I’m gonna preface this review by saying that in my “About” section on MMG I say that I don’t like racing games or sports games. I’ve had that there since we started the site in 2011 and it remains true to this day. I’ve always argued that I prefer games with a greater focus on narrative, which is usually impossible in racing games, and I quite simply prefer more interesting settings than something as “mundane” as just driving. So just keep that in mind during this review that Forza V Horizons is not a game which is aimed at me (also worth saying is that I’ve never played a Forza game before).
Honestly, I likely would not have picked up the game at all if it were not on Game Pass (which continues to be both a blessing and a curse for us) or for the fact that it has been getting shockingly high reviews right across the board. At the time of writing Forza V has the highest reviews on Metacritic for a game newly released in 2021 (behind re-releases of Hades and Disco Elysium), even ahead of the hugely-anticipated Psychonauts 2. That’s the sort of thing that makes one sit up and take notice.
Given my predilection for disliking racing games, I went into Forza V very ready to just dislike it and write it off from the start and I have to say, it rather succeeded in proving me very wrong.
So, to sum up the game for those not in the know: in Forza you drive cars very fast.
Aha, I joke. There IS more to the game…
You also collect cars that you want to drive very fast.
Now I’ve no idea if the Forza games follow any kind of continuity, and while I doubt that’s necessary I do get the feeling that the central characters are ones that they’ve used before. Essentially though in Forza V you are a global “Superstar”, some kind of driving hero and household name. You are then the central attraction in a sort of mixed-up driving/music festival called the Horizon Festival in Mexico. Millions of people flock there from around the world to see crazy motorsport and also watch you compete in different forms of it.
It’s actually kind of a weirdly novel and feel-good setting. Let’s face it, Forza is all about wish-fulfilment of the highest order: “I wish I could drive loads of the fastest and most expensive cars in the world guilt free”. Well, this game is just a vehicle that allows you to experience exactly that (pun intended). You get to just come to Mexico and chill out and drive around in super expensive cars and everything is wonderful and you are wonderful and famous.
Also, it adds sweet fuck-all to the game, but Forza apparently reads your Xbox profile somehow, so when I got into the game and one of the NPCs said “Hello Sebastian” I about shat a brick. Simple touch, but I liked it! Very big brother.
While being wish-fulfilment, the game is also fairly unabashedly silly. It knows that it’s ridiculous that anyone has this kind of money and clout, but that’s the only way to allow you to let you go absolutely nuts and throw a priceless Ferrari down a mountainside, so they just lean into it. And it just kind of works. As long as you don’t think too seriously about what’s going on, the setting is just light-hearted and basically good fun (I mean there’s a section where you drive a souped-up rally car through a Mayan ruin in a rainforest, which doesn’t feel like exactly the sort of message we want to send in today’s environmentally conscious world).
The intro to the game is pretty spectacular on its own. Right off the bat, visually, the game is gorgeous. Whether you are driving across sand-dunes, through dense jungle, along crystal clear beaches, through white-water rapids, surrounded by sun, dust storms or torrential rain, it just looks pretty damn good. I’d say that given that they are largely just rendering cars and environments rather than anything trickier like humans it allowed them to stretch their legs a bit and just really see how far they could go with making the world look amazing. It’s bright and colourful and vibrant and a pleasure to drive around in.
The next thing that really grabbed me was during the introduction when you are dropped out of a cargo plane in a sports car and then proceed to race said cargo plane down a mountain to the festival location. These “showcases” have the feeling of the old-school Top Gear races where the hosts would race a Bugatti Veyron against a fighter jet. It’s so, so dumb, and yet there’s something about that which is just really bloody appealing. It doesn’t matter that it’s stupid if it’s really cool… And it is really fucking cool mate!
From the intro on you are thrown into the open world which very quickly becomes absolutely jam-packed with things to do. Of course, it goes without saying that a big part of the attraction then is the central theme of the game: racing. There are dozens of races across a sizeable map, with differing themes from cross-country, road and street races and rallying. On top of this you also have challenges for breaking speed limits, trashing the countryside and performing huge fuck-off jumps.
