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For all the luxury cars that Forza Horizon 5 has to offer, the one I kept coming back to was an old Volkswagen Beetle, lovingly called a "Vocho" by the Mexican locals. It was a reward for a lengthy string of challenges, all taking liberties with what the recognizable but otherwise unremarkable car could be with the right love and care. More than that, it became a special car because of what it meant to one of the main characters in Forza Horizon 5's more personal story missions, letting her recount a love of racing that stemmed from her grandfather's adventures with this very vehicle. This single chapter encapsulates not only why the Horizon series has endured, but how developer Playground Games keeps thoughtfully iterating on it. It's not just about the familiar high-octane racing, it's also about the stories that people and their cars can tell, and what it means to those who continue that legacy.
These moments accentuate a more personal campaign that gives your created driver more of a voice than previous entries, increasing the conversations between its ensemble of racing-hungry characters while also giving plenty of opportunities for its new locale to be explored outside of the Horizon Festival. Forza Horizon 5 doesn't replace anything with this shift in focus, but instead delivers another stellar open-world racing experience that delicately balances arcade sensibilities with the series' simulation roots. Mexico is one of the best regions the series has visited thus far, too, offering a stunning backdrop to each race while also providing varied surfaces and landmarks to make each one feel special.
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While the pristine countryside of Britain might have been a bit too sterile for the ridiculous nature of the globe-trotting Forza Festival, Mexico fits right in. Like the Australian outback in Forza Horizon 3, Playground Games turns the map into a tasting menu for all of the features the country has to offer, from densely-packed cities to barren sand dunes and sun-kissed coastlines. The transition from one hub to another feels natural as you zip around the map, but the visual variety that each one offers gives each corner of the map personality in a way that the series was missing in its last outing.
Forza Horizon has been a technical and visual treat with each release, and this latest entry is no different. Despite releasing on both the older Xbox One and newer Xbox Series X|S consoles, Playground Games has evolved its engine to bring out even more details from the hundreds of cars on offer and the gorgeous lighting that bathes each of your excursions. One of the most impressive improvements is just the sheer density of the map; each corner is teeming with small details that make them stand out. Whether it's complicated rock formations on the edge of an active volcano bubbling with a warm, orange glow, or the light scatter and destruction caused by a furious sandstorm, Forza Horizon 5 is a stunner in both its Quality and Performance modes, and especially so on the Xbox Series X (which is where I played), letting you get the most out of your new console purchase.
The variety of Mexico is not just for visual pleasure either, with each of its distinct biomes offering small but meaningful changes to racing surfaces and weather conditions that change the way races play out. Road races can only be slightly changed by a rain-slicked surface in a storm, but that same weather radically changes how a mud-covered sprint in a dense forest needs to be approached, for example. The environment allows Forza Horizon 5 to introduce new types of races, too, including Baja events (this game's version of dirt road races) that play out over the messy sand dunes near the coast, or the Wild series that reintroduces cross-country races but with far more variable surfaces to play with. Weather still gets cycled in and out during real-world week-long seasons, but these are now relegated to seasonal events as opposed to directly influencing the entire open world. Races are also designed with specific seasons in mind, so that you're not trapped in a week of conditions that you'd rather skip entirely. It's a small but good improvement over this system that debuted in Forza Horizon 4.
Progression has also been slightly tweaked, with less of a focus on moving from one part of the map to another as you complete events and instead letting you author which events you want to tackle and when. As you complete races, take on open-world activities, and engage with Forza Horizon 5's latest story events, you'll be able to spend points to unlock new tiers of the festival. This includes unlocking access to specific race types, such as Apex for standard circuit races, PR stunts for daredevil antics, or Street Scene for dangerous races in crowded suburban areas. Each additional point in each festival-type opens up more story-specific events for that type, consisting of multi-tiered story missions and the more traditional showcase events that Forza Horizon has become known for.
Playground Games keeps thoughtfully iterating on [Forza Horizon]. It's not just about the familiar high-octane racing, it's also about the stories that people and their cars can tell, and what it means to those who continue that legacy
These story events all feature similar formats that are changed up by the racing style that they represent, dropping you in the most interesting parts of the Mexican map. There are ancient runes and derelict airfields ripe for exploration, all on the way to setting up the next big racing festival that unlocks even more points of interest on the map. The most interesting of these are the ones that pair you up with one of the new team members and citizens of Mexico, be it a talented mechanic or budding university student looking for someone with high-speed data.
These carpool sessions bounce between serious and comical, from poignant tales of the importance of a car to a family and over-the-top photoshoots that take you through some of the worst weather the region has to offer. They each layer familiar events--timed sprints to an objective, points-scoring skill sessions, or massive, physics-defying jumps for example--with a human element that has mostly been missing from the series. Hearing your created driver respond in these dialogues makes each conversation far less one-sided too, giving your legendary status as a masterclass driver more texture than just a voiceless avatar that does silly dances on the podium. Forza Horizon 5 is still miles away from what you might consider as story-driven, but these small detours do wonders for the overall pacing when there's so much racing to be done outside of them.
These character-driven aspects are what stand out the most in this latest entry in the series, and one that's required given how similar it can all feel without it. The Forza Horizon series has established a formula that it's stuck to quite closely for several years now, and while it definitely doesn't feel stale in a way that many other open-world franchises can, it doesn't always have the grin-inducing surprises as it used to. Playground Games has a knack for great, exhilarating races across its incredibly detailed worlds, but there's not enough here to convince you that this is the entry to jump in if previous ones haven't done it for you. Its changes are profound enough for long-time fans to appreciate the change, but they don't have a significant influence on the overall structure that the Horizon series has become comfortable with.
The variety of race events can change over time, too, especially as the community engages with the tools that Forza Horizon 5 offers to create custom events. Each race can be altered by players and played by anyone online, giving the already expansive number of races even more replayability over time. There are new types of multiplayer modes, too, that join the returning staples from the previous entry. Forza Arcade turns the arcade racing into something even sillier, with a variety of minigames contained in a small area of the map that you collaboratively participate in with other nearby players. These include a hunt for colorful piñatas that you need to smash up with your sports car of choice, or colourful demolition derbies where you need to race around knocking over giant bowling ball pins. It's a fun distraction as it stands, but it requires a bunch of players to pause the more exciting prospect of head-to-head racing in order to participate in without offering the same captivating competitive edge that the rest of the strong stable of multiplayer modes do.
Being confined to a small area of the maps is also counterintuitive to what makes Forza Horizon's brand of open-world exploration so fun. Playground Games has iterated on its approach to open-world design over the course of the series, and Horizon 5 epitomizes why it works so well. It's laid out so that you're consistently rewarded for engaging with its world, even when you're just moving from one race to the next. Speed traps, drift zones, small duels with other racers, and just simply traveling in style reward you with points that drive forward overall progression, making each action feel rewarding and purposeful. It's dense with activities without also feeling overwhelming, letting you map routes from events that are littered with side activities that interest you to tackle along the way.
In this way, Forza Horizon 5 is another meaningful evolution of the series as opposed to a reinvention, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a case of more of the same. Even when it is familiar, Forza Horizon 5 makes small, but thoughtful changes to its established blueprint that hones in on the people behind the cars in a way that the franchise has previously just glossed over. Its alterations to progression are welcome, too, letting you focus on the events that you love while also giving you even more event types to make effective use of the varied and fun map that has been designed around Mexico's best hits. It's not going to convince you to give it a go if Forza Horizon's brand of racing hasn't done it for you in the past, but Forza Horizon 5 still stands head and shoulders above anything else in the genre.