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Forza Horizon 5's Automotive Wonderland Is What You Make Of It

Or: How I learned to stop complaining, embrace the chaos, and appreciate the vistas of Mexico.
Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios
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There’s almost nothing you can’t do in Forza Horizon 5's Mexico from the word “go.” No volcano you can’t scale, no uber-rare hypercar you can’t race, no ’90s JDM hero you can’t bolt a widebody kit onto and twist up to 1,000 horsepower. And that’s not strictly new to the latest installment — the breadth of opportunities this franchise offers its players is singular in this genre, save for maybe Grand Theft Auto Online. Except, in GTA you’d need to take out a real-money loan to afford the glut of new cars Rockstar pipes into the game every three months.

If playing GTA is like pressing your nose up to glass walls of a Ferrari dealership to ogle what you’ll never have, Forza Horizon is like being invited into the store for a lobster lunch inside an SF90 Stradale, then being sent home with the car for free. Also, that lobster happens to be the most beautifully presented you’ve ever seen. It tastes fine.

That kind of access is a brave thing for a game to grant you and I in 2021, when we’re so accustomed to being nickel-and-dimed for every little thing. In a sense it almost makes FH5 the anti-racing game. “Game” implies challenge within the confines of a structure, oftentimes with the promise of a reward if an objective is met. But challenge doesn’t come often in Forza Horizon 5, and the rewards that await you are almost meaningless.

That’s something that’s historically bothered me about the Forza Horizon series, as someone who grew up grinding for tens of hours in Gran Turismo 3 for the mere privilege of owning a Pagani Zonda. This time around with FH5, though, something clicked. In its lush, diverse recreation of Mexico, with its dewey flora and monolithic deserts, you don’t chase carrots for fun. Here, the fun is always there for the taking — you just have to want it.

Full disclosure: Microsoft sent Jalopnik a code for Forza Horizon 5 a week ahead of the game’s early-access release on Nov. 5 for owners of the Premium edition. The game becomes available to everyone on Nov. 9, including to Xbox Game Pass subscribers and Steam users on PC.

Testing conditions: I played Forza Horizon 5 on a PC powered by a Ryzen 7 2700X CPU and an Nvidia RTX 3070 GPU at 1440p resolution. I used a standard Xbox One controller, though steering wheels are supported too. The game is also available on Xbox Series X and S, as well as Xbox One.

Image for article titled Forza Horizon 5's Automotive Wonderland Is What You Make Of It
Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios

Brave, Familiar World

Forza Horizon 5 sets course for Mexico as you likely well know by now, in an open world that’s of similar size to one in 2018's Forza Horizon 4. That installment situated the Horizon Festival in the United Kingdom, as a love letter to developer Playground Games’ home. It was a thoughtfully crafted recreation with seasonal changes that transformed the environment on a weekly basis. Even so, it grew pretty stale pretty fast.

I don’t anticipate that happening as quickly with FH5's setting, simply due to the sheer diversity of biomes it contains. You have the desert, as previously mentioned, but there are also rainforest, canyon, coastal and urban clusters. That makes the world feel bigger than it physically is and more interesting to explore. Horizon’s Mexico is rich with color and borderline photorealistic in places. The game uses the strength of its venue to its advantage, as venturing to the map’s various nooks and crannies happens to be a significant aspect of the single-player campaign.

Image for article titled Forza Horizon 5's Automotive Wonderland Is What You Make Of It
Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios

At the center of FH5 is a new structure of scripted, story-based activities called Horizon Adventure. These missions are wide ranging in scope, and in the early hours of the game, they’re required to unlock categories of more traditional events, like circuit, cross-country, street and rally races.

On one occasion, Horizon Adventure has you scrounging temple grounds for artifacts, while also seeking out a spot for a radio tower to serve as the hub for the dirt racing portion of the festival. On another, a friend tips you off to the whereabouts of a rusted Vocho in a barn. These moments occasionally surprise, especially when they task you with driving vehicles several orders of magnitude larger than anything in your garage. I don’t want to spoil what some of them are, but one is quite festive, to say the least.

This is perhaps what the team at Playground meant when it called FH5's campaign more “directed” than FH4's. But that sense of direction melts away once you’ve notched a few expeditions under your belt, and the map very quickly turns into the same jumble of multicolored icons as FH4's did:

Pray tell what should I do when everything is marked NEW?
Pray tell what should I do when everything is marked NEW?
Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios

My friend aptly termed the sensation of gazing vacantly at a map like this; he calls it the “Horizon Headache.” There are filters you can toggle so that you don’t see, for example, every speed camera and drift zone or house you don’t own. But if you want to complete the game’s weekly Festival Playlists to earn rare cars and other prizes, you’ll often have to seek out these things anyway — so nothing ever stays invisible for very long.