Now, I’m not the most experienced driver in real life and even less so in video games. I’ve spent more time in a Warthog and a Mako than anything resembling a real-life car. So, I will say, it’s sort of tough for me to judge how “accurate” the game is in terms of driving experience. What I will say is that it feels excellent. Cars are responsive (especially when you get to the higher tier ones) and it is very often satisfying just slamming the pedal to the metal and throwing them around corners. Drifting and braking and cornering all feel satisfying, but also very intuitive. It felt like one can very easily get quickly acquainted with how to drive well, but then there is also very obviously quite a lot of skill involved in getting beyond the basic level.
It feels like this almost goes without saying. This is a driving game with excellent pedigree and has been at the forefront of the genre for a while. But even so, it seems worth reiterating. If you like racing games, then this is a game that quite simply seems to do it the best.
Another aside here is that presence of tuning in the game. This is something I legitimately have not even tried to touch. This isn’t flat upgrades to the cars, which are easier to understand, but rather more finicky stuff like changing tire pressure, changing differentials, engine tuning, and all loads of stuff which theoretically will make cars perform better in different settings. None of this is necessary for a casual player, but it’s kind of cool that it’s there and I’m sure some car aficionados out there will get a real kick out of it. It’s a layer of just absolutely insane depth to the inner mechanics of the game, that sort of implies how much care went into its creation.
By completing races and challenges you unlock more “story” missions, including more of the showcases, and here it is where my predictions started to slowly rear their head. The “story” missions are really just more of an excuse for more driving and racing. Some of them are a little more interesting than others, but often it really is just a case of “drive very fast from A to B”. As expected. The reasoning for many of them is also often very silly (such as the scientist who has received a grant from a Mexican University to collect data by having you drive him around very fast), but again, the devs are sort of leaning into that so it’s forgivable. What feels a bit more unforgivable is how boring and unmemorable the characters are.
So, the superstar protagonist has four compatriots and then a gaggle of side-characters. The companions include unforgettable figures such as: guy 1, girl 1, Mexican girl and Mexican guy. Mexican guy in particular plays a big role because he is the local street racing legend. But beyond that you may start to see what I mean about the game’s story not exactly being super compelling.
It doesn’t help that your interactions with them are almost exclusively done via radio. You do get some face-to-face talking at the start and end of missions, but these almost always just have two character models standing next to each other and doing painfully generic hand movements and kinda-sorta flapping their mouths to seem like they are talking.
Also, I did say it was somewhat refreshing and nice to play a game that is as positive and upbeat as Forza V, just focused on the fun of gaming, but at some point it does begin to make me a bit suspicious. Maybe I’m just old, British and cynical, but when you arrive in Mexico and immediately all the local driving “legends” are basically jizzing themselves over meeting you, it does make me feel like I’m being made fun of…
Probably says more about me than it does the game…
The voice acting is largely pretty good, although given how little of value is ever said it can mostly be pretty much ignored as white-noise. For example, you will get given a mission, your character will enthusiastically agree, and when you complete it your current sycophant will very happily tell you that you are the best driver ever… And will sometimes say something Mexican.
Actually, the male voice actor for the protagonist is also worth mentioning just because of how blindingly earnest he plays the character. This is not a global superstar who goes around doing drugs and shagging groupies. No. He is clean-cut, eager, pleasant and just a lovely chap. A personal favourite line was when being told that he needs to drive a car very fast for a mission to collect some ecological data his response is: “Ecology? Count me in!” like he’s a children’s talk show presenter. Brilliant stuff.
Disappointingly as well, the things I was most drawn to in the game, the showcase mission (Top Gear races) are actually quite few and far between. In 15 hours of play I did the introductory one and then one other one (which was admittedly, also pretty cool). The rest of the time you are quite clearly supposed to be more excited in story missions because you get to drive new and exciting cars.
After some of the initial novelty of the setting and showcases wears off, which in my experience happens pretty quickly, because there’s absolutely no story or characters to drive interest (pun again intended) the only reason to keep coming back to the game is either the driving itself or the grind to collect cars.
