Forza Horizon 5 review: Buena Onda

Playground Games is back with another monstrous serving of the world's greatest arcade driving experience.


Forza Horizon 5 is here and ready to run wild on your Xbox console or PC. To describe the game in the simplest terms, Horizon 5 is the same as Horizon 3 and Horizon 4 with a map swap into Mexico. This characterization would be very reductive, even if it is technically true. For returning players, this truth is likely to incite both feelings of intense joy and mild disappointment. Yes, this is a cross-generational release and its need to run smoothly on Xbox One hardware has potentially prevented a larger map or newer game mechanics. Yes, the core game design and structure are a carbon copy of its predecessors.

In Forza Horizon 5’s defense, it follows up two of the greatest arcade driving games ever created and manages to better them. The detour into Mexico is a sight for sore eyes after a three-year stay in the rather dreary United Kingdom coming from Horizon 4. Innovation is about the last thing you’ll find on the Forza Horizon 5 buffet, but there is no denying that this is the best software available for Microsoft’s Series X|S consoles and, for people who have strong PCs, the best reason yet to pony up for a 4K 120Hz HDR display.

Mira güey, metete en el carro

Forza Horizon aims to be a celebration of car culture, launching a new festival every few years in new, exotic locales. The festival draws thousands of gearheads and car aficionados who spend countless weeks driving recklessly on public roads and destroying the lush natural habitats offered by the host country. When you spend enough time thinking about it, the Horizon Festival itself is kind of evil, despite how inclusive it is to all comers. It doesn’t matter if you are male, female, non-binary, colorblind, disabled, or human, the Horizon festival wants you to feel welcome (so long as you are cool with using gas-guzzlers to absolutely wreck Mexico and terrorize its denizens at all hours of the night). 

If you can overlook the absolute stupidity of the premise (and you should), Forza Horizon 5 presents an interesting proposition: you just spent the better part of two years riding out the COVID-19 pandemic indoors - why not take a vacation to Mexico?

Located just a bit south of San Diego, Mexico is a country full of just about every major geographical feature you could imagine and serves as home to one of the richest local cultures on planet Earth. In other words, it is an absolutely perfect choice for a Horizon game. From the white sand beaches to the rim of an active volcano, there is no shortage of things to see (or attempt sick jumps off of). Is it the biggest open world we’ve ever seen in a game? Not even close. Does this matter in practice? Not in the slightest. The team at Playground Games has spent the last three years working on quality over quantity and the results speak for themselves.

If you need a game to show off or justify that fancy new Xbox Series X you picked up, this is the one. It looks like a million bucks, despite its cross-generational pedigree. Hell, if Sony and Insomniac’s jaw-dropping Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart had not already come out this year, Horizon 5 would be a likely shoo-in for the best-looking video game of 2021. You’ll be presented with two visual presets on Xbox Series X consoles, one favoring 60fps performance and the other favoring visual fidelity at 30fps. Hyper competitive types will obviously opt for the higher framerate, but the 30fps option delivers image quality that is nothing short of amazing. Thanks to top-tier motion blur and relentlessly consistent frame-pacing, you can have a wonderful drive no matter which way you go.

The pristine visuals on display might be easy to miss at 200mph, but if you ever slow down for a few moments, you’ll notice that nearly every frame rendered by the game’s engine looks like a postcard advertisement. Opening up the photo mode grants the ability for further fine-tuning, allowing aspiring digital photographers to go hog wild. Every inch of the game world looks like the art team spent hours perfecting it for players. Hazy rays from the setting sun cut through the spines of desert cactus like a warm knife through butter. Watching the jungle mist glide over your open-top CJ while you park in the shade of an Aztec temple is as relaxing as any YouTube ASMR video. You can also just do donuts in your super-modified Honda Civic in front of a gas station, with the smoke from your burning tires casting shadows upon itself like this was some sort of tech demo from 2027.

PC players who have access to powerful hardware (aka the folks who managed to snag RTX 3000-series or Radeon RX 6000-series GPUs during COVID) are going to be in for a treat. Take everything I said about the lavish Xbox Series X version of the game and sprinkle even higher fidelity shadows, reflections, and effects, then stir in a high-refresh-rate display. Top-end PCs will be running this at 4K 120Hz using Series X fidelity settings or even higher settings if they opt for dynamic resolution scaling (similar to what the consoles use to maintain smooth framerates). The gorgeous HDR implementation from the console version also makes its way to PC, further cementing Horizon 5’s status as something you need to see firsthand.

