Forza Horizon 5 at Gamescom 2021 does what the series does best, but will it be enough?

Forza Horizon 5
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Forza Horizon 5 begins with a 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands driving down a snow-capped volcano, into the hot and arid Baja desert. This is undoubtedly one of the coolest openings to a Forza Horizon game ever. Yet, I still couldn’t help but wonder if the developers at Playground Games had done enough.

During a virtual preview event prior to Gamescom 2021, Playground Games and Microsoft gave journalists an early look at the game’s opening. While Microsoft was unable to give press hands-on time, the opening impressed us with vibrant visuals that embraced the beauty of Mexican terrain. However, it did feel like a retread of the standard Forza Horizon formula.

Making a follow-up to any game is hard. Developers must retain enough that’s familiar, while also introducing players to new concepts that keep things feeling fresh. If that’s difficult to accomplish on the second or third iteration, it’s even more difficult with the fifth.

Of course, this demand for variety isn’t  present in every genre. Specifically, simulation and sports games get a pass, as iterative improvements are at the core of those titles. For example, with the Forza Motorsport series or the upcoming Gran Turismo 7, fans generally do not want a massive departure from previous entries. Those titles have a singular purpose: recreating racing to be as realistic as possible. For sim-racers, fans want to drive the same cars on the same tracks, just with better visuals and physics.

But Horizon is different. In an open-world arcade racer, there’s an expectation for bigger and more unique set pieces. Horizon targets the same player base that might also be playing Fortnite or Pokémon. Those audiences aren’t hyper-focused on racing games, and need variety. The Forza dev team has taken this into consideration, as Horizon 5 won’t force players to engage in racing events if they don’t want to. Since the game is open-world, players can play other events instead, and still reach the end of the game.

While I’m sure driving through remote Mexican roads in the new mid-engine 2021 Corvette Stingray will be fun, I wonder whether the hype around Horizon 5 stems more from it being the first Microsoft racer on next-gen hardware.

Even then, racing fans should have fun driving through the the Mexican jungle in a Porsche 911 964 Desert Flyer: a car designed for the 2017 NORRA Mexican 1000. 

In a Q&A with Horizon 5’s creative director Mike Brown, we learned that the team has gone out to Mexico multiple times to ensure that the locales feel authentic. The team is still in contact with local photographers and tour guides to get additional resources, as travel is more limited during the COVID-19 pandemic. Playground Games also hired Mexican voice actors to ensure that people in the game sound like they’re from Mexico. Furthermore, Playground has been working with a Mexican script writer and consultant to ensure that the game is “full of love” for Mexico.

Forza Horizon 4 came out in 2018. Usually the series runs on a two-year production cycle. But with 5, the team got an additional year to work on the game. According to Brown, this allowed the team to rework the suspension and braking physics to make the game feel more realistic. Even though Horizon is an arcade-y racing series, Brown felt that by having more realistic suspension and braking, it will make driving feel more consistent for players.

Overall, Playground Games has found a solid formula with the Horizon series. Even if Horizon 5 doesn’t look as revolutionary as the original or Horizon 2, it’s likely still to be a blast. 

Forza Horizon 5 will come out on November 5, 2021 for Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One and PC. It will be available as a discrete purchase, or as part of Xbox Game Pass.  

Imad Khan

Imad is currently Senior Google and Internet Culture reporter for CNET, but until recently was News Editor at Tom's Guide. Hailing from Texas, Imad started his journalism career in 2013 and has amassed bylines with the New York Times, the Washington Post, ESPN, Wired and Men's Health Magazine, among others. Outside of work, you can find him sitting blankly in front of a Word document trying desperately to write the first pages of a new book.