Forza Horizon 5 (2021)

Paratrooping a car out of a cargo plane and landing on an active volcano and racing down it is a great opener for a game all about crazy and exciting racing. The Forza series has been split in twain for quite a long time now, and with each new entry the Horizon series continually shows how stuffy and uptight the other half of the franchise is. While the Motorsport series focuses on the elite craftsmanship of car makers and the prestige that comes along with a car worth more than an entire neighborhood of houses, the Horizon festival is all about celebrating skill and having fun pushing cars to their limits.

I wasn’t the biggest fan when the Forza series showed up near the end of the original Xbox’s lifespan, as I saw it as just a cheap knock-off of Gran Turismo that Microsoft was fronting the bill for. I’ve never been a fan of the more serious and simulation style of those types of racing games. I’ve always gravitated towards racing games that put the focus more on the fun and enjoyment of the player than the true to life realism of cars. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed the more arcade games like San Francisco Rush or Burnout. And while there are newer styles of those games like the Need For Speed series, the Forza Horizon games have bridge the perfect gap between both simulation and arcade.

While I never actually played Horizon 1 or 2; I have played the other 3 games in the series, and the fifth game has kept inline with the overall story and continues a narration of your character being the best of the best of the best. Even bringing up past events and specific races from the previous games are all part of making the game feel connected and like everything matters in a way that most racing games never have done before.

The story is still fairly ambiguous and not as fully developed as I would have liked. Even though there are several different characters that you pal around with and go on adventures and compete in events with, it all seemed fairly basic and as though the writing was completed in a single week. Most of the characters spouted very hipster sounding lines that you’d only read from twitter and not actually hear come out of someone’s mouth. For all the very millennial type of writing and character development that Horizon seems to love displaying, the characters do feel genuine most of the time. While I was expecting to have my eyes continually roll out of my sockets at all the hype dialogue and trendy slang terms thrown around constantly, I didn’t find it as annoying as it could have been.

The radio plays a very large role in the game, something that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise and is moderately uncommon for racing games. Music is a huge chunk of the marketing for them, but having DJs constantly sprout up in the middle of a playlist and tell the player what is happening in the game is pertinent to keeping the pace of the game always running to the next objective.I thoroughly enjoyed hearing a disc jockey come on and talk about my latest achievement, or a race that happened a half hour ago. Along with letting me know when and where the new big event was taking place, they also have some great thoughts on the festivities and are generally interesting to listen to. When a skill song starts playing, I drop everything else I’m doing and try to find the best location in the vicinity to rack up some serious points.

The cars are the big focal point, and where all your money goes to. There are dozens of manufactures like Ford and Ferrari, and some lesser known ones as well. Some cars only are able to be won in Online events, and some are only given out as prizes for completing certain criteria. One that I was looking forward to the most, the Delorean, was only a part of a seasonal event, and only available at select times. Luckily there is an online auction store, where you can spend your ingame currency to bid on or even outright buy cars that others have put up for auction.

Drivatars return yet again as a staple to the series, letting other people’s racing data through previous games show up in your game and take over as the AI in races. Most of the time I rarely noticed, but every once in a while I did have an occasional NPC try to run me off the road, and it made those races feel like battles that needed to be won.

Horizon is full of different types of racing as well, to keep everything feeling fresh. Some races are normal “Complete three laps” types, while others can be “Race from point A to point B”, and every once in a while there would be a new outpost that would further unlock newer race types. Stunt events were probably my favorite as they could be completed in the normal open world without having to dive into a menu/race event. Speed Traps and drifting sections were sadly locked behind one of these Outpost unlocks that I couldn’t find until literally the last half hour of my playtime, and after I completed the game. There were only around 4 throughout the map, and I found it odd. Then once I unlocked the Outpost, it unlocked everything else on the map.

While I did enjoy racing, I found a huge part of my playtime was devoted to just random exploring the map, and learning that I could drive through every single road and basically draw it on the map as I drove on it. There are 578 roads, and several nights I would spend a decent amount of time just driving back and forth along the map to unlock all the roads. Bonus boards are scattered around the map as well, which just need to be ran over to unlock. A bunch are right next to roads, where you can’t miss them and if you just planned a bit ahead, you could grab them during races. But some were very well hidden and require lots of pre-planning and going off the beaten path to uncover as well.

