Out here in the real world, I'm known to most as 'Josh'. Yawn; given names are so passé. There's a handful of people in my orbit that have yielded to the assertion that I be known as the 'J-Dawg Supreme'. That's better, but it took precious years of my life to establish and I can't get those back. In Forza Horizon 5, the nicknames come easily and without reservation. To some, I'm 'El Pollo Diablo'. To others, I'm 'The Drift King' of Mexico. I'm 'Bantersaurus Rex' and the 'Dragon'. But the name that sticks? As far as the attendees of this year's Horizon Festival are concerned, I am 'Count Driftula' – the superstar driver with a big reputation, a static face, and a bad haircut, such are the limits of the character creation tools.
There's a perverse sense of joy to be had from hearing the nickname read aloud, all while cruising the lushest digital tarmac committed to an open-world racing game. "Hey, Count Driftula", a voice on the radio will begin, "that was some great racing!" I know it was, you don't have to tell me that NPC I've already forgotten the name of; I was the one who switched on every available racing assist and took that leisurely drive in my beloved Jaguar E-Type against a pursuing cargo plane.
I find it endlessly amusing that, before what is undoubtedly the most technically impressive Xbox Series X exclusive could ship, some poor voice actors were forced into a booth to record the words "Count" and "Driftula" to get their paycheck. Hearing it every couple of minutes is almost entertaining enough to make me not want to play Forza Horizon 5 the way that I play every Forza Horizon game – all non-essential audio off and my road trip playlist on, and on loud. 'Almost' being the operative word in that sentence.
Riders of the storm
With this pre-release build of Forza Horizon 5, I was given 90-minutes of single-player campaign content to sample, which I raced through a couple of times, and the full open world to explore offline. So, I could tell you about the absurdity of the new Showcase events, ridiculous races that quickly remind me of why Horizon superseded Motorsport as the premiere racing experience on Xbox. I could write a few hundred words on how truly astounding this fictionalized representation of Mexico looks in 4K, even as the world streams in around me at 200mph at an unwavering 60 frames-per-second. I could write even more on how Playground Games has quite possibly delivered one of the finest feeling racing games of all time.
But with the Forza Horizon 5 release date set for November 5, 2021, all of that sounds like a discussion best saved for the forthcoming GamesRadar review. So instead, Count Driftula is here to give Forza Horizon 5 a much-needed vibe check. I'm assessing this against a benchmarking system I've used for nearly a decade: laying horizontally on my couch, head sore from the night before, the latest installment of Forza Horizon on the TV, and an Xbox controller gripped so tightly in my hands I'm worried it might break harder than the cars I'm steering into sharp corners. Like the games that came before it, can Forza Horizon 5 weather the storm of a crippling hangover?
I've always found the Forza Horizon games to be strangely meditative. While I tend to tire easily of the core cycle of progression, moving gradually between races across increasingly large, diverse open worlds as obnoxious NPCs bark platitudes in your general direction, there's a comfort in the structure that seems to resonate with my brain in a hungover state. Even as I've gotten older, where it's become increasingly difficult to deal with the after-effects of over-consumption, the Forza Horizon games have always risen to the challenge – they've gotten faster and smoother, offered more visually diverse locales to explore, and a wider roster of vehicles to ruin. When you feel too sick to blink, there's joy in being able to explore a beautiful world with little more than the squeeze of a trigger.
I can't drive 55
You can learn a lot about a game like this by driving coast-to-coast. There's something almost magical about the way the world transitions around you in Forza Horizon 5. As it shifts dynamically from day to night, as weather types roll in around you in chorus with the yearly season; as you seamlessly slip from one environment type to another, across the largest open-world Playground has ever created. Honestly, it's so endlessly impressive that you'll begin to wonder how Forza Horizon 4 got away with setting its action in the United Kingdom.
And you know, the NPCs don't just call me Count Driftula because I commanded them to in the menu, but because I'm sliding a Corvette around like I want the axles to snap. I'm drifting around winding circuits of road as dust kicks up over the windshield, the windshield wiper working overtime. I'm sliding off-road and over jump ramps, the game slowing down cinematically to give me a lingering glimpse at yet another incredible vista. I'm doing donuts through the eye of a storm, wrestling with the E-Brake and accelerator to earn an apocalyptic amount of experience points, and taking on head-to-head races with any Drivatars that dare to clip my car. Yes, Forza Horizon 5, I will spend those skill points and spin the wheel to earn a prize, but I can't right now – Sammy Hagar's 'I Can't Drive 55' just kicked in on Spotify and that means I need to drive faster.
What I really love about a coast-to-coast drive in Forza Horizon 5 is that it's relaxing enough that you can truly appreciate where the series started its journey in 2012 and where Playground is trying to take us. There are hints of the road-tripping nature of Test Drive Unlimited in the scale of the world and the social AI that inhabits it. Every time you so much as tease the purring Impulse Triggers, gaining speed and pulling your vehicle into a drift, the score-chasing antics of Project Gotham Racing rear their head. The inscrutable quality of Turn 10's physics and handling models, made famous by Forza Motorsport, echoing through the way these cars look and feel.
Forza Horizon 5 works so well because it respects the heritage of racing games on Xbox. But there's no need to dwell on the past, because Forza Horizon 5 represents the future. While your mileage with the core concept of the Horizon games may vary – the idea of this roving festival of car enthusiasts overthrowing a corner of the world for a year never enamored me – there's little in the moment-to-moment play that I can complain about. As I finally drag my Corvette up the East coast of Mexico, having taken a wild and exploratory trek across a world I've only just scratched the surface of, it's comforting to know that there's still so much of it left to see.
So yes, Forza Horizon 5 passes the vibe check with ease. With the November 5 release date on the near horizon, I can't wait to venture a little deeper into Forza Horizon 5 to enshrine my reputation as Count Driftula, one hungover play session at a time.
Forza Horizon 5 will release on Xbox Series X and PC on November 5. For more exciting 2021 release, check out the best upcoming Xbox Series X games.