Forza Horizon 5 preview: An arcade racer leans sim, with solid results

La Gran Caldera, ForzaHorizon 5’s stratovolcano, takes both the player and the game’s decadelong promise — if you can see it, you can drive to it — to new heights. And it’s not just the postcard views from the summit; the journey up either side gives a good taste of what Playground Games’ latest festival has under the hood.

You can ascend La Gran Caldera from the west by following a dirt road with wide, slippery turns. From the east you will find a paved route that has tighter switchbacks. It’s about 15 minutes, round trip — up one side and down the other — from the central hub world. The transition was smooth all the way.

It was rolling farmland to woodsy mountainside. There was overcast sky to beautiful sunlight, and green grass at base. The summit had sulfurous yellow soil. It was a bit like being an official at a football match. Forza Horizon 5’s best features, for me, were the ones I noticed the least. I didn’t remark on how cohesive this game’s expansive and diverse world really was until I was jotting down notes after my time in a hands-on preview last week.

“One of the bigger things is, because we have a much bigger world, is the longer draw distance,” Don Arceta, the game’s art director, observed in a call with previewers last week. “Seeing a lot of our details way off into the distance, farther into the distance than you ever could see before, we’ve [had to] improve a lot of our rendering across the board, our shadows, our lighting.”

A Ford truck with large wheels rolls through hills above a beach in Forza Horizon 5

Image: Playground Games/Xbox Game Studios

This is the truth Forza Horizon 5 will load from the Xbox Series X’s solid-state drive also gave the developers a lot more freedom, creative director Mike Brown said. The game’s traditional race-to-the-festival opening now comprises four vehicles sampling four different courses, and the set-piece that immediately follows it starts at race central, zips through farmlands, then a hillside village, up and down the mountain it’s on, and terminates in a jungle. You can’t lose either race, which means that both come off as statements of intent from the Playground staff.

(Players on Xbox One, of course, won’t see as much fidelity in the visuals, and will face more loading times in situations where one would expect to see them, Brown said.)

However Forza Horizon 5 didn’t strike me as just a collection of showy images and technical conveniences, either. You can feel the smooth transition of vehicle handling from other simulation-quality racing game. I recommend the game’s simulation steering option (as opposed to the standard, light assist, or heavy assist settings), with traction control on and stability control turned off, even for more casual drivers.

For one thing, it’s the only way to feel the active aerodynamics of the Mercedes-AMG One in the big set-piece that begins the festival. Simple drifts can be more difficult to begin and maintain than normal arcade steering. Because it focuses on small and quick stick movements, little errors can quickly spiral into overcorrections. Simulation steering in Forza Horizon 5 delivered faster times against tougher AI for me in the half-dozen events I entered, and was a must for the improvised rallying I did, both up the volcano and through the map’s muggy wetlands.

As I climbed up the volcano’s slopes, Playground Games was committed to their see-it/drive–to-it principles. Both ascents meet in a knot of side roads inside the bowl of the volcano, but you can still charge straight up the rest of a nearly vertical rim — a little too easily, perhaps, in a concession to the casual curiosity of a big audience. But hey, it’s there, and you can climb it. You can also take a western dirt road down to the top for a 180-degree drifting switchback. It’s a great blind launch into big sky and safe landing.

A Corvette Stingray (white) races down a shaded street in an historic Mexican city

Image: Playground Games/Xbox Game Studios

“Without going full arcade and making it feel unrealistic, we have a few little tweaks to the handling, which makes them handle, maybe not exactly as they would in real life, but they kind of shave off the edges in a way that respond in a way a gamer would rather they respond,” Brown said. Forza Horizon 5 is again supplemented with a complex tuning system for drivers who know what they’re doing and want to bend a car’s cornering or shock absorbers more to their tendencies.

“The other things that we’ve done in this title, which are almost a little counterintuitive, is that we’ve made some huge investments into the physical performance of our suspension and braking,” Brown said. “In both cases, we’ve strived to make them behave more authentically. So the brakes now, rather than being kind of on/off, there’s a much more gradual grip of the discs on the brake. So you can really adjust as you’re squeezing that trigger. It’s a much more gradual application of braking.”

With the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller, on standard settings, I was able to feel the difference in braking and steering. I also can confirm that the simulation setting is the most effective way to get this feature. My experience shows that binary on/offbraking Brown described in previous Horizons causes a lot more feathering, flick steering, and other small, sharp movements typical to arcade racing. As a result, the car is hyperresponsive. Forza Horizon 5’s more lifelike steering, braking, and suspension let me keep my hands on the wheel and stay more involved in a turn, especially the hairpins and square rights that demand extra technique at speed.

“If there was a dial that was going between sim and arcade, we’ve actually pushed it more toward sim,” Brown said, “but we’ve actually made it more accessible and easier to drive as a result.”

There is still plenty of competition in driving. Forza Horizon 5 — Rally, road race, dirt track, etc. Again, the challenging AI spikes quite noticeably from above-average to below average. This means that there is a lot more overtaking with higher difficulty, and this inevitably leads to contact. It was very different from the idea of car-culture festivals, in which people gather to give their cars attention and not dump them. There’s always a generous rewind buffer to undo mistakes in single-player racing. If you’re a clean-racing neurotic like me, just turn damage off altogether.

the futuristic interior of the Mercedes-AMG One, with a rectangular steering wheel and a tablet-shaped dashboard, in Forza Horizon 5

The Mercedes AMG One hypercar interior. You’ll need to turn simulation steering on if you’re going to feel the difference in handling that this car offers.
Image: Playground Games/Xbox Game Studios

All of these elements are wrapped up in a welcoming display of Mexico culturally and geographically. Playground Games’ world designers have done a strong job in delivering interpreted, fictionalized locations that still have their own sense of place. This game is a hit with the first generation of gamers. Forza Horizon (I am one) will really feel called home by this landscape, a close sibling of that game’s Colorado, but much better looking. Seasonal weather (introduced in 2018’s Forza Horizon 4The weather () may change every week, but it is possible for precipitation to occur anywhere. Weather can also happen at any time, so the landscape complement rather than a way of distinguishing one place from another.

As I climbed up La Gran Caldera’s side, tiny dust jets blew off my hood, letting me know that this was a system about to unleash a dust storm. The bright sun had melted snow, leaving behind a yellowish-colored dirt underneath. The rain was very light, just a couple of flecks in a stormburst. After that, it returned to sunny skies. Like the vehicles’ braking, the weather in Forza Horizon 5 Also, it is more subtle and gradual that on-or off.

Forza Horizon 5It will be available for Windows PC, Xbox Series X and Xbox One on Nov. 9. The Xbox Game Pass subscriptions for PC and console subscribers will also get the new version of it on that day.

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