Each task accumulates points that progress your overall driver level. Each level can give you a wheelspin that has several different prizes on it, and whatever the wheel lands on, you get. In the beginning of the game I got a few cars out of it. But I quickly started getting the worst spins in the history of the game. Things like socks or shoes or dresses for my character (I was a guy) and money, but barely any money to even buy some of the worst cars in the game. Out of over 150 wheel spins, I unlocked around 15 cars. Every other spin I received horrible prizes that were utterly useless. I don’t have any desire to change my car horn to the Banjo Kazooie theme.

The showcase races are the real big ticket. It’s the races that feel so action packed and bombastic that they belong in a Hollywood movie. And while these races certainly look rad, they also feel very fake as well. They are programmed with such precise timings for certain events, like when you hit a jump, the cargo plane flies over head, or when you splash down through a river, two dirt bikes jump and do flips over your car. It’s all just very scripted and sequenced in a way that when you notice it, it feels like a very empty moment.

That’s the way it’s gone for the last several games too. Each game brings the Horizon festival to a new location, and your character shows up everyone else, and everyone praises you the entire time and nothing goes wrong. It’s a party atmosphere that never has anything bad happen and no issues every take place. It’s all like a dream, that again, just has that empty feeling behind each amazing thing you do, like none of it really matters in the game’s universe. It’s become formulaic and a bit uninteresting each time the series has a new entry.

It’s time for this series, like so many others in this generation of consoles, to close the formula up and come up with something new. The same old thing just can’t cut it anymore. I had a lot of time to think of what could possibly be done with this franchise in the 32 hours as I combed the Mexican desert and jungle. So here is my idea of what Foza Horizon 6 could be:

Since your character (Let’s call him Superstar, since most call you that throughout the game) is in the hall of fame and is the best driver in the land, and the Horizon festival keeps moving locations to a new setting each game, the next game should feature SuperStar as a more managerial role. Setting up the Festival in several different cities/countries at the same time. Scale down the actual gameplay, but the story expands. SuperStar now has to scout out the festival locations and create events for each location. The game already allows you to create your own event, so breaking that out into a full fledged game mechanic could give endless possibilities. Overseeing the several locations and traveling by blimp or fighter jet could make for a new type of racing that could be really interesting.

Also making the story aspect feel deeper with more well crafted characters, and even feature a storyline where SuperStar uncovers racers that are cheating, but decides to settle the score out on the track instead of banishing them. Some sort of story where there are consequences to other’s actions would really help the formula fatigue and get Horizon out of the rut it’s in.

The online aspect of the game features the open world where other’s show up and drive around and do events in the same world you are in. When I first started the game, I went from the airfield and was headed to my first mission in a small town a couple miles away. While I was on my way, a group of cars were in the middle of a race and I was in their way, headed right for them. I quickly started to swerve off the road, but the cars turned transparent and passed right through me. The always connected world makes the game feel alive and I even had an impromptu drag race in my suped up and heavily modified Delorean vs a random stranger’s Lamborghini. He won…. But not by much.

While the Mexico setting was not my favorite, as a large chunk of the map is desert that feels lifted right out of Red Dead Redemption, it still offered nicer scenery than Horizon 4’s England. The game still features Seasons, and while they are less pronounced they still don’t change everything, no matter how much of the marketing wants you to believe it does. Several story events having me race through a sand storm or a hazy race along a beach were pretty cool. I liked several of the more jungle sections, and found a Jurassic Park custom race through a tropical storm having to break boxes and drive by red flares was interesting, especially when I reached the end and almost ran into a T-Rex.

Although there are several issues with the game that I personally have, and find the showcase races far too scripted and fake, along with the very boring same “Car and Music festival in a new country”, I still love the game series and find it to be some of the best. I hope Microsoft allows Playground Games to change it up a bit with the next game as I need something new. I’d love to see a return to the Project Gotham series, or even Ralisport Challenge.