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Forza Horizon 5 Review | Tough to Beat

Forza Horizon 5 Review

When it comes to video game genres, the racing game is one of the originals, up there with 2D platformers and shooters. Whether it's head-to-head or large group races, point-to-point or lap-based, arcade or simulator, racing is inherently competitive and, at its most basic level, people love driving cars fast. Forza Horizon 5 is a racing game that looks visually stunning, has satisfying controls, and allows you to drive hundreds of cars and trucks… very fast. 

The Forza series has its roots in simulation racing with Forza Motorsport, which was released in 2005 on the original Xbox. In 2012, Forza Horizon came onto the scene, a spinoff that introduced an open world and a focus on slightly more arcade-style racing while still retaining the highly detailed and vast list of cars with realistic physics. Forza Horizon 5 is this reviewer’s first Forza game, so many aspects of this game/review that stood out to me personally as noteworthy or fresh, may not resonate the same way with the die-hard Forza fan. But I think I will be able to distill my new experiences down and describe why exactly Forza Horizon 5 is a racing game worth your time. 

The first thing that immediately stands out when booting up Horizon 5 is the visuals, specifically just how photorealistic the cars and the environments look. I played the game on a high-end PC via Xbox Game Pass, so while the Xbox One line of consoles may not be able to match the visuals with what I experienced, it's not hard imagining the new Series consoles displaying similar image quality. Foliage is dense, reflections on each car look crisp with very few visual artifacts, and the lighting is downright incredible. I specifically loved the look of the sky at dusk glowing in a deep blue on the horizon (pun sort of intended). Each one of the varied landscapes has an amazing picturesque look that is only heightened by the top-notch visuals, from the dry cactus-ridden hills to the lush marshlands, to the forested mountaintops, and into the colorful buildings of Guanajuato. Photo Mode enthusiasts will have a field day in this game stopping and taking beautiful pictures of cars and landscapes while being able to fine-tune these pictures with a number of filters and camera options.  

Along with the stunning visuals, the audio design, which is perhaps expected when dealing with a game about automobiles, is powerful. From the low-end hum of a Honda Civic to the guttural roar of a mid-century Dodge Challenger to the high-end supercharged buzz of a Bugatti Veyron, every car feels unique not only in how it handles but with how it sounds as well. Destruction sounds, like crashing billboards, breaking fences, and scratching metal, also do a lot of heavy lifting in immersing the player, even though visual damage to the cars is held back quite a bit, likely due to intervention by the various car manufacturers licensing their cars for the game.

Forza Horizon 5 Visuals and Performance

While eye-bursting visuals and hair-rising sounds are nice to have, a racing game lives or dies by its controls, and the wide variety of cars in Forza Horizon 5 control like a dream. As with their differences in appearance and audio, cars largely feel quite different to drive. My favorite cars were mid-century muscle cars which would dominate on the road, but once they hit the dirt for some of the offroad events, they would slide and spin out quite easily. Drift cars felt amazing on courses that twist and turn, being able to handle a wide variety of terrains at very high speeds The flow of these races simply felt amazing once paired with a proper car. The car physics feel appropriately weighty, which adds to the great sense of control these vehicles exhibit. I played the game using a controller, which is how I prefer to play racing games, and feeling the rumble kick in when bumping over rocks or how the triggers vibrate when the rubber tires burn out adds immensely to the feeling of control, even if it might not have much to do with the actual handling of the cars themselves.

Forza Horizon 5 is set in a large open-world sandbox in Mexico with a number of different activities for players to partake in such as races, story missions, finding hidden smashable billboards and barns with unlockable vehicles, community-made challenges, and even online multiplayer events. Applied to any other open-world RPG, these things may sound typical, but in a racing game, these take on an entirely new meaning. Smashable billboards, which act like collectibles, are often hidden in hard-to-reach places that will cause you to scratch your head thinking about how to smash them. Cars obviously can’t climb, so often you need to be observant of your surroundings and try to find ways to ramp your car at high speeds in order to hit the boards that are out of reach. I will touch on the story missions in a bit, but I will say the developers were able to come up with some interesting ideas for small stories revolving around racing and driving cars. One of my standout favorites was a series of races where you become a stunt driver for a movie that's filming during the festival. Unlocking new vehicles from hidden barns offers a fun scavenger hunt-like distraction from other events. And if you are keen to test your mettle against others, there are a number of races you can participate in with others online, or you can join “The Eliminator”, essentially Forza Horizon’s version of a battle royale. Regardless of how you wish to spend your time, there’s a long list of activities to tackle that will keep you occupied. 