Even if you were only able to enjoy this stylized Mexico through a walking simulator, the trip would be worth it. Thankfully, Playground has provided hundreds of the most iconic vehicles from the last eighty or so years and you can use them all in just about any way you’d prefer. Each car is also customizable using the livery editor or garage upgrades. You can also download paint jobs and tunes from the community, including configurations from legacy Forza titles. 

You can race or drive across the hundreds of events designed by Playground Games or just make your own with the included event blueprint editor. You can drive along in any vehicle and map out your own path, using roads (or not) and checkpoints to mark the path. Unlike previous Forza games, static props can now be placed on these custom routes. Even better, these props not only include barriers, flags, and other normal racing accouterments, but also big-ass ramps. I repeat, you will be able to place big-ass ramps within a Forza world, in real time, and then have a pack of your buddies do what you do with ramps.

You also have the option to place items specific to Forza multiplayer game modes, such as pinatas. I suspect the community will have some amazing custom events ready to go within hours of the game launching wide. I opted to just place porta-potties on the end of all my ramps, but, by all means, you do you. As with previous Horizon games, you don’t really even need to like racing to have a good time or progress through the campaign. You earn points for literally anything you can do in a car, from smashing cacti to doing flips off ramps to annoying friends who do like racing. One side-mode tasks players with photographing every car in the game using the photo mode. It’s literally Pokemon Snap with supercars (if Pokemon Snap looked better than Crysis and Pikachu had a naturally-aspirated pushrod V8 inside that fur suit).

The cars can be made to have incredibly simple handling through the use of assists to allow younger children (or people who think the Burnout games have a great driving model) to speed around Mexico with ease. Driving game aficionados can also disable these assists and really enjoy the various quirks and oddities that make the hundreds of unique rides in the game feel special. An updated driving model feels a bit more realistic for sim-minded players. The overall sense of speed seems lower than in Horizon 4, but the driving feel is much more satisfying (even if we didn’t get all the physics upgrades that came with Forza Motorsport 7). One of the reasons I love the arcade-style Forza games is that you still feel like you are piloting a heavy vehicle with rubber tires, as opposed to pivoting a car model on an arbitrary axis.

Everyone can have fun in their own way, together. This is where the Horizon concept excels. You get over a hundred hours of solid content with the promise of community creations - all of it easily accessible to everyone. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much time I spent trying to show people my special Lambo with a Lost Boys paint job (thanks, community paint job sharing!) while I tried to blast Cry Little Sister over the open mic when playing Forza Horizon 4. I cannot wait to find out which stupid car I’ll annoy my friends with next.

Nothing is perfect, though. The Horizon festival aesthetic, with its flashy neon colors, extreme sports drink attitudes, and oppressively upbeat organizers felt dated a decade ago and haven’t grown any more likable over the years. While there are some new types of campaign events and side content, the game is largely identical to the preceding Horizon games. Lots of the car roster have been holdovers dating back to the Xbox 360 era of Forza titles and there is still no simple way to have user music come through the game on PC (via local mp3s or a streaming service like Spotify). 

The new garage screen for your personal car collection is a downgrade from previous games. You now see fewer cars at once and they all look like cartoons rather than the realistic models you see while in-car. There is still no way to group your cars other than tagging them as favorites, meaning that sorting through hundreds of options later in a playthrough will be annoying at best. There still doesn’t seem to be a way to run a custom multiplayer lobby and populate it with user-created blueprints. The PC version still frustratingly plays its intro videos at ear-shattering volumes (right up until the point where the game loads your online profile and corrects the volume). Admittedly, these are all really petty gripes in the grand scheme of things, but petty is all there is to grab at here.

What are you waiting for?

