From its opening moments of having you speed down the side of an active volcano in a Ford Bronco after launching from a cargo plane, Forza Horizon 5 shows you exactly what absurdly amazing deathtrap of a situation you’ve gotten yourself into. It simply tells you to hold on and enjoy. The game is a non-stop rollercoaster ride from the get-go, and it just gets wilder the more you play. Having been with the series since its PC arrival with Horizon 3, I can say that not only has Horizon‘s formula been refined for this latest entry, it’s been, for lack of a better term, perfected.
What sets Forza Horizon apart from its more conventional sibling Forza Motorsport, is that it fully embraces that it’s only semi grounded in reality. With each new entry, the level of ludicrousness is pushed ever so higher. As indicated by the aforementioned insane volcano descent, the ceiling of what’s possible in the world of Horizon has clearly hit the exosphere this time around, and it’s for the best.
At this point, Playground Games has clearly embraced an over-the-top persona. Jettisoning vehicles out of planes, racing against freight trains, and casually tearing up tranquil farmlands with off-road monsters are treated as par for the course. In the in-game universe, “Horizon” as a brand has become synonymous with such spectacles.
The game’s cast, which is notably quite colorful and fleshed out this go around, treats all the shenanigans as regular and expected. The cast completely indulges in the partially controlled insanity of the experience. And, as the player, this all couldn’t feel more at home.
It especially helps that not only does your avatar now talk, but the dialogue from the whole cast feels so natural and witty. The delivery of the lines are spot on, and somehow manage to make all of the insane goings-on seem somehow believable. I found myself quickly becoming immersed in the festivities and integrated into this wildly awesome virtual world.
What really allows this more than anything else is Forza Horizon 5‘s virtual rendition of Mexico. In addition to being the most technically impressive and complex map in the series due to its sheer size and scale, what really struck me was its overall design. Its atmosphere, its visual language, its layout; all of Horizon 5 proudly shows off an air of refinement and logic.
Playground’s scenery designers went all out on making each of this in-game Mexico’s seven regions look vividly distinct from each other. They’re also incredibly detailed from both technical design and cultural perspectives.
As someone who lived in Latin America for a few years, it’s so satisfying to drive through vistas like Horizon 5‘s rendition of Guanajuato and admire the gorgeous Spanish architecture that I know so well.
Even throwaway buildings in the middle of scenic nowhere on the map have surprising amounts of detail and polish, and disabling the in-game radio allows you to hear that even the soundscape is authentic. The sounds of the various fauna (that are now fully present), the playing of music on guitars in the distance; the whole map’s atmosphere oozes with authenticity, far more so than past entries. There’s just so much to see, such as the densely forested areas of the swamp, the beautiful azure waters of both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, the impressive dunes of the desert, and the striking rock formations in the canyons. Horizon 5‘s Mexico feels alive and handcrafted at every turn.
Of course, nothing signifies this more than the way it integrates into the refined gameplay mechanics that Forza Horizon 5 has to offer. True, it’s taken me forever to finally get to this point, but for good reason. The entire package is so well made, that the high-quality gameplay is, strangely enough, actually kind of an afterthought to me.
The fun is natural
Horizon has made a name for itself by offering a very loose take on the same physics engine that powers Forza Motorsport. Like past entries, this one is very much a “simcade” and in the best way possible. Hurtling down the insanely long highway at over 250 mph feels just as fluid as powering up the side of the La Gran Caldera volcano at 90 degrees.
In other words, the game’s mechanics don’t try to represent reality completely, and for this experience, you can’t have it any other way. Every car has its quirks, but they all have a similar sense of ease that allows even newcomers to smoothly get into the rhythm of things.
The driving experience doesn’t feel largely different from past entries either, mostly because the Horizon formula worked so well already. With nearly 600 cars at launch, the focus is definitely more on using them to experience the amazing map rather than perfecting racing lines.
Having the action split across six Festival sites, you’ll constantly shuttle from one corner of the map to another, all while taking in the absolutely gorgeous sights. Similar to Horizon 3, the multiple Festival locations (now called “Outposts”), serve as hubs for each of the different regions. Even so, their events are scattered all over, so you’ll certainly see all that Mexico has to offer.
The true shakeup to the experience comes in the form of how progression is handled. Horizon has gotten quite inundated with content over the years. It’s to the point where some players have found the experience to be, arguably, a little too overwhelming and almost directionless. In an effort to curb this, Playground has borrowed a mechanic it introduced in the LEGO Speed Champions expansion for Horizon 4, called Accolades.
Accolades are yet another thing to collect throughout your Horizon experience, and you can get them by doing literally anything. Perform different skills during a race, complete said race, simply get one star in a drift zone; the game rewards you simply for playing.
Even though Accolades are easy to come by, they at least provide a bit of a buffer between the action to give you more of a guide as you progress throughout the campaign.
Accumulating enough of them will eventually allow you to expand the Festival by building and then upgrading the aforementioned Outposts in stages. You can build them out completely one at a time, or even make an addition to one each time you get enough Accolades; the choice is still left up to you.
Throw all of that into the mix of other activities like the return of Horizon Stories, which makes full use of the aforementioned colorful cast of characters, and there’s more to do than ever. In fact, a lot of it doesn’t even have anything to do with traditional races or the special Showcase events. Many of the activities throughout the Horizon Story missions involve stuff like hunting down abandoned cars, taking pictures, and conducting science experiments.
True, all of this could be considered typical open-world filler, but it never really felt like that to me. What it really did was give the cast a real purpose and made their character arcs, small as they are, feel naturally built out. This is in addition to making sure you truly experience the large map of virtual Mexico in more ways than just arbitrarily driving across it to get to the next waypoint. It all flows together, especially considering that the scale and openness of Horizon Mexico feels like it suits the gameplay style more than any of the series’ past locales.
Horizon 5’s Mexico was made for the players to not only just be able to drive with pure seamlessness, but to enjoy being any and everywhere, climb up on and drive to nearly everything that’s rendered, smashing into just about any object, and cruising down anything that even just looks like a path; whether it’s marked on the map or not. This truly feels like it’s the first time a map in Forza Horizon feels like it fully compliments the series dedication to freedom.
Although it’s clearly still too early to say something like this, I just have to mention that the expert way Playground has handled building Horizon 5’s Mexico makes me extremely excited to see which country the Festival goes to next. The level of love and care put into this location sets an extremely high precedent for the future. It seems like Horizon only seeks to go up from here.
Forza Horizon 5 bursts with zest and character at every turn, and each of its axels and pistons feels well greased and purposeful. Like a purring engine, you can tell that this was made with pure attention to detail. The extra year of development time that it’s gotten compared to past entries shows spectacularly, through and through.
Playground Games isn’t the first to offer an open-world racer, not by a long shot. But, they’ve not only cracked the secret formula, but have impressively found a way to keep improving upon it over the years. This isn’t just the best and strongest entry in the Forza Horizon franchise—this is the best racer of its class and will serve as a textbook example for similar projects to come.
Horizon is here to stay.