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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Forza Horizon 5 Was Developed In Three Years Instead Of Two, And It Shows


Since its debut in 2012, the Forza Horizon racing series has seen new releases come at a pace of once every two years, releasing on even-numbered years with Forza Motorsport taking the odd years. Microsoft is breaking that tradition with Forza Horizon 5, which comes three years after Forza Horizon 4. The extra year of development gave developer Playground Games more time to focus and refine the already-solid and much-loved formula, and to take things to new heights in a new setting, Mexico, the studio tells GameSpot.

And after spending a few hours completing the game’s first story missions and taking more time with its sprawling open world, Forza Horizon 5 seems to be on track to deliver another solid entry in the popular series.

The Open Road

GameSpot recently took part in a hands-on preview event for Forza Horizon 5 where I got to play the racing game’s opening prologue and sample a few story missions before being set free to roam the open world of Mexico. The story missions were fun and varied, taking me on journeys to help find and retrieve an old Volkswagen, for example, or help a friend ride into a sandstorm to snap a photo of an artifact. The demo also let me try a series of races involving different types of cars in a variety of settings. All of these were impressive with their attention to detail and core driving mechanics, but my favorite part of my limited time with Forza Horizon 5 was exploring the open road and experiencing the world at my own pace.

That being said, Forza Horizon’s signature Showcase events return in Forza Horizon 5, and the one included in the demo was seriously impressive. In this multi-stage race, I zipped through city streets at breakneck speed, launched over ramps and flew through the air, and careened through trees and the wilderness. It felt like something out of a Fast & Furious movie. The variety of the missions in general that were available during the preview was impressive, and it kept me interested in heading to the next waypoint to see what type of race I might do next.

What has made the Forza Horizon series so compelling over the years is not only the various settings it’s taken players to (Australia, the UK, etc), but the way it feels to drive the game’s many cars in those environments. And Forza Horizon 5 carries forward the franchise’s tradition of excellent controls once again. Every mistake I made in handling a turn or applying the brakes felt fair–and not the result of the controls breaking down.

The Rewind feature returns, too, so any crash or diversion from the path can be fixed quickly and easily to get you back in the action. Forza Horizon 5 also has a new braking system that helps cars handle better. Applying the brakes is no longer an on-off type of situation but is instead a more gradual gripping of the discs, the developers say. The suspension system is improved, too, with an aim of making the experience more authentic, or at least that’s the idea on paper. I can’t say for sure how much I felt the improved braking and suspension systems specifically, but the driving experience felt very smooth and enjoyable.

The braking and suspension systems specifically are two examples of features that Playground says might not have been possible if Forza Horizon 5 had the normal two-year development cycle. “We’ve wanted to do that for a while but it just never fit in a two-year cycle,” creative director Mike Brown said.

Not only do cars handle well–I was using an Xbox controller–but the force feedback/controller vibration helps you feel more closely connected to what’s happening. You can, in essence, feel the tires under the car and this is especially pronounced when driving through mud or over rocks, or when you crash land after a big jump and feel the thud of impact in your hands. The controls reward skill, as well as learning the layout of a particular track, and I had fun replaying some of the challenges and improving my times. I found it particularly enjoyable to learn how to properly brake and take turns at the optimal speed to get a good time or pass an opponent. This is all carried forward from Forza Horizon 4, and the foundation is still as solid as ever.

With 599 roads to discover across 11 distinct biomes of varied terrain and an overall map size that is 50% larger than Forza Horizon 4’s, I was only able to scratch the surface of what the game has to offer. I can’t wait to see and do more. Getting behind the wheel of a Ford Bronco and going off-road through a desert and feeling the thud and the grip of the mud and water under my wheels was satisfying, while revving up the Mercedes AMG and cruising down the beachside streets and communities was similarly enthralling.

Gallery

On many occasions I stopped and gazed out at the sweeping vistas of Playground’s version of Mexico, and it looks great running on Xbox Series X. The draw distances, in particular, are seriously impressive. There is a volcano on the map, and it’s visible from very far away, which helped me feel a sense of place in the world as I saw it draw closer and closer. Driving up and onto the volcano was another highlight of the demo for me. Getting to the top–which is a journey unto itself!–you can see a huge amount of the world and it triggers a sense of wonder as you think about the many destinations you can explore.

Art director Don Arceta said in an interview that open-world games like Red Dead Redemption II and Death Stranding served as inspiration for Forza Horizon 5’s own open world.

