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Forza Horizon 5 review: the best modern open world driving game

Any game that dubs a smacked cactus a ‘smactus’ is a winner, right?

You could argue Playground Games have just made essentially the same game at least three times in a row with Forza Horizon now, but while every previous edition had a few things you could point at to show how it was imperfect, you can’t do that here. Forza Horizon 5 is as close to flawless as any racer has ever come. For this level of quality to successfully cover such a massive and ambitious game world is a monumental achievement and should be celebrated with some kind of festival. A festival of driv… OK, yes, you should celebrate by playing it. That’ll do just fine.

It’s an open world racer of humongous scale, dressed up in beautiful, destructible environments that are nothing like the dioramas of old. Foliage flattens under your car, seasons change, and water splashes look the best they’ve ever looked in any racing game.

The festival format at this point feels like a beloved real-life event like Glastonbury or Burning Man. The marquees, grandstands and confetti guns have now rolled into Mexico and brought with them a delicious, licensed soundtrack to pump through your TV speakers. “Let’s have some Foo Fighters!” Says the DJ. “Yes, let’s!” you’ll say, reaching for the volume up button.

Sadly there’s not much new it can do to impress, since the series has already been at volume 11 for quite some time when it comes to its set pieces. The start of the game showcases the exquisite graphics engine, but we’ve already raced planes and motorbikes before. In all honesty, returning fans arguably want more of the same anyway, while newcomers to the series will love the frequent, joyous spectacle. Everyone’s a winner when the quality bar is this consistently high.

Cars race down a track in Forza Horizon 5

So what is genuinely new? Well, there are massive dust storms you can drive into, and an active volcano to explore. Customisation options are deeper for cars and avatars, extending to enhanced bodykits for vehicles and even prosthetic limbs for your driver. The game also refers to you by name based on your account data (as long as it’s on the list), without you having to type it in, immediately boosting your emotional connection to the game.

There are also new community event creation tools in ‘EventLab’, allowing you to place hazards and create your own rules for custom events - very much like Dirt 5’s Playground Mode. These turn up on the map in returning ‘Super7’ events, where a series of seven community-created events must be cleared in order to win a super spin on the gambling-lite prize wheel. You can vote to like or dislike any such challenge, affecting its likelihood of appearing in other Super 7 games.

A car escapes a large dust cloud in Forza Horizon 5

But you’ll appreciate the challenge offered by these events. Why? Because the main game is extremely laid-back. Sure, you can turn up the Drivatar (AI Driver) difficulty, but the game is a little too easy to play. Not to win, depending on the difficulty setting, but just to drive, thanks to great controls and excellent accessibility options – and the rewind button makes it all meaningless if you fall for its seductive charms. While such universal playability is great for more casual racers, serious racing game fans may lament the miles of shallow turns. It was a criticism that was levelled at Forza Horizon 3, but had been a little improved for Forza Horizon 4, so it’s a shame to see this one going a little more Need For Speed again.

However, the game always encourages you to relax, calling you ‘friend’ - and even though there are hundreds of events to unlock and beat, festival hubs in various racing disciplines to unlock, as well as the obligatory XP signs to find and smash through… oh and barn finds to unlock (you can even put your own cars in there to gift to other players now too, which is cute), the game never feels like it’s forcing you to do anything. You can just drive off into the jungle to see what you can find, spend hours setting up the perfect photo, or head online to race others. The game welcomes going at your own pace.

The map screen in Forza Horizon 5

At launch, the online element is a little flaky. Disconnect messages are quite common - reportedly caused by known bugs which bodes well - and being dumped out of a race while you’re doing well is annoying. But the game works online or off, so a little time spent in solo isn’t an imposition.

Then there’s the AI. In such a game of so many variables, balancing every race perfectly isn’t feasible, and the old Forza issue of one enemy car zooming off ahead is still occasionally apparent, but now only on higher difficulty levels. It matters less anyway, as this isn’t really a game you play for a hardcore challenge – it’s one to chill out in, so if you’re looking for the race of your life, look elsewhere. This is for fun.

An interior view of a car in Forza Horizon 5

The only other area of slight consternation is the depth of the damage model, which is tame by real life standards, but arguably about as good as most licensed games have managed these days, so it’s hard to criticise that when the devs’ hands are undoubtedly tied. With such beautiful cars from world-renowned marques including Porsche, Toyota and Ferrari, you’ll want to turn the damage off anyway.

While Burnout Paradise Remastered still offers more involved gameplay on a second-to-second basis while still offering a similarly gleeful atmosphere there isn’t another open world racing game so exquisitely polished as this. If you’ve played a Forza Horizon game before then you might feel a slight sense of deja vu, but you won’t care as the formula has been perfected at last. The best sound and visuals, the most variety of gameplay, the best editors, superb car handling… it’s sheer class. And so, so big. Yes, it really is the best modern open world driving game, so get it.

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