Forza Horizon 5 review: The unchallenged champion of open-world racers

It may set the bar in open-world racing games for years to come.

Forza Horizon 5 Screenshot
(Image: © Windows Central)

In 2018, Forza Horizon 4 quickly ascended to the heights of the racing genre as the premier option for open-world fans. After millions of sales and a neverending stream of fresh content and updates, it's finally time for FH4 to step down and pave the way for its successor. Now, Forza Horizon 5 is officially here, and it has accomplished the impossible by delivering on its absurd levels of hype. FH5 is a racing masterpiece three years in the making, and solidifies the Forza Horizon franchise and Playground Games as the unchallenged champions of open-world racing.

For the first time, Forza Horizon 5 takes the long-running open-world racing series to Mexico, and it's a sight to behold. FH5 features huge upgrades to graphics over its already-impressive predecessor, a more accomodating campaign with branching paths and a solid narrative, the Forza car list at launch yet, and countless quality-of-life improvements to bring it all together. Forza Horizon 5 was only in development for one additional year over previous entries in the franchise, but enjoys such a massive leap in quality that it feels like it must've taken much longer.

I went into my Forza Horizon 5 preview concerned that the upcoming title couldn't live up to my lofty expectations, but left even more excited than before. Now, after an extended amount of time with the full game and hours of playtime under my belt, I can comfortably claim that Forza Horizon 5 is one of the best games of 2021, and another colossal victory for the growing Xbox Game Studios family.

Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Xbox Game Studios. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.

Forza Horizon 5: Visuals and sound

Forza Horizon 5 Screenshot

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Forza Horizon games have always been known for their class-leading visuals, with aging titles like Forza Horizon 3 still able to impress in 2021. This attention to graphics means it only makes sense to start there when reviewing Forza Horizon 5. From the moment you literally hop in (jumping out of a cargo plane, actually), you're blown away by impeccable texture quality across everything in sight; roads, terrain and rocks, foliage and trees, buildings and cars, all of it achieves a new level of greatness for the franchise.

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CategoryForza Horizon 5
TitleForza Horizon 5
DeveloperPlayground Games
PublisherXbox Game Studios
GenreOpen-world racing
Xbox VersionXbox Series X
Game Size103GB
Play Time25+ hours
PlayersSingle & multiplayer
Xbox Game PassYes
Launch dateNov. 9, 2021 (Early access Nov. 5)
Launch Price$60+

The initial drive in Forza Horizon 5 does an excellent job capturing how great the game looks, tasking players with driving four distinct vehicles through a variety of environments (including a full-blown dust storm!) on their way to Horizon Mexico, the first Festival site that players can access.

Forza Horizon 4 was objectively a great-looking game, but Forza Horizon 5 tops its predecessor with major upgrades across the board, especially when it comes to lighting. The new lighting engine excels in every situation here. Reflections and shadows look fantastic, even without the use of ray tracing in general gameplay. New effects like sunlight filtering through the heavy humid fog of the dense jungle, and the bright flash of your headlights piercing through the newly improved particle smoke effects add much-appreciated bits of detail. Best of all, it plays well with the game's sky.

Forza Horizon 5 Screenshot

Like Forza Horizon 4, Playground recorded the real sky on location for hundreds of hours and handpicked the best bits, stitching everything together to achieve the majesty of the game's sky. This means it naturally evolves over time, with rolling cloud coverage that changes depending on where you are. The new tropical storms and dynamic weather events look beautiful and even a little intimidating, with a real sense of depth and scale that many games lack. The sky isn't a quality many people talk about in video games, but nothing escaped Playground's commitment to visual perfection.

Forza Horizon 5 sets an exciting precedent for what's to come from video game graphics

Forza Horizon 5 is vibrant and colorful, detailed and nuanced, and feels whole in its world and presentation. Everything has a place, and everything is in its place. Even the way the world is sculpted feels much more like a real place than a computer-generated world. Biomes blend together seamlessly; the terrain features huge variances in elevation; and the world is filled with vegetation and foliage, animals, buildings, and so much more.

