Forza Horizon 5 is the latest open-world arcade racing game that originated as a less stuffy spinoff of the mainline Forza Motorsport series. Despite Xbox positioning it as Gran Turismo’s competitor, Forza Motorsport always felt more like its little brother, walking around in a suit just a hair too big for its frame. In its fifth outing, Forza Horizon once again wisely ditches the church shoes for some comfy sneakers and reintroduces the ideal all-inclusive motorsport festival.
It’s a magical event, where there’s no such thing as serious injury, death, gridlock traffic, pedestrians, potholes, Tesla bros playing Flappy Bird while “driving” on “auto pilot,” or any other mortal obstacles that prevent you from flooring it at speeds that would make Abe Lincoln shit his pants. Add some car-handling improvements, a dash of Drum and Bass, a heaping bucket of 4K HDR, and a fleet of shiny cars that I’ll never afford (without becoming yet another scumbag balding billionaire), and we’ve got what might be the pinnacle of arcade racers available. All set in Mexico, no less. Órale.
This time around, the Coachella-inspired traveling festival finds itself in a fictionalized and compacted take on Mexico with the series’ biggest open world to date. The country boasts vastly different biomes that behave differently with dynamic weather patterns and seasons. Start a drive at the top of a dirt road on the side of a giant volcano, drift off onto the grass and back onto that sweet, sweet paved road, and you’ll end up splashing through rivers along the muddy trails of a remote jungle. Your tires will see more action in one race than most do in an entire lifetime. Except in Forza Horizon’s world, cars don’t just explode on impact after launching off the side of a cliff. Here, cars might lose some parts and get banged up, sure, but your performance is crucially not affected. Those moments are why you come to this game.
Forza Horizon 5 is quick to give you its usual over-the-top intro sample platter of everything on offer: volcanoes, jungles, deserts, Mesoamerican ruins, beach towns, and more. Sorry to my UK friends, but my god, it feels so good to see all that different vegetation, color, and general sazón on display here compared to Forza Horizon 4’s gorgeous but familiar take on Great Britain. And maybe I’m biased, but it feels so unreal to just kick up mud as I drift around ancient pyramids in the jungle. It feels like I’m on another planet — and with 11 different biomes so close to one another, I might as well be.
This variety naturally adds to the music festival vibe while coalescing so perfectly into the game’s selection of motorsport challenges. You’ll have your pick of road, dirt, street, sprint, cross country, and drag races to choose from all over the map. These don’t even include Showcases and Expeditions that feature those extravagant scenarios like, yes, racing a train again or literal underground street racing through the tunnels beneath the city of Guanajato.
Playground Games continues to do donuts all over the line that separates sim-adjacent games like Grid or Dirt and more approachable arcade racers like Cruis’n Blast or Hot Wheels Unleashed. Unlike any of those games, though, Forza Horizon 5’s evolution of the shared open world brings balance to a vibrant setting that constantly shifts around you based on your mood. Plus, once I’m able to group up with friends online in a convoy (which I obviously couldn’t do during the review period), I might just wind up living in Forza Horizon 5 forever. You all know where to find me, especially now that it’s getting colder in New York.
Customization quickly became a sweet spot for me. I found myself deep in the custom tuning menus that cleanly walk you through what changes you’ll be making to your car and what style of driving you’re optimizing it for. This extends to your usual fare of engine upgrades, handling adjustments, and even nitty gritty details like changing transmissions and differentials. If you’re even more of a car pervert, you can swap engines, drivetrains, body kits, and even the way air flows into your engine. Does some of that not make any sense? Don’t worry, that’s all optional. You can still upgrade your car’s performance using simple presets and send it anyway you like.
Once you’re back home in your garage, there is an “Auto Upgrade” option that lets you pick what class you want your vehicle to race in (read: how fast it goes brrrr) based on Forza Horizon’s handy color-coded performance class rating and number. You can also save custom setups and even take out the ones that people have uploaded for a spin. Forza Horizon 5 meets you where you want to be.
Throw in a robust paint and livery editor (that lets me live out the fantasy of bringing a dream car of mine to life) complete with paint finishes, rim styles, and vinyl stickers, and you got a stew goin’, baby. And, just like the tuning setups, you can save custom liveries and upload them to share with other players and vice versa. So if you don’t want to bother and just want to find one that another player has cooked up, just use their designs. For me, spending time on a car I love in real life and making it my own to show off in the game’s world and races can be an all-consuming investment in the best way.
