I'm not sure what exactly 'next-gen' means for PC gamers—support for DX12 Ultimate, perhaps—but it sure feels like Forza Horizon 5 fits the bill. While we've come to expect high-fidelity visuals in racing games, it's not often I'm fawning over the environment, the buildings, really anything and everything, as much as I find myself doing while watching the Forza Horizon 5 gameplay reveal.
The game looks absolutely gorgeous from what we've seen so far, and it sounds like we can chalk some of that visual magic up to the on-location data and footage taken by in-house Microsoft studio, Playground Games.
"Check out this geology detail, implemented with precision accuracy using photogrammetry data captured on location atop an active Mexican Volcano," Mike Brown, creative director, says during the Xbox and Bethesda Game Showcase reveal. "The entire world has been recreated at this level of detail."
Photogrammetry data isn't brand new in gaming, but it is something that Microsoft is making a habit of using to create massive, immersive game worlds.
What photogrammetry means in terms of game creation is the process of capturing real-world objects, usually by way of multiple 360° images, and using them to generate detailed in-game assets, often instead of sculpting them out painstakingly by hand. Natural world environments tend to play well to photogrammetry, with the humble rock the most common example, but it's really possible to take just about anything and drop it into a game this way. You could snap an entire room and place that into a game, for example. Or perhaps a whole planet.
The last time you may have heard this term mentioned was in regards to Microsoft Flight Simulator, which uses Bing's own photogrammetry data to map the entire globe at 1:1 scale. That's a task that would have otherwise been unfeasible to do by hand.
Yet Forza Horizon 5 and Flight Simulator are wholly different beasts. When you get close to the ground in Flight Sim, the detail initially present from up at 30,000 feet falls away quicker than you can say mayday. In Forza Horizon 5, however, it seems that Microsoft is finding further uses for extensive real-world references to paint with a finer brush.
This attention to detail shows, too. Even minor details and foliage look crisp and realistic during the gameplay demo, even when travelling at high speeds. That's really saying something for a racing game, in which the fine details tend to fade away when speeding in excess of 200mph.
And it's also the stellar skybox that breathes so much life into the world, as detailed during the presentation.
"... using our unique HDR camera rig, we captured 24-hour shoots of real Mexican skies at 12K resolution. And thanks to the Xbox series consoles, these photorealistic skies result in life-like lighting that dynamically changes every frame, making you feel like you're really there."
It certainly looks the part, and it's this detail, alongside the dynamic lighting, that already has me excited to search out beauty spots in Forza Horizon 5. Lighting is something Forza Horizon 4 has done so well too, and the possibility of some form of global illumination in Forza Horizon 5, adapting with the world and changing weather conditions, is seriously exciting.
Ray tracing will certainly be present in some capacity, anyways, and from what we've seen these past few days I would guess both global illumination and, possibly, ray-traced reflections are on the cards.
Yet it's the simple joy of cruising around a luscious world that draws me back to Forza Horizon 4 often. I can't yet speak to what Forza Horizon 5 does well, but if it can only build on its predecessor's strengths—day/night cycles, vibrant colour palettes, lighting, and entertaining driving—we're in for something with immense replayability.
It seems Playground Games and Microsoft at large are looking to push the boundaries with Forza Horizon 5, and that truly has me buzzing with excitement for launch later this year. If it can nail those crisp visuals and keep that happy-go-lucky racing style, it might be the first racing game to pull me away from Forza Horizon 4. Seems only fitting.