I don’t know how to drive a car. The idea of piloting a big machine at high speeds always triggered my anxiety and gave me cold feet when placed above a pedal. Luckily, I grew up in a small town where I could generally walk to any friend’s house with relative ease and later moved to New York City, where a car is unnecessary. Oh, I also failed my driver’s license test. Maybe it’s a good thing that you never see me on the road.
Because of that, I get a strange thrill from racing games. While I don’t feel confident enough to drive a car in real life, I’m more than capable of barreling down a street in a sports car at 100 miles per hour. Who cares if I crash? My expensive car will respawn back on the road with nary a scratch.
Forza Horizon 5 takes that to the next level for me. After playing the first hour and a half of the game, I came to a horrifying realization: this game might turn me into a car guy.
Forza Horizon 5 cuts right to the chase. It opens with a series of Fast & Furious-esque vignettes where different cars drop into the game’s Mexican open world. The first thing I notice is that I don’t need to memorize a ton of complicated controls. I just need to accelerate, brake, and turn to start playing. Within seconds, I’m behind the wheel of a car taking turns like a pro (it becomes clear that I’m not once I get into actual races later). Creative Director Mike Brown tells Digital Trends that it’s a pick-up-and-play opening by design, meant to welcome in racing newbies like me.
“We’ve learned a lot about how Game Pass players play, and that includes people that may be new to driving games,” Brown tells Digital Trends. “We think we have a really great intro to the game that brings people in, treats them with respect, doesn’t bog them down in tutorials, and gives them a really exciting intro to the game. We try to have our tutorials delivered in a very human way. Characters describe things to you as if they’re talking to you, their friend, rather than laboring through them in a tutorial. We’ve found that that’s a better way to bring in those new players.”
That certainly comes through. In my playthrough, I never bump up against some convoluted auto talk that feels over my head. No matter what I’m doing, I always understand the basics. As long as I can pull the right trigger to accelerate, I can explore the game’s gorgeous and varied environment freely.
When I’m just letting the road take me, it’s incredibly relaxing. I’ve often had friends who love driving tell me about how calming they find the experience, which has always been alien to me, but I get it here. The act of zipping through a desert at my own pace, with no objective in mind, becomes a hypnotic experience. At one point, I actually catch myself nodding off, controller in hand. I don’t mean that as a negative either — that’s just how much I was able to reach a sort of zen moment (though this moment can also be attributed to the fact that I had received steroid treatment for strep throat hours before playing).
Forza Horizon 5 is incredibly technical, though. Despite the fact that anyone can understand the basics, it contains a lot of deep systems for the real auto-heads. As I build my loadout for a race, I’m presented with a shop full of cars I can buy. I don’t understand the difference between all of them and just get the one that looks best, but I know I’m not picking the best car for the job (a “Recommended” label points me in the right direction, though).
Even more technical, though, is the game’s tune-up menu, which allows players to make adjustments to virtually every aspect of a car. As someone who doesn’t understand cars, it’s inscrutable. There are pages and pages of sliders that make seemingly minuscule changes to my car. I’m immediately obsessed with it. I don’t understand any of it, but I want to. God as my witness, I will learn to tune the perfect car.
Video games can be funny in the way that they push players toward mastery. Getting really into a game means taking a deep dive into all of its mechanics and learning every little detail. If you want to rack up huge combos in Tales of Arise, you’ll essentially learn a new language based around the game’s deep Artes system. What’s different about Forza Horizon 5 is that its language is rooted in reality, not magic. The more a newcomer digs into its tune-up system or starts to understand its cars, the more they’ll learn about real-world driving fundamentals.
I certainly won’t be able to drive a car after playing Forza Horizon 5. In fact, my inexperience shows. I place last in most of the early races as I struggle with its more grounded physics. I quickly realize that all my years of kart racers won’t do here as my attempts to cartoonishly drift around corners send me into a tailspin through a patch of cacti. But what’s important is that I walked away from the demo itching to learn more. I want to understand that tune-up system to a T. I want to be able to know the exact car I should be driving for any given terrain. I want to get a firm grasp on each car’s weight so I can nail turns.
Games can be simple entertainment, but they can be teachers too. I want Forza Horizon 5 to turn me into a car guy, at least digitally. God help me.
Forza Horizon 5 releases on November 5 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Game Pass.
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