When the Forza Horizon series originally showed up on Xbox 360 in 2012, it was quite a surprise for fans of the racing genre and was perhaps the first real competitor EA’s Need for Speed series had faced in a long time. The Xbox Game Studios franchise has since gone from strength to strength and is now the top dog of open-world arcade-like racing games. Many other companies like Ubisoft (The Crew) have also tried to take on Playground Games but haven't been able to match the high standards set by Forza Horizon.

This brings us to the fifth entry in Xbox’s undefeated racing series and this time we’re going to Mexico. While Forza Horizon has left the competition at the starting line in the past, it’s got to the point now where the UK-based developer has become so comfortable with the series' template, that it might actually need to start doing something more than just putting out the same old formula that we’ve seen for at least the past few entries.

If you have played Forza Horizon 3 or the fourth game, you should know exactly what to expect from this latest outing. In the fifth title, you start the game by dropping in from the skies Fast and Furious style, with plenty of references to “family” thrown in for good measure. This introduces you (the “superstar”) to all of the game’s absolutely stunning biomes (ranging from fiery volcanos to living deserts, there are 11 environments all up), while getting behind the wheel of new rides like the 2021 Ford Bronco, Toyota’s latest Supra and the not-yet-released Mercedes-AMG ONE.

Once you’ve reached the festival, you create your character. There are some slight updates to the creator, allowing you to select your pronoun and even give your avatar prosthetics. Name selection is also back, so you can go by titles such as Prime Minister, Master Chief, or a regular name like Juan. What’s probably the most notable change though, is that your character now talks. The dialogue exchanged between your character and other personalities in the game is used to string along the storyline, but the player’s avatar doesn’t really add much. In fact, we much prefer the silent protagonist from previous entries. Apart from this, the story’s main purpose (like past games) is pretty much just one big excuse to do a lot of crazy things in-game and piece together all of the events and races. The excessive noise coming from all of the major story characters in the game can also get a bit much at times. Fortunately, the radio personalities are a lot more enjoyable to listen to, as they don’t completely bring the driving to a halt.

This leads us to the core experience of Forza Horizon 5 – the campaign. It’s the biggest one ever, and the minute you arrive in Mexico, in typical Forza fashion, your story friends will set you up with a list of to-dos – there are races, stunts and tasks to complete, filling up your map with all sorts of icons. It’s nothing we haven’t seen in past entries, but it might be a tad overwhelming to newcomers. It gets to the point that even NPCs are talking over each other as they assign you new objectives, while radio hosts blurt out the latest updates going on around the festival site at the same time. It’s chaotic and could probably be toned down, but it's all in the fun of Forza Horizon and helps the game world feel alive.

Did we also mention how amazing Mexico looks? The biomes do a glorious job capturing the culture and spirit of the country. You've got small towns lined with dirt roads to Guanajuato - a Mexican city known for its beautiful architecture and underground tunnel systems. And then there's the wildlife, like donkeys galloping around and flamingos in lush rainforest environments. It definitely feels like you’ve been transported to Mexico. Admittedly though, the map can feel a bit familiar - with wide-open beaches, mountain regions and various other types of locations we have seen before in previous entries. While the geography is completely different, you might not necessarily feel the same way about the terrain you're driving across. And although the developers believe Mexico was the perfect match for Horizon's festival, some fans may be disappointed that Japan - the homeland of so many famous car manufacturers and the art of drifting, has missed out once again. Undoubtedly though, the map definitely matches the high standards set by previous Forza Horizon games – it's just essentially more of the same.

Moving along, all of the usual races and events are back, with the map catering to all sorts of racing types – there are sprints across the country, road courses around town, drag strips on abandoned runways, off-road tracks, drifting tests on winding mountain paths, speed tests along the coastline, Horizon Wheel Spins, and much more. You’ll also help set up festival sites in any order you please this time to progress through the game, and between major races, you can participate in the usual events such as head-to-head and multiplayer while destroying bonus signs and discovering every barn car classic. Arcade and longer races are a nice addition, and seasons are back as well.

The highlights of all these events are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the showcases and outpost setups, featuring wild dynamic weather and things that go fast. Early on in the game, you’ll race against bikes, jet ski and even jump a parade float off a cliff. While you are in control of certain vehicles (such as a truck to pick up a barn find), it would be nice to be able to ride those dirt bikes and jet ski. And yeah, Forza Horizon might be all about the cars, but it feels like Playground could permanently add so many other vehicle options to the festival experience to dial the fun factor right up.