I had already taken a road trip through Mexico in FH5 ahead of launch, but exploring the Forza Horizon 5 map more completely gave me even greater appreciation for what Playground has accomplished. Forza Horizon 5 is the best-looking game I've ever played. It sets a very exciting precedent for what's to come from video game graphics.

Source: Windows Central

While Forza Horizon 4 had excellent visuals, the community generally criticized it for its comparatively lackluster audio design. The soundtrack was great, but car audio and ambient sounds left a lot to be desired. Luckily, the audio is unbelievably improved in the sequel. The studio reportedly recorded brand-new audio for over 320 vehicles, implemented the granular synthesis technology across the board to efficiently use the new recordings, and created a modular audio system that intelligently recognizes cars, engine types, and upgrades.

This results in visceral car audio that sounds crisp and varied across Forza Horizon 5's hundreds of cars and upgrades. Audio is always played at 90 FPS versus the game's default 60 FPS for greater reactive sounds, and it shows. Playground is clearly proud of its new audio improvements, as the studio included a new feature that lets you preview your car's engine noise as you upgrade various parts of the engine. Xbox Series X|S also takes advantage of a brand-new audio compression technique to unlock higher quality audio.

Audio feels alive in Forza Horizon 5, with sounds dynamically reacting to the environment

Advancements to audio are seen in other places, as well. Forza Horizon 5 may not use ray tracing in 100% of its visuals, but it does feature ray-traced audio, which means the sounds of your car's engine roaring as you tear through the canyon echoes off the cliff walls and reverberates back to you. At one point, I drove into a local amphitheater to find a Bonus Board, and immediately the powerful growl of my car's V8 bounced off the curved walls of the stage, completely catching me off guard.

Driving in first-person even feels more realistic, with your car's engine noise becoming muffled. If you choose to drive a convertible and pull the roof down, the audio immediately shifts to take this into account. Ambient noises are also beautiful everywhere, making it easy to stop and simply listen to nature's gentle sounds and wildlife with the radio off and the car in idle.

Forza Horizon 5: Gameplay and performance

Forza Horizon 5 Screenshot

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Once you get past how bloody gorgeous Forza Horizon 5 is, you sort of have to play the game. For those who have played past Forza Horizon games, this one should be familiar. You're let loose in an expansive open world filled with dozens of events, challenges, races, and more. It's up to you to figure out where to go, what to do, and what to drive. Forza Horizon 5 feels great to play for those who enjoy that kind of freedom, and it's exactly why it isn't just another racing game.

There are a myriad of quality-of-life improvements that elevate the gameplay experience over its precursors, but all-in-all Forza Horizon 5 is exactly what I expected it to be going in: more Forza Horizon, but bigger and prettier. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, as Playground has effectively perfected the Forza Horizon formula. Whether you're looking to push the settings to simulation-like levels or want to spend most of your time designing car liveries and exploring, Forza Horizon 5 has plenty to offer.

There are so many places Playground Games actively responded to community feedback and improved Forza Horizon 5, like with the newly redesigned and more accessible UI / UX that is quicker to navigate and use, an easy way to keep track of your car collection and campaign progress, a new and improved Festival Playlist, and more. However, there are a few features that weren't changed.

The animations for first-person driving, for example, don't look amazing, which is unfortunate considering the huge improvements to character creation. Role-playing gamers will be disappointed by the continued lack of options for turn signals, headlights, and turning the engine on and off, even if the addition of convertibles and race modes is a huge gain. There's also no 900-degree steering in first-person view, something that players have been requesting for years. Despite these missing features, I still had a blast playing Forza Horizon 5 the entire time.

Source: Windows Central

While you're playing Forza Horizon 5, you can also expect flawless performance. I noted in my initial preview how smooth it played in both Quality and Performance modes, and this experience has more than held up. I mostly played in Quality mode due to my propensity to take pictures and enjoy the scenery, but I never felt my experience suffered playing at 30 FPS. Performance mode makes smart cuts to texture pop-in, shadows and reflections, and other graphical settings to deliver a stable 60 PFS without compromising graphical fidelity. Loading times were also nearly instantaneous in both modes, including starting the game (even without Quick Resume).

