STAFF REVIEW of Forza Horizon 5 (Xbox One)

Thursday, November 11, 2021.
by Kirby Yablonski

Forza Horizon 5 Box art I have been a Forza racing game fan since it debuted on the original Xbox. So, to say that I have experience with the series would be an understatement. When Forza Horizon launched on the Xbox 360 in 2012, I was hooked on its open world-like gameplay combined with the already solid physics engine of the Forza Motorsport games that preceded it. As you read this review, the next chapter of the Horizon series will be out for all to play, and that chapter is Forza Horizon 5.

Reviewing this latest release in the series was a daunting task, given the size, scope and number of things to do in-game. When you think about it, each Horizon game released has been bigger than the one before it, and with number 5, it is one heck of a BIG game. Horizon 5 takes place in Mexico, and it is the biggest map yet with some of the biggest races, events and environments found in any Horizon game. Playground Games has boasted that the Gran Caldera Volcano found in the game is the highest point in any Horizon game, and trust me, once you get to the top and look around you will notice the scope of the Mexican environment around you.

There is a total of 11 distinct and explorable biomes, and each one is different from one another. From the sunbaked sand of the Baja, the dense and intricately lit jungle area, the rolling hills of farm country to a unique and colorful city (Guanajuato) filled with cobble stone streets and tunnels, the latter which were designed to direct flood waters from the city core. Driving across the map takes time, and as you venture through each biome you will discover so much to explore and do. Speaking of things to do, there is a huge number of events to participate in all over the map, and we can’t forget the showcase and expeditions within each of the Horizon Festival areas. You are not forced down a linear path of what to do in order to open specific race types or challenges in your career mode. How is this handled you ask? Good Question.

As you participate in various events or challenges, you are awarded points, or as Playground Games calls them, “Accolades”. These points are awarded for how well you perform and once you reach a specific total you are awarded a Forza Showcase point. You then hit up an area in the in-game menu called Horizon Adventures where you can apply the point (or points if you have more then one) to a specific festival. It’s here that you find the various “Expeditions” in each of the individual festival’s map area.

Expeditions are events designed by Playground Games with specific vehicles, goals, areas and time of day. It is a feature that not only enables the new Horizon Festival zone to be opened, but it also focuses the story on you, a Forza Horizon star. There is a lot of dialog during these events, and I for one enjoyed all of it. Expeditions are a nice break from the traditional racing and they have become a staple of the Horizon franchise. From finding photo spots in a dust storm, racing jet-skis from point A to point B, to going through a hurricane-like storm with massive wind speeds and lighting hitting the ground, there is a lot of variety. There are a total of six Horizon Festival sites, each with an individual focus on different types of racing or events. They are as follows:

- Horizon Festival: Mexico - Mainstage
- Horizon Apex - Road Racing
- Horizon Wilds - Dirt Racing
- Horizon Baja - Cross Country Racing
- Horizon Rush - PR Stunts
- Horizon Street Scene - Street Racing

You can open these areas whenever you like and in any order by completing each festival’s first event, if you have a showcase point to do so. After you have completed the first event on each festival card you are then able to choose subsequent events as you earn more points.

As a single player game, one may find themselves overwhelmed with the number of things to do. This is clear once you open all the Horizon Festival sites and the events that are attached to each individual festival. It can almost be daunting as you move around the map and all the icons showing you where events are seemed to never end. God Bless the map filter that allows you to show what you want to see on the map, as you can thin things out depending on what you are looking for or what you may be in the mood to do. There is no shortage of stuff to keep you busy, that is for sure.

One of the biggest online changes to Horizon 5 is the new Horizon Life mode. Basically, this is where all the online activity of the game will be found. During my early time playing, and even after the game’s launch, there were a lot of “disconnected from the network” errors popping up, and I found that I would consistently have to try to reconnect. Regardless, being able to populate the world that you are exploring is what Horizon Life is about. It also allows you to access Horizon Open, which is essentially the area for PvP races. At the time of writing this, I was only able to play a few online races, so I can’t comment too much on this, but I am happy to see them fine-tune the PvP aspect in a way that seems to be more user friendly and without having to worry where you may rank versus other players. 'Convoy' mode is back too, should you want to get a group of friends or strangers together. It is a simple as driving up to them and once the ‘invite’ button comes up, press it to see if they want to join.

