Beautiful beaches with hotels full of life. Dense jungles teeming with wildlife and water. An active volcano that showcases off incredible looking and far-reaching vistas, and the Baja desert where dunes become ramps for spectacular jumps. These are just a part of Forza Horizon’s version of Mexico, and it is the star of the show in the fifth game in the series releasing day and date in Game Pass. How different is this title from the previous, or is it a culmination of all that came before? Have they finally figured out a progression system that works well? Let’s find out.
A Master Class
Earlier this year I took a look back at Forza Horizon 4 and its expansions for the site. Going back on a Series X I was stunned at how good it looked and ran. Forza Horizon 5 is an enormous improvement in a way I am having a hard time believing. Not only are the graphics a huge step up, but they finally fixed my main issue with the series, progression. The map is as big and icon-filled as ever, but never once did I feel lost, and the filter system makes it easy to focus on the events I was interested in. Almost every single event in the game earns you Accolades. These are the number by which you will unlock expeditions, which are the heart of the title. There is a great incentive in winning races/events now as higher placement can earn you more accolades so that you unlock the next thing more quickly.
You will use these accolades in 6 different areas: the main festival, Apex road racing, Wilds dirt racing, Baja cross-country, Rush PR Stunts, and Street Scene street races. The order in which you unlock is up to you. Really enjoy PR stunts? Use your first unlocks there and get every speed trap and danger sign into your game as quickly as possible. It’s a much more basic and easily understandable progression system in comparison to the past titles where things always felt a bit nebulous and out of your control. It led to me unlocking every expedition fully and becoming a “Hall of Fame” member within a few days of getting the review code (courtesy of Xbox of course) because I was having so much fun. Knowing exactly what I was working for was a huge part of that. One of the other main reasons is that this is perhaps the best-looking game I’ve ever played.
Mexico Isn’t Yellow Tinged? Hollywood Lied To Me!
I’m not sure I can overstate just how good-looking this game is on my Series X. There can be some noticeable pop-in at times in the Performance 60fps mode, but my God is it worth it. Almost all of my footage for the video review is in performance mode because it is simply stunning. For those who aren’t as frame conscious, a flawless 30fps Quality mode is available as well. Either way, this game features some of the best-looking scenery of all time. Having this much density and detail in a map that is so large is an incredible achievement for the team at Playground games. Seasons and storms are back from Forza Horizon 4, and the new sandstorms are used just often enough so that they never become intrusive as you really can’t see much if anything when inside one.
The cars themselves look better than ever, and the quality mode even features a self-reflective ray-tracing mode when using the Forza Vista system. This allows you to hover around and go in the cars. The environment of the showroom isn’t reflected but cars with spoilers or anything hanging off reflect their own body well. Even without quality mode on though the game’s use of baked-in reflections looks fantastic. Some cars do suffer from a bit of an overly reflective surface but on the whole, the effect looks so good that I could see casual fans thinking the entire game was using ray-tracing.
Environmental effects like mud, sand, and water are convincing, and using the drone mode showcases how much more alive Mexico feels than previous entries. Not only is there wildlife to be found but there are actual people… living! Flying around the huge beach-front hotel shows people hanging out and enjoying the show, and you can even see into rooms (though it’s a pretty small set of actual looks for the indoor spaces). This of course is all in service of a fantastic driving model.
The Forza series is well known for being more of a hybrid simulation-arcade style. This simcade approach really took off in the Horizon series with a focus on going off-road and it has grown bigger and wilder with each entry. With a mountain and desert biome, it is more arcade-like than ever as you take a million-dollar Bugatti and send it flying 2000 feet off a cliff or race a Ferrari through a desert with reckless abandon. The skill and upgrade system is back in a mostly similar fashion from 4. All of the various perilous driving techniques you employ will earn you skill experience which turn into skill points. You then use these on a per-car basis, though thankfully any skill points you earn can be used on any car. It is just one of many carrots on a stick that the game presents to the player at all times.
There are over 500 vehicles on offer here and they have never felt better. Certain vehicles will flourish in the right settings, but you can use whatever you want at any time outside of the game’s story missions which always give you a car tailored for the experience. One of my first purchases was, of course, the Warthog from Halo which has no business going against a supercar, and thankfully it never has to. Each race matches up cars from a certain class and type of vehicle. If you use a supercar you race supercars, if you use a truck you race trucks, and so on. It’s a tried and true method of keeping things fair and thankfully it felt a bit more challenging this time. Instead of easily winning every race once the game told me I should bump up the difficulty I struggled for a bit until I went in and tuned up my cars to be lighter and faster (using auto tune, of course, I’m an idiot when it comes to vehicles).