One of the more noticeable new features that stands out is the EventLab – based on the developer’s internal design tools. It’s an upgrade from the race route creator seen in Forza Horizon 4 that allows the community to come up with their own Hot Wheels-like courses, which will have you soaring off huge ramps in no time. Again though, it’s powered by the community, so at the time of writing, we’ve not yet seen what it’s truly capable of.

So what about the cars? They are easily the most important part of the game, right? Well, according to Playground, there are over 500 available at launch, although probably far fewer new additions than you might have hoped for. The good news is brands like Toyota, Porsche and Mitsubishi are there from the get-go. There’s also the inclusion of electric/hybrids, but unfortunately brands like Tesla still aren’t playable (and may never be) due to licensing issues.

As with all past Horizon games, this fifth entry is more arcade than simulator. It means vehicles can soar through the skies, flip, drift on command, and absorb plenty of knocks (depending on your settings). Speaking of settings, accessibility in FH5 is the usual standard – you’ve got a wide range of difficulties to make races easier or harder, and there are plenty of other options like text-to-speech, subtitles and colour filters. Moving back to cars though, the vehicle handling feels great, and although it’s hard to tell the differences between the car handling in this and FH4, that’s not to say it doesn’t do a great job of making each ride feel like the real deal while providing that fun and inviting arcade feel.

For long-time fans who like to drift or tune their cars, all of the same customisation options are back, covering platform and handling, drivetrain, wheels, conversion, aero and appearance. There are a few more options (depending on the car), with more transmission choices, and also more wheel choices. A bit like everything else, they’re rather subtle improvements considering the scale of the game, but they still enhance the experience. The vinyl creator is also back, as you would expect, and it’s only limited by the abilities of the creator. One thing that doesn’t appear to have improved as much is the car damage. While cars take damage, the models don’t seem to get as much damage as certain other games. That said, Playground has evidently put a lot of effort into recording new engine sounds for FH5.

The formula of Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t really change anything - like past entries, you drive, level up, unlock and do it all again. You’ll unlock cars after races, along with Horizon Wheel Spins which unlock more cars, horns, cash and all sorts of goodies to customise your character. You can also upgrade to a new house - you catch the drift. There’s no end to the amount of levelling in the game, and the more you level up, the more you unlock within the game and festival, such as new challenges. While it might feel like a never-ending cycle, it is a live-service game, to be fair. Although it could be a lot for newcomers to take in.

All of this is backed by a pumping soundtrack, which is perhaps the best one yet. Favourite (and fictional) radio presenters like Scott Tyler return, and stations covering pop, rock, classical, and techno are back. The mix of artists stretches from Dua Lipa to Beastie Boys and Foo Fighters. You’ve got the classics, too, if you’re in the mood. There’s also a good mix of local music that blends in with local artwork and landmarks such as Aztec temples.

Last but not least are the game’s visuals and performance. Straight up, you’re given an option between performance and graphics (4K, 30fps) in this new entry. Even on performance (4K, 60fps), FH5 still looks the best it ever has with the “power” of Xbox Series X. If you’re running on an Xbox Series S, the resolution is 1080p in both modes. All past generation versions run at 30fps, but Xbox One X is also capable of 4K. There’s HDR across all modern versions as well. Driving through dust storms or other weather patterns is incredible and the cars also look better than ever. You can once again get up close with them thanks to the return of ForzaVista, which now includes ray tracing in the graphics mode. All in all, it truly is the most stunning Forza game to date. If we had to choose between performance and graphics, as impressive as the graphics mode is, we would still go performance. It is a racing game, after all.

Conclusion

Forza Horizon 5 is an amazing game, don’t get us wrong – if you’re a newcomer to the series you’ll likely have a blast, assuming you like car games. Returning fans though can expect a similar experience to past entries. For some, that’s where driver fatigue may very well set in. After five games, at this point, you could argue the series is no longer doing enough to protect its crown as the top open-world racer. It’s the same process of going to a festival, unlocking cars, racing a lot, levelling up and repeating the whole cycle. And the new additions - such as the EventLab - are more reliant on community efforts. It is mostly a flawless experience, but the lack of major evolution is how other franchises like Need for Speed fell behind in the first place. If the Forza Horizon series is to continue, it really needs to push the formula to new horizons. It would be great to see Playground really let loose with a future entry, as it's now getting a little too comfortable with the tried and tested template.