Microsoft has allowed us to start a new game on a preview build of Forza Horizon 5, which meant we could play for a couple of hours of a content which, despite not being its final state, will look and play quite similarly when the public game releases on Xbox Series, One, and PC on November 9.
This also meant that it wasn't a limited portion for preview purposes, but rather a standard new game which just exits when you unlock your first house. In other words, it allowed us to play freely, to drive around the fully-unlocked open world of México, and to choose whatever events of the early game we wanted to try next.
With things in context, here's five aspects we wanted to tell you about as we ready for our full Forza Horizon 5 review in the upcoming weeks.
This is just so obvious, it has to go first. Already from the title screen, which we cannot show you yet (panning shots accompanied by a Spanish guitar), the game puts on screen some of the most beautiful natural environments we've ever seen in a video game. It's that simple. Then, in motion, when driving through them, it keeps delivering jaw-dropping moments with how scenery and cars combine in different ways. The marketed public release of the initial drive (video below) spoiled the surprise for most of the fans, but what comes next doesn't step on the brake.
Even though it shows the roots of an older engine, fans who have played Forza Horizon 4 and 3 recently will see the difference right away. It feels more textured, better lit, with amazing reflections (the sun on the cars, the cars on wet surfaces) and more advanced particle effects for dust, sand, smoke, or water. Not only that, but the buildings look way more detailed even when you rush between them, and not as cardboardy, and then new blur techniques enhance the sense of speed, for example when crossing through fenced bridges or roads. Oh, and the draw distance is ridiculous, making for breathtaking shots when there's a sudden, unexpected jump.
This game is so beautiful that we were anxious to stop our 4K gameplay recording, just to be able to enjoy it with both HDR and surround sound on.
Underneath the gorgeous graphics there's a very similar Forza Horizon experience, for better or worse. This means very similar handling, activities, and overall feeling. The new progression system is based on "accolades", sort of challenges allowing you to unlock more things to do, but the core is the same, and you will feel right at home if you loved FH4 already. However, and we'll see with the final build, this also means pretty much the same AI behaviours in races, and unless we find some unexpected driving techniques by the CPU in the longer run, the races themselves can become boring more quickly, no matter how varied the tracks are.
Also back are the not very loveable avatars and characters, even though yours is quite customisable this time. Or the same replay system, which we would love to see evolved, given the new graphical opportunities.
That being said, it's also a very active and dynamic game from the get-go. Other than that astonishing initial drive, it feels fresher in how it introduces new cars to the campaign, such as when we got the Japanese beauty, the 2021 Toyota GR Supra (why in grey and not yellow, though?). And it wants to be crazier, too, in terms of the situations you can experience during events and especially exhibitions.
This is tricky when they've come up with all sort of insane ideas for four games already, but during the first two hours it managed to get us with, for example, the first showcase event, "On a Wing and Prayer", in Teotihuacán. In it, we raced versus a cargo plane -nothing new in the series- but we wondered how we were fourth for half of the race only to realise that, all of a sudden, our three rivals, which remained as floating dots inside the plane in the map, were actually bikers jumping from the plane to challenge us for the final leg... until they got rid of their wheels to wingsuit-themselves until the finish line. This is the kind of memorable set pieces we expect from Forza Horizon.
"Ok, so it was a person in a wingsuit on a motorcycle inside of a cargo plane, right Horizon?"
Another fresh idea was a photography mission, the "Horizon Promo". We didn't need to beat a rival, this was about driving to the eye of a sand storm at the wheel of the good 'ol Jeep, to then take a nice picture next to a statue ruin. The task was different and all, but the loading times coming into, and especially back from the photo mode were really long, and we were expecting right the opposite given the faster SSD memory. We're talking about 50 and 82 seconds to exit the mode, which sounds more like an in-dev issue to be fixed, or at least we hope so. Elsewhere loading times of the game itself have been significantly improved despite the added graphical load.
For the final 20 minutes or so of our preview time we decided to drive from one end to the other of "Forza Horizon's largest open world yet", and that truly is something else. The different biomes, places, season-based weather... it all adds to an unparalleled realism and diversity, and we felt like nature was more present in and around the roads. Those roads are more crowded, by the way, the added traffic making some of the trips or the improvised duels all the more challenging. Luckily, we're back to the proper side of the road, after Australia and Great Britain.
For now it seems like the spectacle and the variety of México itself will bear the burden of making the new-gen Forza Horizon 5 experience bigger and perhaps better, even if it's just slightly different once again. But we expect to drive for many more hours to deliver a full verdict in a few weeks.