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Forza Horizon 5 review – bigger and better

Microsoft’s exclusive racing series returns to Xbox and it’s easily the best open world racer ever made.

Where previously a new game would release every year, with Forza Motorsport and Horizon taking turns, it’s now been three years since there was a new Forza game. What has happened to Forza Motorsport is still unclear, as while a new entry was unannocued several years ago, and is currently being play-tested, it’s rarely ever mentioned in public, with some suggesting that Microsoft has decided to abandon initial plans to make it free-to-play. If that means it’s going to be a while until it’s repurposed then fine, because Forza Horizon was always more fun.

Forza Motorsport was created specifically to be a rival to Gran Tursimo on the PlayStation, its regular release schedule standing in pointed mockery of Polyphony Digital’s troubled relationship with release dates. Sony has published plenty of arcade racers in their time, but the likes of MotorStorm and Driveclub have gone the way of the dodo and, as an open world arcade racer with fantastic graphics and a robust multiplayer, there’s now nothing quite like Forza Horizon on any format.

There’s certainly increasingly little similarity between Forza Horizon and the purposefully po-faced Motorsport. And while the cringeworthy xtreme racing dialogue, between the game’s gaggle of obnoxiously hip racers, is painful to listen to the recent release of Riders Republic makes it seem like poetry in comparison. So if you can put up with that there’s no reason why anyone wouldn’t enjoy Forza Horizon 5, unless they had a pathological hatred of driving games.

The basic premise of Forza Horizon 5 has been the same since the beginning and while the concept of attending an almost countrywide driving festival has become more extravagant, and less believable, with each iteration it means each game also functions as a kind of virtual tourism, with previous entries taking place in fictionalised versions of the US, France/Italy, Australia, and the UK. This time round it’s the turn of Mexico, with the game’s open world including deserts, forests, volcanoes, beaches, cities, Mayan temples, and everything in-between.

Forza Horizon 5 is still a cross-gen game, so it’s not able to leverage the full power of the Xbox Series X/S, but it looks fantastic, with a seemingly infinite draw distance, an impressive new lighting system, and the various biomes all rendered in stunning detail. Mexico’s seasons might not be as clearly defined as the UK, and so no longer cycle round every week, but Forza Horizon 5’s weather effects are still excellent, with localised storms that you can drive away from and even Mad Max style dust clouds.

Importantly, the map, which in the last game was criticised for being smaller than Forza Horizon 3, is now twice as big as before – with the addition of the volcano also adding the highest point of any of the games so far.

Although it does qualify as an arcade racer, with no pretence of the same level of realism as Forza Motorsport, Horizon is far from complete fantasy. With a solid mix of off-road and circuit racing there’s a clear difference in handling and suspension depending not only on what car you’re driving but also what surface.

Handbrake turns are satisfyingly difficult to pull off with precision and while the amount drifting would whittle your tyres down to nothing in real life it’s still not as unrealistic as many other games. There is a rewind feature, common to most Codemasters titles, but naturally you don’t have to use it, so it’s really just a welcome driving aid.

The handling seems perfectly balanced for the kind of game Forza Horizon is trying to be, but the one obvious problem is the destruction effects which, no doubt for licensing reasons (car manufacturers don’t like to see their cars driving around all beat up), are greatly simplified. It is possible to damage most cars, but it takes a long time to see anything more than a few cracks on the windscreen. Which is extra frustrating because the destruction effects for ordinary objects (don’t expect bridge railing to always save you) are great.

That wouldn’t be so bad, but crashes are disappointingly impotent no matter how much destruction there is. Even smashing into oncoming traffic at top speed does little more than knock both cars to the side and that instantly ruins the sense of immersion brought on by the rest of the gameplay and graphics.

If that’s all the fault of lawyers we’d rather Playground just use made-up cars, like GTA and Burnout, because the one thing Horizon is missing is some good crashes. What it’s not short of though is game modes and race types. More than ever, the idea is that you simply drive around the game world taking part in whatever races take your fancy and while it works almost like a role-playing game, with the equivalent of story missions, loyalty missions, and side quests, it’s entirely up to you what you take part in.

These include circuit and point-to-point races in various conditions and locales but also everything from taking a photographer on a sightseeing trip through a sandstorm to jumps out of the festival cargo plane. There’s naturally a lot of Baja off-road races, but the game’s progression is now focused not just on unlocking new cars (there’s around 500) and different parts of the maps, but extra race types such as street races and stunts.

The map is filled with secrets and bonuses for running over signs and jumping ramps but there’s also a new line in short form multiplayer games called Horizon Arcade, which involves things like hitting piñatas or giant bowling pins. You can obviously still set-up normal races with other players online, but Forza Horizon 5 allows you to define your own rules and custom courses via the new EventLab feature – which allows a far more detailed level of customisation than ever before.

These are welcome new features but they’re also largely the only new ideas in the game. The last game’s introductions of seasons was a clever gimmick but the unique selling point with Forza Horizon 5 is simply that the map’s bigger and more varied than ever before. That is a perfectly valid improvement though, especially in a genre where true innovation is almost impossible, and for the third time in a row it’s fair to say that this is not just the best Forza Horizon so far but the best new arcade racer any format.

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