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Forza Horizon 5

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Playground Games
Release Date: Nov. 9, 2021


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Xbox Series X/PC Review - 'Forza Horizon 5'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 4, 2021 @ 12:01 a.m. PDT

In Forza Horizon 5, players explore the vibrant and ever-evolving open-world landscapes of Mexico with limitless, fun driving action in hundreds of the world's greatest cars.

Buy Forza Horizon 5

The Forza Horizon series has cemented itself as Microsoft's premier racing game for everyone. The mainline series may be responsible for establishing the overall physics and handling and extreme attention to car details, but the spin-off is responsible for taking all of that out of self-contained tracks and into a big, open-world playground inspired by real-life locations. From Colorado to Southern Europe, Australia and the UK, every racing location made the overall experience feel fresh and exciting. Premiering on the Xbox Series X|S is Forza Horizon 5, a game that maintains the series' status as the best open-world racing game on any platform.

Much like the previous titles, the opening sequence is a thrill ride through the landscape of Mexico. The game opens in the holding bay of a cargo plane. The cargo door opens, and the 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands is dropped at the top of an active, snowcapped volcano. The brief tutorial — in the form of button prompts — presents control basics while the truck barrels through various terrains before arriving at the Horizon Festival.

The opening scene leads to a character creation section, which gets the job done and is notable for including prosthetic limbs in the mix. You can also select a name that the game's GPS system refers to you by; you can skip this if you've played FH4, since the game takes the selection from there. It makes me wish that the game also imported the other character choices instead of tasking me with creating another one from scratch. The character voice is notable because your character actively participates in conversations. The only choices are British accents, which makes sense since the game reveals that you're the same champion driver from FH4. With more characters from that game, such as event organizers and even a few DJs, the game sets itself up as a sequel to the previous title and a way to show connective tissue between the games, aside from the Horizon Festival. Those tidbits take a backseat to the gameplay for most people, but it's cool to acknowledge the references to the UK connection.

Those who've played any of the previous four games know exactly what to expect from the gameplay. For those new to the series, this is essentially a giant, open-world racing game with variable racing mechanics. Depending on the options you choose, you can go the way of a complete simulation, make it a complete arcade experience, or create a hybrid to fit your style, such as one where the racing line is present but you don't have the ability to rewind from mistakes. Races vary in type (e.g., lapped checkpoint, point-to-point) over different terrain, such as paved roads, dirt tracks and everything in between.

Instead of going through each race via a menu, you drive to spots where you can encounter drift areas, speed traps, etc. If you feel like you've run out of races, you can create your own or take on those created by the community, either individually or via the Super 7 system, which chooses seven random races for you to tackle. No matter what you select for car and race types, expect lots of well thought-out tracks with plenty of tricky turns and opportunities to go at top speed. You can also take wild leaps off cliffs or drive through a desert forest unscathed. Like the mainline series, the cars handle like a dream, and it feels like it falls on you when a car spins out of control.

While normal racing games want you on the road all the time, this one encourages you to go off-road, as there are only a few things that will stop your car when it's hit by large trees or buildings. With almost everything in the world designated as breakable and the game encouraging you with bonuses, you can create your own shortcuts to locations. The temptation is also present in things like stunt ramps that you can leap from, billboards that reduce the cost of performing fast travel when smashed, treasure chests, and barns with legendary cars in them.

As for that car collection, the roster has ballooned to over 525, and what makes it impressive is how the team keeps adding instead of removing vehicles. The usual suspects are present, like BMW and Mitsubishi, while other licenses that are usually hard to get like, Porsche and Ferrari, make their presence known. Some of the silly entries, like the Warthog from Halo, have returned, and a few cars from Hot Wheels are here, which is surprising since this was relegated to DLC in previous titles. The ability to put custom liveries is still present, along with the ability to tune the cars for better performance. Both of those things can be shared with the community but aren't necessarily needed to consistently win races; it depends on your racing settings.

