Forza Horizon 5 is ultimately more of the same, but that's hardly a bad thing when it does the same thing so darn well.

Forza Horizon 5 Review: Speedy Spectacle

Forza Horizon 5 is ultimately more of the same, but that's hardly a bad thing when it does the same thing so darn well.
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I hate heights. If you put me in a plane, I’d probably crumble into dust. If you put me in a jeep on a plane then dropped it through a cargo hatch, I’d be dead long before the doors opened.

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Things are different in Forza Horizon 5, though. I couldn’t wait to plummet from a plane at ungodly speeds after the first time it happened. Lucky for me, I had two more chances to, but that was just the start of the spectacle that is Playground Games’ latest. Forza Horizon 5 is a glorious experience, one of the first to do something interesting with next-gen hardware beyond just showing off and a clear contender for one of the year’s best games.

Forza Horizon 5 Review: Speedy Spectacle

Your time in Mexico kicks off with an initial race that introduces you to the basics, such as when to slow down and how to handle the three main cars. You can be smart and follow these rules, or you can be me and crash into everything because Forza fixes your very expensive cars for free. It doesn’t matter and underscores just how open and accessible Forza Horizon 5 is.

I’m a very bad driver, but Forza lets me level up anyway, though obviously at a rate lower than if I actually won races. Earning points in traditional races is just one of many ways to rank up. There’s a set of photo missions encouraging you to explore every corner of the map, and even a suite of challenges that give you points for pulling off certain driving feats such as drifting a set length or hitting top speeds. Or crashing a lot.

The lack of rigid structure means there’s no pressure to be perfect or only do certain things, and I’m having far more fun with Forza Horizon 5 than I expected because of it.

I’ve also taken a greater interest in cars than I thought possible. Horizon 5 is generous with your initial stable of cars. There’s a solid selection of cars at each rank, ranging from the humble but reliable Ford Bronco to the blistering fast McLaren and nearly a dozen more in between. Completing challenges unlocks new cars, though you’ll often have to purchase them with credits earned from doing well in said tasks. 

That’s where not being a terrible driver comes in handy, but there’s plenty to do where you’ll earn enough credits even just messing around.

However, there is a sense of repetition, at least in the first half of the massive map or so. Variations of desert and plains only go so far, and at first, you might be left missing some of the visual bouquet that was Horizon 4’s seasonal selections.

That’s just the first area, though. After clearing a few races — which is where good driving actually comes in handy — the festival organizers give you the first expedition, a new, fantastically outrageous task: drive to the top of an active volcano, and race down it as fast as you can.

There’s no actual danger involved. You can even mess around in the caldera and find a new outfit for your driver, among other things. The joy is in the accomplishment, navigating the progressively tighter switchbacks up to the crater, and then in the aftermath, swapping your car for a sand buggy and almost literally flying down the mountain, landing in the middle of a dirt race and, if you’re lucky, claiming first place.

These spectacular moments capture Forza Horizon 5’s essence. It’s an unashamedly joyful experience built around squeezing fun and surprises out of almost everything you do. Even the characters are infectiously happy and enthusiastic. There’s a minor narrative following your superstar driver as they help build the Horizon Festival, but the characters and their unrestrained excitement for everything is what stands out the most.

Your festival promotions involve several other expeditions that essentially serve as missions introducing you to a new area and its unique geography, but you can also choose to establish new ventures in an existing area. Shortly after unlocking the Baja region, for example, I decided to spend my points on opening the stunt driving challenges there instead of heading out to the jungle for a new festival outpost (and regretted nothing).

These new areas are naturally where you’ll find more racing challenges, but they’re also what changed my mind about the setting. What some of Forza Horizon 5’s locations might lack in variation they make up for in texture and by generally looking incredible. Nearly every moment, even in the more bland areas, is worthy of a photoshoot, so good luck not spending hours in photo mode. 

Aside from the obvious benefits, such as sharper textures and improved audio, the increased draw distance plays a significant role in making Forza Horizon 5 feel more immersive and interesting.

The vast desert stretching out before you suddenly becomes much more interesting when you can see a line of trees gradually approaching and, beyond that, the glimmering white dunes of the Baja coastline. It’s the first Forza where you feel truly immersed in the world.

Of course, Forza has plenty of traditional races and a staggering number of cars to use in them. There’s really nothing quite like racing in Forza Horizon 5 either.

The feel of leaping over a ledge, coasting around the corner, and sliding into the center of a bustling (and gorgeous) town to the sound of techno-synth is something you have to experience firsthand, but it’s absolutely worth experiencing. I lose interest in racing games fairly quickly, but found myself eager to replay races just to experience the course again or to try out a new car — and there are so many new cars to play with.

Forza Horizon 5 gives you a gaggle of cars to start with, and as always, you can spend your hard-won credits on new ones or buy upgrades for your existing favorite. Despite having so many cars at your disposal, each one feels unique both in its class and compared to other cars. If you’re like me and don’t know the first thing about cars, there’s a handy “recommended” option before each race, and the upgrade process is clear and simple.

That’s not even getting into the dozens of challenge types, the joy of exploring the roads as the sun sets and street lights slowly turn on, tracking down locations for challenges and additional XP, or dressing your driver up in ridiculous outfits and giving them even more ludicrous dance moves to show off with when they win.

Forza Horizon 5 is packed with things to do, and that’s just at launch. I can’t wait to see what else Playground has in store.

Forza Horizon 5 Review  The Bottom Line

  • Vast and absolutely gorgeous settings for exploration and races
  • Smart use of new technology
  • Easy to pick up for newbies and the car ignorant
  • So much to do
  • Extensive customization
  • Bursting with a sense of fun and spectacle
  • Some environmental repetition

I went into Forza Horizon 5 expecting a pretty racing game. What I got was an experience, a splendid open-world car exploration simulator with light RPG elements and a trunk full of things to do and see.

While I’d like to see Playground try something new or perhaps break free from the existing formula next time, this is a clear candidate for 2021’s best game and a must-play, whether you have Game Pass or not. 

[Note: Xbox Game Studios provided the copy of Forza Horizon 5 used for this review.]

Forza Horizon 5 Review: Speedy Spectacle
Forza Horizon 5 is ultimately more of the same, but that's hardly a bad thing when it does the same thing so darn well.

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Josh Broadwell
Josh Broadwell started gaming in the early '90s. But it wasn't until 2017 he started writing about them, after finishing two history degrees and deciding a career in academia just wasn't the best way forward. You'll usually find him playing RPGs, strategy games, or platformers, but he's up for almost anything that seems interesting.