In the opening drive of Forza Horizon 5, a 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands SUV parachutes down from a plane and lands at the top of the La Gran Caldera volcano in Mexico. With seasonality making a return in the latest entry, it's currently winter, and the mountain peaks and rocky off-road terrain are covered in a layer of snow. This is the highest point featured in a Horizon game to date, and as the vehicle begins to make its descent down the side of a steep cliffs edge, I marvel at the incredible view of the vistas below.
Now headed towards the Baja desert, the landscapes seamlessly change from the snow-covered volcano to the dusty roads of desert land framed by cacti. With a variety of weather conditions to be found in different parts of the map, the race soon shifts up a gear in the 2020 Corvette Stingray, which speeds right into the eye of a dust storm. The new weather event can occur during races and even in free roam, and it really is quite the spectacle as dust kicks up from the wheels of the car, and engulfs the scene in a misty, orange haze.
The impeccably detailed landscapes are brought to life by some truly astounding graphics and realistic lighting, and it's not long before I get the sense that Forza Horizon 5 is really making the most of Microsoft's new hardware. "I would say that the experience of working on the Xbox Series X and S has been, as a creative, absolutely fantastic," says Mike Brown, creative director of Forza Horizon 5. "Just because we've been able to achieve so much more with the way that we've built the world, and we're able to add in all those little details and just make everything look and feel so real."
When it comes to the feel of driving the cars in Forza Horizon 5, Brown highlights that Playground Games has made some "pretty huge investments" in the physics model of the cars. Building on the handling model of Forza Horizon 4, the team has worked on the latest entry in the series over the course of three years instead of the usual two year cycle, which allowed them to spend more time making improvements in certain areas than they otherwise would have. "We've completely rebuilt the way suspension works, which perhaps sounds like a small thing, but suspension is absolutely one of the main ways in which your wheels and the body of the car interact with the road surface," Brown explains.
"And so by really working on that simulation, to make the suspension behave in a more authentic way, you might think, that it would make it more challenging, but it's actually the opposite that's true," Brown continues. "The springs on the car now behave much more like they would on a real car, and the cars can now react to the terrain in a more authentic way which actually, whilst improving the simulation, also improves the accessibility of that as well, which is a great result for us."
Braking is another area the team worked to improve. Brown explains that now, when you're slamming on the brakes at high speeds, they will "come on in a more realistic and authentic way", and the brakes won't lock up as easily as they could in previous games either. "Again, that's an area where it improves the simulation in that it's more accurate to real life," Brown adds, "but actually also makes the cars a little bit more accessible as well. So again, a great improvement. "
With more development time, there are also some new races we can expect to try out in Forza Horizon 5. One, for example, is known as Horizon Tour, which Brown describes as a "low friction co-op activity" that takes place in an area near the Horizon Festival, and acts like a car meet where you can join others in small groups. "It's supposed to be quite laid back," he says. "Like, quite chill, and easy to get into and find new friends that are fans of cars." The other new feature comes in the form of Event Labs, which Brown says is essentially an "in-depth rule editor" that allows you to create your own racing modes. "As developers, we have frankly no idea what people will be able to create with it [Event Labs] once the community gets their hands on it," he says, adding, "and I find that very, very exciting."
With more cars set to be featured in Forza Horizon 5 than any other Forza title so far, the improved handling and new racing experiences are sure to really showcase these vehicles to their full potential. But the biggest upgrade is almost certainly the level of detail in the setting of Mexico, with a map that is made up of 11 separate biomes. From humid jungles with bodies of water that shimmer in the sun, to muddy tracks that will cause dirt to stick to the side of your car, the major enhancements really shine through thanks to the more powerful hardware of Xbox's latest consoles.
"The main improvements though are – through the extra power that we have available thanks to the Xbox Series S and X – just the phenomenal detail that we're able to pack into every scene," says Brown. "The quality of the assets has improved, the quality of the lighting has improved, the quality of the shadows has improved. Once we're in Forza Vista and you're looking at your cars up close, then you have ray-tracing on there as well, which just means that everything is just rendered with this unparalleled realism."
Bringing Mexico to life
This unparalleled realism isn't just in the graphical sense, though. Playground Games is committed to being as authentic as possible when it comes to bringing the setting of Mexico to life, and the team has put a lot of care and effort into ensuring that the depiction doesn't play off of any Mexican stereotypes. "This is something that we've absolutely taken very, very seriously," he says. "We have had teams in Mexico, at least where COVID allowed us. Fortunately, this was a three year development cycle, so a good chunk of that research was prior to not being able to travel to Mexico."
"And also we were really lucky in that as well that we were able to make a lot of contacts in Mexico in those trips," Brown continues. "So that even if members of our team weren't able to travel back there, we have people on the ground who were photographers and tour guides and stuff that we could contact and say, 'Hey, we'd really like to get more reference on a given thing', and they could go out there and get photographs or videos or whatever we needed. We had an audio team out there actually, quite recently as well, capturing ambient audio so that each area of the map, each biome, has its own ambient audio suite which tries to recreate the feel of being in those places."
Featuring mural artwork by Mexican artist Farid Rueda, Brown also confirms that there will also be murals from seven different Mexican artists in total. With radio stations and music being a mainstay feature in Forza games, Playground also worked with Mexican music artists to provide pre-existing music that has been licensed for Forza Horizon 5, as well as original compositions. "We've also worked with Mexican actors and writers," Brown says, "so that we can make sure that the voices of our Mexican characters just feel real to a Mexican player..."
"We've worked with a Mexican scriptwriter and cultural consultant to ensure that we're not playing off of any Mexican stereotypes. We want this to be a game that when a Mexican plays it, they feel like it's been made with care and love," Brown adds. "And I really feel like we're taking this very seriously, and really wanted it to not feel like it was playing on those stereotypes and instead just feel like it was really real and authentic and full of love."
Forza Horizon 5 is set to come Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Xbox Game Pass, and PC on November 9, 2021.