That can be overwhelming. In an attempt to make it less so, FH5 employs a new currency called Accolades, which are little achievements within the game that each carry their own point values. Pass certain thresholds and new Adventure chapters unlock. You can press the menu button while viewing the map to check your Accolade progress, or pin certain ones to the fore to target them first. That said, I’ve never really needed to pin anything yet, because there are so many Accolades (they number in the thousands) that you pretty much can’t play the game without checking a bunch off at random. Furthermore, the addition of yet another currency to the Horizon experience — beyond credits, XP and Forzathon points — reminds me of that old xkcd webcomic about how software standards proliferate. Did Horizon really need more golden bananas?

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Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios

Just Tune Out The Noise

OK, so you’ve probably gathered by now that there’s a hell of a lot to do in Forza Horizon 5. Depending on who you are, the myriad events and objectives waiting to be cleared will either be distracting or fuel a heightened compulsion to 100-percent everything. Races tend to be quite easy on all but the highest difficulty levels, as the game pretty much scales the competition to the same class as whatever you feel like driving. PR stunts — often just glorified time trials — have very attainable targets too, at least early in the campaign.

This is what Forza Horizon has been for a while now, and still is. Money is cheap, races pay well even if you lose, and Wheelspins — prize roulettes, for the uninitiated — give you as fair a shot at winning sunglasses for your avatar as a Ford RS200. There is no economy, so if you welcome grinding, Horizon still isn’t about that and probably never will be. Play Need For Speed Heat or something.

That brings me to the epiphany I had this week. Maybe it’s OK that Horizon is like this — it shouldn’t need to be like other games, because that’s what other games are for. This franchise has this lane of easygoing, stress-free gameplay all to itself, so it may as well own it. This can be the open-world racer where I enjoy the drive, rather than what lies at the end of it.

And you know what? It’s absolutely perfect for that.

Ironically, the difficulty staying focused on one task for any length of time ultimately works in the game’s favor, because it encourages sprawling. You can drift up and down mountain switchbacks when you feel like it, and trundle through bogs in that Bronco Desert Racer minutes later. The detail and beauty of the world makes those jaunts feel more engaging than they’ve ever been before.

Image for article titled Forza Horizon 5's Automotive Wonderland Is What You Make Of It
Screenshot: Xbox Game Studios

Much of that has to do with the cars themselves, which are rendered phenomenally in FH5 with higher-res textures, new shaders and next-generation lighting techniques. The way Playground’s artists have captured the white-hot Mexican sun glinting off metallic sheet metal is gaming’s graphical equivalent to a chef’s kiss — and I don’t even own an HDR monitor. It’s truly one of the finest looking and running games I’ve ever played, and I mean that without a shred of hyperbole.

My system is by no means state of the art: I’ve got an RTX 3070, but Nvidia makes better cards, plus my CPU is almost three years old. Still, Playground has optimized its latest adventure excellently for a broad range of PC hardware, as the team has always done. I was able to run FH5 on a mix of Ultra and Extreme settings at 55 frames per second and 1440p resolution. (Weirdly, 60 fps isn’t an option, even though it is on console.) If I knock many of those down to High, I can manage a fairly stable 82 fps, and the game still looks pretty damn great.

It handles nicely too, which marks the first time I’ve ever felt confident in saying such a thing about a Forza title. When I played a preview build on Xbox Series X a month ago, I was disappointed that I hadn’t noticed a world of difference between FH4's physics — which I found somewhat darty and difficult to parse at the limit of grip — and those of the new game. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to sample a wider range of cars, I can see how the reworked suspension and braking models make for a more natural and predictable drive.

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Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios

You’re now offered space and a degree of compliance to chaotically tool around in a heap of smoke, as the game constantly goads you into doing, without being aggressively punished for it. It’s not a revolutionary change — this still feels like Forza under the skin — but I’m finding myself less frequently cursing incessant fishtailing in rear-wheel-drive cars, or useless brakes. I experienced all this on a pad, but there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t carry over for wheel players too. Finally, Horizon has a handling model that matches its fun-first ethos.

FH5 still claims an extensive multiplayer modes for you and your friends to enjoy, whether your crew prefers free-roaming in Convoys; the Eliminator battle royale; Horizon Arcade and Playground Games for team, objective-based play; or Horizon Tour if you’re simply looking for an endless stream of standard races to hop in and out of. The Events Lab is another new addition, which I suspect especially creative members of the community will test the limits of to edit some wild obstacle courses for the rest of us.

