Playground Games has once again outdone themselves and elevated the racing genre - and open world games in general - to new heights
There's an old saying that states "the only guarantees in life are death and taxes". I propose an adjustment to that saying: the only guarantees in life are death, taxes, and that the next Forza Horizon game will be the greatest racing game of all time.
When fledgeling racing developer Playground Games first released Forza Horizon back in 2012, they partnered with acclaimed Forza Motorsport series developers Turn 10 Studios to expand Xbox's acclaimed Forza franchise into the open-world gaming market. That proof-of-concept was well-received and a great racing game in its own right, but it really served to lay the foundations for what would become the greatest racing series in gaming history.
Just two years later, Forza Horizon 2 brought the fictional Horizon Festival from Colorado to Europe, giving players a massive playground set in Southern France and Northern Italy. Not only did the game look absolutely beautiful, but it played even better and set the gold standard for open world racing games, a standard that to this day no other racing game has even managed to reach let alone surpass.
The brilliant racing, robust array of vehicles and events, excellent sense of progression and exploration, and overall polish made it my favourite racing game ever and had my vote for greatest racing videogame ever made.
But Playground Games didn't stop there - though it's now more common for popular games to receive regular content updates post-launch, Microsoft and its brilliant developer was one of the best and earliest adopters of bringing players expanded post-launch content.
In addition to its brilliant Storm Island paid expansion pack that added an entirely new island for players to explore and race on, additional challenges and content was released regularly for free to players and a second (free) expansion, Forza Horizon 2 Presents Fast & Furious, was released which featured a series of new events and vehicles taken from the popular Fast and Furious movie franchise (including nitrous boosts for the first time in Forza), which just made the greatest racing game ever made even more fun.
Fast forward to 2016, and Playground Games somehow managed to top their previous outings with Forza Horizon 3.
Taking the festival down under, the third entry took everything that was great about its predecessor and made it bigger and better - the updated game engine made the beautiful sights of Australia positively shine, the game's map that was brimming with events, collectables and challenges was more than twice the size of the last outing, and customization was taken to a new level with the creation of Horizon Blueprints that allowed players to customize events and even create their own Bucket List challenges.
Just like the second title in the series, FH3 was well supported with free content updates as well as two impressive paid expansion packs - Blizzard Mountain, which was of course a snow-themed expansion that added winter racing to the mix, and Hot Wheels - one of the greatest pieces of DLC ever released. The expansion added various iconic Hot Wheels cars to the world of Forza and featured an entire island filled with the vibrant orange and blue toy tracks that brought back fond memories of every boy's childhood, this time in full HD.
Another two years later, Playground Games released another Horizon title and replaced themselves atop the throne.
The fourth entry in the series took players to Great Britain, and once again further pushed the Xbox One and the powerful Xbox One X to its graphical limits with its ridiculously detailed and beautiful open world. The biggest addition to the acclaimed formula was the introduction of four changing seasons in the game world, which each offered their own challenges and rewards and completely changed the look of the sprawling map every real-world week.
A more robust multiplayer offering and a new route-creation suite expanded the incredibly diverse world of Horizon, and FH4 once again expanded post-launch support with weekly content updates and fresh new challenges and events to keep players coming back for more.
The already massive roster of vehicles available swelled to over 750 licensed cars as content drops added up, and once again two large expansions were released post-launch, including the pirate themed Fortune Island and Lego Speed Champions, another licensed expansion that brought another beloved childhood staple to life.
Perhaps the most surprising addition was The Eliminator, a battle-royale game mode that was added for free late in 2019.
Entering the battle royale arena which has become so popular over recent years, nobody anticipated a BR mode coming to a racing game, let alone that it could actually work well, yet somehow Playground Games defied expectations and offered a surprisingly fun 72-player mode that just added even more value to an already incredible package.
In 2020, FH4 also received upgrades for the new generation of Xbox consoles that allowed the game to run in native 4K at 60 frames per second, making the already gorgeous game even prettier - they also added more community tools for their route creator, and the new Super 7 events, which are short challenges created by players using the game's route creation suite.
After years of thoroughly enjoying all that the Horizon Festivals had to offer, to say that I was excited about the release of Forza Horizon 5 would be an understatement, especially since the latest title would be taking advantage of the incredible power of the brand new Xbox consoles.
But how would they possibly manage to top the massive and brilliant game that was FH4?
Despite all of the hype and the sky-high expectations, Playground Games have once again outdone themselves.
What is immediately apparent upon launching the game is just how insanely beautiful Forza Horizon 5 is.
The series' impressive photo mode of course makes its return, and I routinely found myself interrupting my racing and exploring just to pause the game and stare in awe at the detail and quality presented on my 4K TV.
From the individual blades of grass rendered in sprawling fields, to the series of cracks in the rough asphalt my Apollo Intensa Emozione is burning rubber on, to the reflection of the dense jungle seen in my 2020 Corvette Stingray's shiny rear quarter-panel, everything in FH5 is rendered in a quality unlike anything else ever seen in an open-world game.