I did encounter a fair number of issues in the beginning that concerned me, but 99% of the problems were reported to me beforehand and were subsequently fixed by a 21GB patch update partway through my review time. Afterward, I only encountered three bugs in my entire playthrough, and only one of those gave me real reason to pause. For instance, traffic cars had a tendency to fade in and out of existence when traveling at high speeds, but it was less of a problem after the patch.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The only serious problem I noticed, however, is how I had trouble customizing my controls in Forza Horizon 5, an endeavor that bordered on frustration and may be a larger issue for those with accessibility concerns. The issues centered around the D-Pad on controllers, which features multi-level inputs for entering Photo Mode, changing the radio station, using the ANNA voice assistant, telemetry data for car tuning, text-to-speech, and using Forza LINK for multiplayer interactions.

Apart from an issue with rebinding controls, Forza Horizon 5 is nearly flawless

The D-Pad is responsible for a lot in Forza Horizon 5, and is supposed to have several layers of binding to function properly. However, attempting to change any of these bindings to, for example, switch the "switch radio station" and "Forza LINK" buttons, undoes every binding for the affected D-Pad button. I hope that Playground Games intends to fix the control bindings issue as soon as possible, as I could easily see how it could be more serious for players who aren't just trying to move things around a little and require more flexibility with their controls.

From both gameplay and performance standpoints, however, Forza Horizon 5 is still the best Forza Horizon game, pure and simple. Nothing about playing it made me miss any parts of Forza Horizon 4, and I literally could not find a single complaint about Forza Horizon 5's raw performance, the few bugs aside. I may have played on a beefy Xbox Series X, but the level of polish and stability on offer here makes me confident players will encounter similar (if appropriately scaled back) experiences on less powerful hardware.

Forza Horizon 5: Campaign and progression

Forza Horizon 5 Screenshot

Source: Windows Central | Xbox Game Studios (Image credit: Source: Windows Central | Xbox Game Studios)

Being an open-world simul-arcade racing game, Forza Horizon titles haven't historically been laden with heavy narrative campaigns, and that doesn't change with Forza Horizon 5. However, Playground Games made the campaign in Forza Horizon 5 more clearly defined with new and memorable characters, great voice acting, plenty of cinematic cutscenes, and an end goal for players. In Forza Horizon 5, your goal is to progress through the Horizon Adventure, eventually reaching the vaunted Hall of Fame.

It took me a little less than 30 hours to complete the Horizon Adventure and be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the exact path I took isn't likely to be repeated by anybody else. That's because the Adventure fully embraces player choice and freedom, to the point that you don't have to do most of the Adventure to eventually complete the campaign.

The Horizon Adventure fully embraces player choice and freedom

Progression in Forza Horizon 5 is tied to Accolades, which are earned by doing pretty much anything in the game, from completing a race to simply discovering a location for the first time. Earning Accolades nets you Accolade Points (and sometimes other rewards like cars and wheelspins), which contribute towards your Horizon Adventure. Once you collect enough Accolade Points to progress to the next chapter of the Horizon Adventure, you can choose what to unlock. So If you'd prefer to leave the races behind and focus on exploration, creative portions like liveries, PR Stunts, or anything else, Forza Horizon 5 will still ensure you're rewarded for your time and effort. Even better, Accolades continue after you reach the Hall of Fame, giving players continued rewards for playing and trying new things. There's even a Hall of Fame leaderboard, where players can compete to earn the most number of Accolades with friends or other players.

The Horizon Adventure itself is split into six categories, each relating to a Horizon Festival site and a category of race or event. Each category contains three to four unlocks. Once you've unlocked something in the Horizon Adventure, it becomes added to your map and you're automatically directed on how to get there.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Remember, you don't have to follow this path. The only parts of the Horizon Adventure you basically have to complete are the Expeditions, which are narrative missions that let you build new Festival sites to unlock races. Luckily, these Expeditions are some of the best parts of the Forza Horizon 5 campaign, with beautiful set pieces and enjoyable objectives and stories. Other parts of the Horizon Adventure include Showcases, new Horizon Stories (basically side missions with new characters), and ultimate races.

