Forza Horizon 5 Review – The ultimate road trip

Reviewed November 4, 2021 on Xbox Series X

Platforms:

PC, Xbox Series X

Released:

November 9, 2021

Publisher:

Xbox Game Studios

Developer:

Playground Games

There’s no other escapism quite like the one provided in Forza Horizon, the long-running open-world racing series that started as a spin-off of Forza Motorsport, but has now completely evolved into “its own thing”. Forza Horizon 4 has been wonderful running on the Xbox Series X, but now three years old, we’ve been chomping at the bit to take another trip to really see how the current generation of hardware can be pushed in the popular racer. Forza Horizon 5, set in the diverse and beautiful Mexico, is by far the best-looking racing game ever made. In fact, it’s probably the best looking game I’ve ever played. It’s comfortable and satisfying for fans of the series, while also taking all of the learnings and content from previous editions to create a totally robust package for newcomers. Forza Horizon 5 is everything a racing fan could possibly hope for.

When it kicks off, Forza Horizon 5 drops you into the action. Quite literally. One of the most exciting opening moments in gaming this year, a plane drops you into a freakin’ volcano, and you quickly get a taste of a few different vehicles in very different environments of Mexico; the lush jungles, an actual sandstorm, and of course the race to the Festival itself. It gave me goosebumps when I first did it, and it’s a wonderful showcase of how¬†amazing¬†this game looks, while giving you a teaser of the action to come.

In previous Forza Horizon games, you’re a relative newcomer to the racing scene out to prove yourself, and the story is built around that. In Forza Horizon 5, you come in as a superstar that has blitzed the previous Festival. Everybody knows who you are, and they’re excited for you to be here. While the storytelling is a bit naff compared to the adrenaline rush that the rest of the experience provides, with some awkward voice acting and cringey dialogue at times, I’ve spent a long time in previous Horizon Festivals, so it was nice to be recognised and not needing to prove anything.

“As a superstar of the Horizon Festival, everyone is keen to get your help with their strange requests…”

Where Forza Horizon 5 separates itself from previous editions is the way Horizon Adventures anchor the whole experience. These Adventures unlock as you make progress in the rest of the world by completing and winning events, and they’re all themed differently; PR stunts, for example, features an event where you’re racing to a full moon party. Fireworks are popping off in the distance as you race toward the destination, and once you arrive, you’ll drive an over-the-top float through a parade of people as confetti flies overhead. Then you have to take that same float for a bit of a joyride for good measure. Considering this is a racing game mostly grounded in reality, the variety in these Adventures was always surprising and fun; yes, it’s still all just different variations of racing, but the story beats give these events a bit more purpose and more importantly, a personal touch.

Another Adventure has you investigating a volcano, getting samples, smashing steam vents and using a seismometer to gather research for a scientist you’re helping. They also need data for a university by having you drive directly into a sandstorm. One eager historian has heard rumours about mysterious hidden statues dotted around Mexico that you must find and photograph via photo mode to prove to naysayers that they’re real. A lucha libre wrestler challenges you to impress him by doing wild stunts and driving consistently above a certain speed. As a superstar of the Horizon Festival, everyone is keen to get your help with their strange requests, and it breaks up the regular events really nicely.

Of course, the end goal is to make it into the Hall of Fame, and to unlock more Adventures, you’ll have to earn accolades. These accolades (represented by stars) can be earned from doing… well, almost anything. Skills such as drifting or simply tearing up the environment, speed traps, danger signs, legendary barn finds or even smashing through the various XP boards and Fast Travel boards all net you stars over time, with more stars rewarded for winning actual events.

The mix of events includes Road Racing, Dirt Racing, Cross-Country Racing and Street Racing, all requiring a mastery of the many different vehicles the game has to offer. The mix of racing events are unlocked as you expand the Festival via outposts, so I’d recommend doing those initial expeditions first to give you access to the full list of event types. I like to mix up my Horizon experience so I enjoyed bouncing between different types of events based on whatever was nearby on the map, and it’s clear that over the years, Forza Horizon (and Motorsport) just knows how to make a brilliant racing game at this point, on a technical level.

