We’re less than a month away from Forza Horizon 5, and I for one am very much looking forward to putting away the chilly, cosy waning weeks of the year by sinking myself into another titanic automotive expedition. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to get a taste of the game, as Microsoft allowed Jalopnik to download a playable pre-final build of the upcoming racer including the first 90 minutes of the new single-player campaign, called Horizon Story.
To be honest, 90 minutes isn’t a ton of time to spend with an open-world racer like Forza Horizon; especially when a good 15 minutes of that is taken up by the game’s introduction, which offers a sampling of developer Playground Games’ sprawling rendition of Mexico and its many biomes. But Playground previously revealed that portion, so this preview will concern how things proceed from there.
A familiar beginning
Upon starting the game, you’re awarded three desirable cars at once in typical Horizon fashion: a new Toyota Supra in its SEMA Heritage body kit, a Ford Bronco Badlands and a Corvette C8 in Streethunter attire. You choose one for your first ride, then set course for a Showcase event that pits you against a jet and dirt bikes in a Ken Block-ified Escort RS Cosworth.
From there, you can choose one of two story missions that you’ll quickly complete. One’s an expedition into a dust storm in a Jeep Gladiator to snap some photos, while the other is a trip to go track down a lost Vocho, or Volkswagen Beetle. There are a handful of events that follow — a road race here, a cross-country scramble there — and then you’re given the keys to your first house. That’s how FH5 kicks off.
A few things stood out to me in this slice of the campaign. For one, there’s not quite as much hand-holding in the early moments of Horizon Story as in Forza Horizon 4‘s first hour. That game set the player upon a slow crawl through the initial summer season before the autumn change, throwing two events at you at a time and peppering in some side jaunts — like the stunt driver missions — to mix things up and offer a taste of the game’s range of activities. FH5, conversely, pretty much drops you straight into the thick of things with fewer cutscenes and distractions. Hopefully, that also means you’ll be able to get to cruising with your friends faster, as FH4 took an eternity before unleashing you upon the rest of the playerbase.
Which reminds me — I can’t speak to any aspect of FH5‘s multiplayer offerings, as they weren’t included in my build. I also can’t tell you what the campaign is like beyond those initial seven or eight events. I do have high hopes it’ll be more intelligently designed than FH4‘s though, which suffered from bloat. Back in August, Playground Games creative director Mike Brown told us he thought FH5‘s progression felt “more structured and more directed than it did in Horizon 4.”
How it plays
What I can tell you is how the game handles and looks, and what kinds of nitty-gritty tweaks have been made to car customisation, for example. And — from what I’ve played, anyway — the story there is a lot of good news and a little bad.
For starters, I couldn’t suss out any difference between the feel of FH5‘s physics and those of FH4. On one hand, that’s a little disappointing. In our recent interview, Brown emphasised how FH5‘s extra year of development gave the team an opportunity to elevate its suspension and braking models.
For what it’s worth, I did notice more pronounced body roll on acceleration and braking compared to FH4 when I drove a Lancer Evolution V fitted with a rally suspension kit. However, the effect was wholly visual; the car didn’t feel different to toss around (i.e., the behaviour at the limit didn’t really change even though there were visual signifiers suggesting it should’ve). Still, I was reasonably satisfied with the handling overall, so perhaps it’s fair to chalk this one up to not fixing what isn’t broken.
In terms of graphics and performance, you likely already know: FH5 looks exceptional. I played this demo on Xbox Series X, but I’ll be playing the full game on PC. The denseness of foliage and diversity of FH5‘s natural world make for remarkable feats of photorealism, even coming from FH4‘s lovingly crafted but still rather monotonous UK map. I was especially impressed by the comprehensive boost to lighting. Glimpses of the sun off bodywork carry an eye-catching hint of bloom that wasn’t present in FH4, and elements like taillights give off a sumptuous lens-flare effect. The overall quality of reflections and the way they interact with the improved vehicle paint shaders are quite simply unmatched in the genre right now — save, perhaps, for Gran Turismo Sport outside of gameplay.
As for performance, FH5 has two graphics modes clocked at 30 and 60 frames per second, both rendering at 4K. Brown told me that the majority of FH4 players tended to stick with the default 30fps mode on Xbox One X and Xbox Series X, a fact that surprised me. For that reason, I thought it important to try both on for size; I wanted to know if sacrificing responsiveness for fidelity might be worth it this time around.
It wasn’t — not by a longshot. I’m no framerate junkie; I’ve long extolled the virtues of 30fps for games that are responsive enough at that speed, and I’ve lauded the superior visuals earned for the tradeoff. Driveclub on PS4, for example, was perfectly enjoyable at 30 fps, and seven years on it still looks better than many contemporary racers, especially when its weather effects kick in.
I was careful to try FH5 in 30fps guise first, and even then I still found the sense of control lacking. The slower framerate ruined the otherwise fine handling, saddling every flick of the analogue stick with a palpable delay preceding on-screen movement. The input delay felt all wrong, reminding me of that agonizing steering-through-mud sensation that plagued Criterion’s Need For Speed Hot Pursuit. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t issue the standard preview disclaimer here: What I played was a pre-release build, and its possible the final product will be smoother, more consistent and responsive at 30fps. But for me in that moment, the choice was resoundingly clear: FH5 was far more immersive at double the framerate, and inherited no real graphical penalty for it.
What’s new (and old) in customisation
Playground’s touted hundreds of new cosmetic and performance-related upgrades for FH5, and I think what’s been added will please fans. There are loads of new rims, particularly from O.Z. and Work. Among them is O.Z.’s white-and-red Rally Racing set — a personal favourite of mine and a style the franchise has historically lacked. You can now fit seven-, eight-, nine- and even 10-speed transmissions, and powertrain swaps now support twin-charging, which is fantastic and absurd all at once.
On the flip side, many longtime Forza customisation bugbears remain. The colour picker is still godawful, requiring the player to tweak RGB sliders for non-glossy paint. Brake callipers still can’t be painted. Fine-tuning track width is impossible with the clumsy three positions offered, aftermarket exhaust pipes still can’t be equipped, and front and rear rims can’t be chosen separately. I asked Brown if Forza could one day add a decal uploader like GT Sport has, which would save artists a great deal of time and greatly enhance the quality of custom liveries. While he called it a good suggestion, he said that there was nothing to announce on that front. I’ll hold out hope for Motorsport, then.
(Update: In my experience I was unable to paint brake callipers on a particular car, but I’ve since come across videos showing paintable callipers on other models, so perhaps it’s available for some of the roster.)
I know some will discount the last paragraph as nitpicking, but these are granularities of tuner car culture that competitors like Need For Speed deliver on, that truly enrich the player’s sense of ownership and pride in their garage. Playground is teasing a lengthy post-release support phase for FH5, so hopefully new customisation features will be added over time where possible.
Those are my notes on what I’ve played of Forza Horizon 5, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into more of the campaign, explore more of Mexico, and fiddle with more of the 500-plus car roster.