(Pocket-lint) - When it comes to arcade racers, there are few as accomplished as the Forza Horizon series. Each iteration has grown in both size and quality, with Forza Horizon 4, in particular, having overtaken its stablemate, Forza Motorsport, at the top of our favourite racing games list.
Now we have a fifth outing - Forza Horizon 5 - which is the first made firmly with the Xbox Series X/S in mind, and boy does it expand upon everything that has come before in a wildly successful way. So strap in, you're in for a wild ride...
Basking in the sun
After speeding across a rain-soaked Britain last time around, the Horizon Festival has relocated to Mexico - something of a seachange in climate and surroundings. You get to cascade through jungles, across sand dunes in the desert, traverse beaches, and zip along dirt tracks outside small villages. There are street races too, in larger cities, but the best of the action takes place far from populated areas.
Mexico is often gorgeous and sun-baked, but also prone to changeable weather due to a new dynamic conditions system. Rain, thunder and lightning are possibilities, but so too are sandstorms. And, as the region also features an active volcano, earth tremors are not unheard of either.
The new open-world location is also massive - easily the biggest map in a Horizon game to date. There are 11 different "biomes", each with unique characteristics and track types, plus such a weight of races and unlockable events that it could make your head hurt if you try to do the numbers.
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Forza Horizon 5 isn't a million miles away from the last game, with a world map that looks roughly similar bar its size, but there seems so much more to do and explore. It's highly impressive to say the least.
Horizon 5's campaign is bigger too. As with the game's predecessor, you create an avatar and bedeck him, her or they with outfits and accessories of your choosing. There's a lot of similarity in the use of emotes and the way you dance beside your car after a race, but we feel there's a more immersive story this time around - beyond just careening between races for the sake of it.
Expeditions are new, for example, presenting challenges and optional goals that are more role-player-like than in most racing titles. Your avatar will complement the cast of characters you meet and hear over the radio. They will also now refer to you by name, as chosen at the start of the game from multiple options. It all enhances the feeling that you are doing far more than heading from A to B and earning cash with which to buy new cars.
Still, there's plenty of that too. Car collecting has always been the point of Forza games - and that's very much the same again here. You get a Panini sticker album-style catalogue to fill with the hundreds of cars that are and will be made available over time, and even that rewards you with additional vehicles when you snag enough of a certain manufacturer's models.
Yes, that also includes paid-for content, but from what we've played to date, you can earn so many in-game rewards that we're not sure why you'd even bother with DLC packs. Your avatar can level up, winning you wheelspins to use to get random cars, outfits or game credits to then buy your own. You can also earn accolade points during expeditions and the like that will eventually result in Horizon Adventures unlocks and the establishment of an additional outpost in a new biome. That too will open up more possibilities to collect: you guessed it, more cars.
As if that's not enough, barn finds are back (yep, more cars) and there are multiple other challenges and events - some of which are user-generated using the new EventLab tools - to earn even more XP and rewards. Oh, and we almost forgot, seasons are back - so events can swap around every so often as the game enters a new season (it started in summer for us). Phew.
There is a staggering amount of content that can actually be rather overwhelming at first. However, as soon as you get behind the wheel, none of that really matters.
I like driving in my car
Driving in Forza Horizon 5 is blissful. There's not a huge difference in play to previous games in the series, especially the last one, but we'd have it no other way.
No matter which car of the 500 plus cars you are in, handling feels responsive and tangible. Naturally, there are many different vehicle types that act in different ways - drift cars are hellish to keep straight, for example, but are perfect for slipping around corners - yet every single one of those we've tried are a joy to control.
The environments help with the fun factor too. Racing through a river-laden jungle track is just as satisfying as leaping from the side of a volcano. And, as is usual for the series, you can tune and tweak each of your vehicles to your own liking.
Difficulty levels can be altered too, with higher difficulties and fewer driving aids ramping up your XP bonuses - you get to change them before each race.
Drivatars return, with the artificial intelligence (AI) drivers aping the styles of your friends, and most races can be scaled to whatever car class you want to use. That way you can give some of the more obscure or lesser driven vehicles in your collection a spin - it's not just a game for supercars, why not barrel around a Mexican hillside in a 1986 Ford Escort too?
There's also multiplayer, of course, with Horizon Open online races. Forza Link, meanwhile, can also attract other drivers in the game with set phrases mapped to the D-pad. Timed Horizon Arcade segments offer crazy stunt-based objectives for everyone to take part in. Conveys and clubs return too. It really is quite mindboggling how much the game's developer, Playground, has crammed in.
Much of it is on repeat, but we feel the menu presentation is better in Horizon 5 than games before - it's less cluttered and easier to find the game, race or mode you want.
It's a beauty
The presentation doesn't stop there. Forza Horizon 5 is quite simply the best-looking racing game of all time. It is stunning.
We played on Xbox Series X and S so can't give you an indication of how it looks on the older Xbox One, but both of the next-gen consoles serve up a visual feast.
The amount of realism and detail Playground has put into every biome is extraordinary. It whips past you at a decent lick, but you can still appreciate its magnificence. We also found ourselves just stopping when in free-roam to take in the view.
Ray-tracing is reserved for Forzavista mode solely, on both Series X and S, but the reflections and lighting in the main game are amazing anyway. The Xbox Series X presents the game in full-fat 4K (2160p) whether you choose to play in Quality or Performance modes (the main difference between these is frame rate - Quality is locked to 30fps, Performance 60fps).
Unlike other games though, the latter is achieved by dynamically dropping some of the graphics settings rather than resolution, so you still get a 4K experience, but with fewer terrain elements, shorter draw distances, that sort of thing. Some will prefer the expanded frame rate and see that as a necessary trade-off, but we have to say that the 30fps quality mode still plays very well indeed and you get the maximum visual effect, to boot.
Amazingly, both options are available on the Series S too - just the resolution dips to 1080p for each. Playground informs us that it plans to raise the resolution of the Quality mode on Series S to 1440p after launch, but we are yet to see that in the flesh.
Another benefit of the next-gen machines is that loading times are mercifully short. The previous game could take an age to load. Perhaps the only real downside we could find is that the file size is a whopping 103GB on Xbox Series X/S and PC. It's even bigger on Xbox One - 115GB. That could be painful for those with smaller storage and/or slow broadband speeds. Maybe that's just par for the course for triple-A games these days, though. You certainly get a lot of bang for your buck here.
On the face of it Forza Horizon 5 is not particularly original and, when in the driving seat, it feels very familiar. However, where it might lack in generational extras, it more than makes up in the quantity of content.
There is just so much to do, see and play in the new chapter that you'll be glued to it for months. In addition, its new Mexican setting is simply stunning, both graphically and in variety.
Even better still, those with Xbox Game Pass will get the game on day one at no extra cost. If you're not a member already, this is a compelling reason to jump on board.
It's taken Xbox a while to find suitable exclusives to elevate its next-gen machines to another level, especially the Xbox Series X. But, in Forza Horizon 5, it's not only finally turned up to the party, it's brought an amazing gift.