Forza Horizon 5 Review: Viva La Evolucion

It’s an odd time to be a Forza fan. After eight successive years with a full title in the franchise — Motorsport in odd years, Horizon in evens — it’s been three years since the last game in the series, and that was 2018’s Forza Horizon 4.

With no prospect of a new entry in the Motorsport series until at least 2022, if not 2023, fans looking to get their Forza fix have been playing in the Horizon sandbox, and they’ve been doing it by the million. FH4 has been one of the best received titles of recent years, even though it too was overdue a replacement.

Nonetheless, that successor is finally here. Forza Horizon 5 whisks players back across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, and not to the Colorado setting of the first game in the series either, but to Mexico.

Promising to be bigger and better, FH5 has been one of the games we’ve been looking forward to the most since its not particularly secret launch announcement back in July. We’ve finally been able to get our hands on it, courtesy of Microsoft, and put it through its paces.

Forza Horizon 5 arrives on Tuesday, November 9, on Xbox One/Series and PC, with Premium Edition players getting early access on Friday, November 5.

Content and Value For Money

It was going to be almost impossible for Forza Horizon 5 to score anything but a five here. The facts are plain to see: you have more than 500 cars, at launch, from brands of all stripes, from buggies to racing trucks, and free rein over a giant map twice the size of Macau.

At first glance, the car list is pretty familiar. With some notable newbies, and a few absences, it’s basically FH4‘s car list all over again. And why not, it was a pretty good car list, after all.

Once again, we do have some curious omissions though, with almost every brand under the new “Stellantis” banner absent. That means no Alfa Romeo, no FIAT, no Lancia (which is particularly odd, as the Stratos was specifically mentioned in a Let’s Go stream earlier in the year), and no Citroen/DS — though Jeep, Dodge, and Peugeot are untouched.

The new cars make up for some of this though. They include game debuts for the Aston Martin Valhalla, Land Rover Defender, and the AMG ONE and Ford Bronco cover cars, as well as series debuts for the Lotus Evija, Toyota GR Supra, and Jaguar XJR-15.

Of course in addition to that, FH5 still packs in thousands of tuning parts for each car — including engine swaps — and the very well implemented livery editor so you can make the car look just how you’d like.

As is tradition, the game gives you a quick tour of the huge map in some of the flagship cars to get things started, dropping you from a reasonable facsimile of an Airbus A400M into an active volcano. From there you rattle down the mountain before hurtling through a sandstorm, racing through the forest, and crossing a finish line on a runway so long it’d shame even Fast & Furious 6.

While the map is just empty space to start with, don’t worry: it gets filled before long. As you take charge of your character — specifically mentioned as the same one who wowed the crowds in FH4, so this game is a direct sequel — you’ll be sent off to explore various parts of the jungle, the hills, the towns, and the temples to find new locations for the festival.

This actually represents the major change from FH4. Rather than a singular festival stage, inconveniently located in one of the corners, with various threads to follow for different event types, this time you’ll be setting up festival stages for each event. There’s even a festival just for PR Stunts, which now include the Trailblazer type seen in FH4 expansion Fortune Island.

Each festival type now has an “Expedition” to explore the terrain to set it up, a “Showcase” and/or a “Story”, then a final event. However you no longer need to progress down a certain path to gain XP towards the point of being renowned enough to access the final events. Instead you just unlock them with “accolades”.

These accolades are thrown at you pretty much constantly for various tasks — winning races, performing PR stunts, certain activities in certain vehicles, and so on. You’ll probably recognize this from the other FH4 expansion, LEGO Speed Champions, and you’d be right, only you’re not building a LEGO house, you’re buying access to showpiece, nation-spanning events.

That means you don’t need to focus on, say, Dirt Racing events to get enough recognition to enter the final “Gauntlet” event. You just do whatever you feel like to pick up accolades and buy the event. To us this feels like a big step back, eliminating any sense of progression.

As an example, we accidentally finished the Horizon Rush card completely by buying the three stages of it with Accolades earned ambling about for four hours, rather than working through the PR stunts that the festival unlocks.

