Forza Horizon 5 is Forza Horizon 4 with cacti instead of hedgerows

You can choose from a large pool of names in Forza Horizon 5. I choose ‘Chump’ because it reflects the kind of racer I am. Forza Horizon 5 lets you cut corners unpunished and it always gives you about a half a metre leeway with checkpoint flags, on every difficulty variant. I like that. It rewards you with points for virtually everything you do, like scraping against family sedans at high speed, or crushing cacti (‘smactus points’ they call them, 1,000 per smashed cactus). If you get a little bit of air, you’re rewarded for getting “great air.” I’m Chump, yes, but according to everyone I meet at the Horizon Festival I’m also a racing car hero, even though I’m playing with Drivatar intelligence in the ‘average’ zone, with full racing lines to boot.

It doesn’t matter. Forza Horizon has always been about the wow factor and it’s never been shy to dole out gratification—that’s its modus operandi. It wants to make you feel good, and boy does it not let up in that pursuit. Early in this preview build a companion summarises a particularly hectic racing event I’ve just been involved in. There was a cargo plane, two motocross bikes and a wingsuit involved, me in a Corvette Stingray Coupe. As always, Horizon 5 has these “boss battle” style races that deviate dramatically from the norm of simply racing against other cars.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

My companion shares the details of this race with her friends via text message, and then announces to me that it’s “time for Foo Fighters.” She’s a genius at reading the room because Forza Horizon is the Foo Fighters of videogames.

It’s stadium rock as a game, all fireworks and bravado. It’s so jovial and crowd-pleasing it’s extremely hard to object to. Forza Horizon asks very little in return. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. If you lose, no one says “that was subpar” or “boy you could have done better.” You don’t have a nasal Brit scolding you, ala F1 2021. There’s just silence.

Forza Horizon 5’s presentation is pure car commercial

You don’t die and there are no enemies: the Drivatar system, which imposes on AI drivers an approximation of your online friends’ performances, so thoroughly abstracts things that it’s hard to get salty if you lose. Who cares if AI Adsgar69 or AI Beefcake34 is better than me? When that happens you just race again or else go smashing cactus while listening to a podcast. It’s a festival, a BYO variety. You do you. We’re all on the same XP treadmill, baby.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Forza Horizon 5’s presentation is pure car commercial. If you’ve played previous Horizon games you know it already. This instalment is the same—in fact it could easily be mistaken for its predecessor, save for its Mexico setting. True, Mexico proves a more turbulent, landmark-strewn sandbox than England, but the English landscape’s “lack of obvious drama or spectacle,” in the words of Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, was a weird choice for a sandbox arcade racer, let’s face it. The fact that it was a great racer anyway is testament to Horizon just feeling good, nailing the fundamentals, iterating successfully on the open-world racing formula.

Mexico doesn’t actually seem that different to England at first, though there are jungles, cacti-strewn plains, Mexico-looking towns of varying sizes, the kind you see in American films set in Mexico. The foliage is different (cactuses) and the landscape is more browned, less gentle. I live in Australia and can confirm that Australia in FH3 doesn’t look much like real Australia, but I don’t care and don’t think you should either (they nailed the roundabouts, though).

What’s important is that this is a new map and there’s a lot of opportunity for trackcraft here, with its rolling emptinesses, its treacherous high-elevation mountains, and its oversize soccer stadium, complete with oversize soccer ball. I think they want us to play Rocket League in it. England gave you graceful air after long, enchantingly steady ascents. Mexico gives you cliffs.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Forza Horizon 5, just like previous instalments, falls well short of digital tourism. I don’t feel like I’m in Mexico, I feel like I’m more in a generic computer world lightly inspired by it. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to explore the various biomes—it just means this is a new map with some Mexico stylings, and frankly, that’s enough for me, because this game is just the previous game with some new stuff to do. Since this was an Xbox-only preview, the graphics options were limited between “performance” and “quality.” Either way, aside from more rugged mess and foliage, it doesn’t look like a huge technical advancement in terms of graphics, at least on a moment-to-moment, 180 kmph level. FH4 is still the best looking racer on PC though, so that’s OK.