The Tulum Expedition, a particular high point, has you tear through the dense jungle and swamps during a terrifying tropical storm, stopping to explore ancient ruins buried deep within. I absolutely adored every moment of this Expedition, and it's definitely something I plan to return to time after time.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Some may lament that Forza Horizon 5 doesn't require players to start as a "nobody" and work their way through the ranks with terrible cars and no connections, but that's not the kind of game it wants to be. This is the ultimate sandbox for anyone with even a passing interest in exploring a giant beautiful world, unleashing their creative tendencies, or racing in meticulously rendered vehicles. You enter Forza Horizon 5 as the "superstar of Horizon UK" from Forza Horizon 4, and it's up to you to carve your own Horizon Aventure.

There are hundreds of hours of content in Forza Horizon 5

With just over 30 hours in Forza Horizon 5 at the time of writing, I still haven't even finished a third of what's available right now. I still have over 200 of the roughly 580 roads left to discover and drive down, several locations I've yet to explore, dozens and dozens of races, events, and PR stunts I haven't completed, and hundreds of cars I haven't collected or photographed. It would probably take me at least 100 hours to 100% Forza Horizon 5 if I wanted to, and that's not even considering the replayability of everything in the game, especially the online portions.

Forza Horizon 5 is big, which means it's likely every single player will take a different path to the Hall of Fame, and every single one of those paths is equally valid in the eyes of Playground Games. I haven't even touched on how Forza Horizon 5's Festival Playlist will continue to add new content and cars to the game over time, including evolving the world with new events, seasonal decorations, and more. Or how future DLC expansions will add huge amounts of gameplay in new areas. Forza Horizon 5 is massive right now, and it's only going to get bigger.

Forza Horizon 5: Multiplayer and online

Forza Horizon 5 Screenshot

Source: Windows Central | Xbox Game Studios (Image credit: Source: Windows Central | Xbox Game Studios)

Every Forza Horizon game has been progressively more connected than the last, and Forza Horizon 5 is no exception. Playground Games has created its most connected game yet, while still giving solo and offline players a way to enjoy everything the singleplayer has to offer. Because of the limited number of people playing Forza Horizon 5 during my review period, I wasn't able to fully enjoy how FH5 will look after release, but I did get a taste of the various elements and features.

Forza Horizon 5 is now taking an MMO-style approach to its online multiplayer, in that all players online are connected to the same "Horizon Life" server, but, reasonably, you won't see all the players at the same time. Instead, it wants to guarantee that there will always be plenty of nearby players interested in participating in games and races with you. For example, if you're trying to get into a Horizon Arcade round, you'll automatically be connected with other players also attempting the same thing.

Forza Horizon 5 feels like a living game, with real people playing right alongside you.

This method is contextual in more ways than one. Besides always being able to find plenty of players to participate in Horizon Arcades, Tours, or online racing, the general world will also be populated by players just doing everyday things. In more populated areas like Horizon Festivals and cities, you're more likely to run into other players, while the wilderness will be more lonely. I didn't quite get to see exactly how this would work, but the idea is to make Forza Horizon 5 always feel like a living game, with real people all over the map playing right alongside you.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

I got to participate in a multiplayer session with other media members and the Playground Games team, where I tried out the improved Convoy feature, Horizon Open, Horizon Arcade, and Horizon Tour. Once connected, I didn't encounter any other issues beyond occasional desyncing from other players.

Starting with Horizon Open, this is the rebalanced online racing segment of Forza Horizon 5 that pits players against other players across road, dirt, cross-country, and drag racing, as well as a new drifting category. Ranked multiplayer is gone to help make Horizon Open more accessible and less intimidating, with less of a focus on pure winning, which is nice to see as someone who isn't amazing at racing.

