Microsoft pulls a holeshot win on the competition with their open world racer
Jakob Eiseman, Editor-in-Chief
Header Image: Xbox
“Forza Horizon 5” — released on Nov. 9 on Xbox consoles, PC and the cloud — is special to me because it is the first game to release in a long, long time that exceeded my high expectations. I adored “Forza Horizon 4” and spent most of my free time in the winters of my freshman and sophomore year riding through sunny “Horizon 4’s” U.K. pastures in a 2016 Audi R8, so when they announced that there was going to be a next-generation “Horizon” game coming in 2021, I was extremely excited to jump in and see if it could live up to “Horizon 4.” Well, I’m here to say: they’ve done it. Not only does “Horizon 5” live up to its legacy, it surpasses “Horizon 4” in so many ways and I can’t wait to keep playing what is definitely my favorite racing game of all time.
The “Horizon” formula
“Forza Motorsport” is a series of simulation racing games that began in 2005 on the original Xbox and has long been praised for its accurate simulation of vehicle physics and the ability to fine tune cars using real world enhancements and parts, as well as its top-of-the-line graphics and visuals that come with every release. While “Motorsport” focuses solely on racing and the customization of vehicles, “Forza Horizon” is a spin-off series that takes a much more light-hearted approach to the franchise by placing players in large open worlds as part of the Horizon Festival, encouraging players to explore real-life areas like Australia, the U.K. and now Mexico, doing tricks, challenging each other to races, discovering secrets and racing on custom tracks.
“Horizon 5” perfects this formula, adding hundreds of racing events scattered all across varied biomes of a partially fictionalized Mexico. “Horizon 5” features all types of events from dirt races in the jungles, to cross-country races on the white-sand beaches, to drag races in the cities, jumps and stunts in the canyons and many, many more. The exploration and events are incentivised as you are always earning something, whether that be money to buy and upgrade the hundreds of awesome vehicles, clothes for your custom character or unlocking newer, higher-stakes events. It’s extremely satisfying to just sit down after a long day of work and fly up the highway in a decked-out Ferrari, just seeing what events you’ll pass along the way.
In “Horizon 4” they changed up their seasonal content systems, and tied it in with literal seasons, changing the roads based on the season (snow, leaves, etc.) and I was not a fan. Now, the seasons system is back, and I am still definitely not a fan. Summer brings rain, fall brings major storms and winter brings sandstorms, all of which make it harder to traverse the world and speed through Mexico freely. I just don’t understand why this is not optional and wish I never had to deal with driving through the rain because it’s already stressful enough in real life, but it’s not the end of the world.
In short…. not much, really. But that’s actually really great because instead of adding bloat to the “Forza” formula, many small tweaks and changes were made to improve it. First off, the new landscape of Mexico is not only significantly larger than the previous U.K. map, but much more diverse, featuring multiple biomes, mesoamerican ruins, densely populated cities, beautiful landscapes, coastal towns with realistic beaches and natural race tracks and stunts baked right in to look authentic to the country’s architecture. Beyond that, the next-generation hardware I was playing on presented nearly photo realistic textures, with still images of this Mexico being nearly indistinguishable from a real photo. The graphics in “Forza” have always been great, but the photogrammetry and scanning Playground Games used to create this game is mind-blowing and definitely the best I have ever seen.
The other major improvement to this entry is the campaign structure. In the past, the so-called story mode in “Forza” has been largely surface-level and designed to make you feel like you are an up-and-comer to the Forza Horizon festival who is taking over the racing scene. This time though, although the story is still relatively basic, and I wish there were memorable characters or interactions, instead they make you feel like a badass racer, and the events just ramp that feeling up. Here are some major highlights from my “Horizon 5” campaign experience:
- Dropping out of a plane in a Bronco and racing down an active volcano
- Blasting a Stingray through a sandstorm on a desert highway
- Going off-roading through a jungle river in a modded Porsche
- Hypercar racing through the brick roads of Baja California and hitting 300 mph
- Drag racing an airplane in said hypercar
- Photo finishing AN AIRPLANE (I won by the way.)
The thing is, that was all in the first 15 minutes of the campaign, it is an immaculate introduction to “Forza 5” and the events keep upping the ante as you progress. This time around, the events are broken up between road racing, cross-country racing, offroading, exploration, stunts, street racing and festival celebrations. By separating the events into categories, it let me tailor my campaign experience to the events I enjoy most which were by far exploring and stunts. Some of my favorite events so far have been canyon jumping in a parade float, racing a stunt team on motor bikes, street racing through Guanajuato and exploring the ruins of Tulum, all of which changed my perspective on what a racing game can really bring to the table.
The good and the bad
Like I mentioned, “Forza 5” is the most visually stunning game I’ve ever played, and the combination of racing, exploration, vehicle customization and overall vibe of the experience make it one of my favorites from this year, and my favorite racing game to date. The vast collection of interesting cars from around the world never ceases to amaze me, and I am definitely motivated to keep playing — even though I’ve finished the campaign — to unlock new cars and continue to experience all the racing and exploration that “Horizon 5” has to offer. This is definitely on my shortlist for game of the year, and I was able to play it on launch day with Xbox Game Pass. I could write pages about why Game Pass is amazing, but the fact that I got to play this amazing title at no additional cost shows how valuable the service is.
As much as I love “Horizon 5” it is not without its issues. While I’ve had no visual or gameplay glitches, sometimes the driving mechanics are a bit finicky. The controls can be tailored to be a full simulation of real driving or an almost fully arcade style akin to a “MarioKart.” It took me nearly seven hours to really find a style that worked for me, and even as I’m writing this I still feel somewhat unsatisfied with the way certain driving styles feel. While I love the smooth feeling of road racing and offroading, street races and some faster drives feel a bit hard to calculate without making it too easy with assists. Additionally, I find the AI drivers you race against to be poorly balanced. When they are set to easier difficulties, I always come in first, but as soon as I raise it up even one notch, I feel like I’m being left in the dust. Besides those minor complaints, though “Horizon 5” is nearly perfect.
The finish line
I love “Forza Horizon 5” and will probably continue to play it for years, just popping in to clear up some races and gun it down the highways of Mexico. While it isn’t perfect, it’s a masterclass in so many fields, and for that I’m rating it 9/10. I couldn’t recommend “Forza” any more than I already have and think it is worth your time. I played on Xbox Series X and did not have the means to test it on other Xbox consoles, PC or the cloud, but like I mentioned, it is on Game Pass which is highly accessible on so many systems and I urge everyone who’s able to go try it out and join me on the racetrack.