Now, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do: quite the opposite. It just means that almost none of the game is working towards a specific goal other than having enough accolades to be on the “Hall of Fame”. Essentially, every one of the hundreds of races and challenges is a side quest.

Nonetheless, there are hundreds of races and challenges to do, and hundreds of cars in which to do them. Even if FH5 lasts as long as FH4, it’s not likely you’ll run out of things any time soon, especially with the weekly playlist and monthly series lists adding yet more of both.

Online Features

You could simply never accuse Horizon of not having enough to do, and that applies to the online offering too. First up, there’s the classic 1-v-1; encounter any player anywhere on the map and you can challenge them to a race.

If you want something more involved then, so long as you’re playing online with Xbox Gold, you can head over to Horizon Arcade. This is basically the same thing as Forzathon Live in the previous game, with a big blimp circling the map to create a play zone in which players race co-operatively towards a common goal.

Horizon Open, one of the menu options, replaces Online Adventure, with the ranked modes gone in favor of fun. As anyone who’s played FH4‘s online will recall, once the pecking order became established, lower-ranked players tended to quit online series, leaving two or three players locking up a three-to-five-race session until the bitter end.

With no rankings to fight for, FH5 allows for more player churn, but should also reduce the attrition, and you’re more likely to stay with most of the same gaggle of 12 drivers throughout each session

Open also includes Playground Games — the mode, not the studio, where you play tag with other cars in a variety of modes — and The Eliminator, which sees you trying to upgrade to the fastest cars from aerial drops and head-to-head races in an ever-shrinking arena.

With this in the game from the start now, the terrain lends itself more to the mode and it’s a lot more engaging as a result (though we think the PG staff in the playtest were instructed to let the journos win…).

Finally there’s Horizon Tour. This allows players to meet up as a group of up to six in order to take on six AI Drivatars in a series of races similar to Horizon Open. However the key here is that you and your group don’t simply fast travel from race to race, but drive across the landscape to get there — within a time limit, of course.

Of course you don’t need to race other players to participate in the online modes. The Creative Hub allows you to up- and download vehicle tunes and livery designs as well as Event Lab course creations.

These not only replace the kind of Blueprints you saw in previous FH games — your own versions of races on existing tracks — but allows you to create your own courses with obstacles and props as per Super7 challenge cards (which also return). There are some interesting creations from the developers out there…

Driving Physics and Handling

FH5 firmly hits expectations when it comes to the game’s driving model: it’s exactly as authentic as it needs to be. It’s not quite Forza Motorsport, and not quite Need for Speed, but somewhere in-between, where it always has been.

That means you won’t get much out of it if fully-simulated driving is your thing, but if you’re willing to take a step back in accuracy for the sheer fun of hammering down a runway at 240mph and landing a 1,000-foot jump off a ramp at the end of it without pancaking your car, there’s enough reality here to satisfy.

Where this is most obvious is the settings menu, which returns from FH4 untouched. Horizon gives you more ways to dial in your car’s set up than a Gran Turismo title — tire pressures are the first thing on the list — and each tweak you make results in a new simulation of your vehicle’s performance figures (which can… break a bit with edge cases like the Tankpool trucks).

Settings changes do have genuine, realistic effects on how your cars handle too, within the confines of the vehicle handling model, and the different types of road surface have consequences on that as well.

There’s also a damage model, but given that smashing stuff up makes up a lot of the game — there’s an Achievement for blasting through cactuses, and half the things you’re asked to do each week include driving into trees and fences — it’s visual only, and it takes quite a bit to cause anything but scratches. It’s still weird to see carbon fiber and plastic crinkling like metal, but that’s a carryover from FH4.

Graphics

This is one of the most difficult aspects of the game to score appropriately, because it entirely depends on what platform you’re playing. We’ve gone for 4.5 as an Xbox Series X experience, but you can round that up if you’re running recommended PC specs or better, or down if you’re on Xbox One/One X/Series S.

It should probably go without saying that FH5 is really very pretty indeed, and the landscapes of Mexico show up how relatively bland FH4‘s UK was. The boundaries between the various “biomes” are sometimes quite jarring — like suddenly going into a different level theme in a platformer — but PG has to fit a lot into a small space and it’s to be expected; at least there are biomes, rather than the UK’s choice of town and not-town.