On the Series X (which is what I've been playing the game on), there are two graphical modes to choose from: a Quality mode which prioritizes graphical fidelity over frame rate and locks the FPS to 30, and a Performance mode which locks the FPS to 60 at the cost of slight reductions in image quality.
Though some people seem happy with the 30 FPS Quality mode, I much prefer the smoothness of the game's crisp 60 FPS mode and you'll be hard-pressed to actually spot the difference in visual quality without doing frame-by-frame comparisons - in motion, it's virtually impossible to tell the difference in picture quality, but the added frames present buttery smooth visuals and even better responsiveness that in my opinion make it the best way to play the game.
Unsurprisingly for such a beautiful and massive open world, there is still some occasional pop-in present, typically when driving at high speeds through a forest area or somewhere with lots of shrubs and small objects. It's rare however for it to be noticeable unless you're specifically looking for it, and it certainly isn't enough to detract from the absolutely stunning visuals the game presents.
The gigantic map is even more diverse than any previous world that Playground has crafted - many beautiful sights found in Mexico are recreated here, from the active caldera volcano to ancient Mayan temples and ruins to white sand beaches and lush jungles.
Weekly seasons return, but are a bit different than in the previous entry - because of the size and diversity found in Mexico, each region has its own climate and in the dry season for instance, dust storms will appear in areas that are visible from miles away in an entirely different biome thanks to the game's incredible draw distance.
The series' incredible sound design is once again best-in-class, with an even greater range of engine sounds and adjustments as well as a wide assortment of tunes for the game's range of radio stations (although it would still be nice to be able to disable certain songs that you don't like, a feature I've wanted for years now). Whipping through a dust cloud or racing into a tropical storm sounds absolutely incredible in surround sound and adds even more immersion to the eye-melting visuals on screen.
As usual, the vehicles (well over 500 of them already, the largest base roster in a FH game to date) are incredibly detailed and virtually perfect recreations of their real-world counterparts - although much of the car list has been present in previous entries (alongside plenty of neat new additions like the Mercedes AMG-One, the Lotus Evija, and the Toyota Supra A90), the range of vehicles on offer is by far the best in the business and will only get better given Playground's dedication to adding vehicles post-launch.
The customization options have once again been expanded with the latest release - creating your own custom artwork for your shiny new Lamborghini or finding someone else's slick designs have never been easier, new body kit options have been added to many vehicles along with a far larger selection of rims and other options to fully make your cars your own, and the expanded tuning and upgrade options will no doubt leave car nuts ecstatic.
As always, you can also simply auto-upgrade your vehicles to the desired performance tier or just download tunes from other players if you'd rather just play the game - Horizon has always been about playing exactly the way you want to play, whether you're a car nut trying to create the ultimate racing machine, an aspiring artist that likes to create insane paintjobs for people to cruise in, or simply a fan of hitting the track.
Speaking of ways to play, one would think that with so many modes, event types, and features being added in the three years since FH4 launched, Forza Horizon 5 would need to scale back some of that content for their brand new title, even if only to make room for new additions.
Well, you'd be wrong.
Everything found in FH4 is present from day one in FH5 - from your favourite event types and PR stunts to Horizon Stories, to the more recent Super 7 and The Eliminator modes, they're all here and better than ever.
Though the route and event creation suites have been rebranded as the "EventLab", the tools it provides have been greatly expanded and made easier to use than ever, so even amateur creators can make something special without taking days to learn the process.
Creators can not only set up their own events with custom routes and plenty of new setpieces to spruce them up, but they can even create triggers to perform actions during gameplay and create their own game modes complete with scoring criteria, which will undoubtedly keep bringing many unique and entertaining ways to play for years to come. New creations are also made easy for players to discover thanks to the Super 7 mode which was a late addition to FH4, and features exclusively player-made challenges for players to try out and rate.
Spotlight events, Horizon's staple action races that emphasize cool set pieces and unique scenarios over all else (basically they're the racing equivalent of a scripted action sequence in Call of Duty), are bigger and better than ever, from racing against a pair of monster trucks (and then getting to drive one yourself) in a dune buggy to racing against a bunch of dirt bikes through the jungle.
Similar to the previous Horizon, as you progress through the campaign you'll unlock new festival sites to put up that each unlock a variety of new events to compete in. Unlike previous entries however, instead of simply earning XP, your progression is moved forward by accolades.
Sort of like in-game achievements, accolades award you points (and some also reward you with customization options or even vehicles as well) for performing feats in the game - and these encompass pretty much anything you can do in Forza Horizon 5.
You'll earn these points regardless of how you choose to play - completing and winning events, doing PR stunts, exploring the massive map, tracking down hidden barn finds, racking up skill points, completing weekly festival challenges and events, even playing online matches or The Eliminator mode.
Literally everything you do in the game will add to your progress and steadily unlock more content, with each progression tier reached giving you a point to spend at one of the festival sites, either to unlock the site itself or to unlock a Showcase event or Horizon Story chapter in the region.
