forza horizon 5

Forza Horizon 5: Fun, Beautiful, and Frustratingly Broken

By now you’ve likely seen reviews of Forza Horizon 5 on every automotive website under the sun. New Forza titles are a big deal with it being Microsoft’s flagship racing title which has historically been very successful. Forza Horizon 5 is even more so with a record 10 million players in the first week, a record for any Xbox game. It’s been praised by reviewers and had all sorts of accolades thrown its way.

But in my three weeks of play time, I came to a slightly different conclusion. There is a lot to really like about this game. But there’s also a good bit to dislike, and that mainly comes down to the state in which it launched along with some head-scratching and frustrating design choices. It, like basically every AAA title over the last 5 years or so, has been a shit show since launch. It was clearly not ready for launch yet, but a delay would’ve meant the suits wouldn’t have been able to get their bonuses for the year.

Yet despite all the bugs and the laundry list of known issues the developers have already acknowledged, it still manages to provide at least some level of enjoyment that is worth the praise. I’ll go through what is good, what is bad, and what is absolutely terrible.

Quick refresher: what is Forza Horizon?

After years of making Forza Motorsport titles that focused on circuit racing, Forza Horizon began as an open world racing series for a new take on the franchise. It centers around this festival that you’re helping organize with different forms of motorsport at the forefront. There’s road racing, totally legal street racing, rally racing, cross-country racing, as well as drifting and speed-related challenges all throughout.

The storyline for FH5 sees a couple of rich British kids invade the Mexican countryside and put up 24/7 music festivals in the area. They organize races through farmland that some poor family was depending on for survival, encourage super cars to rip through villages at 200 mph, and place bonus boards on top of houses so that residents will never know peace again. And from the very beginning, your character is a “superstar” even though you’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve that title at that point. Throughout the entire story, the other characters will be sucking up and telling you how good you are all while reminding you that you’re in Mexico, just in case you forgot. And while you’re supposedly helping to set up this great big festival, you’re also the one winning everything. Which kind of feels like a dick move.

The Good

Their rendition of Mexico is jaw-dropping. Coming from the dreary and rainy British countryside of FH4, this new Mexico map is like going outside and seeing the sun after 3 weeks of nonstop rain. I was pumped for this map the second it was announced. It’s beautiful, vibrant, and diverse. It’s also the biggest one yet. You have gorgeous beaches, seemingly endless sand dunes, harsh desert terrain, dense jungles, and big mountain which feels like climbing Pikes Peak. And there are several towns scattered throughout which are also so very well modeled. These scenes only look more breathtaking when the light changes. All in all, this map is easily the best of any open-world racing game I’ve played. You can tell there was a lot of time and love put into this one.

They make playing with cars fun. There are well over 500 cars available at launch. Most of these are carried over from the last game… and the one before that… and the one before that. But chances are the car you’re wanting to play with the most is in there. And there are tons more up for grabs by completing weekly challenges or progressing through the story. And when you get that dream car of yours, you can take advantage of one of the things Forza has always gotten right – the freedom they give you to build what you want. They let you change engines (from a basic LS swap to an exotic race motor), change the drivetrain, or add forced induction to most models. The things they let you do are just insane. Forza has once again provided us a near limitless playground to just have fun and do the sorts of things one could never do in real life, like build a 1,700-hp dune buggy or take delivery of a new Ford Bronco.

Greatly improved car sounds. This took a bit of a step backward in FH4. A lot of cars sounded the same when in reality they definitely didn’t. And others just sounded like someone put the microphone in their mouth and tried making the exhaust noises themselves. Things have improved massively in FH5. Cars generally sound just how you’d expect them to and upgrading parts like the intake and the exhaust will usually change how it sounds as well, and you can sample the sounds as you build. It’s impossible to make every car sound exactly like the real thing, but they absolutely nail it on the important cars like a Corvette, Porsche 911, R34 Skyline, or a V12-powered Ferrari.

The wheelspins aren’t terrible now! The thing that annoyed me and the general player base the most about FH4 is how useless the wheelspins were. These are just what they sound like – get promoted to a new level or do some challenge, and you get to spin a prize wheel. You can win cars, money, or, thanks to the stupid and not in the least bit entertaining character “customization” they added in FH4, clothes and emotes. So imagine grinding a weekly challenge for a super wheelspin (3 spins in 1) and getting an ugly shirt, a hat, and a dab emote – just what you want in a car game. That sort of crap happened in FH4. All. The. Time. They’ve toned that down for FH5 noticeably, so the wheelspins are actually satisfying now and are much more likely to give you good stuff. Sometimes complaining works.

It’s very well optimized on PC. I have an i7-9700K, RTX 3080, 32GB of RAM, and everything installed on an SSD. This game runs extremely smooth. I’m only on 1080p (because triples), but friends with a 1440p super ultrawide report the same. My PC has to work harder to run Train Sim World 2 than it does FH5 and that game is old as shit and nowhere near as pretty. You don’t need a beast of a PC to run this game on higher settings.

