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Forza Horizon 5 game review: A gorgeous drive to familiar heights


Nearly a decade before this week’s launch of Forza Horizon 5, the Forza Horizon series began life as a plucky, goofy offshoot of the “serious” Forza Motorsport racing games. Instead of confining you to just race tracks, Horizon‘s massive map ranged from busy city streets to wide-open countrysides to muddy riverside romps.

The resulting game curried a ton of favor upon launch, since it evoked the beloved and long-dormant Burnout Paradise concept—with the bonus of Forza‘s solid car-handling model at its core. But while each subsequent Horizon game has improved the series’ technical chops, the formula hasn’t changed much. Horizon‘s best ideas have mostly come from wacky DLC packs that reimagine the series concept, particularly FH3‘s Hot Wheels set and FH4‘s LEGO pack.

In spite of this history, I went into Forza Horizon 5 hoping fans wouldn’t have to wait for another expansion pack to add that kind of fuel injection—but sadly, my hopes have been dashed. Forza Horizon 5 remains merely the best open-world driving game you can buy—the same thing we said about 2018’s Forza Horizon 4. That means it’s good, it’s fun, and it’s pretty. And it skips a few obnoxious modern trends, letting you simply play by yourself without microtransaction-related meddling.

But FH5 increments the digit in the title without much additional iteration, which means it’s hardly a “must buy,” especially if you already played FH4. Unless you happen to own a current-gen Xbox or a killer gaming PC—in which case, FH5 primarily scores big as a drool generator.

¡Vámonos!

Rollin' with the homies.
Enlarge / Rollin’ with the homies.

Forza Horizon 5 [Xbox, PC]

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The first big difference in the new title is the location: Mexico, rather than England, Australia, or anywhere else Horizon games have previously taken place. On the micro level, expect an appropriate amount of indigenous architecture, sun-scorched foliage, and city zones that have been transplanted wholesale from the likes of Mexico DF. Sí, estamos en México. (Thankfully, the game’s dialogue doesn’t overuse Spanglish to make this point.)

On the macro gameplay level, however, this content blurs together into the frantic, freeform racing you’ve seen before. Which, really, isn’t so bad. FH5 draws race tracks over an open world’s mix of paved roads, dirt, and mountainside, and you can freely drive across the map to take on new races and challenges. As usual, and unlike more rigid racing games, there’s generally no such thing as a barrier when you’re making your way through the world. Unless a FH5 barricade is made of solid concrete, your car can plow through pretty much any fence or cobblestone arrangement—and see a tantalizing explosion of rubble and particle effects whip past your bumper.

The devs at Playground Games remain masters at the Horizon series’ two-pronged approach: building enticing open world racing playgrounds and drawing artful racing lines inside of said playgrounds. Driving around willy-nilly remains a blast, but Playground mostly makes it worth pulling over and clicking “accept” on its pre-made challenges. Frantic street racing, full of careful start-stop-and-drift lines, will have you shouting out Fast & Furious quotes. Roughly one mile away, jungle trails open up to massive leaps over cliffs, which will land you in valleys full of excuses to slam your emergency brake and pull rich, mud-throwing e-drifts.

A graphics and tech powerhouse

I seriously cannot keep track of how many times FH5 made my eyes bulge. The game takes special care to emphasize massive vistas, whether because your car is Thelma and Louise-ing from a great height or because a particular stretch of bridge peers perfectly over a massive city- and tree-lined valley that stretches to the horizon. The game’s visual formula is arguably 50 percent tech and 50 percent art direction, with screen-bursting HDR effects doing wonders for a richly saturated canvas of cities, sunsets, and scenery.

On Xbox Series X/S and PC, you can set the game to run at 60 fps by default and expect incredible fidelity. On consoles, however, Playground made the curious decision to keep resolution roughly the same whether running in 60 fps “performance” mode or 30 fps “quality” mode. While the resolution appears to drop a bit in performance mode, it’s still pretty close to 4K; Playground has elected to reduce other noticeable visual touches to scrape up more frames.

Loading times are practically nil on current-gen consoles.

Among the sacrifices: motion blur quality and shadow resolution are reduced; the “level of detail” slider (LoD) is turned down, to remove foliage and object clutter in the distance; and ambient occlusion is less prevalent, thus making rubble and detritus in the distance look less convincingly grounded. Each of those downgrades is fine in isolation, but as a combo, their impact on FH5‘s presentation becomes more apparent when you switch to quality mode, where those effects make the game look not just gorgeous but also grounded and realistic. I wish the console experience was a bit more PC-like, in terms of letting Series X owners downgrade to 1080p, crank up other settings, and stick to a smooth 60 fps refresh, but alas.

The
Enlarge / The “H” stands for… wait for it… Horizon.

In incredibly good news, loading times are practically nil on current-gen consoles, along with PCs whose drives exceed PCIe 3.0 speeds. Seriously: tap a “quick travel” option on the map and the new location will load before you’ve even pushed yourself out of your chair. The loading times are so fast, in fact, that I rushed to unlock the game’s universal quick travel perk, so that I might instantly warp around virtual Mexico whenever I please. (This comes after buying a “personal house” in the map’s southwest corner. I suggest FH5 players make a similar virtual real estate decision as soon as they can.)

While I didn’t conduct tests on the base Xbox One family of consoles, Playground has pledged to deliver 30 fps performance there. To do so, the developers confirmed that the aforementioned downgrade systems—along with dynamic resolution scaling—are used more severely on older consoles. On PC, on the other hand, you can expect to hit the 1080p / 60 fps sweet spot with an RTX 2070 without much in the way of visual compromise; or you can lock the game to 60 fps at 4K, with settings maxed out, on both the AMD RX 6800XT and Nvidia RTX 3080 Ti.

Adventure time

Leaps like this are what <em>FH5</em>'s Adventure mode are all about.
Enlarge / Leaps like this are what FH5‘s Adventure mode are all about.

Xbox Game Studios

Previous Horizon games have included cinematic events as bookends between standard races, and FH5 continues this trend with a new “Forza Adventure” series of increasingly bombastic missions. These simple, kid-friendly races trade challenge for spectacle, and FH5 gets away with this by having plenty of harder, optional races for people who want to seek them out.

I’ve already mentioned how pretty this game is, and Adventure neatly lets players chill out and take in the incredible sights, all rendered in real time. Chase a pair of monster trucks with a dune buggy through a muddy trail into a massive arena, or crawl up a volcano’s switchbacks until you reach its summit—at which point you careen down its smoother side with a few sweeping, yeeeehaw-worthy drifts with the speedo well above 120. The best Adventure missions play out like killer car sequences in a modern film, each choreographed to fantastic effect.

The worst Adventure missions, sadly, play out like C-movie dreck. Roughly a third of these missions turn out to be chains of 6-8 smaller races, strung together by chattering in-game characters you’ve never met before. These men and women only exist to shout stuff in the middle of a race and then vanish, never to be heard from again.

And the writing is so embarrassingly bad—in particular, a subplot about unlikeable, spoiled brats who drive in their parents’ supercars—that I’m now officially concerned about Playground Games helming the next game in the dialogue-heavy action-RPG series Fable. (Perhaps the studio’s best writers are focused on Fable, and they dumped FH5 writing duties on a college intern who saw Baby Driver a couple of times?)

Those unskippable patches of dialogue are a bummer, but they are the exception to a plot that is otherwise mostly “drive fast, amigo.” And pretty much everything in the game will work just fine without touching the online mode, in terms of accessing every corner of this game’s virtual Mexico.



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