Everything about how the game plays is around accessibility and just how much of it you want. There has been a focus on helping as many people play games as possible lately from Xbox and it’s on full display here. From all the driving assists we know and love to new ones you can make this game as easy or difficult as you want. If you are playing offline you can even slow the speed of the game down for those who need a little more time as their reaction speed can’t keep up. It’s a commendable effort and the large selection of languages is great to see as well. Xbox has had an issue with localization support, and I hope that FH5 is a step in the right direction there too.
The new Event Labs mode is deep and addicting. I’m not much of a creator but even the basic things people were coming up with during the review period showcased how this mode could become Forza Horizon’s answer to Halo’s forge mode. Forzathon is back as Forza Arcade, though finding anyone to do them with was tough pre-release, and the Eliminator had returned as well but suffered from a similar issue. Cosmetic progression is mostly unchanged from previous entries with never-ending Wheelspins being the way you’ll unlock the majority of items.
Stories, Showcases, and Incredible Sound Design
While the tone of the game might be a bit too much for me at times, it is undeniably a big step up in terms of presentation. The expeditions feature various stories such as finding a Volkswagen beetle barn find that sets you off on a series of races and events centered around the car, eventually gifting it to you at the end. Another is about Lucha libre (wrestling) and gifts you a fantastic-looking luchador outfit at its conclusion. Showcase events are back as well and they’re as scripted feeling as ever. Thankfully there aren’t a lot of them, so they did not wear out their welcome. My main issue is that you always win by a split second, and it feels incredibly forced. As long as you don’t purposefully throw it by braking or hitting a wall at the end the game will make sure to slow down your AI opponent just enough for you to pull ahead and win. One new area is that your playable character has finally learned how to speak!
At the start of the game, you’ll be tasked with customizing your character. It’s an improved system that offers one masculine and one feminine voice, your choice of pronouns, and a decent amount of character models. It starts off pulling in your character from FH4 if you played the game as well as your name. It was surprising but cool to hear the announcer say “Jesse” without me having to choose a thing. Car sounds are the best they’ve ever been, and it is clear that Playground has put an inordinate amount of effort into improving things here. Using cars from both games and jumping back and forth between them (thank you Quick Resume!) is an immense improvement. The soundtrack seems fine, but I mostly had the radio off and was either listening to podcasts or my music the majority of the time. I’m not the target audience of the in-game radio.
A Few Minor Quibbles, but Loading Speeds Are Not One
Stability-wise the game is rock solid, as long as you’re not using Quick Resume too often. During the review period, there was a 20GB patch which improved things dramatically, but I still had a few small issues after unsuspending the game. They were mostly audio-related as a few times I started up an event and realized there was no dialogue and half the sound effects appeared to be missing. Closing the game and opening it back up is thankfully an incredibly fast experience as loading times are almost non-existent once you’re in the main map. It didn’t happen often, and the game was great about reconnecting to the online servers quickly after resuming so I’m hoping they can tighten it up in the future.
Those loading speeds though are mighty impressive. After a short load into the game proper, you will never see one longer than 2 or 3 seconds the rest of the time. There are new houses to buy across the map and getting the western-most unlocks fast travel. Fast travel is fast and rarely took longer than 2 seconds no matter how far across the map I was going. The same goes for loading in a new vehicle. The time between choosing your new car and it loading up is faster than I could take a drink of water. It’s seriously impressive and it helps lower any fatigue you might feel when experimenting with new vehicles. I used to dread the wait on the old platforms in previous titles as it would take upwards of a minute to load my car in.
This game is nearly perfect for me and there is no getting around that. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does make it smoother and faster than ever. Jaw-dropping graphics are paired with best-in-class handling and excellent audio. The story mode and progression is the best the series has had yet at this scale, and while the tone isn’t for me I didn’t find it nearly as annoying as the characters could be in FH4. Obviously, this game is on Game Pass as it is a first-party title, and with how successful the last game was I’m sure most of you will be checking this one out too. It is not only one of the best games to release this year, it is a true showcase of just what a “next-gen” title can be.
Note: I have created an in-game Club called “Xbox Era” with “XERA” as our tag, feel free to join if there is space!
Reviewed on Xbox Series X, Code Provided by Xbox