As a long-time fan of Forza Horizon, I have to admit my dark secret: I didn’t really love driving around the United Kingdom. Forza Horizon 4 took the series home for developer Playground Games, but for me the location itself was just “okay.” The history of the region came through as I raced through the streets of Edinburgh, or tore across the lush green fields and small hamlets in my Hoonigan Ford Focus RX.
But it was missing the variety I found in Forza Horizon 3’s Australia, where I’d cruise from dense forest to desert scrub, and then head to the Eastern coast to take in the pristine white sands. The weather system, taking the UK through all four seasons, did a great job of papering over this issue but it still fell short for me. I wanted more.
So I was overjoyed to put some hours into Forza Horizon 5 and find that Mexico offers more of the variety I was looking for. Forza Horizon 4’s opening minutes showcased the seasons, with a frozen winter lake being the more intriguing locale. Horizon 5 kicks off during the same season, with the player airdropping near a semi-active volcano in one of the showcase cars, the 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands. From there you race in dirt and cacti-laden Baja California, careen headlong into a dust storm, and splash around the muddy jungles of La Selva. This initial drive sees Playground Games throw down the gauntlet.
This variety is why Mexico had to be the location for Forza Horizon 5’s festival, according to creative director Mike Brown. “We wanted this to be the biggest Horizon yet. So we started to look for locales, and we didn’t get too far on that path before realizing that you can’t just go big. You need to go diverse,” he explains. “If you’re going to have a bigger map, it has to have a greater diversity of things in it, so there’s always more things for the player to see. The driving experience is changing all the time. Once we had that requirement, Mexico just started to absolutely shine. It almost feels like the whole world in one country.”
Once you speed beyond the initial drive, you’re introduced to the festival itself. Scott Tyler is still here doing his DJ thing, but there’s a new cast of festival employees to show you around. You kick things off with three cars: the aforementioned Bronco, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Coupe, and the 2020 Toyota GR Supra. I like a good drift every now and then, so I started off with the Supra.
The only event open once you’ve picked your first car is another showcase, but you have to drive there. This was the introduction to the actual driving experience of Forza Horizon 5. The tail of the Supra was prone to slide out anytime I hit that brake even a little or took a large enough corner. That made it a fantastic car for the streets of Guanajuato, the largest city in the preview build, dotted with colonial-style homes cast in vibrant colors. You can even drift through the Plaza de la Paz around the bright yellow of the Guanajuato Basilica.
The showcase event gives you your fourth vehicle, probably the most useful one for the environment Playground Games has crafted: The 1994 Hoonigan Ford Escort RS, a rally car that does great on the tarmac or in the desert. The event takes you from the ruins of Teotihuacan, the farmlands of Tierra Prospera, the winding, narrow streets of Guanajuato, and up through the mountains against two motorcycles. It sells Forza Horizon as an overall experience tuned more for rally cars and other off-road vehicles, which is fine by me.
Once again, I notice the handling is slightly different from what I’m used to. That’s by design, as Playground Games had an extra year to develop Forza Horizon 5. While that year gave them additional time to build “probably half the map,” it also offered the team the chance to tune the braking and suspension. And while the tweaks themselves were leaning in the simulation direction, Brown admits they’re helpful for arcade players as well.
“We’ve made some huge investments into the physical performance of our suspension and braking. In both cases, we’ve strived to make them behave more authentically. The brakes, rather than being on/off, there’s a much more gradual grip of the discs on the brakes,” he says. “Same for suspension, there’s now a much more authentic suspension response to the rough terrain of Mexico. In both cases, despite that being an increase towards simulation, they actually make the car respond in a more predictable way, which actually makes it more accessible. It’s a weird counter-intuitive thing; if there was a dial between sim and arcade, we’ve actually pushed it more towards the sim, but actually made it more accessible and easy to drive.”
With the showcase out of the way, I was free to take on other events and ride around Mexico. There’s a lot out there for any driver, such as the switchbacks around La Gran Caldera and the mountains northeast of Guanajuato, the clean double lane highway cutting across the entire map, or muddy madness of the swamps around the Cascadas de Agua Azul. In the preview build, there’s one cool Cross Country Circuit through an abandoned airfield that I absolutely loved.
Seasons return from Forza Horizon 5, but the two available in the preview weren’t drastically different from the seasons in the last game. Spring is the dry season, with a sand storm just living to the northwest of the main Horizon Festival. In the wet season of Summer, the desert area Dunas Blancas was mostly the same, but the persistent sandstorm was gone. I found the fog and mist rising above the jungle in La Selva, but I couldn’t tell if that was a normal feature or related to the season.
“The new weather effects that you’ve touched upon are kind of a big thing,” says Forza Horizon 5 Art Director Don Arceta. “They’re regional as well, so it doesn’t just blanket the map with rain like previous games. If you don’t like the dust storm, you can leave the dust storm.”
The music is also still a standout in Forza Horizon 5. Returning radio stations include Horizon Pulse (pop electronica), Horizon Bass Arena (EDM and dance), Horizon Block Party (hiphop), Horizon XS (rock), and Hospital Records (drum and bass). Timeless FM has been replaced by Radio Eterna, though the focus is still on classical music.
What has changed is among the American and European tracks you’d expect, there’s more music from Mexican artists. So Radio Eterna has tracks like “Carmen” and “Sobre las Olas” by Juventino Rosas, or “Dios nunca muere” by Macedonio Alcala, while you’ll find songs like “Karma the Knife” by Angelica Garcia on Horizon XS or “Sueltame, Bogota” by Diamante Electrico on Horizon Pulse. Same stations, but each with a slightly different flavor. The available music is still fantastic and great for cruising around.
“We explored having a dedicated Mexican music station and having a mix of different Mexican hip hop, pop, rock, all in one station. In the end, we were advised that Mexico wouldn’t really have a station like that, that was only Mexican music,” says Brown. “Instead of having a dedicated Mexican music station in the game, we sourced Mexican music for every station in the game, including the classical station. It gives it a really fun and recognizable sound.”
My dip into Forza Horizon 5 was a short one, but a tantalizing taste. The full list of cars looked to be available, including my favorites like the 2010 Audi TT RS Coupe, Nissan 370Z, Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, Ford Shelby GT500, and Volkswagon Rally Cross Beetle. Livery and tuning options were available, but I couldn’t get them to save, and alternate modes like Super7 and the all-new EventLab were greyed out.
Forza Horizon 5 feels like it’s going to cruise past its immediate predecessor with the same open-world driving excellence in a location that’s better suited to the series’ strengths. “Mexico is a country that people go to to explore, to adventure, to go and discover new things,” says Brown.” With that brings a new philosophy to the way that we have designed our campaign and the way that we’ve built the world as well. The whole game is infused with this feeling of adventure and discovery. Mexico is more of a character in this game than perhaps previous locales have been.”
I’m ready to go explore what Playground Games has built when Forza Horizon 5 comes out on Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows on November 5, 2021.