Another one of the new features of Forza Horizon 5 is EventLab. This allows player to create their own tracks, game modes and custom cars. The events that are created by users will then show up on the world map for you to interact with and challenge. Even this early into the game’s release there are some interesting tracks and challenges being made by the Horizon community, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for this new addition and players get even more creative as time goes by.

One more new feature is “Gift Drops”, and this is just as it sounds. You can give Horizon players cars from your garage. There are two ways you can do this. You can drive up to a previous barn find (yes, they return this year) and deposit a car there, or you can go into your menu and do it from anywhere on the map. You have a choice to gift the car to anyone who plays the game or be more specific such as gifting a car to returning fans, those new to the franchise, or even community creators.

Horizon Events has been rebranded in this chapter of the series as Horizon Arcade. These modes allow random gamers to join together in what is best described as an almost infinite world of minigames. Find the blimp, enter the area on the map, and you are then enrolled in the madness that is to come. Teamwork is key, and all those who participate will be rewarded in one form of another.

Of course, it would not be a Forza game if it were not for the cars, and Horizon 5 starts off with well over 500. Over the course of the next year or so, Playground games will also be adding more cars to the roster via car packs, gifts and random vehicle drops into the game. I do have to note though with the number of cars comes a lot of those that we have seen before, but refreshingly, there are some new ones as well. As with all the previous Horizon titles, you can paint, apply decals and tune your car (engine, suspension, exhaust, tires, rims, etc.) to your hearts content. This is what makes a Forza game what it is, the ability to virtually tinker to make any car look and perform to your liking. In terms each vehicles handling, I would have to say that they all feel more refined and even a bit more realistic than before. I may be crazy; however, a friend of mine who bought the deluxe edition of the game, allowing early access, also noticed a change in the handling of the cars, so at least I know that I am not totally nuts. Who knows, maybe there were tweaks to the game’s physics model, but what ever I experienced, I did note it.

I know that I haven’t even addressed some of the games returning modes, like Stories, Super7, Season Challenges, Rivals, Photo mode, XP and Fast Travel signs, and a few more things, but I really must get on to the visuals and audio of the game, and I also want to address the accessibility options available. What I have noted in this review so far is what I believe needed to be mentioned, and the other stuff I just noted in this paragraph, while important to the gameplay and is without issue, must be put to the side.

The visuals and audio of Horizon 5, in my honest opinion, are second to none. What is even more impressive is the fact that this game has been developed to play across all the current and last generation Xbox platforms. It has a grittier tone that adds to the realism of its look. This is helped by the new SSD too, with very fast load times from the start of the game to a quick restart of a race or event. For reference, I played the game on the Series X and the Series S. Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way.

There are two playable modes for Forza Horizon; Quality and Performance. On the Xbox Series X, Quality mode is about bringing Mexico to life in 4K at 30fps without sacrificing anything. Performance mode is about playing the game in 4K at 60fps with some visual tricks to maintain resolution and the higher frame rate. I played both modes, and for me, I really wanted the full meal deal in terms of visuals, so I played in Quality mode. On the Xbox Series S, Quality Mode is 1440p at 30fps while Performance Mode is 1080p at 60fps. I do have to say though, that the Performance mode on the Series X looked just as amazing with little difference from Quality mode. The differences are minimal, but Quality mode has ‘higher’ settings (like a PC) then Performance mode. Bottomline for these two modes, they are both amazing and rock solid in the framerate department.

Visually speaking, Horizon 5 takes the genre to another level. The Mexican landscape looks amazing and very life like. From the opening showcase event that starts the game to just exploring many of the game’s biomes, there is a lot of reasons to be impressed. The scope of the map is huge, and it’s the biggest map ever found in a Horizon game. There are new weather effects too, such as sandstorms or hurricane like conditions. The sun beats down onto the Mexican landscape in different ways. This is very evident as you explore the deep and dense jungle biome. Light filters through the leafy canopy in ways that have not been seen before in the series. As for the various road surfaces, each one has their own texture design and look, so a cobble street, dirt roadway or muddy track has a 3D look to them that are distinctly different, and they are not just flat textures.

