Let’s take a trip through time, back to the year 2020. Early March 2020, to be exact. My family and I were vacationing in Mexico City, taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of the bustling city for a week before we were to head to Acapulco for some much needed beachside R&R.
If you can (or choose to) remember, early March 2020 kicked off what would eventually be a worldwide lockdown brought about by the COVID-19 virus. When we departed for Mexico, we were of course cautious, but at that time, no one really knew anything about the severity of the virus. That all drastically changed over the course of our week in Mexico City. Each day, more and more locals would see us Americans walking towards them on the sidewalk and move to the other side of the street, stopping just short of sprinting across the asphalt. Then, countries began closing their borders. We took this news to heart and immediately decided to cut our trip short. Instead of relaxing on an Acapulco beach, we were scrambling onto one of the last non-cancelled flights out of Mexico City before the world locked down – though not before shoving some Clorox wipes and toilet paper into our carry-on luggage.
A week in Mexico had been stolen from us, and I yearned to get it back. Little did I know that just a couple of months later, Forza Horizon 5 would be officially revealed, with the game taking place in nowhere other than Mexico. My eyes lit up at the first glimpses of gameplay, and I couldn’t wait to jump in and play – literally buying an Xbox Series S specifically so that I could do so (and not destroy my gaming laptop in the process). I’ve spent just shy of a week in the game, fully immersed in its beautifully chaotic yet incredibly fine-tuned open world, and there’s two things that have been made crystal clear: Mexico is the shit, and so is Forza Horizon 5.
Forza Horizon 5 is set within a map based on Mexico – and what a map it is! It’s the largest world in a Forza game to date, with plenty to explore from sandy deserts and straightaway highways to dense jungles and gorgeous coastal beaches. Each area, or biome, comes with its own unique Horizon Festival challenges. Whether you’re an off-road junkie always in search of a new dirt track, a thrill seeker jumping off of every cliff and ramp, or you’re more interested in tearing up the city streets that are lined with beautifully colored buildings, Forza 5 has exactly what you’re looking for. There’s really something for everyone.
The game does well to allow you to experience it all while still letting you play the game however you see fit. Forza 5’s campaign sends you to every corner of the map, but does so in an organic way that never feels forced or overtly linear. That’s because as you play, the world and its plethora of side challenges open up to you, featuring things like stunts, speed traps, races, seasonal series and limited-time events, as well as user-created challenges made in the EventLab. Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t release until November 9, so while the latter (and multiplayer in general) was a bit sparse during my review period, I was still able to check out some user-created challenges (and I nailed them all, thank you very much).
Challenges can become even more intense with the game’s dynamic weather and seasons. For instance, a torrential downpour has a much stronger effect on roads or dirt paths than a light drizzle does, while a clear, dry road feels noticeably different from both. Of course, much of the racing feel comes from the different vehicles themselves, of which there are over 500 vehicles to be collected.
Unlocking cars isn’t a slog, either. Winning races or challenges and successfully moving through the campaign rewards you with new vehicles – some being acquired by using them in certain events, some being won outright, and others that you can buy or sell via the player auction house. Even better, you’re able to tune each car to your liking and switch to it on the fly as you tour the country.
Driving is a blast in Forza Horizon 5. It feels like a mash-up between the annual WRC series and Dirt 5 – two of the more notable racing games to be released in the past few years. I love the WRC series for its deep realism, but appreciate Dirt 5’s arcadey feel. Forza Horizon 5, on the other hand, strikes a perfect balance between arcade racing and simulation, and allows you to tweak your settings to your skill level – whether you’re a hardened Forza veteran or a complete newcomer to the series or racing games in general. The game’s accessibility options are also some of the most robust and easily accessible that I’ve seen in a while.
I was also surprised with just how deep the game’s progression system is, allowing you to customize your driver and expand your Horizon Adventure however you want. I don’t usually go too deep into these types of systems, but I’ve found myself going down the progression rabbit hole more often than not as I build out my adventure and my driver.
Personally, my favorite thing about Forza Horizon 5 – as you may have guessed – is the open world based entirely on the landscape, culture, and overall vibe of Mexico. I may not be able to experience the wonders of Mexico in person right now, but taking it all in as I race through the different biomes might just be the next best thing. After all, given current global conditions, I’m no stranger to being completely satisfied with experiencing different parts of the world through the medium of video games.
That said, driving through the outlying areas of the various Horizon Festival locations definitely triggers a wonderful sense of nostalgia from some of my previous trips to Mexico. Playa Azul reminding me of my time spent walking the streets of Sayulita. The historic city areas with touches of modernity making me think about the bars and cafes I spent time in sampling mezcal. The winding mountainous roads that are very similar to the ones I travelled en route to two of my best friends’ wedding at the Las Estacas nature preserve. The audible gasp that could be heard from me as I came upon Teotihuacan for the first time – the archaeological complex that sits northeast of Mexico City, and the last major sight we took in before we were forced to cut our last trip short. (Tourist note: If you have a chance to snag a michelada from one of the roadside vendors en route to the attraction, do it. Best michelada I’ve ever had.) Playground Games is wildly successful in Forza 5’s respectful representation of Mexico and its culture.
I feel like I’ve accomplished so much in the game thus far, while still feeling like I’ve only barely scratched the surface. It’s all that I can do right now to keep writing this review and not play Forza Horizon 5. That alone is the exclamation point that allows me to shed any doubt in my giving this game a perfect score. Does it push the genre forward? Debatable. But for my money, whether I’m in the mood for a street race, dirt drifting session, over-the-top stunt, or just joy riding through (and demolishing) the countryside, this game has everything I could want in a racing game. In many ways, it does even better than racing titles that focus specifically on a single mechanic, such as rally racing, street circuits, or destruction.
Collectively, Forza Horizon 5 does everything right, and in doing so makes Playground Games’ latest entry into the Forza franchise an absolute must-play for any racing enthusiast or casual racing fan.
5 out of 5 Stars
An Xbox Series X|S code was provided to TheGamer for this review. Forza Horizon 5 will launch on November 9 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, Windows PC, and Steam
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