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Racing games hold a unique position in gaming. They are often held up as technical showcases, allowing developers to flex the respective muscle of a platform to highlight every curve of dream machines we covet. Yet many racing games have also had trouble reaching broad audiences due to the technical nature of their gameplay, particularly with simulations. While developers have bridged the gap through the years, with classics like Project Gotham Racing and Test Drive Unlimited to name a few, arguably none have been as successful as Forza Horizon from Playground Games.
As someone who began his sprite-based racing with Pole Position and raced cars for years in real-life, I’ve spent thousands of hours in virtual worlds, building my dream cars and setting hot laps. In my many years of experience with these games, it’s clear that Forza Horizon 5 stands tall among them all.
You begin your journey by selecting an avatar and your basic physical features. I was disappointed to see this hadn’t changed much from its predecessor. There are additional options for prosthetic limbs, pronouns, and a few tidbits that are welcome, but it’s still rather limited on the whole. While I understand your avatar isn’t critical in a racing game, given the advancements in character creation suites in games both big and small, I expected to see better here.
As demonstrated previously by Playground Games, you are then given an introduction that exhibits some of the new cars and environments. It is a fantastic prelude to the game. Being thrown into the jungle and racing through a sand storm immediately spiked my adrenaline and set the tone for the new locale.
Forza Horizon 5 takes the festival to Mexico, and it doesn’t take long to realize Playground Games may have finally found their perfect destination for the franchise. A vast variety of landscapes and stunning vistas present themselves straight away, which incentivizes players to begin exploring. But before heading out on your own, you are introduced to the new festival structure and features of the game. Once you’ve completed a few challenges and earned your first house, Mexico is yours to explore either solo or with friends.
The festival aspect plays a larger role in this iteration, with Horizon Adventure being front and center. You choose which festival type you’d like to unlock first and are then provided with races and activities related to it to earn “Accolade Points.” As you earn more points by completing activities, you earn more unlocks for the festival. You have complete freedom in how you approach these and can conquer them in any order that you choose. I really enjoyed this approach as it allows players to prioritize the activities they enjoy the most.
Accolade points act as a profile-wide achievement system with a very wide range of activities housed underneath. Nearly everything you do in the game will have an accolade category associated with it, and not only do they unlock the festivals, but also Forza Link phrases, cars, wheelspins, and more. While the number ranking system still exists, it’s really the accolade ranking that demonstrates just how much a player has accomplished in the game world.
Should you complete all of the festival chapters and earn enough additional points, you will be memorialized in the Hall of Fame with a permanent banner at the festival sites.
Festival activities have been expanded in Forza Horizon 5. The familiar showcases and more standard race series are still present and just as fun as ever, but there are also more expansive pursuits for you to partake in along the way. Not only are there new Story series to play, with some fun references to Forza Horizon 4, but the main objectives tend to have more character than prior games in the series as well. Interactions with the festival personalities are more extensive and provide additional car culture and locale references throughout your journey.
Hearing your guide reference “Rosso Corsa” paint when discussing the restoration of a Ferrari F40, or discussing what makes a 1973 Carrera RS special, are minor references that many may not pay attention to. But for those engrossed in car culture, it adds a lot to the experience.
Meanwhile, driving through a small town only to hear history on the town and the families that grew up there provides a little more depth to the characters and environments. A couple of the radio DJs add flavor here as well with frequent comments on Mexican culture. While it’s not meant to be a story-driven game, these small touches make the festival feel more meaningful and present in the game rather than merely a backdrop.
With all of the races and events the series is already known for along with the additional elements of single player narrative, the core campaign in Forza Horizon 5 is an absolute joy. It has enough variety to keep you continually invested, and you’re always itching to complete just one more personal objective.
The feeling of progression is also more substantial. With your profile ranking, skill points, car collecting, and the new accolades, you always feel as though you are progressing and unlocking something interesting. In a game where players can go off the beaten path and create their own fun at any moment, it’s a testament to the game’s design that it manages to dangle such a tantalizing carrot in front of players’ faces in parallel. And of course the Festival Playlist returns with a wide range of ever-evolving challenges and rewards, thus further complimenting the overall offering.
