As Forza Horizon 5 crosses the finish line, the bar for open-world racing has again been raised in so many different ways. A map of Mexico that’s bigger, higher, and wildly more varied than any Horizon game yet. A fresh change to the way the Horizon Festival itself is gradually constructed, which results in more one-off events deliberately designed to showcase Horizon 5 at its very best. Improved tools that allow us to build completely custom events that can be more or less indistinguishable from those crafted by the developers themselves.
An enormous visual upgrade, especially to lighting, tyre smoke, and dust effects. Hundreds and hundreds of new custom parts, rims, and performance mods, and cars with more character than ever. Drastic sound improvements, better handling, more granular preferences and options, more online activities. It really is incredible across the board.
To understand just how big Forza Horizon 5 is, we have to briefly look back at Forza Horizon 4, which truly ballooned into an absolute colossus of a racing game back in 2018. Playground Games had taken the impeccable open-world racing of all the Horizon games to date, then stuffed in simulated seasons, a shared-world multiplayer overhaul, and a shift in how the team told their mini automotive stories. But that was day one; Playground then spent another three years cramming in even more things to do. The Festival Playlist, where new activities were available every week. The Eliminator, Horizon’s very clever and effective take on bringing the battle royale format to a racing game. The Super7, where we could participate in custom-built racing, driving, and stunt-based challenges made by others, plus create and share our own.
What’s impressive is that Forza Horizon 5 isn’t just all this airlifted to a different part of the world; it’s that it’s all this and a remarkable amount more.
The breadth of Playground’s wonderfully diverse map of Mexico is exceptional, and it comes as an extremely exotic and interesting array of environments to get lost in after three years in Horizon 4’s beautiful but broadly more-uniform Britain. Horizon 5’s tapestry of colourful locations and backdrops more closely resembles Horizon 3, but it feels noticeably more extensive than even Playground’s remarkable 2016 riff on Australia.
Horizon 5’s tapestry of colourful locations and backdrops more closely resembles Horizon 3, but it feels noticeably more extensive than even Playground’s remarkable 2016 riff on Australia.
There’s Baja, where the sun-baked tarmac hugs the coast as the parched, sandy desert blends into the beach, and deep jungle, where muddy tracks criss-cross through ancient temples, abandoned airstrips, and thickets. There’s the charmingly colourful city of Guanajuato and its maze-like network of cobblestone streets and tunnels, contrasted with a sleepy coastal town flanked by the ocean on one side and mangroves on the other. There’s rolling green farmland draped in crops and windswept grass, and also a picturesque gorge that looks like it’s been plucked from a Western movie. There’s the semi-arid desert of the map’s interior, filled with towering cacti and stubborn shrubs, and the high and rocky volcanic peak of Gran Caldera. There’s even a giant stadium for soccer shenanigans.
It’s not exactly a perfect recreation, of course – as with all Horizon worlds to date it pays no mind to reality, smooshing together a stylised vision of Mexico at its most interesting. The result is a fantastic map – and the biggest in the series so far by a striking margin.
That size is best observed from atop the Gran Caldera Volcano. The Playground Games team has stressed that it’s the highest point in any Horizon game, but you won’t have to take their word for it – just drive up there and you’ll see how much it dwarfs both Horizon 3’s Blizzard Mountain and Horizon 4’s Fortune Island expansions. The massive elevation change not only provides one of the best roads in the series to date – a switchback-filled mountain run I expect will become a drift mecca for the sideways squad – but it’s a killer display of Horizon 5’s immense draw distance. I love games that make me feel small in a vast new space, and Horizon 5 does this very effectively.
The massive elevation change not only provides one of the best roads in the series to date – a switchback-filled mountain run I expect will become a drift mecca for the sideways squad – but it’s a killer display of Horizon 5’s immense draw distance.
The garage is just as grand as the map itself, with well over 500 vehicles, and it’s a selection that still handily eclipses all Forza Horizon’s open-world racing rivals. Granted, there isn’t a huge number of cars that are strictly new to the franchise – and those of us who stuck around Forza Horizon 4 each week for the last few years collecting every new car will have seen the lion’s share of them before – but Playground has assuaged that slightly with the addition of a lot of new rim options and visual upgrades that may help breathe new life into cars you’ve seen a lot of previously. Changes to the livery editor also see it support higher resolution designs and graphics… but you still can’t place decals on glass, which remains a shame.