Go into the photo mode and take a close look, you won’t believe the realistic look of every surface beneath your wheels. Buildings are meticulously designed too, from the small houses in obscure locations, a small village which is very colorful and full of buildings, to a multi-level beach resort looking over cabanas, beach bars and sunbathing chairs. And to add to this experience is Horizon 5’s draw distance. It is something that you don’t notice as there seems to be very little to no draw-in as the Mexican landscape goes way into the distance. It really is something to see.

Car models are beautiful, especially when in motion. The different camera views give very different experiences, both in terms of speed and detail. Once again Playground Games is to be commended for their attention to detail for both the inside car views to the chase car and hood cams. You will be wowed by the reflections of a dashboard in a front window, a vehicle’s analog dials lit up and working during night driving, the environment you are exploring reflecting in the paint, to the way that the sun shows the tiniest of details like the dust and dirt on a car after exploring the Baja or after exiting a huge dust storm. Reflections have always been a strong point in all the Forza games, and it is found in full force here. Something that is worth noting is that the names of your fellow racers are not reflected this time around, it is a small detail, but very noticeable, especially to veterans of the franchise.

Along with those visuals I speak highly about, the audio is just as good, making for a more immersive experience. As with past Horizon games, the music you can drive to, via the 6 available radio stations is back. The variety of tunes is large, even including classical music once again. The in-game sound of the various cars and their engines are just amazing as how the cars look. Front engine, mid-engine and rear engine cars sound great, as their motors locale can be noted, especially if you are playing on a home theater system. The number of cylinders and how big the engine is also play into this formula. These sounds are heightened by what car view you use. The dashboard view makes the outside sounds somewhat muffled while the outside views provide the wind of a high speed car hitting over 200mph on a highway straightaway. The environments themselves have a level of detail that I didn’t think would be in-game. From driving by and startling a flock of flamingos, the various waterfalls and running water, weather sound-effects, to the crowd cheering you on, it is glorious and adds to the realism.

Finally, I must touch on the game’s accessibility features. Horizon 5 has a whole separate menu for those who may need accessibility options for one reason or another. Microsoft and Playground Games have openly stated that they have worked with the disability community while also using the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines when developing the accessibility features of Horizon 5. There is a long list of accessible oriented features that are in the game including:

1. Game Speed Modification (can make it slower)
2. High Contrast Mode
3. Color Blindness mode
4. Subtitles (adjust font size, background opacity, ability to highlight key words)
5. Customize the menu and gameplay font size
6. Screen Reader Narrator (reads text, buttons, and more aloud)
7. Text to Speech and Speech to Text options (for players who wanting to chat with other players)
8. Disable moving backgrounds
9. Notification Duration Setting (so have time to read it)

This is quite the suite of accessibility features, but there is one more that is being implemented. It is the use of sign language. When activated there will be a picture in picture display near the bottom of the game screen that will have a sign language interpreter signing the cinematics found in the game. I have to say that is very useful indeed.

Forza Horizon 5 is a must buy game for racing fans and casual gamers alike. I don’t know how, but Playground Games has made gains over Horizon 4 that I really didn’t think would be possible. The visuals are stunning, the sound is amazing, the number of things to do is almost overwhelming and the gameplay feels refined, making it an amazing open world racing game experience. The freedom to go pretty much anywhere in the Mexican will eat up a lot of time. Sure, there have been network issues, but these seem to be disappearing, allowing for an almost flawless experience. So, why are you still reading, go play this game on Game Pass, or flip a few extra dollars for the deluxe version and you get the VIP ranking, access to two expansions and a few extra cars that you might most likely enjoy.

*Forza Horizon 5 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series S and X*

Overall: 9.9 / 10
Gameplay: 9.9 / 10
Visuals: 9.9 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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