Speaking of keeping you occupied, we haven’t yet discussed car collecting and customization, which similar to the other aspects of the game, is varied and deep. There are over 500 cars available in Forza Horizon 5 from ordinary compact cars and vans, to flashy exotic sports cars, to retro collector’s pieces, to fun additions like the Warthog from the Halo series. There are a number of ways to obtain cars, buying them with credits you earn from races, winning them in a wheelspin (essentially an in-game slot machine), receiving them as random gifts from other players, and more. Due to the sheer volume of available cars, you are constantly unlocking new cars which is extremely rewarding. Not all the cars you receive will be cars you like or enjoy driving, but these can then be flipped on the in-game auction house for credits you can use to buy cars you actually want to play with.

Customization is just as vast. You can customize paint jobs, tires, horn sounds, your player character's clothes, and win animations. I loved the addition of various video game theme tunes as horn sounds. Songs from DOOM, Banjo Kazooie, Ori, and more Microsoft games were selected and added a great bit of jolly customization to your car. These songs are pretty rare, so be prepared to put some time in if you would like to unlock them all.  If you are a bit of a car enthusiast, the game allows you to tune cars to your exact specification, although if you are like me you can always just pay some credits for an automatic tuning upgrade. Liveries can also be created and downloaded by other players further increasing the number of customization options to truly make these cars your own. The customization system allows for players to spend a long time pondering every detail of their car to change and upgrade, while also being approachable and easy to use for players who just want to change the paint job and get back to driving.

Forza Horizon 5 Progression and Accessibility

I’d like to take a paragraph to talk about the progression system in the game. As I mentioned above, the game is constantly throwing rewards your way in the form of new cars, credits, wheelspins, and more. Completing races and events will allow you to unlock further events, ultimately culminating in the big “Horizon Festival” events which act as special races that will have you outrunning a speeding train, launching off of massive jumps, or participating in some of the longest races in the game that go all the way around the map. These are some of the most fun races to experience so they are well worth going out of your way to unlock. Doing any actions in the game from nearly missing oncoming cars, to drifting, to breaking down fences and small trees will award you experience which levels you up and allows you to spend upgrade points on your cars that give you better point modifiers for different actions or additional wheelspins. It’s an engaging system that gives a constant endorphin rush due to how quickly you level up and how many little rewards the game throws at you. The slot machine gimmick of the wheelspins is a little gross and often results in some frustratingly dull rewards, but beyond that, there isn’t much to complain about from a progression standpoint. 

Forza Horizon 5 also features a large number of accessibility options that allow players to fine-tune their experience. Notably, the inclusion of a sign language interpreter for in-game cutscenes is an interesting addition that not many games have included before, at least not many I have seen. Even in the character creator, including things like the ability to have prosthetic limbs goes a long way in making sure players of all types are accurately represented in the game. Microsoft games of recent times have been putting a lot of work into including a wide array of accessibility options in their games and Forza Horizon 5 is no different in this area. 

Shifting gears a bit (another sort of intended pun), the story and by extension, the writing are by far the worst aspects of the game. While the existence of a story is a nice way to anchor characters in the world and give context to the many activities, there aren’t really any stakes or any substantive plot to grip people beyond putting on an amazing festival. The writing and voice performances feel overly positive and youthfully hip to a distracting degree. Even characters that position themselves as antagonists often shrug their shoulders and become friends at the drop of a hat. Based on the character interactions in the game, one would assume everybody in Mexico is obsessed with cars, car history, and having wholesome car-based fun with the family. It seems like such a weird thing to complain about in a racing game, but at the same time, it's weird how much attention was put into a story that just feels overly artificial. The story honestly has very few redeeming aspects and is easy to tune out entirely. 