The multiplayer experience will also be very familiar for those who have played FH4 after the multitude of patches arrived. Every race in the campaign can be raced solo or with your convoy of friends. The world is populated with real people, but that can always be turned off if you aren't keen on having them around, despite the fact that they can't grief you at any time by colliding into you and vice versa. The Forzathon events have been renamed Forza Arcade, but the objective remains the same. You and a large party of 11 other players try to complete three cumulative challenges in 15 minutes to score a ton of points that can be used in the shop to get unique prizes. Eliminator mode is also in the base game, and it introduces the battle royale concept to racing in a way that feels both chaotic and unique. As expected, the online performance is top-notch, with no sign of dropped players, warping, or stuttering regardless of how many people are present and how many night games are played.

The gameplay blueprint remains largely the same, and if this were nothing more than FH4 in Mexico, it would still be a blast to play considering how well-rounded and fun that game was. While the promotion for this game hasn't highlighted a significant large change to the formula, FH5 still contains enough modifications and tweaks to make it feel different from previous games. The idea of racing in different biomes was introduced in FH3 with players racing along the different areas of Australia, but that idea is expanded here with 11 distinct areas. You see some of this during the opening sequence, but it is still awe-inspiring to see the Baja coast fade into deserts or the lush farmlands give way to small towns with murals. As in previous games, the environment features a ton of personality, and the entire experience is memorable because of it.

Introduced in the previous title, seasons make a return in FH5, but it's changed a little due to the locale. Instead of having four distinct seasons, you have wet and dry seasons along with special events (and events and prizes) associated with the season change. On the surface, the changes don't seem to be drastic, but it changes track conditions, so a wet season means a higher chance of slick roads. The seasons also result in massive weather phenomena that can hit the events themselves and open world, such as driving through a massive sandstorm or getting drenched in a tropical storm. Compared to the prior game, seasonal changes aren't a bigger deal, but it is nice to see that the idea wasn't abandoned in this iteration.

Another change involves the Showcase events that usually culminate in races between you and various vehicle pairings. They're still present in this entry, and you get to experience a few of them early on, such as racing against a cargo plane that's dropping off motorcyclists wearing wingsuits. Showcase events have been noticeably reduced from prior iterations, and in their place are Expeditions and Stories.

Expeditions are when you're about to unlock a new section of the festival. Some are normal, such as going to ruins and setting up the outpost, while others are like Showcase events in that you might reach the top of a volcano and escape to a Baja race, just like in the game's opener. Between reaching the location and leaving again, you can perform optional tasks, such as putting up an extra transmitter for a radio station, so it's a nice break from racing.

Stories were featured in FH4, and they're just as varied as the Expeditions and slightly more involved. One might involve driving a university student to get data on upcoming dust storms. Another might involve performing car stunts for a movie shoot. A poignant one has you helping a mechanic find a Volkswagen Beetle that once belonged to her deceased relative, so she can reconnect with him in that way. That last one is unexpectedly touching, but it gives the game a chance to do something that isn't always about an out-of-control car party lifestyle and the experience is better for it.

The progression system has received another overhaul, and this one feels more freeform compared to past games. You still have a star system when performing driving tricks, and star XP lets you outfit your vehicle car with boosts that can yield even more star XP. The standard XP system is also present, so leveling up still gives you a chance to spin a wheel for things like accessories, cash, cars and driver outfits. There are even car horns, one of which plays the melody for the original Doom's first level.

The new system is accolades, which is responsible for unlocking the new sections of the Horizon Festival and the bigger events in each section. The system allows players to open the sections and subsequent events however they want, while accolades are event-agnostic. Those who love street racing can unlock that but use the races to unlock other things, like off-road races or stunt tracks.

The accolades system is a novel way to handle event unlocks, but it also creates the situation where you can unlock a majority of events without racing. Except for user-created events, just about everything you do has accolades, whether it's drifting or driving at top speed or discovering roads. Those rewards are quite decent, while the thresholds for unlocking new sections of the festival remain fixed instead of increasing per level reached. While you can just race to reach the next stage, you can conceivably roam around the world doing the occasional expedition and perhaps one or two races and get more than enough to unlock the next part because of the accolades gained from driving around. The average player doing can unlock at least half of the game before they need to race seriously; this makes the game feel like less of a grind, even though the time it takes to complete enough of the races to reach the Hall of Fame is roughly similar to the fourth game.

