Forza Horizon 5 is the best road trip ever

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If you’re an arcade racing game purist, Burnout Paradise has a lot to answer for. By taking the classic series open-world, Criterion essentially obsoleted the concept of traditional racers — here are your cars, here are your tracks, learn to drive the former to perfect the latter — at least in the eyes of major publishers. Ever since, virtually all big-budget arcade racing games have been made in the shadow of Paradise, with most tracks consisting of lines drawn across vast, explorable maps.

As someone who is personally not very happy about this turn of events, I have to admit that Microsoft’s Forza Horizon series has been a pretty spectacular product of it all. With each entry in the series, developer Playground Games has delivered relentlessly entertaining open-world racing in vividly rendered settings. Forza Horizon 5, the latest release, relocates to Mexico and turns out to be the best Forza Horizon yet — as well as one of the best games of the year.

Despite the name and the hundreds of accurately modeled real-world cars, Forza Horizon has little in common with Turn 10 Studios’ Forza Motorsport series, which is more of a serious racing simulator. While Horizon isn’t exactly a Ridge Racer-style arcade game, it’s certainly on the more accessible side of things. The physics feel somewhat grounded in reality, and you’ll notice big differences in how various cars handle, but the driving model is very forgiving, and it’s easy for anyone to pick up and play.

The previous game in the series, Forza Horizon 4, was personally appealing to me because of its UK setting, which I found to be a convincing rendering of where I grew up. But I found the game hard to get into because of the way it handled its open-world design, throwing an overwhelming array of cars and quests at you. Every time I opened the game after a week or two away, I’d have no idea what to do — the overwrought UI gave me option paralysis. It felt more like Assassin’s Creed on wheels than an arcade racer.

Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t change the basic structure, and there’s still a huge amount of stuff dotting the Mexican map. But it does do a better job of easing you into its mountain of content. You’re able to choose which specific types of events to unlock as you progress, so, for example, I preferred to focus on closed-track road races early on before delving into cross-country rallies. I feel like if I stopped playing the game and came back to it weeks later, I’d have a much better sense of what I’d been doing and where would be best for me to spend the next couple of hours. In turn, that makes me feel better about simply driving around the landscape in search of whatever esoteric quest I might come across. Unlike with 4, I’ve never felt like I’m wasting my time in Forza Horizon 5, as I always have more of a sense of what I could be working toward.

Forza Horizon’s premise — a “festival” that descends on a loosely recreated real-world locale and takes it over with various racing events of dubious legality — remains as absurd as ever, with entirely superfluous “story” sequences peppered throughout. I have personally never been to Mexico, but I have a feeling most of the locals wouldn’t take too kindly to visitors causing wanton destruction while bombing around the streets in a Dodge Viper listening to Dua Lipa.

On the other hand, Horizon 5’s depiction of Mexico is only likely to drive interest in international tourism once such things are broadly possible again. This is a beautiful game that shows off the country’s diverse landscape in spectacular fashion, from lush forests to active volcanoes. Its predecessor made the most of the UK’s landscape, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Mexico is a more appealing setting for a game like this.

I don’t think I can overstate the extent to which Forza Horizon 5 looks entirely out of control on the Xbox Series X. This is easily one of the most technically impressive games I have ever seen, with hugely improved lighting and stunning detail in the landscapes. You can run it at 60 frames per second on Xbox Series consoles, or there’s a 30fps mode that further boosts the graphical features; I personally find it hard to play racing games at 30fps, but each mode delivers a convincing presentation.

Forza Horizon 5 is also an impressive test case for Microsoft’s cross-generational hardware strategy. I played the game for several hours on my Xbox One X, and it doesn’t feel compromised compared to anything else on the console. It’s still a better-looking game than 3 and 4, and it looks more or less the same as the Series X version’s 60fps mode — just running at half the frame rate. The One X is generally a machine designed for 4K/30fps games, and that’s what you get here with Forza Horizon 5. Would the Series X game have looked even better if it didn’t have to run on Xbox One consoles? Maybe, but it’s hard to complain about the performance on either platform.

That said, Forza Horizon 5 has come in a little hot. During the review period and early access launch, I’ve noticed quite a few issues on various hardware, from graphical glitches to AI opponents that disappear completely. Server access has been spotty, and the PC version was almost unplayable for me due to constant controller disconnection errors. These will hopefully get ironed out, but I wouldn’t be happy about the server problems in particular if I’d paid $100 for the premium version of the game that includes early access.

I wouldn’t normally spend as much time on the technical elements of a game when reviewing it, but I think it’s more relevant with Forza Horizon 5 than most others. Last night, I fired up Forza Horizon 3 for a couple of hours, which I previously thought of as my favorite game in the series. Two things immediately struck me: it doesn’t look anywhere near as good as I remembered it, and it’s also almost exactly the same game as Forza Horizon 5, right down to the near-identical UI.

Beyond its slight but welcome tweaks to the unlocking system, Forza Horizon 5 makes hardly any progress on its predecessors in terms of game design. It really is as if the previous couple of games just got airlifted to Mexico and received an extreme technical glow-up. And honestly, I’m fine with that. The setting is everything in Forza Horizon — it’s what dictates and defines the endless firehose of races and championships and quests, not to mention the future expansions that have already been confirmed.

Forza Horizon 5 is just another Forza Horizon, yes, but it’s a beautiful one with an incredible setting, and that’s enough to make it the best in the series. If you have any interest whatsoever in driving fast cars fast, I highly recommend it.

Forza Horizon 5 is available tomorrow on Xbox consoles, PC, and Xbox Game Pass for both platforms.

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