Piggybacking off of the story and writing, there were a few technical hiccups I ran into while playing the game on PC, in addition to encountering some weird technical limitations and weird decisions made regarding character lip-synching. Overall, I will say the game performed well on my specific PC configuration maintaining a smooth 60 frames per second most of the time on ultra graphics settings. However, there were a number of events and seemingly random times where the game would start stuttering every 5 seconds or so and would not end until I restarted the game. One race, in particular, was one of the finale event races which was a nearly 20-minute long race that was constantly freezing and locking up every few seconds which made it very hard to focus on making fine adjustments on the track. A few times I noticed objects in the environment disappearing, humorously the train that drives around the northern part of the map completely despawned as I drove near it on one occasion. Object pop-in is present at further distances but honestly doesn’t intrude very much or affect the overall experience. And throughout the beginning weeks of the game’s launch, online functionality was very inconsistent, oftentimes disconnecting in between races. A few patches have been released since launch and, at least from my perspective, the disconnection errors have seemingly been addressed. Outside of these instances, my Forza Horizon 5 experience was largely bug-free.

Forza Horizon 5 Story and Music

One of the most peculiar decisions in the game I experienced involves the lip-synching for characters, or perhaps better described as the lack of lip-synching. This unfortunately is another byproduct of the emphasis on story and characters. Many times when characters are having a conversation the game will do its best to obscure or take focus away from the characters. This is achieved by placing the characters behind a car while they talk with their backs turned to the camera, holding the conversation inside a car where the player can't control the camera, or via radio. When you do see lips moving, it's only a loose approximation of matching the voice performances. It’s another odd thing to harp on in a racing game, but this odd decision really stands out as feeling off when compared to how good-looking the cars and environments are. 

Perhaps the most subjective aspect of the game is the music. This opinion will vary from person to person but while the in-the-game music is varied, nothing stands out as being memorable or unique to this game. Much like listening to the radio in a car, it often blends into the background while you drive. Seeing as I personally am not a fan of a lot of contemporary pop and rock music, many times while playing the game I just muted the radio and put on a podcast to listen to while driving around and completing races. They try to have the music play a role in the gameplay not only in being included as part of the festival but music will occasionally be played as a “skill song” where all your actions like drifting will earn double points for the duration of the song. Ultimately this doesn’t have much bearing on the game in general beyond being a fun temporary bonus. 

The final thing I would like to touch on is the role of setting the game in Mexico and how that manifests in the game. There is definitely effort put into making sure characters and landscapes are handled in a respectful nature, disregarding the ability to crash into fences and disrupt nature. Whether the developers are successful in this area will be up to each player to determine for themselves. The game highlights important landmarks, showcases Mexican artists, and imparts some words of Spanish and customs from some of the characters during missions. While these elements are nice to experience, it doesn’t go all that deep. From the music and art side of things, these honestly come up too rarely to really have any significant impact on the player. Learning bits of the language in-game is a nice gesture but much of that didn’t really stick with me after playing if that was the intent of their inclusion. Overall, these are nice things to have in the game and make the Mexico setting feel more realistic while playing but at times it really does feel fairly surface level. Perhaps including a glossary of words or a gallery of works of art you have discovered on the menu for later appreciation or education would add more to the sense of learning about another culture that I feel the developers at Playground Games were ultimately going for. 

All in all, I was very impressed by Forza Horizon 5. It’s a highly polished racing game with state-of-the-art visuals and audio design, fantastic controls, and deep customization, progression, and accessibility systems for players to engage with. There are a few fairly minor grievances to be had if you are one to be pulled out by dissonant aspects like cars showing damage unrealistically or obscured lip-synching, but with the number of different races and engaging side activities to take on in a beautifully crafted open world, it's hard to recommend a better game for someone looking to have a blast and drive cars very fast. Forza Horizon 5 is available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

Forza Horizon 5 | 9 | Excellent

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