In this build, the weather events seem too inconsequential to justify their presence—they translate as a brown patina obscuring the horizon

It’s been developing over several instalments, but Forza Horizon is really a Far Cry game at heart. It out Ubisofts Ubisoft. Sure, races are the bread and butter—whether circuit or point-to-point—but there are frivolous side quests you can do too, like taking photos or discovering old cars. These come with some ever-so-light exposition, such as the search for a Vocho, which is a Volkswagen beetle once ubiquitous in Mexico. “It’s not just a car, it’s a lifestyle,” my Mexican quest giver advises when we embark on our search (we drive to a clearly marked point on the map). Then we cart the ancient vehicle to a workshop in a truck to be repaired. I’m made to drive this slow-arse truck myself for some annoying reason, but that’s ok. I’ll probably get gifted the Vocho eventually, because I’m a race car hero and who’s better qualified to destroy the Mexican wilderness with it than I?

On another non-racing mission to take a fancy photo in a dust storm, it’s my job to use Forza’s camera mode to photograph some half-buried, Aztec-looking monument. The woman who has given me this task warns there are legends of people getting lost in these dust storms, but that’s no concern to me: I’ve got a magical GPU minimap and besides, visibility ain’t that bad.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

It’s a nice effect, though, the dust storm. It has wow factor. This preview build didn’t show me how it can demonstrably add challenge to races, though. In this build, the weather events seem too inconsequential to justify their presence—they translate as a brown patina obscuring the horizon.

Frankly, I don’t like these non-races, just like I’ve never liked them in previous games (who cares about accumulating English manors?!). At least they seem optional past the usual early onboarding period. Thankfully the main serving is promising: During my little race against a cargo plane and a guy in a wingsuit I acquired a 1994 Hoonigan Ford Escort RS Cosworth WRC, which demonstrated some of the advancements Playground Games and Turn 10 have made in the audio department. This dirt-bashing machine has an absolutely foully popping exhaust, and playing with an Xbox controller, I could really feel its back end lumber whenever I took a turn too tightly.

Forza Horizon games dominate open-world racing because of the Motorsport heritage; the handling between vehicles is noticeably different even in this arcade context, and I sense that this is why, say, The Crew, can’t hold a flame to this series. Even Dirt 5, which I played to death, seems a little less weighty by comparison. This Hoonigan unit dragged like nothing else.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

The way Forza balances arcade gratification with sim depth is admirable as always. If you want to tinker with your tyres, gearing, alignment, springs, brakes and differential—among other things—you totally can. If you’d prefer not to get your hands dirty but can’t cope with vanilla settings, you can choose from other online players’ optimisations. This feature wasn’t available in my preview build but it’s there in the menu. Rest assured you can ignore all of this pedantry, just like I always have. 

They’ve shorn the annoyances out of crashing at high speed by simply making cars like tanks and trees like thistles

I do have objections to Forza Horizon 5, just like I do Foo Fighters. I hate the gambling aesthetics. Sure, there’s an in-game economy for buying cars, but the Spinwheel system returns and it still grates, with its poker machine format and the fact you can either win big (a shit-hot car you may not otherwise be able to afford) or be lumped with a “purple stripe casual shirt” (ugly and useless) or some credits. It’s not nice, and it doesn’t feel right in this dumb cheerful racing game, which I’d otherwise feel fine letting my four-year-old play unsupervised. The feel good aura of Horizon is rendered a tad cynical with the presence of (albeit non-monetised) gambling elements. 

Also, there are probably too many progression systems: credits for cars, XP for Spinwheels, Accolade Points for advancing the campaign, perks that unlock upgrades for individual cars, rather than passive upgrades for the lot of them. Given the amount of cars promised for the final game—426 and counting—those perks are likely to be spread so thin as to become meaningless, unless you’re the type of player to “main” a selection of cars.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

When my quest giver said “It’s not just a car, it’s a lifestyle,” that rang kinda true to me, though perhaps not how they meant it. Because I’ve played all the Horizon games, but almost as a way of not-playing. They’re a gorgeous distraction, a game you can play when you’re not playing a game. But they are substantial enough to become obsessed with if you choose to; there’s real heft available for people who love a challenge and more importantly, a really loving approach to cars that enthusiasts can bond with. 

The studios responsible are clearly aware of this balance, because if you’re wanting anything remotely new in this instalment, you’re not going to get it. They’ve hit a great formula. They know how to make computer game cars go. They know how to construct landscapes that feel good to race in. They’ve figured out how to make a racer satisfying but mostly resistance-free. They’ve shorn the annoyances out of crashing at high speed by simply making cars like tanks and trees like thistles. And they’re just going to keep doing this until a lot of people decide this style sucks.

And since it doesn’t suck—since it actually still rules—we’ll probably keep getting Forzas like this for a long time, which is actually fine, though a part of me was hoping for something with the whiff of novelty. I’ll sink 50 hours into it anyway.

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