Playground Games latest racer takes us to the rich lands of Mexico for another bout of high-octane motorsport mayhem.
Playground has a good thing going with the Forza Horizon series. Before a random off-shoot of the popular Motorsport main series, but now a giant in its own right, developing Horizon games has given the British studio a lot of creative freedom, even impressing their Microsoft overlords to let them handle something quite different indeed - Fable.
And passing the stewardship of one Microsoft's key franchises has been earned, because Forza Horizon remains one of the more consistent series across genres, delivering solid racing, beautifully rendered open worlds, detailed progression systems and satisfying physics. No, not all Horizon games are made equal, but each has upheld a reputation, a standard, and now Forza Horizon 5 looks to continue this legacy.
This time, Playground takes the Horizon festival to Mexico, a land rich in biodiversity, beautiful vistas and impressive cultural iconography. It is, in other words, perfect, as a platform for intense racing. The one thing you, however, have to understand about Forza Horizon 5 from the off-set, is how incremental an upgrade we are talking about here. Sure, the opening run pounds you with visual splendour, a varied drive across different biomes and spectacle as is the custom with Horizon games, but beneath the shiny exterior we find the same engine, the same rules, the same physics, the same overarching structure, which might be either a delight, or detrimental, depending on your perspective.
To its credit, Horizon 5 does not, at any point, claim to do anything revolutionary or different, and it doesn't. Mexico is yours to explore, and while there have been some tweaks made to the overall progression (which we'll get to), you still look for Barn Finds, unlock new stages of the Festival, participate in different race types in different vehicles, and occasionally sprucing it up with a trip through mainstays like the Battle Royale-inspired Eliminator. There are Speed Traps and Trailblazers all 'round, radio channels fit with hosts, conversations and nice music across varied genres, and it all culminates in big, spectacular event races, where you race, superficially mostly, against other modes of transport than a car. All of this; literally all of it, can be used as descriptors for Forza Horizon 4, Forza Horizon 3, hell even almost Forza Horizon 2. It's incremental, and while that doesn't make it any less satisfying to hit the streets, dirt roads and massive motorways across this fantastic playground (pun intended), the familiarity is slightly disorienting at first.
But really, Horizon games are mainly about the new world to explore, and Mexico remains one of the most detailed Playgrounds ever designed. While previous chapters have had elements of bustling cities fit with enough people and traffic to appear alive, varied terrain to provide different surfaces for exciting racing, as well as eye candy - it's just never been packaged up quite this nicely. The city of Guanajuato feels real, as you plunge through the old sewage tunnels, and rip through a town square where the locals are enjoying an evening out, or roar through Playa Azul and see people hang out on the picturesque beach. There's life here, and plenty of texture, detail and visual splendour for it to feel more like a place than a playground (ok, I'll stop).
And graphically it's richer too. I spent all my time in Performance Mode, providing rock-solid 60fps even with dense foliage, plenty of effects and other racers all around me, and while you can give up the higher refresh-rate for more detail, you really don't need to. Forza Horizon 5 has a more textured feel, it's more densely packed with detail and ultimately, it really is one of the prettiest next-generation games you're gonna see this year. Combine that with a wide variety of radio stations, which again are series mainstays like Bass Arena, Pulse, Block Party and Hospital, and perfectly accentuated engine noise and tire roar, and you have a pretty sumptuous experience in store.
As previously stated, it seems Playground has listened to fan feedback this time around, and slightly tweaked its progression system, to be a tad more linear than before. First off, the Seasons system of Forza Horizon 4 is now gone, and instead, you are racing towards unlocking new stages in the six distinct parts of the festival; Mexico, Apex, Wilds, Baja, Rush and Street Scene. Each offer up different types of events, and every time you add to a particular scene, you get new events of that type. So, focusing on Baja will skewer your map towards Cross Country racing, while Rush will let you focus on PR stunts. At the same time, you rise in level, which gives you little other than more Wheelspins. Simultaneously you can purchase new cars, unlock new cosmetics for your character and buy new homes, but what Playground has done is simplify the player's journey, and made it about this single progression track, and you now have a clear goal too; unlock all stages of the festival. It gives the series a clear heading, something it has sorely lacked, and while yes; the main map does become a blur under the constant barrage of new events being added, it's not as confusing as previously. Also; you are not being interrupted nearly as much as in Forza Horizon 4, thank the racing lords. Add to that some extra parameters like weather, that means you get to drive the same events under widely different conditions. The new Expeditions, designed to pave the way to new stages are also widely entertaining, presenting themselves as short films in a way, with well-paced cinematography and increased spectacle.
The point is; you'll find plenty to do, and races are still varied enough, and you can quickly swap between running Circuit racing in a Porsche 918 (a personal favourite) to focusing solely on Dirt racing in a Lancia Stratos (also a personal favourite). In between that, searching for the occasional Barn Find, doing Speed Traps or even participating in the Seasonal Playground Games, which are time-specific, well there's plenty of variety if you like Horizon games, and if you don't, this game does literally nothing to convince you otherwise.
There are in excess of 400 cars in Forza Horizon 5, offering up the same kind of variety we're used to. There's classics like the Alpine 110, the 1973 Ford Capri or the old 1961 E-Type Jaguar, there's modern high-profile racers like the Koenigsegg Jesko or the Ferrari 488 Pista. All are divided up into the same racing series as before, and you can use them all for almost all events in the game, as the Drivatars choose their vehicles based on your singular choice. It's incredibly customisable, and while offering up limitless choice isn't always the way to go, in Horizon all races seem perfectly tuned across car types.
The handling model hasn't really changed either, so we once again find ourselves in the land of; "if it ain't broke..." In essence; this is the way Horizon has felt for a while, and personally I enjoy the delicate balance between arcade steering, a rather floaty tire profile and a tiny but distinguishable Motorsport influence inherent to the tech that powers the game and the physics model. It feels good, if not great even.
Forza Horizon 5 is beautiful. It's varied, it's well put together, it's deeply rewarding and overflowing with content to engage with. It's not even as confusing as it has been. That, in my book, makes it one of the best games of the year, but if you are expecting even an ounce of creative reimagining of the core formula, you might feel different. There's no narrative-driven singleplayer campaign as such, no motivations or characters with agendas to strengthen the core player path, no weird gear system, no new modes of transport. This is just more Forza Horizon, slightly tuned to perfection through years of gradual improvement. It is, however, still the pinnacle, and that's more than good enough for me.
9 / 10
Streamlined progression, fantastic visuals, great world to explore, plenty of variety, Expeditions are a lot of fun.
Ambitious yet almost comically unchanged from previous chapters.