Each festival site is also associated with a specific event type, such as road races, street racing, or PR stunts, and unlocking all the points at a festival site unlocks a finale event for that location, such as The Goliath which is a race around the entire map of Mexico, or The Juggernaut which is a Trailblazer event requiring you to reach a far away end point within a certain time with no set path for you to follow.
While the system is similar to past games, when unlocking a new festival site you're treated to one of the brand new Horizon Expedition events. These will have you racing around the site's region and essentially giving you a tour of the area's attractions, as well as giving you a more in-depth look at some of the wildest sights in the game such as an active volcano or a Mayan city as you're tasked with finding or photographing certain landmarks.
All of this may sound a bit overwhelming - after all, there are a ridiculous amount of things to do in this game - but Playground Games does an excellent job of making things simple and letting you guide your own experience.
The way they present the campaign is so open-ended, you're never forced to compete in races you don't want to or are required to do specific events to progress, and there's always a steady stream of rewards for playing regardless of how you choose to play.
In an era where open-world games have increasingly become filled with grinding progression systems and stingy loot boxes that try to nudge you into forking over more money to unlock content already in the game, Forza Horizon 5 is a breath of fresh air and is an absolute marvel of game design.
The series "Wheelspins" and "Super Wheelspins" return, with each one granting you credits, vehicles, customization items for your avatar, or different novelty car horns (my favourite has to be the addition of the classic Doom themes) and they're regularly given out simply by playing the game and completing objectives.
Similarly, some accolades also grant players vehicles or customization options for completing them, and there's even additional rewards unlocked for collecting all of a manufacturer's vehicles available in the game.
It may sound as though with the constant stream of rewards being handed out, the game would quickly run out of stuff to give players, but with the massive catalog of vehicles (538 to be exact, with more to be added in free and paid updates) and a wealth of customization options, it will take quite some time for players to earn all of the unique content available.
The multiplayer suite is also something that's been streamlined in this entry. With the increasing amount of events and things to do in Horizon, the last few games have had a tough time focusing its multiplayer content - certain kinds of events were often impossible to find a match for given the few amount of people playing them at one time - and it stood as an example that perhaps having so many options wasn't always a great thing.
In FH5, you can race and complete any campaign events co-operatively by inviting friends or pairing up with someone you find in the game's seamless semi-MMO world, and there's also a new mode called Horizon Tour which offers a casual co-op experience (with matchmaking to boot) that has you and and a few fellow racers square off against a set of drivatars in various events rather than against live competition.
For more competitive racing, simplified playlists make getting into a match easy and painless while giving you the option of racing, drifting, or Playground Games (ie. party-style games like CTF, Infection, etc.) focused events. And then there's of course The Eliminator, the battle royale mode which of course this time takes place on the new map with different vehicles available to hop in and win.
The vastly improved and simplified multiplayer experience certainly shores up one of the few problems Horizon has had in the last few entries, but that isn't to say that it's perfect.
As expected with any major new release that has a multiplayer component, there have been some connectivity issues, namely regarding disconnecting from lobbies (although these have already become less frequent since the early access launch), and the occasional bug here and there - for instance, in one Eliminator race, I completed a head-to-head race only for the finish line to not register for me or my opponent no matter how many times we'd cross it, so we sat there doing burnouts until the game kicked us for not finishing the race - but overall the multiplayer component has been quite sound and will only continue to stabilize as time passes by.
The one other multiplayer issue stems from Horizon Arcade (it used to be called Horizon Live in prior entries) - a three-round set of activities that tasks you and a group of other players to complete tasks together that upon completion awards you points to use in the weekly shop.
There are now a wider variety of tasks and mini-games to complete in these events, and they now show up much more frequently rather than the once-an-hour events of prior games - however, the frequent nature of them make it hard to actually find a group of other players to complete them with.
I regularly found myself alone or with just a couple other players to start an event, which made them impossible to complete given the sizeable group score required - either the objectives need to scale to the amount of players that join, or perhaps they can drop lone or small groups of players into another server that has enough players for that event.
Forza Horizon 5 represents the pinnacle of open-world racing and racing games in general - brilliant and rewarding game design, an absolutely gorgeous game world stuffed with content, a wealth of impeccably detailed cars with tons of customization features, best-in-class sound design to go with a great soundtrack, a robust multiplayer suite and co-op options, and most importantly a superb handling model that makes the game so much fun to play.
If you are even the slightest bit interested in racing games and have an Xbox or gaming PC, you need to play this game. The fact that it's also included at no additional cost in Xbox Game Pass is an absolute steal for subscribers.
Playground Games has spent the last decade developing the king of racing games, and it's safe to say that no other game, save for the next Forza Horizon, will be knocking it off its throne any time soon.
+Tons of fun to pick up and play or pour countless hours into
+Brilliant progression system that offers a steady stream of rewards and new events
+Incredibly impressive visuals and sound design
+Massive open-world overflowing with different things to do
+Huge car roster with tons of customization available, along with easy-to-use sharing capabilities
+Robust multiplayer suite that offers something for everyone
+Wealth of creation and community content tools to keep things fresh and inspire creative players
-Horizon Arcade events need to solve issue with low player counts
-Occasional server issues at launch
The Final Score: 10 / 10