Forza Horizon 5 preview: Flagship Xbox racer embraces the silly

Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t mess with the series formula too much, which is probably sensible given Forza Horizon 4 is considered one of the best racing games ever by some. Its bolder, sunnier and more exuberant world does see it explore some of the more out-there opportunities for open-world racing, though. And that’s no bad thing in a series where the actual experience of racing is only part of the draw. 

Forza Horizon is the fun and friendly side of Microsoft Studios’ Xbox Series X/S racing games. If you want to nerd out about racing lines and the right split second to change gears, you want the next Forza Motorsport, due god-knows-when. Prefer to ride off into a pretty sunset in something loud and shiny? You need Forza Horizon 5. 

It promises to take this side of the series’ appeal even further than Forza Horizon 4. And that game’s lovely rain-soaked fields of Edinburgh and other parts of Great Britain have been swapped for sunny Mexico. Get ready for twinkling surf, grand mountainous vistas, cactus-strewn plains and quaint little villages you could imagine American tourists pottering through, cameras slung from their necks. 

We’ve had a chance to play the first chunk of the game, spanning the dozen or so events you might power through on your first evening with Forza Horizon 5. They’ve given us a good taste of what to expect when the game is finally released on November 5, 2021.

You don’t need to play through those first few hours to get the idea of its intention, mind.

Forza Horizon 5 cars blasts through a sandy biome

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Forza Horizon 5's cinematic opener

In the first seconds of play, long before the first whiff of a character creation screen, you’re dropped from the back of a plane onto an extremely active, yet also snow-dappled, volcano. 

Each of your three starter cars, a Ford Bronco 2021, Chevrolet C8 Corvette Stingray and Toyota GR Supra are introduced with similarly larger-than-life little interludes. Within the first few minutes you’ll have chased a giant cargo plane, raced a chap tearing through the sky in a wing suit and performed a fistful of power slides through a jungle in a Porsche 911. 

The sun-soaked Mexican vistas makes you think Forza Horizon 5 is only an armed bandit troupe entering stage left away from turning into Just Cause 3. 

And maybe that’s deliberate. These early hours of Forza Horizon 5 seem to embrace the over-the-top silliness of open-world arcade racing, perhaps more than the series has done to date. 

Its alluring mountain peaks, more dramatic than anything seen in Forza Horizon 4, invite you to sack off the event-peppered map and go full Skyrim, just messing about to see what you can find. And where the racing festival hub, which acts as the contextual excuse for being in these countries in Horizon games, is the beating neon heart of Forza Horizon 4, it’s pretty much upstaged by its surrounds in Forza Horizon 5. 

Like travelling to Mexico for a friend’s wedding, sure you’re going to go there, but getting out and seeing the country is really what justifies the trip.

Forza Horizon 5 cars in a jungle environment

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Mexico: the sightseer's paradise

Forza Horizon 5 leans on this side of the experience hard. The world is made of different 'biomes.' One minute you might be driving through lush fields, only to find yourself in rolling desert-like sand dunes the next. It lets the game fit a continent’s worth of environments into a relatively compact map. 

While you may think a bigger map is always better, Forza Horizon 5’s proportions seem to be made to ensure you won’t give up on an event that pops up just because it’s too far away. Its world is bigger than Forza Horizon 4’s, but this is not Test Drive Unlimited. 

Constant entertainment is the goal here, and you certainly get it in Forza Horizon 5’s first hours. Even without entering any of the races, you can level up quickly by taping together a few bunny hops over hillocks and cactus collisions with easy power slides. These unlock skill points you can apply to cars, and occasionally you’ll see a tombola style unlock screen that might grant you a load of cash, a new car or a bunch of experience points.

A car looks out on the desert in Forza Horizon 5

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Forza Horizon 5 is so eager to please in these early stages you sometimes might not even know why all these gifts are being flung your way. These have a function, too. 

An open-world driving game like this does not have NPCs living in some random shack up a mountain you might decide to climb in the Mazda MX-5 you just bought for a laugh. No villager is going to ask you to collect herbs from the hillside to heal his depressed chickens. But these thick and fast unlocks in Forza Horizon 5’s early stages make you feel like you’re progressing even if you simply play around and categorically avoid all the game’s actual events. 

This is great, given Forza Horizon 5 shines when it is at its silliest. Switch on the classical radio station, barrel down a mountain in a $400,000 sports car as the Mexico Festival Orchestra blasts out something rousing, and you can’t help but smile. 

We’ve gotten this far without even talking about racing, and that should tell you a lot about how Forza Horizon 5 feels to play in its early stages.

Forza Horizon 5: Back to the track

The actual events will seem pretty familiar to fans of the series. There are straight-up races across a bunch of different disciplines and terrains, and speed trap sections where you just try to pelt across the tarmac as fast as you can. They’re quick, staccato things.

Typical of the series, Forza Horizon 5’s physics are extremely forgiving too. Compared to Assetto Corsa or even Forza Motorsport 7, the relationship between the road and your tyres is less a close partnership than one of pen pals. Cars feel great to control with the pad but even with all the game’s driving assists switched off they are largely easy to handle. Most environmental furniture, like trees, is there to enhance the sense of speed. Your car will dig them up at a rate that would make David Attenborough weep.

The racing line that shows when you may be going too fast to make a turn is at most a polite suggestion. You’re here more to experience than learn. Forza Horizon 5 makes no bold steps towards a 'simcade' handling model. That would be totally at odds with the environment and general sense of slight unhinged fun the game tries to generate anyway.

The story mode is what we are most interested to see develop when Forza Horizon 5 is finally released. Playground Games promises an expanded narrative-like experience this time, and this game world should be a great home for it.

Porsche 911 showcase in Forza Horizon 5

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Here’s what we’ve seen so far. The Forza Horizon 5 preview let us try out two of these story missions. One sees you trek up a hill to uncover a knackered old VW Beetle owned by your friend’s "papa." While this is likely here to introduce the concept of Barn Finds, as seen in Forza Horizon 4, this mission also sees you drive the tow truck back to town, giving it something of a low-stakes GTA V flavour. 

In the other story mission you head out into a dust storm to capture some dramatic photos of your Ford Bronco. This shows off one of Forza Horizon 5’s new features: dynamic weather events. The dust storm doesn’t blow your car off the road. There may be a bit of Just Cause flavour here, but not that much. However, the dust storm does affect your visibility dramatically. We’ll have to see how such features are used further along in the story and race events. 

These story chapters are unlocked once you complete a certain number of the race events scattered across the map. It’s like having to eat your vegetables before dessert, except these events go down more like cake pops. 

Forza Horizon 5 is sure to get tougher and more involved as we make our way through the career. But these first few hours are well worth experiencing on their own merits, particularly if you'll already have access to the game through Xbox Game Pass. But we also have two little warnings. 

First, Forza Horizon 5 is just as hefty an install as its predecessor, our preview build racking up to well over 100GB. And this game is sure to make you want to go on holiday, particularly if it’s heading towards winter where you live. The sheer prettiness of some of these sunny scenes might seem borderline cruel as you sit in front of your TV wrapped in a blanket.

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