Forza Horizon isn’t just about exploring a beautiful world on your own, though. Multiplayer, including entering events with others, is a large part of the series, and I’m happy to say that it’s yet another aspect that is better than ever in Forza Horizon 5. Everything you know and love returns, including setting up convoys, going on adventures, Playground Games competitions, The Eliminator, and competing with your friends, rivals, and drivatars. Forza Arcade returns as well with a few new wrinkles added to their live events including, yes, the piñata smash event.
And, of course, all of the customization and modification you’ve come to expect is present as well, including liveries, custom tunes, and wild one-off models. You’ll find a few new features in the tuning area for some vehicles as well, including new body kits, wheels, and platform specific options, which was a pleasant surprise.
The fun doesn’t stop there, though, thanks to the new Event Lab, which provides players with an abundance of custom creation options. Upon speaking with a couple of developers at Playground Games during a play session, they seemed very excited to see what players will build in the future and quipped, “We can’t wait to see T-Rexes placed all over.”
Pre-release, it’s challenging to gauge just how much the Event Lab will be utilized. At best, it could grow into a full custom game browser similar to Halo’s Forge. But, even at its worst, it’s another option for a percentage of players to have fun with. And besides, a Jurassic Park themed event has already been created, so I can only imagine what the broader community will come up with.
Everything I’ve mentioned to this point takes place in arguably the most beautiful setting to ever grace a racing video game. If I’m being blunt, I’m not sure who could even argue it. Mexico provides a sprawling, spectacular backdrop to your adventures. From sunny beaches and lush jungles to mountain passes and wind-swept sand dunes, it’s an endless delight to explore. While I’ve enjoyed every previous Horizon locale, I haven’t been as engrossed with exploration as I have been with Forza Horizon 5.
Forza Horizon 4 introduced changing seasons, which added variety to the UK setting. Given Mexico’s climate, Forza Horizon 5 puts a twist on seasons of its own. There are four seasons again, but they are Hot, Wet, Storm, and Dry, thus aligning more with the locale. Just like before, these will add variables to the map and introduce new weather patterns, including gales and sand storms. When combined with the beautiful day/night cycle, they are not only beautiful, but will help to keep the environment feeling fresh.
Another aspect making the variety in Mexico’s ecosystems so special is that it opens the doors to a wider range of vehicles being viable. Like the previous entries, Forza Horizon 5 contains a massive array of vehicles, 536 as of this writing, and I’ve seen more diversity in their use compared to those past titles. While you can still play mode specific races to your heart’s content, I’ve had the most fun during races where it’s been a broad mix of environments, verticality, and vehicle types battling for position.
What truly brings the world to life, more than ever before, is the lighting. There are not enough superlatives in the English language for me to describe just how remarkable it is, nor its impact on the overall experience. Cars feel much more “set” and natural within their respective surroundings, and the environments themselves look truly lifelike at times.
Driving during the sunrise, and witnessing the light layer of fog laying across the horizon is simply extraordinary. There were countless times when I would enter photo mode and just sit there for a minute staring at the screen in awe.
The attention to detail paid to the lighting has fortunately found its way to the sound design as well. Sound detail, particularly of different car models and configurations, has been on the weaker side in past iterations. I’m happy to say that, even if it’s not perfect, it’s taken a huge leap forward.
Cars sound much more accurate to their real-life counterparts, and you can listen to the changes in real-time as you make modifications. While racing, you can more accurately pinpoint where your competitors are based on sound alone, which is also a noticeable improvement. And some of the showcases, which are filled with over-the-top stunts and vehicles of all sorts, fill your ears with audible bliss from every direction.
Forza Horizon 5 is exemplary in nearly every sense of the word. It takes an already excellent foundation and builds further upon it to create an experience unlike any other in the genre. It’s ability to offer a vast amount of content for nearly every type of player speaks volumes about what the teams at Playground Games (and Turn 10) have accomplished.
At this point in time, this is the pinnacle, and it’s clearly the culmination of years of work and iteration. I say with absolute confidence: Forza Horizon 5 is the most complete racing game ever made.
Final Verdict : 10
Fun Factor : 9.5
Technical Prowess : 10
Time Investment : N/A
Replayability : 9
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*Note that I wanted to touch on the development focus around accessibility features within Forza Horizon 5, but detailed information will be coming from Xbox shortly after this review goes live.