Forza Horizon 5 is big, loud, and bold. If you found little value in the series before now, this new version will do nothing to change your mind. For the rest of us, the best Xbox game of 2021 is here (at least for another month - there’s still an elephant wearing Spartan armor in the room). The concept of the pack-in game is pretty much dead in 2021, but if it weren’t, Microsoft should be tripping over itself to make the Series X Forza Bundle a reality. We live in the era of Game Pass now, so plenty of folks have the ability to visit Mexico at discount rates. I desperately implore you to take the trip. 9/10 AMG Transport Dynamics M12S Warthogs with Paw Patrol paint jobs

This review is based on the PC Windows Store release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. Forza Horizon 5 will launch on November 5, 2021, for Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

Review for
Forza Horizon 5
  • Virtual Mexico is stunning
  • Solid driving mechanics, excellent car roster, and countless events
  • State of the art visuals on both Xbox Series X|S and PC
  • Blueprint editor now includes props
  • Great excuse to buy HDR-capable TV
  • Very few changes from previous Horizon games
  • Player garage UI is a mess
From The Chatty
  • reply
    November 4, 2021 12:01 AM

    Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Forza Horizon 5 review: Buena Onda

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 1:03 AM

        Also, 3 months of game pass for 1 buck.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 3:18 AM

        Not gonna lie, tempted to buy the premium upgrade for game pass, even though I'll barely get to play next week.

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          November 4, 2021 6:11 AM

          I already did. I played Horizon 3 without the pass stuff and ended up buying it for the expansion later on. Then, I did the full blown version for Horizon 4 and didn't regret it a single bit. I'll fork over the money this time. They earned it.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 3:23 AM

        God I wish I liked racing / driving games, this looks great

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 3:29 AM

          I don't really like racing games. I love Forza Horizon.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 3:43 AM

            I'll try it anyway, gamepass and all

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 3:46 AM

            Ditto. The last racing game that I played and enjoyed was Burnout: Paradise.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 6:06 AM


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            November 4, 2021 6:21 AM

            Yes, the coolest thing is, like you know how in racing games there are always beautiful backgrounds and backdrops? They always look so appealing but you're limited to the track.

            In Horizon you can actually go to everything you can see. Every hill or mountain, lake, stream, is all up for grabs. Makes it much more than a basic racer, more of an exploration / adventure. Racing comes and goes between roaming the world.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 6:26 AM

            I don't like racing games in general. Past exceptions were Project Gotham Racing & Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec... holy shit did I love those games. I got pretty close to platinuming GT3A-S... there were a few endurance races I never got around to finishing.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 7:48 AM

            Yea Horizon is a nice mix between arcade and realism.

            • reply
              November 4, 2021 9:05 AM

              I've personally been growing a bit tired of that. I think I would prefer a full on arcade racer like Burnout, or a much more simulation based Forza Horizon, which probably won't ever happen.

              I think the very first Horizon had handling that most resembled base Forza Motorsport, still definitely in the simcade category and was decried by FM purists for that (even though Forza was hardly a hardcore sim). But since then, as open world and offroading / mixed surface driving became the standard in Horizon with full on cross country events and such, the driving model became even more arcadey to make that all work and not be frustrating for anyone picking it up.

              I dunno. It's just not quite as satisfying or enjoyable for me. I wish turning off all the assists in the newer Horizons did more for that. I wish I could choose to make it play more like a sim, even if it cost me a lot of top 3 placements. As it stands, only enabling full damage can have a real impact on handling, but then any route with a jump can fuck you up for good and makes it an annoyance. I don't care as much about accuracy with damage as I do about full time simulation style handling and driving.

              I dunno. Always a love / hate thing with me and the newest Horizon for a multitude of reasons. I can already tell from early clips that the lacking AI traffic and extra wide roads will make simple cruising a bit disappointing again.

              • reply
                November 4, 2021 9:08 AM

                Forza Motorsports is the sim one, so it should deliver that experience, but it won't have the scope and open-ness of Horizon.

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                  November 4, 2021 9:15 AM

                  And that's pretty dry and boring in its own way after all these years. FM existing doesn't mean I can't desire more sim-like handling in Horizon to make it more interesting.

                  I'd like the option to make things more challenging and make the driving model more real, even an option to make things more like the first Forza Horizon would be greatly appreciated at this point. There's plenty of other difficulty options and customization in each game that really don't change much at all. Not saying they have to overhaul the entire game and force it onto everyone!

                  Shit, just an option to make drifting less Mario Kart simple would be enormous.

                  • reply
                    November 4, 2021 9:19 AM

                    Supposedly FH5 has more realistic handling.

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                      November 4, 2021 9:37 AM

                      Hope so!

