In a little more than two months, we’ll be playing Forza Horizon 5! That’s exciting to think about. Developer Playground Games has done a solid job drip feeding notable info about the game — even extremely nerdy audio details for those players who can tell the sound of an authentic 2JZ from a synthetic copycat. And as part of the Gamescom conference, the team revealed some additional details about the game.
First off, we got to see the introduction sequence that will acclimate players to this instalment’s Horizon festival, set in Mexico. Like in previous entries, it gives us a quick sampling of various vehicle types and disciplines — barreling a Bronco down a volcano, a Corvette C8 through a dust storm, an AMG Project One on picturesque desert roads and a 911 Safari through a jungle. Neat, but ultimately nothing out of the ordinary if you’ve ever played a Forza Horizon game before.
I had the opportunity to see the sequence last week, before a Q&A with creative director Mike Brown. I left this informative session with two takeaways that had me — someone who’s always enjoyed Forza Horizon though never quite to the degree everyone else seems to — feeling pretty good about FH5.
The big one pertains to physics and car handling. This, in my view, has been Forza’s biggest deficit for more than a decade. And it doesn’t merely pertain to the Horizon side of the franchise. Both Horizon and Motorsport utilise the same ForzaTech physics engine, though of course it’s watered down for arcade playability in the open-world titles.
Personally, I’ve always felt the problem lies with a lack of traction at the rear and an overabundance at the front. It makes correcting slides and countersteering weirdly darty and unnatural, giving you less space to dance on that edge of grip. I don’t know if it’s an issue that will finally be addressed in FH5, but I made sure to ask about it anyway during the Q&A.
I expected Brown would have nothing to say on the topic of physics. Car handling adjustments have seemingly never been a major consideration for Horizon games, at least not as much a consideration as the size of the world or the number of cars in the roster. So I was surprised at his in-depth response below. It’s actually making me look forward to driving a range of cars in the new game.
We’ve actually made some pretty huge investments into our physics model this time. I think when I say that it’s important to remember that we were starting from a good place. Forza Horizon 4 did have a really great handling model. But the fact that we took three years rather than two — our usual two-year cycle, this time — has allowed us to make some bigger investments than we otherwise normally would’ve been able to.
So we’ve completely rebuilt the way suspension works. Which perhaps sounds like a small thing, but suspension is actually one of the main ways in which your wheels and the body of the car interact with the road surface.
And so by really working on that simulation to make the suspension behave in a much more authentic way, you might think — as I say — it’s an improvement to simulation, that it would make it more challenging. But it’s actually the opposite that’s true. Because the springs on the car behave much more like they would on a real car, the cars are now able to react to the terrain in a much more authentic way. Which actually, whilst improving the simulation, also improves the accessibility of that as well, which is a great result for us.
Brown makes a great point here, in highlighting how making handling dynamics more true-to-life actually makes a game like Forza Horizon — which is more about accessibility than realism — easier to play. It’s a counterintuitive concept, but it really is true. I play everything from Burnout to Assetto Corsa, and — at least in my experience — the disjointed handling of the 2015 Need For Speed reboot made that game infinitely harder for me to wrap my head around than, say, lapping Laguna Seca in an LMP2 in iRacing. Accessibility and realism actually go hand-in-hand to a degree, as much as some sim racing gatekeepers would love to convince you otherwise.
Brown sounded excited about the suspension changes, which in turn has me excited. It sounds like the team has also taken a new approach to the way anti-lock brakes behave:
Another one is braking as well. That’s another area where we’ve been able to really improve the physical model there so that when you’re really slamming on the brakes at high speed, the pads will grab the disc in a more gradual way, allowing the brakes to come on in a more realistic and authentic way to gradually grab the disc and stop the brakes from locking up as easily as they could have in previous games. Again that’s an area where it improves the simulation, so it’s more accurate to real life, but also makes the cars a little bit more accessible.
Elsewhere, it seems Playground has taken the criticism lobbed at FH4’s freeform campaign to heart. This is something I was also really hoping for. FH4’s single-player progression felt aimless due to a deluge of events that didn’t feel particularly distinct from one another, partly because the player was given the choice to contest them in any car. With hundreds of icons swarming the map it was often hard to decide or even find what to do next, and ultimately it didn’t feel like it mattered how well you performed, because the payout for placing low was almost as high as race-winning earnings.
Brown didn’t give specifics on the new campaign structure, but he did relate that changes have been made:
I think our campaign learns a lot from Horizon 4’s campaign. So the campaign is, I think, much better this time. It does a really nice job of giving players complete freedom in how they want to approach the game, but at the same time always having them feel like there’s a thing you should be doing, a thing you can be doing, there’s all these things that you can work towards — in a way that feels more structured and more directed than it did in Horizon 4, but while maintaining freedom to progress through the game in a ton of different ways.
I’m not sure how Playground can balance that freedom with a sense of purpose, but I’m eager to find out. There’s no question FH5 is going to look good, sound good and have a lot of cars to drive and see; it’s the fundamentals and quality-of-life improvements I’ll be curious about on November 5.