What is it? A ridiculous car playground masquerading as an open world racing game.
Expect to pay: $60/£50, included with Game Pass
Release date: November 9
Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Reviewed on: Ryzen 7 3700X, 32GB RAM, RTX 3080Ti Multiplayer? Other racers appear in the open world, and there are a variety of co-op and competitive playlists.
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
After being airdropped from a cargo plane in an AMG One, I arrive at the festival site to fanfare and fireworks. The organisers are delighted—their 'superstar' is finally here—and to celebrate they offer me a choice of starting car. I leave the site and head to my first race in a Corvette Stingray Coupe. This isn't how racing games are supposed to start. I should be battling for wins in some aging hatchback, dreaming of the day I can get behind the wheel of something sleek and fast. Instead, I'm being handed a 500 horsepower supercar to tear through the streets of Mexico.
It makes sense, though. Forza Horizon 5 doesn't need to do what other racing games would do. It just needs to be a Forza Horizon game, because Horizon's brand of vehicular playground antics has no serious rival.
Sim racing is a competitive field, but on the more arcade side it's not looking so healthy. Burnout Paradise showed the promise of open world racing back in 2008, but, for whatever reason, EA never followed it up. The Need for Speed series ping-ponged between varying degrees of arcade and simulation for years, never carving out a singular identity for itself. Dirt is similarly confused; the strength of its Dirt Rally spin-offs leaving the parent series unsure of what it's meant to be. Forza Horizon hasn't so much pulled ahead of the pack as it's already finished the race and is now free to amuse itself.
Forza Horizon 5 knows this. It feels unchallenged. It's not being forced to reinvent the wheel, and so it's content to just hone and refine—to be the best Forza Horizon it can be.
If you have played any previous Forza Horizon game you already know what this means. A map filled with more icons than a Ubisoft open world, each denoting a race event, a PR stunt, a rumour about some vintage car, a series of challenges organised into a handful of stories. As you win races you unlock more events, new cars, more money. As you drive, you earn skill points for everything from drifting to crashing through destructible scenery.
Your garage fills at an absurd rate. I've played for around 20 hours—enough to unlock all of the festival outposts and their various upgrades—and have collected 93 of the 526 cars available at launch. As you win races and complete events, you're bombarded with rewards. You earn accolades—mini achievements that act as Forza Horizon 5's career progression system—some of which reward new cars and new phrases to spam in chat. You earn wheelspins that can drop cars, cash and clothes. And then, as you fill out the new collections page that displays the full roster of vehicles as collectible cards, you earn more bonuses for completing each specific manufacturer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, performance was smooth on an RTX 3080Ti—achieving 94 fps in benchmarks on the highest, Extreme, settings at 1440p. I haven't been able to test on less powerful cards, but Forza Horizon 5 offers a highly customisable suite of graphics settings, from regular options like shadow quality, reflections and anisotropic filtering, to more granular settings such as environment geometry quality, deformable terrain quality and SSR quality.
Beyond graphics, it's an impressive suite of options on offer. Serious attention has been given to accessibility options with scalable colour filtering, subtitle size and keyword highlighting and screen reader, text-to-speech and speech-to-text options. Difficulty too is fully customisable, with assists and 'drivatar' difficulty options carrying over from previous games—as does the cash bonus for making things harder for yourself.
Collecting new cars, then, is more about broadening your options than upgrading to newer and better vehicles. You'll likely get an S2 class car—one of the best and fastest—in your first hours. But, thanks to the restrictions present in the seasonal playlist, you're encouraged to chase many different makes and models.
The seasonal playlist is the heart of Forza Horizon 5's live service. Each week takes place in a new season and offers a variety of events and challenges, usually with restrictions to class, type and difficulty. It's summer in-game right now, which means it's the wet season in Horizon's Mexico. In one seasonal championship, I battled the pouring rain in a B-class classic muscle car to win a Ford 'Hoonicorn' V2 that's become a mainstay of my drift zone attempts. In another, I fought through the mud in an A-class modern sports car to win a 'steam boat' car horn.
