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Forza Horizon 5 review: Buckle up and enjoy the ride

Multiple cars race down a hill in Forza Horizon 5.
Forza Horizon 5
MSRP $60.00
“Forza Horizon 5 doubles down on the series' winning formula to give players another hit racing game superpowered by next-gen tech.”
  • Driving is as tight as ever
  • Creative story missions
  • Excellent creative tools
  • Seemingly endless content
  • Truly next-gen look and feel
  • Steep learning curve
  • Formula could use a shake-up
  • Slow photo mode loads

Early on in my Forza Horizon 5 adventure, I lose all control. My speedy sports car turns out to be ill-equipped for off-road driving (who would have thought?) and I’m sent skidding off the road. I’m helplessly spinning around in circles as cacti go flying in every direction. What do you expect from someone who’s never had a driver’s license?

Forza Horizon 5 Official Gameplay Demo - Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase 2021

I expect the game to admonish me or for some NPC to throw a little snark at me over the radio for my poor skills. Instead, the on-screen combo meter goes wild. Superb skidding! Perfect 360! Destruction bonus! Soon, I’ve racked up tens of thousands in experience, giving me some skill points I can spend on car perks that will push my accidental combos even further. Forza Horizon 5 sees no difference between good and bad driving — it treats the simple act of moving a car as a victory and makes sure that drivers are always celebrated for their willingness to get behind the wheel.

Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t shift too far from the series’ formula — and it doesn’t need to. Playground Games delivers another robust open-world driving experience that shines in both fine-tuned driving mechanics and next-gen technical spectacle. It’s the definitive racing game of this new console cycle, and it’s already difficult to imagine a competitor sliding into first place anytime soon.

How I learned to drive

Forza Horizon 5 drops players right into the action — both figuratively and literally. The game opens with a series of vignettes as different cars drop out of airplanes and zoom through the game’s version of Mexico. It’s an exciting opening sequence that brings the Fast & Furious franchise to mind and sets the stage for a more adventure-centric installment.

For newcomers, it doesn’t offer a lot of direction. A control diagram paints a simple portrait of the game by telling players how to accelerate, steer, and brake, but that’s deceptive. Driving in the Forza Horizon series can actually be quite complicated, making players unlearn an “always accelerate” mentality. They’ll need to strategically lay off the gas, pump the brakes on turns, and carefully utilize the emergency brake. It doesn’t really tell players any of that, instead using a GPS-style line on the screen that indicates when players should slow down. It never outright explains that, though, nor does it include a glossary of terms for those who have no idea how stats like torque affect their digital cars.

Multiple cars race in Mexico in Forza Horizon 5.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The learning curve can be steep (the game quickly recommended I drop down to the easiest difficulty, and it took around 10 hours before it told me I was ready to raise it back up), but the driving feels ironclad, even in failure. Despite requiring so few actual inputs, a lot of active work goes into controlling a car. By one of the game’s ultimate races — a nearly 30-minute gauntlet around curvy dirt roads — I was carefully, but constantly pressing and releasing triggers to manage my speed and keep my car stable. Driving a car in Forza reminds me of walking in Death Stranding: An otherwise simple video game task that’s so nuanced here that it earns my full, undivided attention.

I’m no car guy, but Forza Horizon 5 makes me feel like one.

What’s nice about Forza is that it really doesn’t care if you fail. There’s no consequence for coming in dead last during most races. Players still get necessary experience no matter what they do. The game just wants players to enjoy driving without pressure. You can see that philosophy in action in the game’s rewind function, which lets players turn back time at any point and reset their position with no consequence. Completely beef it on a turn? Just try it again as many times as you need to so you can learn exactly how to solve the problem. It’s a low-stakes approach that encourages players to perfect the nuances of driving at their own pace without the threat of punishment.

Those slick driving systems are put to good use by the game’s gargantuan roster of cars. There are over 500 vehicles to collect here, and each feels like its own tamable beast. Vehicle weight, top speed, and a variety of other factors drastically change how cars handle, pushing me to switch up my rotation and lock down a list of options I’m comfortable with. I get a small jolt of satisfaction every time I load up a street race and know to pull my light blue Porsche out of the garage. I’m no car guy, but Forza Horizon 5 makes me feel like one.

Adventure through Mexico

For those who have played previous Forza Horizon games, the structure isn’t too different here. A giant map fills up with icons denoting the location of races, collectibles, and stunts. Everything, even just driving around, grants experience and skill points, which can be spent to upgrade every single car’s small skill tree. There’s an absurd wealth of content here, more than I could ever hope to cover in a succinct manner, but much of it is uniform with previous installments in the same way Ubisoft open-world games tend to hit the same beats (there are wheelspins that unlock new cars, houses to purchase, breakable boards that reduce the cost of fast travel, and more).

A car in Forza Horizon 5.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What does feel different is the game’s story campaign, which better weaves a throughline into the freeform driving gameplay. Every time the player levels up, they’ll unlock a new Horizon Story, which acts as a little story thread. The basic idea is that players control a superstar driver who comes to Mexico to help set up a sort of racing utopia. They start by establishing different outposts around the map, which bring different styles of racing to the world (off-roading, street racing, and more). The story beats that follow are short, sweet little missions that have the most fun with the driving formula.

