It’s been a long time since I’ve looked forward to a game as much as Forza Horizon 5. That’s saying a lot, because when it comes to new forms of entertainment that can distract me from the human condition, I’m like one of those excitable chihuahuas. But there’s always been something about the Forza Horizon series that felt like freedom to me in a way that’s hard to explain, but is instantly understood by anyone who has spent time in one of the games.
All that’s to say that I had some extremely high hopes for this 90-minute demo. I’m pleased to say that, for the most part, the game completely met my unrealistic expectations, even exceeding them in one key area, and somewhat letting me down in another.
How Forza Horizon 5’s intro works
The preview took players from the start of the game: the start screen, which features a similar scene to the cover art. From there you can access the accessibility features, which have to be the most complete I’ve seen in a driving game, perhaps any game.
It’s easy to see the influence of Gaming For Everyone in this menu. You can customise Deuteranopia, protanopia, tritanopia colour filters (green, red and blue colour blindness). There’s a choice for sign language picture in picture with both American and British sign language options (though this wasn’t working during the preview). You can change the subtitle text size and background, as well as highlight key words. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sign language option in a game before.
After that you pick your name. I’m used to having to pick a weird nickname (though I’m glad they usually have Clarke as an option), but this time I got to pick my actual name. Alice is never an option in games (titles made by American McGee aside), so it was actually really exciting to get set up. There are so many more options for what you wish to be called this year, all up at least a few hundred, so there’s one to suit most people, whether that’s Carmen, Bro or Madame President.
From there it’s straight into the intro. Forza Horizon has always featured epic intros, but I’m not sure how they’ll top dropping your car out of a cargo plane onto an active volcano, which is how Horizon 5 starts. You just get hit by the beauty and intensity of this new location, and then you speed down the hill crashing into cacti. Then you switch cars and drive through a dust storm.
The dust storm is amazing. Dust swirling everywhere, visibility poor, and a yellowish haze. It’s easy to imagine races being very interesting during storms. It really sets the scene for how different Mexico will be compared to every other location the main festival has been set.
The Horizon Festival
Once you’ve finished racing to the festival, you get to customise your character. There are a few more head presets than last year, and you now have more freedom of hair choice, including colour. You can also have prosthetic arms and legs in a variety of colours and designs. In here, for the first time, you can also choose pronouns and character voice. Pronouns are he/hm, she/her and they/them, which should cover most people, and then there are deeper and higher voices, both with English accents.
The story in Horizon 5 follows on from that of 4 – you’re coming in as the Horizon champion and helping set up this new festival. In Horizon 4, I imagined my character was coming from the Australian festival, and it was surprisingly jarring to hear their English accent. After Horizon featured a voiceless lead for so many years, there was no way her voice and dialogue could match up with what was in my head, so it took me about an hour to adjust my expectations of the story to the reality. It does now make the story scenes feel more natural, because it’s not just someone talking to themselves, but they no longer feel like scenes I’m a part of, merely ones I’m witnessing. It’ll be interesting to see if that feeling persists to the finished game.
All the Forza Horizon stuff you love is back
All the stuff you expect to see is here: Speed Cameras, Speed Zones, Danger Signs, races in various flavours, showcases, and, excitingly, the return of Trail Blazers.
The business available in the preview was one based around Horizon Promo. In the chapter, you have to race to the dust storm and take a photo of your car. It took me 1:14 to make it to the storm and take the photo, well within the 8:40 allowed for 3 stars, so I assume that it will evolve before launch.
The first showcase takes it up a notch, too. You start out racing a cargo plane through Mexico, with you driving a Hoonigan Cossie, and then at some point the plane drops two dirt bike riders. Then, towards the end of the race, one of the dirt bike riders reveals themselves to have been in a wingsuit the whole time. It’s a race with layers.
One big unknown I had going in was how skill points would work. From what I can gather, they’re exactly the same as in Forza Horizon 4 with each car having its own upgrade tree and points being earned in the same way. Due to the limited number of cars in the preview, I couldn’t compare the Car Mastery sufficiently to 4, but the 25 points in exchange for getting a second bite at a skill chain after a crash is still there, and that’s the main thing. There’s a new bonus for hitting cacti, though, which is great because there’s plenty of them.
Star Cards have been replaced with Accolades. Lots of little bingo cards with tasks, perhaps more similar to the Brick Challenges in the Lego Speed Champions expansion.
Cars and Wheelspins
The infernal wheel is back, which is disappointing. I had thought that when lootboxes were taken out of Forza Motorsport 7 that Horizon 5 might lose randomised prizes and gambling elements, but you still get a wheel spin every time you level up.
As for cars, there is a new incentive for collecting. Cars are still marked from Common to Legendary, and now if you buy all the cars from a certain manufacturer, you’ll get a prize. I assume the prize is another car from that same manufacturer. (Perhaps a Horizon edition? Though that’s wishful thinking.)
Forza Horizon 5’s music
With all this car racing it could be easy to forget that Horizon is still a music festival. Obviously, I did not get to experience much of the radio stations in these 90 minutes, except I did somehow hear the same Foo Fighters song three times. So, while I can’t really comment on the music on the stations, it’s good that Amy Simpson is back presenting Horizon Pulse. Unfortunately, she’s also joined by the shouty man is back on Bass Arena.
It also seems like there’s new local presenters for all the other stations (but maybe not for Hospital Radio, as I didn’t get a presenter on that despite my attempts). Timeless Classics has been rebranded and now plays classical Mexican music, which was both beautiful and soothing while setting the scene, and I love the new female host of Horizon XS.
Mexico looks stunning
The main character in this game is Mexico. With the exception of the first Horizon, it’s always been easy to feel the developers’ love of the place they set the games (to be fair, when it comes to affection, Colorado is on a different level to Miscellaneous Europe). But that somehow feels even stronger in Mexico. Ramiro’s love for his home is infectious in a way I didn’t feel from the hosts of Australia or the UK.
The map of Mexico is definitely different and huge. There is so much to explore. I barely got to see any in the 90-minute demo. My favourite area so far is the abandoned airport. It has a real Last Of Us, post-apocalyptic look with nature reclaiming the runway and the planes. But I’m sure that will change as I grow familiar with new biomes and find even more epic danger signs.
Unsurprisingly, the visuals are sharper in Horizon 5 and the world is more detailed. But that seems to come with its own drawbacks – I got motion sickness for the first time in a Horizon game. Hopefully that will be fixed by launch, but I think it was caused by the more detailed detritus on the ground and its relationship with how the car was moving. Obviously, I’m going to push through it when the game comes out — but hopefully there’ll be more controls to manage motion blur and other elements to make the experience more comfortable.
Forza Horizon 5 is available to players who pre-order on November 5 2021, and everyone else on November 9.