It’s just fun. This is a game that doesn’t take itself seriously, like, at all. Coming from racing simulators where I’m constantly under pressure to perform and drive to the limit, this is a great change of pace. That freedom I mentioned in regards to building your cars is only part of it. Cruising in a favorite build in a beautiful open world is relaxing and entertaining. You can express yourself with your car just as you can in real life. Only now you can push your friends off the road and over a bridge while doing so. Even if you’re solo, you can find random players online to interact with. I’ve done improvised touge races with other players up twisty mountain roads. I’ve joined drift trains. I’ve drag raced and lost to a GMC Jimmy that just did wheelies the whole time. It’s a silly open world they’ve created, and it’s absolutely wonderful… when it works.

The Bad

I still maintain that Forza Horizon 5 is a pretty solid game. But like anything it isn’t perfect. A lot of this will come down to personal preference as always.

Character creation is still pretty dumb. Carried over directly from FH4 is a pretty lame avatar that they force you to create at the beginning of the game. I have no issue with character creation in general, but in a racing game I find that to be a little bit unnecessary. However I could be swayed to a different opinion if that character creation was good. This one isn’t. You have about a dozen prebuilt models to choose from. They all look the same as what’s in FH4. You can change their pronouns, their voice (to feminine or masculine – both with British accents), give them prosthetics, and change their overpriced clothing but that’s really it. You can’t even try to make them look like you, so by the end of it you’re left with a character that looks just like everyone else’s and that you can’t relate to in any way. And if you try to create a Latino character because Mexico, he’s gonna sound like Harry Potter which sort of ruins the effect. I’d rather they do more with character customization or get rid of it entirely.

It feels like it was made exclusively for children. It’s not surprising that developers intended to keep an E rating so all age groups could enjoy it. But the story elements in this game feel like they were targeting the youngest age group possible. Everyone calls you a superstar right from the get go (even when you haven’t done anything yet), because I guess developers assume everyone has fragile feewings these days. The story is so shallow that you don’t care about any of the “conflicts” they try to introduce. One of the chapters of the “Born Fast” story literally came down to “this guy is being mean to his friend and that’s not nice – let me win this race and that’ll magically fix everything“. The entire plotline for another series is “Luchadors with rally cars” and it starts with this one Luchador that you need to impress before he lets you in their secret Luchador rallying society and I guess that’s just supposed to make sense, because remember, you’re in Mexico. They don’t need to have complex and thought-provoking stories in a game like this, but it just needs to not be cringey bullshit. There’s a way to make a game E-rated without annoying players over the age of 8, and this isn’t it.

The voice acting is annoying. There is a radio DJ. Who has a voice. So grating. So annoying. So unbelievably infuriating. That I almost couldn’t finish the intro because drinking bleach was more appealing than having his big stupid voice soil my headset. In the audio settings there’s an option to turn off radio DJs and I’m positive that was included just for him. From the moment you launch the game, enable that option and then turn voice volume to zero. You’ll enjoy it a lot more.

A lot of new cars are missing (so far). FH4 came out in 2018 and it continued to add new cars throughout its lifecycle, some for free. But they didn’t get everything that came out during that time and FH5 doesn’t add that much more. Many of the newest cars FH5 can offer were cars added to FH4 as free expansions. I suspect that they’re saving space for future expansions so I can understand why they would hold some things back at launch. But still, no Ram TRX, new Raptor, Mustang Mach 1, Aston Martin Valkyrie, TLX Type S, Mk. 8 Golf GTI or R, Audi RS6 Avant (the new one), or Wrangler 392? I can’t deny that they have a great selection of cars, but the list already feels dated. Helping to prove that point is the fact that the only Infiniti in the game is the 2015 Q60 Concept and not the production car that’s been on sale since 2016. FH5’s car list is massive, diverse, and a little bit stale. I’m fairly confident that future updates will help address this.

It’s hard to stay motivated. I grew up playing Midnight Club, Need for Speed, and Gran Turismo as well as Forza Motorsport titles. In each of those games, you start from the bottom and work your way up. With NFS and Midnight Club especially, you had something to prove. You were told to go beat the guy at the top and that meant climbing the ladder step by step until you’ve gone from a little Peugeot to a monster of a Skyline GTR. In Gran Turismo and the Forza Motorsport games, you started out racing cheap hatchbacks and worked your way to Le Mans over time. In Forza Horizon 5, you start out as a “superstar” that everyone expects to win. Nobody is surprised that you’re winning. The rewards come fast and easy. And there isn’t a minute that goes by where you aren’t reminded that you’re a special superstar. I can see that being more enjoyable for some and I certainly don’t mind it. But I feel that each victory is a hollow one. I still remember beating the main antagonist in Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2005) sixteen years later. No race in FH5 will be as memorable. It was the same story with FH4 and was ultimately why it became so stale for me. I fear FH5 will get to the same point.

