rivals modes still let you compete against others for best lap times; and the Adventure mode has been renamed into Horizon Open. Horizon Open functions the same - matchmaking you into the chosen category of traditional races, drift, Playground Games, or the Eliminator. Besides the new name, the only difference here is the removal of competitive categories, and a few solo event types in the Playground Games arcades (King, Infected, and Capture the Flag all return unchanged). The Eliminator is a multiplayer Battle Royale mode that was also in FH4 post-launch, and is carried over with few changes. Players are dropped into the map and have to drive around looking for better cars, while also challenging others to a random race. Winning such races eliminates the opponent, all the while the map circle shrinks. For the final circle, players need to reach the randomly chosen destination first to win.
There's also a new casual Horizon Tour. This mode is not selectable directly from menus, and you must instead drive to the main Festival site and group up with players dynamically on the spot. The idea is that this is meant to be a sort of car meet that happens organically, but it's based in a dusty, bland gravel lot on the outskirts of the festival - not exactly a cool spot, and the meetups of Forza Horizon 2 looked better. From there, players can jump into a bunch of events together, sort of like a convoy of strangers, and you also race against easier AI. After each event the theme changes, so players will constantly swap between different cars. It's a decent casual mode.
Last but not least are the Season systems and the Forzathon shop. One of the best highlights of Forza Horizon 4 was having a bunch of players in your game session, all doing their own thing, and coming together every hour to play three Forzathon PR stunts together. The idea lives on in FH5, but changes have been made that may or may not improve the experience. Hourly events have been replaced to ones that occur every 15 minutes instead - this makes them feel less eventful, and repetitive. While you will still perform PR stunts, new events will also occur, such as Simon Says-type challenges where you have to perform certain driving maneuvers, or smash donkey piñatas. There are also separate drift-based Forzathons, happening at the same time as regular ones.
The online systems have also been replaced, from a traditional model where 70 players are in your server instance, to a dynamic model where the game will arbitrarily decide how many other users you see. You might see lots in towns, but fewer when driving around in the jungle. How well this works remains to be seen when the game launches to the public, but it may make the world feel less lively. When you encounter players, you can use some of the new quick chat options that are dynamic - there are tons of new phrases, and if you are near the event, the chat options automatically update to invite others.
Though a cross-generational game, the title manages to visually impress on Xbox Series X. Players can choose between Performance mode (4K @ 60fps) and Graphics mode (4K @ 30fps), and the title looks quite wonderful in both cases. HDR is supported across the board (though you wish it wasn't for those tunnel exits), and sadly Raytracing is only possible in the Forzavista mode when you admire your cars up close. The game looks sharp for the most part, and the special effects have been dialed up such as when kicking up dust in the desert, though in moment to moment driving it's a stone's throw away from FH4. Improvements are instead found in the little things, like better draw distance, better reflective surfaces, and the natural lighting at sunsets and sunrises. Fast travelling anywhere on the map is near-instant.
In the audio department, the familiar music stations return, surprisingly without one that focuses on the local flavored tunes. Instead, many of the tracks feature Mexican influences. The game is loaded with hits from rock to techno, and you’re bound to find something you enjoy driving to. Enthusiastic DJs of each radio station also remain a highlight, trying to keep the spirit of the festival alive. Another big improvement are the engine sounds - an effort has been clearly made to make the cars sound much more distinctive and detailed.
The Forza Horizon franchise has been on a highly impressive streak, with each new game the developers managed not only to improve, but also innovate. With Forza Horizon 5, the experience settles into a more comfortable and familiar groove. The new map is large, the racing and car customization remain excellent, and the visuals impress. But the structured content is quite familiar, and the new features such as the weather storms are not that impressive. Newcomers to the series, or those who played FH4 only at launch, will find a wealth of content here, and more to look forward to from the users themselves. But fans that played the predecessor recently will be a bit less impressed, as the latest chapter is less of a leap and more of a short step forward.