The servers were obviously pretty desolate during my time with FH5, having played the game ahead of its public release. Still, I was able to enjoy about an hour’s worth of online racing with Xbox reps and media folk. The experience was fun and seamless for the most part, but there were also cases where I’d find myself stuck at the post-race results screen, unable to progress to the next event. Hopefully these issues won’t be widespread after release day, but ultimately time will tell.

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Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios

In The Garage

I commend Playground for adding various customization parts and options that weren’t present in FH4, some of which have been quite overdue. Chief among them are all the new wheels on offer from brands like O.Z., Work and American Racing. I’m thrilled Forza finally offers an O.Z. dinner plate-style rally rim, forever an oversight of both Horizon and Motorsport. Some older examples still look wonky and need some massaging — Forza’s idea of the Volk TE37 has the bungled proportions of a cheaply-made knockoff on Amazon — but I’ll take what I can get.

Wheels aren’t the only addition to the customization palette. You can now equip racing transmissions with up to 10 gears, specialized differentials for drifting and off-roading and new tire types. You can listen to how powertrain enhancements will transform the exhaust note of your car in real time while choosing parts, which is really clever.

Certain cars have received new widebody kits and aero pieces, though these regrettably still don’t make up a significant chunk of the roster. Brake calipers can finally be painted, making good on a feature update originally planned for FH4. At last, players that obsess over their builds will no longer be forced to choose between better stopping power or calipers that aren’t red.

Yet for every new capability in the garage, a bunch of carried-over quirks from bygone Forzas still remain. I said it in my preview, and I’ll reiterate it here — the color picker in these games is terrible and has been for ages. For some reason, you can’t simply choose an existing color swatch for a matte or metallic finish. Instead, you have to fiddle with a trio of sliders, and there’s no option to save the swatches you create for later use on other cars. It’s especially annoying to settle upon a color I’m happy with, only to lose it by pressing the “B” button to retreat a menu, when I should’ve pressed “A” to confirm.

Image for article titled Forza Horizon 5's Automotive Wonderland Is What You Make Of It
Screenshot: Adam Ismail/Xbox Game Studios

Playground claims it’s modified the livery editor for a user interface “more in line with modern image-manipulation software.” Aside from a change from word- to icon-based menus, I’m not seeing it. For one, modern image manipulation software lets you import vector images, rather than clumsily trying to create them from scratch with primitive shapes. (Gran Turismo 7, for example, will let you do that.) For a franchise that revolutionized the genre with its novel consideration for liveries and car art back in 2005, Forza never bothered to keep the ball rolling.

Finally, when you’ve got a car roster as numerous as FH5's, you’re inevitably going to run into some quality inconsistencies. Some newer additions to the franchise, like the Mercedes-AMG Project One, are exquisitely crafted and even allow the player to raise and lower the car’s rear wing at will, so long as the car is stopped. However, you can’t do the same with, say, the top on a Miata or a Bronco before or after leaving the garage. Of course, these aren’t motorized in the same way the Project One’s wing is, but in lieu of animations, a temporary black screen would suffice. These are minor nits to pick, but for a game often marketed on the strength of its accuracy, they deserve the attention.


Honestly, I struggled to summarize my feelings about Forza Horizon 5 before writing this review. How do you rate a game that is technically proficient at so many things and looks astonishing doing them, but never really pushes the envelope, never deviates from its very predictable, tried-and-tested formula?

It’s tough. Game design is so complex, expensive and time-consuming nowadays, developers can’t wipe the slate clean with every release. Maybe the furniture will be rearranged, maybe some complaints from the player base might finally be addressed — but many are sure to remain. If you’re new to the series, you may not notice or care that the Photo Mode is kind of a pain to use. If you’ve been here many times before, that sort of thing will be harder to ignore.

It’s also true that player habits are different now. The grindy routine of winning painfully hard races so you can afford a better turbo to win even harder races doesn’t seem to be what most people are after anymore; not when they’re older and busier and lack the free time and patience for the rigmarole. Some just want it now, and the real prize is cruising alongside their friends. I can understand that.

If you view Forza Horizon 5 through that paradigm — as a paradise inhabited by your favorite cars and people — it’s an unequivocal triumph. (And make no mistake: your friends, even the ones that don’t care for cars, will play this game. Why not when it’s on Game Pass?) But if you’re waiting for it to surprise you with a more focused and rewarding career, or meaningful changes to decade-long habits and quirks — well, don’t. The sooner you accept it for what it is, the sooner you can start drinking in the scenery.