After having a lot of fun with Horizon Open, we moved on to Horizon Arcade. This was one of the most interesting features of Forza Horizon 5's multiplayer for me, presenting you with a ton of different minigames that range from speed-based challenges to simply smashing piñatas. These minigames appear all over the map, and anyone can automatically join.

The highlight of Forza Horizon 5's multiplayer was, surprisingly, Horizon Tour

Horizon Arcade was filled with casual and lighthearted laughs and team-based collaboration, and I greatly enjoyed my time with it. Participating in Horizon Arcade also nets you Forzathon Points to spend at the Festival Playlist store, giving players additional incentive to join.

The highlight of my Forza Horizon 5 multiplayer session, however, was absolutely Horizon Tour. I hadn't given this feature much thought leading up to my review, so it caught me by surprise. It lets players team up in groups of six to take on teams of AI Drivatars in different races, which is more casual than Horizon Open and focuses even less on individual performance.

What made Tour special, however, is how players aren't teleported between races. Instead, your entire team can drive together as a convoy to the next race, letting you enjoy the scenery and spend time with each other. My team and I shared a lot of laughs, and the in-between cruises were special in a way that's difficult to describe. The drives were short, and made the world of Forza Horizon 5 feel even more connected overall.

Source: Windows Centra (Image credit: Source: Windows Centra)

Forza Horizon 5 seeks to differentiate itself from the competition by how it plans to evolve. This is due in part to Playground Games' commitment to the Festival Playlist, which will provide monthly updates with more content and new cars. The real secret of Forza Horizon 5's longevity is undoubtedly EventLab, which is a set of tools that players can use to create custom races and routes through Route Creator, obstacle courses and challenges through Super7, and entirely new game modes and events through EventLab itself.

In turn, it'll put many of the tools and features that Playground Games uses to build Forza Horizon in the hands of talented community members, including full power over scripting game rules. EventLab's possibilities are practically endless. Playground has even committed to surfacing the best EventLab creations through the Festival Playlist, giving players more incentive to experiment.

Smart changes to inclusivity, a more connected world with new minigames and collaborative races, and the potential for infinite new content through EventLab means Forza Horizon 5's multiplayer suite is, expectedly, the best we've ever seen in a Forza Horizon game. The only question at this point is how Forza Horizon 5's servers will hold under the strain of thousands of players rather than a few hundred.

Forza Horizon 5: Should you play it?

Forza Horizon 5 Screenshot

Source: Windows Central | Xbox Game Studios (Image credit: Source: Windows Central | Xbox Game Studios)

I may have completed the Horizon Adventure and successfully added my name to the Hall of Fame, but my time with Forza Horizon 5 is far from finished. Contained within this veritable masterpiece of a video game is hundreds of hours of content that promises to do nothing but expand over time. Players are actively encouraged to pursue whatever path they want, unlocking limitless possibilities in one of the most stunning and expansive open worlds in any video game.

There's still so much I didn't discuss in this review, like Forza Horizon 5's Barn Finds or Player Houses, all of which is there for players to discover on their own. This game is far too large to ever fit into one article, and that's by design. Forza Horizon 5 has enough room to accommodate all kinds of players, no matter what you're looking for in a game (unless, of course, you just really don't like cars).

Forza Horizon 5 is grand and beautiful. It also launches on more platforms simultaneously than any previous Forza game, giving people more ways to experience everything this game across Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, and Xbox Cloud Gaming through Xbox Game Pass. Absolutely a game of the year contender for 2021, Forza Horizon 5 is the quintessential choice among the best racing games.

Zachary Boddy
Staff Writer

Zachary Boddy (They / Them) is a Staff Writer for Windows Central, primarily focused on covering the latest news in tech and gaming, the best Xbox and PC games, and the most interesting Windows and Xbox hardware. They have been gaming and writing for most of their life starting with the original Xbox, and started out as a freelancer for Windows Central and its sister sites in 2019. Now a full-fledged Staff Writer, Zachary has expanded from only writing about all things Minecraft to covering practically everything on which Windows Central is an expert, especially when it comes to Microsoft. You can find Zachary on Twitter @BoddyZachary.