Between the cars and the map, however, Forza Horizon 5 is barnstormingly gorgeous on both fronts. On Xbox Series X that’s true of both the 4K/30FPS quality mode and the 4K/60FPS performance mode. I’ve been playing mostly on quality mode since the frame rate never, ever wavers in either mode – remaining rock solid at all times and in all conditions – but know that the visual concessions in performance mode are generally so small I need to study freeze frames to spot the difference anyhow. It’s tough to pick my favourite visual element of Horizon 5, but think it might just be the drastically better smoke and dust effects – and especially how light interacts with the particles in the air. It looks brilliant.
Open-World Racing Dream
Of course, while Forza Horizon 5’s showstopping graphics are sucking most of the oxygen out of the room, there have been so many other improvements to the Horizon formula here it’s hard to know where to begin.
The handling tweaks are deceptively extensive, with more authentic ABS braking, a snappier steering sensation, and suspension improvements that have resulted in a more convincing feel off-road. The radically revamped audio is superb, and the amount of cars that now sound blatantly different to each other has exploded. I especially love hearing the changes my performance parts are making to my car’s sound in real-time – nerdy behaviour which is encouraged by the ability to rev the engine during upgrade work.
Even before launch, the new event-building tools are already resulting in some outstanding and creative courses, races, and activities being shared between early players. With considerably more props and far more granular options than Horizon 4’s building tools, I’m expecting some of the user-generated content for Horizon 5 is going to be mind-bendingly good.
A rethink in how the career mode unfolds has seen Playground add a new points system that allows you to take charge of what event hubs and special races you want to prioritise unlocking. These points, or “Accolades,” are awarded for achieving major and minor feats, and essentially function as a dramatically expanded version of the Brick Challenges in Forza Horizon 4’s LEGO expansion. What this has allowed Playground to do is add a handful of additional curated drives to Horizon 5, which it’s dubbed Expeditions. These Expeditions inject a little bit of the flavour of the Horizon series’ fabulous but fleeting opening drive montages back into the main career, where Playground stage manages vehicles, the time-of-day lighting, and the weather for memorable journeys that showcase Horizon 5 at its very best. One has you racing through trees as lightning strikes the ground ahead, while another has you racing up and back down the rumbling volcano as jets of steam break through the ground around you.
There’s been some significant multiplayer massaging, too; this time Playground has ditched ranked play for something less pressurised and that won’t penalise you for other people’s bad racing etiquette. Horizon 5’s PvP modes have been grouped under a single umbrella and are now designed to embrace new players as championships progress, meaning that unlike Horizon 4 it seems like we should no longer be marooned in dwindling groups of sore losers that haemorrhage players as races don’t go their way.
The hourly Forzathon Live events from Horizon 4 have also been brushed aside in favour of the newly christened Horizon Arcade. It functions similarly to Forzathon Live – they’re still co-op events where everyone contributes to a common goal – but there’s a greater variety of events. They can be a fun spectacle – particularly when dozens of piñatas are raining from the sky – but I do find they can descend into a bit of a slog when they go the full 10 minutes.
Then there’s the tiny stuff, which still all adds up. A more intuitive car collection display which lets you quickly buy multiple new cars for your garage and skip the menu shuffling in the dealership screens. A cute activity where you hide cars from your own garage for other players to find inside barns you’ve discovered around the map. Hell, there’s finally even the ability to toggle between opting for metric measurements but retaining horsepower for power measurements. (Kilowatts are for vacuum cleaners.)
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Forza Horizon 5 is a deep and nuanced car nirvana for revheads and auto geeks to endlessly collect, tinker, and experiment. It’s also an extremely accessible buffet of racing spectacle open to everyone, from Deluxe Edition diehards to Game Pass nomads – no matter their driving skill or mechanical knowledge. It’s an occasionally goofy but always earnest Valentine to Mexico’s world-famous culture, and a romantic ode to the magic of road-tripping through postcard-perfect vacation vistas. It’s a long haul, MMO-inspired racer that’s exploding with more races, activities, and event types than can comfortably fit on some parts of the map – and yet it still always feels relaxed rather than daunting. It never locks you into something you don’t want to do and steadily rewards you for however you choose to play it. It looks beautiful, it sounds magnificent, and it is glorious to play. Yes, Forza Horizon 5 is a lot of things. Above all, however, it is the result of a racing studio at the peak of its craft and the best open-world racing game I’ve ever played.