“There are a few open-world games that I was really impressed by and wanted to make sure we were shoulder-to-shoulder with some of these games from the past. Games like Red Dead Redemption II, which had a great open world, I was inspired by what they did and wanted to make sure we could reach that same quality level,” Arceta said. “And games like Death Stranding, with how realistic some of those environments look. Those are two examples that I vibed off of.”

The extra year of development for Forza Horizon 5 allowed the developers to create a substantially larger world than what would have been possible under the normal two-year cycle. Brown said that the size of the world would have been about half as big if it were made in two years as opposed to three. Adding an extra year of development not only allowed the team to increase the scope of the map, but also to take advantage of the horsepower of the Xbox Series X|S.

“From the very start of development, we planned to take three years. Part of that was [due to] the arrival of the Xbox Series X|S, and we knew we wanted to make some big investments in our engine so that we could take advantage of those consoles,” Brown said. “The kind of investments that would have been probably possible in two years but that would have pushed out a ton of other things that we wanted to do. In terms of the world design, it probably would have been about half [the size].”

Arceta added, “We’d probably have half as big of a world but also less biomes along with that and less diversity and variety.”

Trying To Be Authentic And Honest To Mexico

The team at Playground Games worked with the Mexican government on Forza Horizon 5. Brown said initial discussions with the government moved “slow” before the studio was able to convince the government that Forza Horizon 5 would be a celebration of Mexico.

“The early conversations were very slow. Once we were able to tell them what the game was, they were really, really supportive. Once they knew that it was a game that would celebrate Mexico, then they were extremely supportive and helped us with everything we needed,” Brown said.

Playground also hired a cultural consultant to help Playground make Forza Horizon 5 an authentic and respectful representation of Mexican culture. Playground worked with this person to make sure the game didn’t “step out of line or upset the people of Mexico,” Brown said.

“We really had this goal… that when somebody from the location that is hosting the game plays the game, then they are just filled with joy. With Horizon 5 we had to do a little more homework [than Forza Horizon 4, which was set in Playground’s home country] so we hired a cultural consultant to help with that,” Brown said.

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Gallery

Arceta added: “For us, it was super important for us to be as authentic and honest about representing anything cultural that’s in Mexico.”

One specific element that Playground’s cultural consultant advised on was that many stories from Mexican culture involve themes of family and community. To reflect that, these elements are at the core of many of Forza Horizon 5’s story missions, Brown said. The aim is for this to help make “all of our stories and characters feel really wholesome.”

The consultant also advised Playground to abandon its idea to create a radio station in the game that only played Mexican music, Brown said. Instead, music from a variety of Mexican artists and genres was sourced for all of the game’s radio stations.

This Game Looks Great

Horizon 5 offers players a choice between Performance mode and Quality mode, with the former prioritizing frame rate at the expense of graphics and the latter keeping the frame rate at 30 FPS but boosting the visuals. I enjoyed the smoothness of Performance mode and opted to play that way for the most part. The higher frame rate made Forza Horizon 5 feel better and helped me execute hairpin turns and drifts more easily because I felt I had a better sense of control and precision. In both Performance and Quality modes, the game looks incredible.

Beyond the draw distances, the attention to detail was impressive. The way the sun glistens off the hood of a car in the distance is a sight to behold, while the beachside communities and the cities of Mexico made me want to stop, get out, and walk around–that is to say, Forza Horizon 5 does a good job of making its version of Mexico feel alive and lived-in as opposed to simply set dressing for racing adventures. The game’s audio and sound design is seriously impressive, too, with the rev and chug of an engine standing out to me as one of the most exciting elements in that regard. Microsoft said it will release the full list of licensed tracks at a later date.

“Games like Red Dead Redemption II, which had a great open world, I was inspired by what they did and wanted to make sure we could reach that same quality level” — Forza Horizon 5 art director Don Arceta

Another welcome change for Forza Horizon 5 is that the weather effects do not apply to the entire map all at once, the developer say–if you don’t want to drive through the rain or in a sandstorm, you can simply drive out of it.

The Forza Horizon 5 preview I attended did not include multiplayer support with or against other human characters, though the world didn’t feel empty as it had other Drivatars that could be challenged to impromptu races.

It’s impossible to truly quantify or qualify what the extra year of development had on Forza Horizon 5, but the game seems to be in good shape right now headed toward launch. This not only gives me hope for Forza Horizon 5, but also Forza Motorsport 8, which is baking for an extra year at developer Turn 10 to hopefully also deliver some exciting improvements.

Forza Horizon 5 launches on November 9 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC, and it’s included with Xbox Game Pass.



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