I was somewhat surprised to see Forza Horizon 5 at Sunday’s Xbox Games Showcase, even in spite of the rumors that the game was coming soon and would probably be set in Mexico. I’m thankful for it, because this year was beginning to look like another underwhelming one for the racing genre, what with Gran Turismo 7 and the next Need For Speed entry being pushed to 2022, and development on the new Forza Motorsport quietly humming along in the background.
Thankfully, the Horizon Festival is once again here to save the day, and in classic fashion, it’s shaping up to be bigger and prettier than ever before. The folks over at Playground Games, the studio behind the Horizon titles, are calling this the “most diverse, adventurous and social open world yet” in the franchise, which is refreshing to hear, even if all those buzzwords are pretty trite. Forza Horizon 4's United Kingdom was clearly crafted with care but felt very “one note” — the U.K. isn’t the country that probably springs to most people’s minds when they’re asked to imagine an environmentally diverse part of the globe.
“Bigger, better, richer open world” is pretty much table stakes for this series. Although I’ve had hundreds of hours of enjoyment with Forza Horizon in the past, the emphasis on growth has also been a bit irritating, because it’s not like the games couldn’t use improvements in other areas. Thankfully, a Q&A post from the dev team highlights what else is in the works.
The campaign — now called Horizon Story — has supposedly been overhauled, with “expeditions across the map” as a major factor. Mike Brown, a Creative Director at Playground, said in a gameplay snippet that the campaign will see players “set out on an adventurous journey across Mexico to explore new locations and discover places for the festival to expand.” Expect extreme weather conditions and the odd volcano on the way.
Honing in on exploration is a smart move and something only Horizon is attuned to deliver; I just hope a bit more consideration was put into progression and organization. I’d get dizzy every time I opened the world map in FH4 — even when toggling filters, it was remarkably busy and hard to determine what event to prioritize next. Not that it really mattered what you chose, because the game gave out cash and wheelspins with such indiscretion that it pretty much invalidated the entire existence of an in-game economy. The fact you could contest any race in any car didn’t really help focus the experience.
How you feel about Forza Horizon is largely dependent on your personal philosophy around making your own fun when you play a game. If you need objectives, challenge and surprise to keep your attention, it’s probably less likely to be for you. But if you’re able to find joy in spite of not having goals to work toward — and perhaps have a group of like-minded friends to relish the journey with — it can be a really liberating adventure. Personally, every time my friends and I start up a convoy in FH4, we drive around for 15 minutes, never decide what to do and someone inevitably disappears. Maybe we’re not the right crew for the job.
Progression aside, FH5 will apparently address what’s been somewhat of a shortcoming of Forza-branded racers over the years: vehicle customization. According to the devs, the new entry will bring “100 new rims, hundreds of new visual upgrades, and thousands of performance upgrades,” which should delight longtime Forza fans.
This will accompany “a complete UX overhaul to bring the experience in-line with modern image manipulation software.” That’s interesting to think about, as Forza hasn’t truly changed its interface for applying upgrades or designing liveries since the OG Xbox days. Titles like NFS Heat offer a bit more leeway when it comes to areas of cosmetic enhancement, while GT Sport allows players to upload decals from their PCs to the game’s servers, so designers aren’t relegated to making complex art out of primitive shapes.
We’ve made it this far without talking up the game’s visuals which, as ever, look absolutely incredible. The liberal use of “god rays” in the rainforest environment are especially lush, as are the raytraced reflections shown throughout the reveal trailer (though the latter appear to be restricted to photo mode and Forzavista car interactions). I’ll be playing on PC, and FH4 was expertly optimized for PC. If history is any indication, the new game should look and run solidly no matter what hardware you’re playing on, be it one of the Xbox Series consoles or a computer.
There’s indeed a lot to look forward to in FH5. I’m most excited to uncover the world’s little treasures, like the mural by artist Farid Rueda shown in the gameplay trailer. Sharper handling, a more engaging campaign and other tweaks would be nice, but not so much expected. Forza Horizon is less a racing game and more a really delightful place to be, in cars. Maybe that’s all it needs to be.