The game has numerous ways of letting you collect cars. You win money from events and races which can be spent on buying and upgrading your cars, you also have a limited number of rare cars which can be found on the map, you earn them through season rewards and then also you have an absolutely insanely huge catalogue that can be won through a roulette wheel. These wheelspins occur every time you level up but then you can earn extra ones through dozens of different mechanisms. Most of the time you’re unlocking fairly boring shit like a 1994 BMW M3 or a Honda Civic or something, but even after around 10 hours of play I’d won two Legendary Supercar unlocks and also had enough money to get myself a couple of personal favourites. So, you’ll quickly get SOMETHING cool.
Once you’ve got one of the cool cars though, I feel the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Like, there are about 10 different Ferraris. And a petrolhead might proceed to rank them in order of most to least fuckable, but for me they are fairly interchangeable, and it sort of makes one question why bother going through the effort of trying to unlock all of them.
I will say though, a few years ago when the EU started to recognise loot boxes as being gambling for kids, I agreed with the decision logically but honestly had never felt the compulsion associated with unlocking more and more of them. With Forza, now for the first time I feel like I genuinely understand.
There’s a constant feeling of unlocking things and “winning” things. You get points constantly from driving around, whether you are crashing into things or not there is nearly constantly a counter which basically yells at you how well you are doing. You then level up from these, which unlocks wheelspins. You also gain “masteries” for cars (skill points) which you can use to get points more quickly, get in-game money and also get more wheelspins. You also get these things from completing races and other in-game challenges.
It feels like you are constantly winning something, like in a slot machine at a casino. You get lots and lots of small prizes so that you just keep pumping in more and more time and money.
I’ve said before that games like Factorio or Anno are addictive in that “just 5 more minutes” quality. Forza V feels addictive in a far more insidious way. As if it is ACTUALLY addictive. Each wheelspin just flicking the cortisol centres of my brain, making me want more points and more wheelspins. It’s a somewhat worrying feeling, that sensation that the game is somehow tricking me into enjoying it more.
I have a final couple of nits I want to pick as well. First of all, it really bothers me that you have to select a car prior to entering a race event screen. This means that if you performed fairly poorly in a race and want to try again with another car you cannot just restart and select a new car, no the easiest way to do it is to restart, then quit the race so that you are at the entrance, re-enter the race and THEN select your new car choice in the intermediate menu. It’s a pain in the arse.
I also am a bit baffled by the fact that the game always loads with you at your in-game house, rather than where you last logged out. This means that inevitably you will do all the events in a gradually expanding radius around your house, meaning you constantly and repeatedly have to drive further across the open-world to reach the rest you have yet to complete. It’s just a weird nuisance that seems like it ought to be easy to fix.
I think overall, the single biggest thing for Forza V for me is that it is just a racing game. Again, it does is extremely bloody well, but once the veneer and the novelty wears off, that’s really all that’s left. There is no story to speak of and the biggest draw for me, the Top Gear segments, are generally few and far between. It’s worth saying that the racing itself is genuinely amazing and extremely satisfying, so it clearly is doing its job very, VERY well. But for me it eventually comes back to the fact that… Well… It’s just driving very fast… For all of that though, there’s no denying that I do somewhat get the appeal. Despite the simplistic nature of the premise, it is quite simply good fun to do exactly that!
· Stunning visuals and it’s clearly been optimised to fuck and back because it runs really well
· Racing is incredible. It feels lively, full of action and skill, winning is satisfying. All in all, it’s just plain good fun
· Showcase events have that combination of Top Gear ridiculousness but also spectacle that makes them enjoyable to partake in
· The tone is just quite simply one of trying to have a good time
· Characters and story almost literally do not exist, which is to be expected but still isn’t exactly good
· Spectacular events are rare and eventually you come to terms with the fact that the game lives and dies on the racing alone
· Wheelspin mechanics feels the most like gambling I’ve ever experienced in any “games-as-a-service” game
· Without an encyclopaedic knowledge of cars, the vast majority just blur together