Preview: Forza Horizon 5 might make me a believer in racing sims

Viva México

The opening moments of Forza Horizon 5 are like something out of a Fast & Furious heist. Arriving in the sunny stretches of this microcosmic Mexico, vehicles are dropped out of a cargo jet, parachuting down to the ground to make their grand entrance to the big Horizon festival. It’s meant a be a grand spectacle to kick off the festivities, but it’s also a showcase of the types of environments and roads you’ll experience in the latest from Playground Games.

In just the first eight minutes, I barrel down a snowcapped volcano in the new Ford Bronco, drive straight into a sandstorm in a Corvette Stingray Coupe, navigate a rain-soaked jungle in an off-road Porsche, and fly by the sunny sands of Baja California in a Mercedes AMG-1. All in less time than it takes me to make my morning cup of tea. As somebody trying out the Forza series for the first time, it’s a hell of an opening that’s really forcing me to look at racing sims in a new light.

Admittedly, I’ve never been one for the genre. I am not a car person, neither in gaming nor in real life. For the longest time, I didn’t particularly enjoy driving. I’ve always owned commuter cars, so the call of the open road never spoke to me. Even when I’d meet people who were really into cars, I’d just mindlessly nod along as they talked about installing new brake systems or valves that do whatever it is valves do for a vehicle’s engine. As for racing games, I’ve mostly stuck with the karting variety, occasionally dipping my toes into more authentic experiences with Gran Turismo 4 on the PS2, Need for Speed: Most Wanted on the Wii U, and Burnout Paradise on Switch. They’re all games I can appreciate but not necessarily find myself obsessed with.

Truth be told, it’s too early to tell if this will be the title to do the trick, but I do know the opportunity is there as my attitude toward driving has shifted over the last year or so. I live in an area with a lot of bumpy dirt roads now. They’re the type of roads I’d never take in my old Chevy Cobalt, but with my Subaru Crosstrek, I’ve begun to appreciate the experience of an off-road jaunt. And I think that newly found appreciation of the driving experience carried over to the fake cars I tested during my preview week with Forza Horizon 5.

For the preview, I was given access to just a small slice of the game’s campaign and the entirety of the open world with its 11 different biomes. Following the spectacular opening, I got to meet some of the people who’d be joining me on my journey. My character is apparently returning from Forza Horizon 4, as my cohorts and I all carry British accents. As for the locals, they speak with that type of Hollywood Spanglish that only uses the most common Spanish words and phrases so we gringos don’t get lost. 

After creating my character — allowing me to choose their nickname, style, and pronoun — I set off on my first race against the plane from the opening that dropped me into the festival. Right out the gate, I have three vehicles at my disposal — Ford Bronco, Corvette Stingray Coupe, and a Toyota GR Supra — and I’m awarded a fourth vehicle following this first race. Like the opening, the race is epic and intricate in its execution, reaching dizzy speeds as I wind my way through the streets of a sprawling city chasing after a plane and two dirt bike racers. It’s the type of adrenaline-pumping action I would experience a lot over the preview week.

Forza Horizon 5 preview

For the small sliver of campaign available to me, I got a look at some of the different races and events I’ll be attempting to complete in the final game. There is a nice mix of short, lapped races and long cross-country treks. The game is very welcoming of players of all skill levels as it lets me set the difficulty for any race I participate in. I also got a chance to experience two adventure missions that are more character-driven. In one, I help a photographer grab a bitchin’ shot of my car in action during a sandstorm. In the other, I help a local locate an old vocho. While neither are all that interesting, they are decent showcases for the types of cars you’ll be able to unlock in the game and just how varied and detailed this recreation of Mexico is.

Like with any open-world game, the biggest draw for me in Forza Horizon 5 is the potential for exploration. I love nothing more than setting out on my own and seeing what interesting sights and sounds I can find. And this map is ripe for exploration. There are old churches to discover, abandoned airports, Mayan ruins that the game respectfully won’t let you drive up and down, and so many more little points of interest. You can just pick a point on the map and the navigation system will show you the way.

It’s quite the trip to go from the white sands of the sunny beaches to the deep jungles of the rainforest in only a matter of minutes, but with this miniaturized version of Mexico, you can do just that. And it truly is drop-dead gorgeous at times. Even something as unexceptional as a field of corn or agave is just gorgeous to look at. Racing games have arguably always been the best-looking video game genre, and Forza Horizon 5 is just more evidence of that fact. Not only is this world beautifully designed, but it’s jammed with small technological achievements that just make the game shine, like the way it reflects your surroundings on the hood of your car or how the wet season casts a believable dewy sheen over the environment.

Forza Horizon 5 screenshot

The wet summer season was only made available to me in the back half of the week, and it really highlighted the difference in the vehicles’ handling when compared to the dryer spring season. I unlocked around 10 cars in total throughout the preview, which was enough to showcase how differently the cars of this game will handle. The Stingray Coupe ended up being my favorite of the bunch, but that’s probably because it was the fastest car I owned that was available from the start. The ‘70s Dodge Charger I unlocked on Friday did not handle those wet roads so well. Or, at the very least, I didn’t handle them so well when driving it. But it sure did look beautiful in action.

Like with most AAA titles these days, Forza Horizon 5 will let players choose between a performance mode or graphics mode on the Xbox Series of consoles. For the Series X, both modes output in 4K with the graphics mode having a maximum frame rate of 30 while performance mode bumps this up to 60 with some adjustments to the graphics settings. On the Series S, the frame rates for the modes are identical to what’s found on the Series X, but the resolution maxes out at 1080p. If you’re playing on an Xbox One X, you’ll be able to output in 4K but at a max of 30 fps. Weaker last-gen consoles max out at 30 fps and 1080p. With exception to the original model Xbox, all consoles support HDR and raytracing is available in the ForzaVista mode when playing in graphics mode on a Series console.

Forza Horizon 5 screenshot

That’s a lot to get out, but from my experience with the Series S, the most noticeable difference for me wasn’t the frame rate, but rather how capable each mode was at rendering the objects on the screen as I shot through each area. As you may be able to predict, the graphics mode handled rendering at this speed with far greater precision than the performance mode. The latter had a lot of very noticeable pop-in of the small shrubs and bushes that line the desert highways. Playing in performance mode ultimately felt like I was playing on last-gen hardware, so after a brief flirtation with it, I went crawling back to the greener pastures of graphics mode.

Obviously, this preview is only a soupçon of what is in store for the final product. A lot of it simply wasn’t unlocked and the big open world wasn’t connected to any other drivers, so I was testing out the offline version of the game. The much hullabalooed emergent weather system also didn’t creep up in my preview outside of the two scripted sandstorms. But outside of that, this was a pretty fantastic preview. Forza Horizon 5 makes a great first impression, and I can’t wait to see what else I’ll see at this festival south of the border.

Forza Horizon 5 releases on November 5 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC. It will launch day one on Xbox Game Pass.

CJ Andriessen

Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games.

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