I’m not a “car guy” so this isn’t exactly my wheelhouse, but every vehicle handles very differently, and you’ll be caught out if you use the wrong one for the wrong event type. The game always recommends you the cars that you should use however, so if you’re not interested in the nitty-gritty of car handling and fine-tuning, you don’t have to go anywhere near it. That said, all of those detailed options are absolutely there if you’re the kind of motorhead that enjoys that level of tinkering. For me, I appreciate that Forza Horizon 5 still feels as arcadey as ever, still providing an incredibly deep and complex open-world experience with lots to enjoy.

Once you reach the Hall of Fame, that’s of course not the end; in fact, nowhere near it. There’s so much content in Forza Horizon 5 that, even after around 25 hours of racing and completing all of the Adventures, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. That’s before you even touch the multiplayer side of things, which still includes the Eliminator battle royale, and the new Eventlab where you can create your own events for others to take part in – or, take part in some of the zany creations from other players. It’s worth noting that this is a mode where Playground Games have said you can “basically create anything”, so I’m curious to see what talented creators manage to come up with.

Mexico is a wonderful choice of location for the Horizon Festival, and Forza Horizon 5 takes full advantage, with ray-tracing and incredibly detailed environments that give the game a really distinctive visual identity; each of the biomes feels unique but also a part of the same ecosystem, whether it’s mowing down cacti across a desert, blitzing through a dense lush jungle or exploring the various cities, each that feel truly lived-in, with spectators everywhere watching on and animals fleeing from the roar of your engine. Tropical coastlines, large canyons, dense jungles, sandy deserts and hulking mountains give the world a lot of stellar depth and diversity.

Additionally, the dynamic weather system adds another wrinkle to the visuals, with tropical storms, in particular, proving to be a visual feast. With the rain blasting, wind roaring through the trees and lightning cracking in the night sky, I almost forgot that I was racing at one point and just wanted to stop in my tracks to properly enjoy the show. I can’t state enough that Forza Horizon 5 has impressed me on a visual level more than any other game I’ve played. We’re a year into the life-cycle of this console generation, and while we’ve seen some bangers, Forza Horizon 5 has taken my breath away more than any other – it’s just so detailed and gorgeous at every single turn. I can’t fault it.

All in all, Forza Horizon 5 brings some great new ideas, while also beefing up the package with everything we’ve known and loved from the series in the past. Audio also remains top-notch; the various radio stations all have dynamic hosts that provide commentary on what’s going on at the time, referring to events that have happened, discussing your exploits and so forth. They even have other characters you’re doing missions for come on as guests, talking about you, making you feel a really valuable part of the Festival experience. The cars all sound amazing too, with the developers spending more time than ever focusing on how the engines sound in different locations, like when you’re driving through the jungle compared to how a car sounds with the reverberation bouncing off of buildings in a city. The level of detail and research is astounding.

There are a couple of elements that could use a bit more attention. Character customisation is sorely lacking, giving you a relatively small range of people to choose as your avatar, with some basic options, but all of their body types are skinny/average, and there’s no way to add a beard, or tattoos, or other unique features. Interestingly you can give your character prosthetic limbs, which is a nice touch for sure, as is the choice of pronouns, but the lack of other options is disappointing, as many players will find they don’t have an avatar that looks like them – and you see them before and after every single race. Wheelspins are also a bit of a cheap way to get new cars and new items for your avatar to wear. I found myself getting credits more often than not, when I was really hoping for some new items to add to my collection instead. These are minor quibbles though.

9

Amazing

Positive:

  • Absolutely stunning and breathtaking visuals
  • So much content to get stuck into it's almost ridiculous
  • Horizon Adventures add some cool story beats and unique events
  • Gameplay is solid for newcomers or for serious racing fans
  • Audio is also stellar, production values overall through the roof

Negative:

  • Character customisation is a bit of a letdown
  • Voice acting can be a little naff at times

Forza Horizon 5 takes what we’ve loved over the series’ life so far and brings it full circle, with a comprehensive package that includes everything you could possibly want from a racing game. Mexico is an astounding and wonderful location to explore, and production values are on point, from the stunning visuals of its gorgeous open world to the well-executed audio that keeps energy levels high. On top of the diverse range of events we’ve come to expect, Horizon Adventures add another fun layer of story and player progression that keeps you engaged, and the vehicle handling is, still, second-to-none. With more content than ever before, the Eventlab to make even more experiences and a suite of multiplayer modes to engage with, Forza Horizon 5 is the best racing game available today, bar none.