The world for open-world adventure-arcade racers, post-Burnout Paradise at least, seemed a bleak one. Forza Motorsport has long gone toe-to-toe with Gran Turismo, so off-spun a little game called Forza Horizon, which placed racers into a big, broad playspace without rules or limits. As a series, it has taken gamers on a worldwide tour, even stopping over in our land down under for the third iteration, and it has become a property that PlayStation doesn’t seem to have a good answer for.
It’s big, it’s fun and it’s a racing game that’s really for everyone. It can be as technical and involved as you like, or as removed from the under-bonnet jargon as it needs to be. It manages to do it all while putting to screen a sumptuous street-level tour of Mexico in all its splendour.
Horizon is a series that knows how to, through its thrilling Initial Drive, make a sizable impression. Borrowing from something like Fast & Furious, this one decides to open with you parachuting from a cargo plane in a boxy Ford Bronco Badlands, down the sheer mountainside of La Gran Caldera. It was then onto similarly spectacular sights including Mexican farmlands, temple-hiding jungles, and the stunning beaches of Baja California.
It’s a stunning introduction to the fifth game in a series that’s still about celebrating both cars and culture.
The game then throws us into a character creator that’s far beyond anything we’ve seen in the Horizon series so far. It takes plenty of steps to cater to a lot of sensibilities, it’s pronoun-friendly and there’s quite a range of prosthetics on offer to help gamer’s avatars mirror their real-world challenges. Though I didn’t get to plumb the depths of what’s available in terms of wardrobe due to it being locked, there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of options. That goes for both man and machine.
Extra items can be unlocked through a heap of means, and I love the effort they’ve gone to in offering a fun take of car customisation that isn’t all camshafts and performance measurements. I particularly love the novelty horns which have seen Playground Games dig deep into the party bag of Xbox IP and I’ve got to say, hearing a honk-happy rendition of the once-chilling Halo choir, or even Banjo-Kazooie’s Spiral Mountain theme brought a smile to my face and tugged on my nostalgic heartstrings.
What’ll be immediately evident is that this game is strikingly beautiful. Though it doesn’t offer ray tracing, no detail is spared bringing to life this gorgeous vision of Mexico. As I cannoned down the gravel track that outlined the mouth of La Gran Caldera, I couldn’t help but notice individual rocks being battered and thrown about as my Ford battled the terrain. It’s a small detail, but for those rocks to be free and not a part of a static landscape is impressive.
A game this pretty will always benefit from its photo mode, which is great for getting in close and admiring every small detail on a laundry list of carefully modelled cars, but Playground Games are flexing with the drone mode that lets you freely fly around and take in the sights from a vantage point not known to cars. I did notice a bit of unsightly pop-in of land textures as I zipped around at a height, but with a month to iron those out, I can’t see them being a problem come launch.
A quick shoutout is warranted for what I’ve heard of the game’s licensed soundtrack. Though there are curated playlists for every taste, I did tend to rely on the rock stations to get me through. There’s no shortage of good stuff in there, from old campaigners The Killers to more contemporary artists like Nothing But Thieves.
Though the entirety of Forza Horizon 5’s gigantic map was open to me for the purpose of this preview, the serving of events was more focused. After being welcomed to México for the series namesake Horizon Festival, I got a semi-guided tour through a few of the game’s events. One involved me tearing arse through a Fury Road-esque dust storm for the perfect snap, while the other took me to a reclusive shed out in the boonies in which we uncovered a ‘punch buggy’ in need of a bit of tender love and care.
Peppered throughout were all of the snackable things we’ve come to enjoy about open-world racers, from speed traps to A.I. drivatars who are more than prepared for the challenge. Once I’d racked up enough points to reach my first accolade, the demo ended and left me wanting more. If this small helping was any indication of what’s going to be on offer from the final product, players will be eating well when Forza Horizon 5 drops next month.
Forza Horizon 5 releases for Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC, and Xbox Game Pass on November 5, 2021.