Elsewhere, you're free to pick your class and the game will pit you against relevant opponents. The seasonal playlist, then, succeeds by forcing you out of your comfort zone, and making you think about how to overcome the restrictions. We've had plenty of looter shooters, but Forza Horizon is slowly turning into the first looter racer, and it suits the series well—giving you reasons to think about your garage and what fits your next goal. Without the seasonal restrictions, for instance, I'd never have bothered tuning any of my cars. With so many available, there's little need to tinker with any specific one. But then the playlist directed me to complete a specific jump with an S1-class retro sports car—something that you can't actually buy. And so I picked out one of my lower class cars, and sure enough, a custom tune existed to upgrade it to requirement.
Naturally, the playlist provides yet more rewards. As you complete events, you earn progress towards the exclusive and hard-to-find cars that are available both each season and each series—a wider umbrella that spans across the four seasons of the year.
If you played Forza Horizon 4 a few months after its release, you'll recognise this system—it's the same as it is in that game, just present here from launch. The same is true of many of Forza Horizon 5's online events, which include Forza Horizon 4's Eliminator battle royale mode and the Super 7 community challenges—both added after launch in Forza Horizon 4, but available from the start in Forza Horizon 5.
You'll notice at this point that I've not talked about anything truly new to Forza Horizon 5, and for good reason.
There's a new event type—an 'expedition'—used to unlock the outposts that contain Horizon's different racing disciplines. You go to a new area, complete some optional objectives, and your map fills up with new road, street, dirt or cross country races. Even so, calling this a new feature may an overstatement. With so many different event types already, any slight variation struggles to stand out.
The most exciting new addition, Event Labs, will take some time to make itself known. This is the new custom race creator, which lets players drive out their own route to then share with the community. But more than just a course maker, it comes bundled with a rules editor that lets you create a series of if/then statements that can be used to make new challenges and, theoretically, whole new modes. The few examples currently available, created and shared by the Playground Games team, certainly demonstrate the flexibility of the system—for instance turning a late game endurance race into a piñata popping minigame. Beyond that, it remains to be seen, but I'm looking forward to the community at large getting to grips with what's possible.
Really, then, the major new feature of Forza Horizon 5 is, simply, its setting. Mexico is more varied and vibrant than Forza Horizon 4's UK—with rainforests, towns, deserts and many, many cacti to bash into. The weather is more interesting too, with dust storms adding an atmospheric twist to events.
Throughout, the game's characters reference Mexican culture and history, although it's all filtered through the series' relentless positivity. It's hard to think of its world as a real place, not because it's a pick-and-mix truncation of real locations, but because it exists in a universe where bad things don't happen. Everyone is loving life all of the time—the festival is a constant party, where destruction means skill chains and harsh vibes don't exist. What of the other racers who don't get to compete in the big showcase events? Are they resentful of you, its superstar? No, because they're the game's other players, who exist as ghosts in your open world to team up with for collaborative events. They're off in their own version of the game's world where they, too, are the star. Here, everybody wins.
This is Horizon's whole deal, though, and while I might roll my eyes at the dialogue, I can't pretend I don't get swept up in the atmosphere. It would be reasonable to critique the series for its relentless commitment to ignoring the real issues of the locations it visits—certainly the one side story that can be glibly summarised as "rich people have feelings too" felt especially tone deaf in a game where I'm being handed free houses and Pagani Zondas. But it's so hard for me to think of its fiction as anything approaching reality that to do so seems trite. Obviously it's nonsense, but it's also having a lot of fun. I find it impossible not to be dragged along for the ride.
Inevitably as I play, I have a big, dumb grin on my face. It's just that kind of game. Similarly, I can't really criticise Forza Horizon 5 for not making big, sweeping changes for the sake of it feeling more different. It's easy to forget given how effortless everything feels, but the sheer detail of the environments and the level of craft evident in each of the over 500 cars is astounding. Forza Horizon 5 isn't a full sim, sure, but nor is it simplistic. Each car has its own personality, and it's capable of offering a serious challenge if you turn off the many optional assists. It's just realistic enough to give each car a personality, and the detail in their modelling is absurd—their interiors lovingly recreated for the Forzavista viewing mode.
This is what happens when a series gets to exist without serious competition. It gets to focus on and perfect the things it's most interested in. It gets to take the improvements made over the course of its predecessor's life and plan to build a new game around their inclusion. It gets to hone its driving model and enhance its graphics—not drastically so, but just enough to be noticeable. While I'd love to know what Forza Horizon would look like if it had any serious rivals forcing it towards greater innovation, I'll happily make do with playing the most polished and confident Forza Horizon game made to date.