In one mission, I take a gigantic parade float for a joyride. In another, I’m paying my respects to lucha libre wrestling with a series of demolition derby-esque challenges. Those little vignettes bring life to the Mexican setting and shake up the established structure. I’m more compelled to take part in random races because I want to level up and see where my journey will take me next.

A red car drives fast in Forza Horizon 5.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s still room for the series to subvert expectations in future installments. One mission begins by dramatically revealing a jet ski race. For a second, I think it’s going to toss me on a water vehicle in a head-to-head race against a Ferrari. Instead, it’s a standard race where I can see some jet-skiers zipping around on the side of the road. It’s still an exciting race, but one that makes me wonder what Forza Horizon would look like if it stretched out of its comfort zone more often. I’ve tried to put it out of my mind, but I can’t help but think of Riders Republic. It’s a racing game that almost shamelessly borrows Forza’s formula, but finds several imaginative ways for players to explore its world. Forza built a gold standard framework and now it wouldn’t hurt for its creators to observe what others are doing base on it and take some inspiration along for its next ride.

I’m more compelled to take part in random races because I want to level up and see where my journey will take me next.

The real innovation is going to come from the series’ dedicated community. Forza Horizon 5 features a robust creation tool called EventLab that lets anyone make their own races. It’s an intuitive tool that lets players turn any stretch of the world into a racetrack by simply driving around and dropping checkpoints. Within 10 minutes, I was able to make a round three-lap track that takes players down a highway, through the desert, and off a few ramps — all during a tropical storm. If I was able to make something I was proud of with minimal tinkering, I can’t even begin to imagine what others will do with it during the game’s multiyear life span.

On top of all that, there’s a massive suite of multiplayer modes, live service events, and the promise of inevitable content drops down the line. The game feels bottomless in a way that many games strive for but rarely achieve. If this ended up being the only Forza Horizon game released on the Xbox Series X, I don’t think fans would be disappointed. They’ll have their hands full.

Technical spectacle

Forza is as much a tech showcase as it is a racing game. Considering that this is the first game in the series to grace the Xbox Series X, the expectations were high — and it does not disappoint. Forza Horizon 5 takes full advantage of next-gen tech to make cars look photorealistic. Had this launched alongside the Xbox Series X, I’m convinced the current conversation around which new console is the more must-own commodity would lean in Microsoft’s favor.

Multiple cars race down a hill in Forza Horizon 5.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The spectacle is on full display in the game’s Mexican landscapes, which are a joy to simply drive through with no objective in mind. What’s really incredible is that you’ll never hit a loading zone when driving around. In one race, I zoomed around the entire outer perimeter of the map — a 20-minute journey — without a millisecond of downtime. Even fast traveling across the map happens in a snap, which just seems mind-blowing considering the scale of the world and the level of detail in it.

It’s a big, beautiful game that never feels like it’s at risk of collapsing under its scope.

The only spot where the game slows down is in its photo mode. Taking a picture is a weirdly long process. Loading in and out of photo mode can take a few seconds, but the real pain point comes after actually snapping a shot. Photo-processing times are up to 30 seconds, which feels unusually long in the moment. I wanted to take tons of pictures considering how gorgeous the world and my car looked, but even the quickest snapshot takes a good minute of time.

Cars race through a track in Forza Horizon 5.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Other than that, I can’t help but marvel at just about every aspect of Forza Horizon 5. It’s a big, beautiful game that never feels like it’s at risk of collapsing under its scope. It never crashed on me while playing, I hardly experienced any bugs, and my brief time with the online modes was stable. With a game this smooth, the gap between what’s on screen and the tech running it becomes negligible. I get lost in the world and really do feel like I’m behind the wheel of a car. I even catch my body tilting as I turn, like a child playing Mario Kart.

That’s an apt comparison, because I really do feel like a kid again as I zoom around Mexico. I’m transported back to a time where every game felt like a magic trick. It’s harder to see any sleight of hand when you’re simply wowed by the act itself. Forza Horizon 5 is the flashiest, most spectacular Las Vegas act imaginable. I can see through the illusion if I dissect the formula long enough, but sometimes it’s more fun to shut up and enjoy the ride.

Our take

The Forza Horizon series has always long been a gold standard for the racing genre, andForza Horizon 5 decisively keeps it locked in first place. The racing gameplay is as fine-tuned as ever, creative story missions give it a firmer backbone, and it gets the most possible out of next-gen tech. It doesn’t go out of its way to welcome in new racers, and veterans may feel its formula could use a few more twists, but it’s clear that Playground Games has this series down to a science. Unless someone can radically reinvent what a racing game can be, expect this game to stay miles ahead of the competition until its sequel.

Is there a better alternative?

Riders Republic borrows the same structure, but gets a bit more creative with gameplay. But if you want a full-on racing simulator, Forza Horizon 5 feels unbeatable.

How long will it last?

Completing the central story can take 15 to 20 hours, but there’s much more game after that. With over 500 cars, tons of multiplayer modes, and a top-notch creation tool, a dedicated player can noodle on this for years to come.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Forza Horizon 5 is the Xbox Series X’s killer app, right alongside Microsoft Flight Simulator. If you don’t usually love racing games, this might sell you on the premise.

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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