                      I've only seen some mentions of changes to suspension and ABS (which I disable anyway), both which were said to make things even more accessible and easier to handle when driving off-road and while braking hard at high speeds, but won't know how it all shakes out until feeling it first hand.

                      • reply
                        November 4, 2021 10:57 AM

                        I've heard/read that the cars are also just generally more weighty-feeling and react to steering more like real cars.

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                          November 4, 2021 11:25 AM

                          That's good, weight has been a pretty glaring issue for a while.

                          Plus so many cars wind up feeling close to the same, hopefully all the changes help make each vehicle feel a bit more unique.

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 7:09 AM

          I like racing sims and I don’t like Horizon. You should try it! It’s quite arcady and generally visually impressive. I’m sure you’ll love it as an OLED showcase if nothing else!

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 4:08 AM

        GOTY contender, I’ll play on the 9th

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 5:37 AM

        Wow. Too many games. I haven't even started Pyschonauts 2 yet.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 6:05 AM

        I am so excite for this game! Even better, it comes out on a Friday! I've always hated how most game releases are on Tuesdays.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 6:11 AM

        highest opencritic score of the year! also 10/10 IGN, they also scored Deathloop a 10/10. That's a good game but I don't know about 10/10, maybe 9/10?

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 6:12 AM

        Can't wait. If you are a Gamepass subscriber, you can buy the "ultimate" edition add-on for $45 and play on 11/5.

        Basically gets you all the upcoming DLC and some other bonus things.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 6:18 AM

        Hi yes I'd love to play this, let me buy a XSX please

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 6:19 AM

          It's on PC and Xbox One too!

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 6:20 AM

            And I'd love to build a gaming pc as I currently don't have one, but ya.

            And, I'm not interested in last gen hardware, my PS4 is currently collecting dust.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 6:19 AM

        1000 HP Evo

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 6:33 AM

        Premium Add-Ons bundle link:

        Basically if you have Gamepass you can get the $100 edition for $45. Seems like a no-brainer if you know you're going to play the game for awhile and also want to play early.

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 6:47 AM

          that's only if you keep gamepass though. Buying add-ons for a subscription services is something I'm just not ready for.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 6:50 AM

            If you leave GP you can buy Forza 5 base at a discount, usually they knock 10-20% off. Doesn't concern me too much since GP is super cheap and you get access to so much shit that it's trivial.

            For the cost of two $60 games you can get GP for a year; GPU for less than three. Most of us are buying more than 2-3 games per year.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 6:51 AM

            You can turn around and buy the base game at some point in the future and have the add-ons apply.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 7:03 AM

            Yeah, thought about it, but I'd rather buy it on Steam if I were gonna anything for this one.

            I know from previous FH games that there's already too many cars available for VIP to matter that much. If I want something something specific, I will just pay for those single dlc cars. I know they get some exclusives, but eh. More than enough choice.

            As for expansions, they've always been wait and see. I barely touch them compared to the main game. Blizzard Mountain for FH3 is the only one I managed to complete, but that's mainly because it was the only time I could have some extra challenge and fun with the lack of grip in races by removing snow tires. Mixed surface handling is way too forgiving in Horizon in general.

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 8:24 AM

          Think I’m going to use the MS rewards points I’ve been saving the past few months on this.

          • reply
            November 4, 2021 8:31 AM

            Get game pass for a $1 then use your rewards points for more months then collect more rewards points while you use game pass and by the time the sub is about up you should have enough points to get more free game pass. It seems too good to be true but its not!

            • reply
              November 4, 2021 11:54 AM

              Well, I just have 3 years of cheap XLG gold converted to gamepass, and I use the rewards for other shit, but yeah

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 11:20 AM

          That's exactly what I did earlier this week. Was worth it to be able to play early.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 6:47 AM

        I look forward to getting sideways in my upgraded Focus RS.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 7:47 AM

        IGN review is great. a 10! ... definitely gotta check this out on gamepass.

      • reply
        November 4, 2021 7:49 AM

        122.5GB on PC.. dang!

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 9:07 AM

          101GB on XSX. I presume PC has slightly higher quality assets for those running in Ultra.

        • reply
          November 4, 2021 9:07 AM

          LOL awesome. comcast data usage overage charges strikes a critical hit

    • reply
      November 4, 2021 5:02 AM

      "Paw Patrol paint jobs", you know it.

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