The variety of colors on display gives a generally more lively feeling to the fifth Horizon, and there’s a much better sense of scale too. We can’t argue with the detail of the cars, the lighting, the variety of environments, and the vibrancy of FH5. From the ancient ruins to the majestic waterfalls, it’s all pretty stunning.

But it’s not entirely rosy. When we first booted FH5 up and started that traditional opening “race”, the game was in Quality mode — 4K30 — and we lasted about 45 seconds of that before turning it off and starting again in Performance mode. 30fps is inadequate to capture the sense of speed necessary, and even in the relatively sluggish Bronco it felt hardly connected to the pad. Older consoles, even the One X, will be shackled to this and that’s a shame.

Performance mode is far better, but even then the game isn’t without a couple of issues. While much has been made of the epic XSX draw distances from the top of Gran Caldera, it’s the stuff closer to the player that’s more bothersome, with higher LOD models of all flavors — vehicles, buildings, foliage — obviously popping in a few meters ahead of the car as you drive.

If you can tune that out — and usually you can, but it’s tough to unsee in Cross Country and Dirt Series races — you’ll be pretty pleased by the step up over FH4, especially when it comes to things like particle effects. The tire smoke is impressive, and it’s certainly the best Horizon yet, at least on the most capable current console.

Sound Design

We’ve never really had any issues with the audio of Forza Horizon, and it continues to be the case here. Of course we heard before launch about the changes to how PG recorded vehicle audio, and it seems very much in evidence here.

While we can’t say we’ve driven all 526 of the launch day cars, we have been able to muck around in a fair few, including the new-to-series Porsche Taycan Turbo S and Aston Martin Valhalla, and they’re suitably aural — if slightly enhanced for the target audience (just listen to the ND Mazda MX-5…).

Again though, it’s the ambient noise that’s working the hardest to make the environment feel like a living location rather than somewhere you’re just driving about in your cars.

The sounds of the various locations are excellent, from the tumbling waterfalls at Agua Azul to the jungle around Ek’Balam, there’s all sorts of auditory cues that let you know where you are. Not to mention the sounds of the local wildlife, from dogs to flamingoes. Didn’t have those in Edinburgh…

Of course the game also has its usual suite of radio stations, which should suit most tastes although aren’t necessarily everyone’s. FH5 sadly doesn’t yet include an option to select one — or none — on a permanent basis.

The Verdict

In essence what we have with Forza Horizon 5 is Forza Horizon 4, but a feature- and expansion-complete version of FH4 set in a slightly more interesting landscape.

Patch together the elevation of Fortune Island and the Accolade system from LEGO Speed Champions with most of what makes FH4 tick, and you’re about a jungle and some Aztec ruins away from FH5.

That has its positives and its negatives. The main map is once again just a mess of color before too long, but somehow more so — and the change in how you progress through the game means it’s nothing but side quests now.

Barely anything is explained at any point, stories pop up and go away, and what goals there are to work towards are effortless; we finished the Horizon Rush card in an hour and we can’t entirely say how or remember doing so.

But this is the Horizon way: lots of stuff happening all the time, without any mercy. The fact that the formula isn’t broken (yet) means PG has no need to fix it, just make it brighter, faster, better, and louder. Objectively, that’s what PG has done, and our scores reflect this.

Those hoping for a change might need to wait until Forza Motorsport debuts the next generation of ForzaTech, upon which PG can base FH6. If all you wanted was more of the same with better graphics, a better user interface, and some new roads, FH5 is here for you.

Viva la evolucion.

Forza Horizon 5
A huge, pretty, and busy open-world racer, but don't expect any dramatic changes from its predecessor.

Learn more about how our rating system works.

Content and Value For Money
500+ cars, livery and tuning parts, huge map full of stuff; you won’t run out of things to do in a hurry.

Online Features
So many different ways to interact with other players it’s easier to list what it doesn’t have.

Driving Physics and Handling
Hardly a full simulation experience, but deep enough to remain authentic.

Graphics
Still stunning, but 30fps does it no favors. Best enjoyed on Xbox Series X.

Sound Design
Immersive and entertaining sound, with a highly varied music list.

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