Those are the major changes, but there are a few smaller ones that players will appreciate. You can now gift cars to people, and the gift includes any modifications and cosmetic changes that you've made; this is perfect for those who have the means to help others catch up in their collections. Speaking of which, the car collection is easier to navigate; it provides a good idea of which cars are missing from the garage, and it lets players buy most of the cars straight from that page. Rewards are now given out for completing collections for all car manufacturers, making progression go much faster since the rewards are cash and accolade points. Photo quests are another avenue for quick rewards. Then there are the skill songs that unlock after buying a house. When the DJ calls for it, you get double the skill points until the end of the song, encouraging you to drive (even more) recklessly to complete stunts. They're small changes in the grand scheme, but they make things go a tad easier.

As far as technical issues go, FH5 is rather clean. Two random crashes occurred: one when redeeming a reward from the accolades page and the other when the Xbox app had finished updating. Since the game saves quite often, no progress was lost. The game played flawlessly on both Windows 10 and 11, but for the latter, you need to make sure that you aren't on any of the builds from the Windows Insider Program. The latest one on the Dev track killed access to all games on the Xbox app, which made FH5 crash on a black screen after loading up. Most people will never run into this, but it is something to keep in mind if you want the latest OS software, bugs be damned.

The audio has always been a strong aspect of the franchise, and this iteration is no different. The engine sounds have all been upgraded, and each of the 500+ cars sound unique and authentic to where gearheads have a better shot at recognizing cars by sound alone. The vocal performances are quite good, and even your created character sounds better than expected. Like the previous games, the licensed soundtrack is diverse with a number of classics and recent bangers filling out the various radio stations. Streamers will be glad to know that a streamer-friendly track list is available.

Some of the DJs from FH4 return, but the other radio stations have replaced their DJs with ones hailing from Mexico to give the audio a more authentic feel. Older games had original title screen music, but the soundtrack in FH5 feels less like a party and more like a proper adventure game. What's more impressive is how the game uses the soundtrack to create memorable moments that elicit emotional beats that the series hasn't done before. Overall, this is excellent.

Much like FH4, your platform choice determines the graphical options. According to Microsoft, the Xbox One and Xbox One S run the game at 1080p 30fps. The Xbox One X runs at 30fps and 4K resolution. Move up to the Series consoles, and you'll get two graphical options. On Series S, Performance mode gets 1080p 60fps, while Graphics mode bumps it up to 1440p but reduces the frame rate to 30fps. The resolution bump wasn't available for the press but is planned for the public at launch. The same happens on the Series X, but the resolution is at 4K for both modes. Aside from the frame rate differences, the only major difference between the modes on Series X is the lower amount of environmental density, but you'll have to look very closely to see this.

Of course, the PC version has a plethora of graphical options to tweak, making it flexible for all types of hardware and the best platform for graphics purists. Ray tracing is on both PC and Series X's Graphics mode, but since it's restricted to Forzavista mode, it isn't something you'll miss if you don't have a new, hard-to-find graphics card.

Regardless of the platform you're playing on, FH5 looks gorgeous. The cars look extremely detailed, and the body reflections are impressive. The title uses standard reflection techniques, but the high frame rate and the high resolution fool you into thinking it's ray-traced. The environments also sport a ton of details, especially with the rock textures looking clean and the vegetation looking lifelike, since you can discern individual strands in palm trees. There's a lot of vegetation and the environment is interactive, but it is the lighting that really impresses. The soft lighting when viewing a sunset from a mountain top is awe-inspiring, as are the bright lights coming from a tunnel before diffusing. The weather effects are also nice, with tropical storms being just as impressive as dust storms; it's a good showcase for the game engine and ramps up excitement for what the team can do with the upcoming Fable.

Forza Horizon 5 absolutely lives up to the pedigree established by its predecessors. By using almost everything that worked in FH4, the game would've been a strong contender even if all it did was change its locale. The few changes in FH5 work heavily in its favor and contribute positively to the idea that the game is difficult to put down because it's fun and there's so much to do. For those who have played previous entries in the series, jump on this one immediately. For series newcomers, FH5 is a perfect place to start.

Score: 9.0/10

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