Forza Horizon 5 stuns but can't quite outpace its predecessor
Inverse Score: 8/10
It's an awfully long way down.
Parachuting on the steep slopes of Grand Caldera volcano would be treacherous for an experienced climber, let alone someone trying to navigate a car at over 75 mph. Steam rises from the remaining pool of magma on an otherwise snow-covered mountain. When you experience it in the driver’s seat while playing Forza Horizon 5, it's hard to ignore the urge to stop and stare at the gorgeous views.
While Forza Horizon 4 was already one of the best-looking games of the last console generation, Forza Horizon 5 makes its predecessor look ugly by comparison.
The biggest Xbox exclusive since the Xbox Series X and S launch last year, Forza Horizon 5 only tops its predecessor in terms of graphics. It can’t match Forza Horizon 4 in terms of innovations, but Forza Horizon 5 introduces a more varied open-world structure in one of the most visually stunning experiences of this new console generation — perhaps ever.
How do you top one of the greatest racing games of all time? Forza Horizon 5 tries to be that answer, but it doesn’t innovate enough. This open-world racing spin-off series lets players drive, drift, and perform stunts in countries around the world. Not much has changed here.
2018’s England-based Forza Horizon 4 introduced massive innovations like seasons that change the map every week and a fully synchronized online world. With Forza Horizon 5, Playground Games built upon what worked to deliver a similar experience on a prettier and bigger map set in Mexico.
Forza Horizon 5 is immensely detailed, with impressive textures and lighting that sell the realism of this Mexican setting. The map design feels varied thanks to distinct biomes that have their own buildings, plants, landmarks, and color palette.
Driving over sand dunes in the northwestern part of the map looks and feels much different than navigating the damp and plant-filled swamps in the southeast. Lots of hills, forests, and curvy roads keep races from feeling flat and uninteresting, and Forza Horizon 5’s jaw-dropping draw distance that allows you to see miles in front of you in stunning detail.
This is the best showcase of the Xbox Series X’s power since The Medium. You can’t go wrong with either Graphics or Performance mode. The former delivers top-tier visuals not seen in games before while focusing on performance ensures that the gameplay feels smooth at 60 FPS while still looking pretty darn good.
When it comes to gameplay, Forza Horizon 5 feels less groundbreaking. As the superstar of the Horizon event, you’ll go around and participate in various races, challenges, and substories to earn accolade points that unlock new events and eventually get you in the Hall of Fame. The race types and vehicles play mostly the same as the map is the real differentiator.
Driving controls are still simple and tight. Even my dad, who doesn’t play many modern video games, quickly understood what to do and had a blast for it. If you’re looking for an Xbox Series X game to impress and entertain your parents or non-gamer friends, Forza Horizon 5 is a great choice.
Fifth Time’s the Charm
As the fifth in a spin-off series, it’s not surprising that Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t rethink the core concepts. Forza Horizon 4 was an astonishing leap forward from its predecessors, so any follow-up would have a lot to live up to. Forza Horizon 5 attempts to introduce some unique features, but they all feel situational.
Two of the most significant features the developers are touting are Expeditions and storms. In my 12+ hours of playing Forza Horizon 5, I never saw a storm appear dynamically in the world, only in specific races or missions. Compared to how many seasons can change up a Forza Horizon map, these sandstorms and tropical storms have a negligible impact on the overall experience.
Expeditions offer story-driven, setpiece-based scenarios where players can drive through ancient monuments or drive around an active volcano. The ones that play into the exploration elements of the Horizon subseries enjoyably evolve the formula.
But sadly, most of them are very short, and the cutscenes are more concerned with showing off licensed cars rather than delivering a compelling narrative scene. The developers may be onto something with these levels; They just need to include more of them, make them longer, and wrap them in a more intriguing narrative.
Finally, EventLabs gives players an extensive suite of tools to build races and levels. This mode appears to have a lot of depth and even incorporates some basic programming but will likely go way over the heads of casual players. Expect some awe-inspiring creations from the hardcore community, though.
Forza Horizon 5 builds upon a winning formula, and because of that, it’s still the best racing game of the year and one of the most beautiful games ever made. But most of its new features feel like little more than back-of-the-box diversions.
The approach with Forza Horizon 5 appears to be “do Forza Horizon 4 again, but bigger and prettier.” And frankly, you could do a lot worse.
Inverse reviewed Forza Horizon 5 on Xbox Series X. It will be released November 9, 2021 on PC, Xbox Series X, Xbox One via purchase or Xbox Game Pass.
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