In addition to all of that, custom clubs let you create groups with friends to create the car club of your dreams. Blueprint Events return as the Event Labs feature that lets players set custom remixes of races. Accolades serve as achievements with in-game rewards. There’s also a photo mode I spent way too much time in. You’ll even see the return of online modes like The Eliminator (which I did not get a chance to play yet, but will absolutely be streaming once the servers go live). There’s so much to do in Forza Horizon 5 that, at first glance, it might feel overwhelming. But trust me: find what you like and chase that until it leads you down another path. Then rinse and repeat.
As pretty as Forza Horizon 5 looks, there are plenty of noticeable upgrades going on underneath the hood, too. For example, Playground Games have made things easier for new players by improving braking and tire grip. Folks who are just starting out will have an easier time leaning on the anti-lock brake system that now gives a bit more leeway and nuance when applying the brakes. This, combined with the way tires behave realistically on different surfaces, will help newcomers learn that behavior over time and allow more casual players to offload more of that finesse onto the anti-lock brake system.
This improvement in grip also gels nicely with a new suspension model for the cars. It was one of the first things I noticed when taking certain “springier” cars off-road. I feel like I’m more equipped to predict how the car’s going to behave, and I’ve learned how to handle them faster. This is super apparent when driving older muscle cars that have that fun, but challenging, big-old-bathtub-full-of-water-feel while attacking certain turns.
There’s one area in which Forza Horizon is still lacking, and that’s better ways to help teach newcomers and casual players how to improve or understand certain setbacks. I floated between the Highly Skilled and Expert difficulties, and my only real meter for success was if I was either winning or losing too easily. There wasn’t much feedback to guide me.
The options menu is full of assists and settings that can help you fine-tune your experience to your liking. However, it would be great to have an optional mode or lessons for new players who want to get freaky on a controller (like me) and play with the manual shifter and clutch enabled. I get that the Forza Horizon series is made for folks to just jump in, but I do sometimes wish there was a middle ground for onboarding potential future car perverts.
One thing that’s gotten slightly better, but not by much, are the menus in Forza Horizon 5. The previous entry in the series eventually became a pop-up brochure full of stylized tiles that, even after hundreds of hours of play, still seemed difficult to navigate. The sequel isn’t too far removed from that, but I did have an easier time navigating it overall. We’ll see how that evolves over time once some downloadable content comes into view.
The promises of an accurate and respectful depiction of Mexico hold pretty true throughout. My only complaint is sadly common to so many games: Some of the characters’ dialogue sounds inauthentic and fairly inaccurate with cliché Spanglish mixed in throughout. Considering the organizers of the event are basically English speakers, I can see how they would slip in and out of both languages. My issue is that certain characters, like Alejandra, sound super forced and straight-up corny.
I’m begging developers to handle this with a little more care. Look, I know who the audience you’re catering to is here. I’m not asking for the complete eradication of Spanglish because I’d be screwed. But I am asking for a little more attention to detail, or at least someone in the room who can point out that it feels a little off. Otherwise, those of us who do know will just chuckle and roll our eyes every time someone speaks in these games. It’s not a game-ruiner, but it is still a little disappointing.
I was pleased to get those pops of color from the street artists featured in the game and the accurately-depicted scenery. As gorgeous as the locale feels overall, it still can feel like an empty theme park with the occasional small crew of friends safely behind a barrier of some kind. But I’ll happily take it. On the music side of things, Latin music is sprinkled throughout on individual radio stations. It’s pretty cool to let Latin music mix in with everything else, but I can’t lie: It would’ve been great to have a station just dedicated to Mexican artists, with a Spanish-speaking DJ (fine, it can be Spanglish too), especially for the races that felt like they couldn’t happen anywhere else.
My last minor issue is with some of the presentation compared to previous titles, especially Forza Horizon 4, which came out in 2018. Some of the non-playable characters you interact with still feel like animatronics. For a game with so much style and personality, it asks you to do a lot of the mental lifting when interacting with other characters. Sure, those moments are quick and easy to ignore, but what if they didn’t have to be? What if cool new characters like Ramiro got a little more space and time to shine? I’m not asking for live-action segments or Pixar-quality cutscenes, but the fact that a lot of the overall vibe just feels more like an iterative phone upgrade rather than a whole-ass sequel leaves me wanting more, especially on my fancy year-old Series X.
As a whole package, Forza Horizon 5 has been such a welcome addition to my newfound appreciation of cars and motorsports. The fact that it can be either this laid-back experience where I hang out on my couch and catch up with friends, or a sim-style drifting session down mountains that scratches more of that technical itch for me, is ideal. This is a bona fide hit for Xbox — the care and attention that has gone into all of the under-the-hood upgrades shows it. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite games of the year. I can’t wait to keep taking it for a spin in the millions of configurations I have yet to discover.