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The beginning of a Forza Horizon game is a phenomenon that has, in recent years, grown to resemble the opening of a Bond movie. The first two began in comparatively sedate fashion—a simple, pine-scented dash, in Colorado, at the wheel of an SRT Viper; and another on the Côte d’Azur, piloting a 2014 Lamborghini Huracán the colour of sunlight. The third game had us hopping into a string of cars, taking in the diverse terrain of Australia, but the fourth is where things really picked up. Not only did it feature dirt bikes with purple flares pinned to their exhausts; it also accelerated through the seasons, whipping us through the snow and gloaming of an English winter into a rain-pricked spring. How do you top that?
Well, what about a cargo plane? Forza Horizon 5 is set in Mexico, and it starts in the skies above, in the belly of just such a beast. Its maw opens, the day streams in, and up pops an instruction of surreal simplicity: “Press A to jump into the horizon.” A 2021 Ford Bronco, in bright yellow, slides out the plane and parachutes down onto the rim of an active volcano. Moments later, we’re thundering down its slopes, as though we were surfing the choco-dusted froth of the world’s biggest cappuccino. Next, it’s back to the plane, which deposits a 2020 Corvette Stingray, in a delicious burnt orange, to race into the dry eye of a sandstorm. Then a dart through the jungle, in a 1989 Porsche 911 Type 964, cruising through a blizzard of flamingos to a stop at the foot of a Mayan temple. And, finally, after dipping low enough for its rear door to scrape the tarmac, the plane coughs up a dark-red Mercedes-AMG One, ready for a coastal run.
You could mount a reasonable argument for stopping there. It’s the best ten minutes you will spend with a game this year. Yet the show must go on. The fictional Horizon Festival has set up temples of its own: music stages, P.R. tents, and hot-air balloons, hanging like baubles in the firmament. It falls to you, as ever, to broaden the Horizon, so to speak—setting up regional centres for road and cross-country events, and establishing a street-racing scene in the nearby city of Guanajuato. Given that these involve the glare-and-scare of oncoming traffic, plus the occasional spine-juddering crash, I’m not sure that this is an entirely legal fiefdom of the festival’s outreach.
In any case, the nation of Mexico is happy to play host. We are informed, via a screed of particularly fine print, that “all Monuments, Archeological and Historical Sites, belong to the Nation of Mexico and are safeguarded by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) for their conservation, care, investigation and diffusion.” Quite right, too. Though, I should point out that the INAH has failed to protect a number of drystone walls, signs, fences, flowerpots, and a generous swathe of the country’s foliage—all of which have been sheared through, courtesy of a slew of botched handbrake turns. Then again, these are mere footnotes in the face of the untouchable beauty that abounds elsewhere. We get rainforests of unreasonable green, pin-cushioned by the noonday sun, and a desert whose dunes resemble breakers of vanilla cream. To see is to want. No wonder we are reminded that “the patrimony of the Mexican Nationals is inalienable and imprescriptible.”
The developer of Forza Horizon 5, Playground Games, has held fast to the chassis of the previous game, opting to tune and buff, and relying on the unleaded allure of Mexico as a fresh intake of fuel. I have to say, though this approach makes sense, it also puts the new game on an even footing with its predecessor, making it feel, despite the three years between them, like a parallel release. I played on an Xbox Series X—in performance mode, at sixty frames-per-second—and the whole thing flew by at a flawless clip. Then again, so did Forza Horizon 4, and, after it was waxed by the Xbox’s Smart Delivery, the two could almost stand side by side. In other words, this is Microsoft’s strategy on full display: the new and the not-that-old borne along with similar levels of burnish.
However, this also means that the wonders of Forza Horizon 5 are more readily open to scrutiny. For example, while I am as susceptible as the next man to the charms of monster trucks, racing against a pair of them—as you do in one of the curated set pieces—doesn’t bear the visual wit and panache of the showcase, in the last game, wherein we brushed flanks with the Flying Scotsman, to the accompaniment of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Likewise, there is nothing here to rival the knowingly raised eyebrow of the Best of Bond Car Pack, which injected our garages with a collection of ingenious toys. (Note to Bond nuts: check out the Aston Martin Valhalla, a concept car that gave an excellent supporting performance in No Time to Die.) Perhaps Playground Games, a British studio based in Leamington Spa, felt more earthed by the inalienable and imprescriptible patrimony of home turf.
Regardless, we should be thankful. Once again, there are hidden barns that yield archeological cars, whose conservation, care, investigation and diffusion is up to you. There is the usual array of races—available in the flavours of rally, endurance, drag, cross-country, and so forth. There are speed cameras, to be hurtled past at teeth-rattling velocity, and ramps from which to take wing. Most important, underneath it all, the driving is back, and it still behaves like an old friend who believes the notion of “tough love” to be utterly oxymoronic. Corners are forgiving, the damage modelling summons up only dents of things past, and each of the eclectically gathered cars, from the crotchety AMC Gremlin to the 1994 Ferrari F355 Berlinetta, slips into a drift as if it were a reverie—sudden, fond, and fast. That is Forza Horizon 5 in a nutshell. It may well be more of the same, but Mexico beckons, ravishing the eye and devouring up the miles. Besides, it offers us—as they all do, true to their name—the thrilling prospect of looking ahead, not so much to the next game as to its first ten minutes. The wait starts here.
Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Available on: Xbox Series X / S [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release Date: November 9, 2021
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