What started as a fun spin-off has now become gamers’ preferred way to get their Forza fix. Horizon 4 isn’t just the most popular game in the whole Forza franchise, it’s the biggest-selling Xbox game in history, knocking Grand Theft Auto V off what always looked to be a very secure perch at the top.
There was good reason for this - the fourth instalment ironed out the kinks in previous games and ensured Horizon no longer stood in the shadow of the longer-running Motorsport series that spawned it.
Now, the original Horizon game is getting on for 10 years old, and we have a fifth entry in the series to get stuck into. Since FH4 was so good, our hopes are high. Here’s what we discovered after putting in as much time on Forza Horizon 5 in the last few days.
It's the best map yet
FH5’s map is the series’ biggest yet, and thankfully, there’s not a whole lot of filler going on. Variety is the key here - with white sandy beaches, a jungle, a volcano and a downsized reproduction of Guanajuato City among the highlights, there’s a bit of everything.
Horizon 4’s autumnal depiction of the UK’s greatest hits was pretty and all, but the map’s aesthetic was fairly samey, and there weren’t any truly jaw-dropping bits of scenery. Not so here - on your first drive across the new landscape, you’ll want to be stopping and using the photo mode frequently.
It’s the topography of the map that’s its strongest suit, with big changes in elevation giving an incredible sense of scale to the place. La Gran Caldera - the aforementioned volcano - can be seen from much of the map, and yes, you can drive up, giving an incredible view across the virtual landscape.
But we still want more twisty tarmac roads
Horizon games have been getting better at offering some nice twisty roads on which to enjoy the hundreds of cars each game offers. Horizon 4 was a big step forward in this regard, and 5 improves further with some epic stretches like the one leading up to the top of La Gran Caldera.
We’re still left wanting a little more, though. All too often you’ll find yourself heading for what looks like a lovely squiggly and as-yet-undiscovered road on the map, only to get there and find it’s yet another dirt track. That road over La Gran Caldera, for instance, is only tarmacked on one side.
The weather changes can be epic
After spending some more time with the game we have a feeling the novelty might wear off, but the sand storms that suddenly roll across the map look great and are brilliantly dramatic. The storms are cool too, with a real feeling of intensity to the rain and big forks of lightning flashing away in the distance. Or on one challenge, right in front of you, exploding the odd tree.
You get too much, too soon
Perhaps it’s because I was brought up on games like Gran Turismo 2, where you’d start with something like a used Honda Prelude and grind away until you’d won enough money to start building a collection of cars, but I like hard-fought progression in a car game. In Forza Horizon 5, all sorts get lobbed at you mere moments after firing the game up, especially on the Premium Edition.
After completing the bombastic opening sequence with the C-130 Hercules airdrops (the impact of which was dampened somewhat by Forza revealing the whole thing a few weeks ago), you’re gifted a Ford Bronco, a C8 Chevrolet Corvette and a Toyota GR Supra. Within a couple of hours of play, I had a collection you’d need a warehouse to store, only one car from which I’d actually bought.
Gifted cars crop up left, right and centre, and you’ll soon find yourself winning tens of thousands of credits on the prize ‘spins’. There was an element of this sort of thing in FH4, but it felt like it had been toned down relative to FH3. Now, the freebie bonanza is back with a vengance.
The handling is a little nicer
Much like its predecessors, Horizon 5 does a good job of feeling like a lightly dumbed down Forza Motorsport when it comes to dynamics. How the cars handle generally makes sense (as opposed to something like Need For Speed: Heat), and you can dive into the minutiae of chassis setup by fiddling with things like camber and toe angles. It’s just that you can get away with higher cornering speeds than you really ought to, take to gravel roads in low-slung supercars without terrible things happening, and soak up massive jumps in a stock SUV without the suspension exploding. It’s a nice balance.
For FH5, though, the handling feels a little sweeter and more realistic. Wet weather now has the kind of impact on grip and traction it should do, and it’s also a damn sight easier to hold a slide than it was on older games in the series.
Even if you’re playing on an older console in 1080p, Horizon 5 is noticeably prettier than 4, and not just because of the more varied landscape. Switching back to FH4 after a stint on the new game, the older title looks noticeably more cartoonish and less real.
Really, though, you’re doing it a disservice by playing it at lower resolution on an older console like an Xbox One, making the improvements more noticeable. We are talking about a game where developers captured 75 terabytes of sky imagery in Mexico over around 400 hours - it’d be a shame not to make the most of all that effort.
Forza games have always done a reasonably good job with engine sounds, but the results can vary greatly. It’s no different with Horizon 5. We have few complaints about the noise kicked out by V12-engined Lamborghini models in the game, for instance. But get yourself in a Porsche 911, and you’ll find Forza still can’t adequately replicate the joy of a naturally-aspirated flat-six.
It all feels quite familiar
If you read our Forza Horizon 4 verdict, you might be getting a sense of deja vu with the points we’ve raised. And for good reason. Forza Horizon 5 is a game that sticks to the series’ strengths, offering up more of the same in a fresh environment. You know the score - race the odd plane, expand the festival, tick off the various events and challenges, and await the temptation of DLC. If you weren’t a fan of previous instalments, this new one won’t win you over.
Yes, there are new features here and the map is incredible, but otherwise, it’s that same formula once again. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing - the typical Horizon shtick has always worked well, and made for an entertaining, fairly casual way to enjoy cars in the virtual world. And Horizon 5 wraps it all up in the neatest package yet. Consider it recommended.