The Ugly

When this game launched, it was in a terrible state. The list of known issues was growing by the hour. Crashes and lockups were common and the online portion barely worked at all. In the few weeks since launch, much of the instability has been resolved but not after some money-making exploits were patched first. Of course. But this game is still not in what I’d consider a good state.

[Update – 12/5: the developers released a patch just as I was finishing this piece which aims to address the complaints in this next paragraph regarding online functionality. Most if not all connectivity issues are fixed now. But I’m still mentioning it because of just how big of a problem it was.]

The online has been barely functional for three weeks. A massive part of the enjoyment this game can bring involves online play with friends or even random superstars. You can join convoys and compete in races together or just cruise. But that straight up hasn’t worked. Initially only half my group at most would even make it into a race. And for anyone who did, there was a chance that one of us would be stuck at the starting line unable to move, creating an obstacle for everyone else to avoid… everyone except the drivatars. Meanwhile back in free roam, notifications that you’ve been disconnected are constant, even when you’re staring at other players that very instant. Even worse, other players (convoy or not) would constantly disappear and reappear after some time. No better way to experience the wonders of an online open world by not being able to see other superstars at random.

And those weekly festival playlist challenges I praised earlier? Well, they’re great when they work. On a handful of occasions, I’ve had to do things multiple times for it to count. These are pretty straightforward too, like “do this race with this car”. I had to do one challenge four times before it counted. The most recent one that gave me trouble was “take a picture of a 2019 Porsche 911 Carrera S”. I took a picture of mine. And nothing happened. Didn’t count. What eventually worked was going into a race and taking a picture of someone else’s 2019 Porsche 911 Carrera S, because I guess the one this superstar was driving wasn’t good enough. It’s the most basic shit and yet it doesn’t work reliably. The Forza subreddit and forums are filled with similar complaints from other superstars.

I’d say these issues are expected for a game as large and ambitious as this one, but when you get right down to it, Forza Horizon 5 isn’t anything new. It feels like the exact same game as FH4 was but with a better map, characters that are easier to hate, and some new added content. The game modes are all the same. The online features are all the same. Even the user interface is identical. But FH4 didn’t have any of these problems as of a year ago. They’re copying and pasting from what has been a perfectly stable game for at least a few years. Why couldn’t they have copied all the parts that actually worked correctly? That’s why these issues are particularly frustrating. There’s just no reason that a game can be so similar to its predecessor and still be largely broken. Xbox Game Studios/Turn 10/Playground Games should have given the developers more time. Instead, the project that hundreds of employees devoted years of their life to gets released in a shitty state that tarnishes their reputation.

And that’s why as of right now, I’m torn on whether this game is really that good. It does a lot of things very well, but has too many other problems to even consider a mostly positive review. The saving grace is the developers are committed to fixing the bugs and stability issues and have already made great progress. My day one experience was absolutely terrible. The experience today is much better than it was, but still largely disappointing. Knowing first-hand how stable FH4 was, I have no doubt that FH5 will get there too. I just don’t know how long that will take.

I give Forza Horizon 5 a 2.8 superstars out of 5 superstars.

[Update – 12/5: online is pretty much fixed now. My score has been updated to a 3.6 superstars.]

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4 responses to “Forza Horizon 5: Fun, Beautiful, and Frustratingly Broken”

  1. nanoop Avatar

    For some reason I associated the title image with Fallout 2, where you could fix and use a nuclear powered car to explore the wastelands.
    Disclaimer: I own an XBox360, and am happy with Forza 4 (no horizon, but I played the demo once upon the time when there were active servers for that console)

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      WHEEEEEE. Nice!

  2. Alexander Moore Avatar

    My personal biggest complaint, besides the bugs of course, is the lack of representation for Mexican market cars or car culture. It feels like they took the North American setting to be an excuse to add in a bunch of American muscle and pickups without focusing on the cars that made (and were made in) Mexico (the Chevy Chevy (Corsa B), the Nissan Tsuru, heck, the 3rd-gen Ramcharger for an indigenous truck) or vehicles that are regionally very popular (VW Jettas, Seat Ibizas, Ram’s smaller trucks). This was a complaint in FH3 about Australia, too, but at least they got several generations of Falcon and Commodore. This game gets the Renault 4L Mexico, a German Vocho, and a Mexican track-car, and that’s about it. Seems like half-baked immersion given the gorgeousness of the game map.

    Also, why are there not cars parked everywhere as scenery? The empty streets mean that one of my favorite foreign pastimes, local carspotting, is completely worthless. Playing modded Euro Truck Sim 2 as a kid probably set me up for disappointment, though, since no game could possibly license the 500+ real-world models that mod authors are able to pack into SCS’s great-looking (if physically limiting compared to FH) road network.

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