For me, cars have always just been a tool. They get me from point A to point B. I need a car to do things like go to work or get groceries. So I've never been a "car guy." I don't care about cars. I'm not impressed by cars. I don't know the difference between one model and another or what price range a given made and model might fall into. I can't drive manual, and when I bought my last car the biggest factors were how comfortable it felt to sit in and how good my phone sounded through bluetooth.
I go into all of this detail to point out that because of the above, I've never really been all that into racing games that are super realistic. I have no fetishism for fancy cars, so why would something like Forza appeal to me? Really the majority of my racing game history has revolved around arcade style games. Daytona USA is an absolute classic. So is Outrun. But beyond those, I've probably spent far more time with Mario Kart and Sonic Racing games.
There was one odd and random exception. Back in 2014 I somehow got a free copy of the game The Crew. This was an open world racing game by Ubisoft that got pretty middling reviews. But I did have a good time with it. Mostly, I just ignored the goals of the game and spent my time driving reckless and aimlessly.
But having picked up an Xbox Series X recently, I've been in the mood to play something that really highlights the graphical power of the system. Forza Horizon 5 is a critical darling that certainly checks off all the boxes. On the Series X it's got a performance mode and I think ray tracing, which I'm not even sure what it is but I know is all the rage. It's something to do with light, right? All I know is that it's a gorgeous showpiece for the hardware, with my wife commenting that the game looks like "someone just took a video of driving around the real world."
Anyway, in The Crew I mostly ignored the game itself and just did what I felt like. I'd come up with my own fun, doing things like hopping on a highway going the wrong way and seeing how long I could last at full speed without crashing. It was a fine enough sandbox, but the actual game missions? They never sucked me in.
Forza Horizon 5 on the other hand? Oh man. Now this is a good driving game.
If there's any one word I'd use to describe Forza Horizon 5 it would be freedom. There's so many menus that let you tweak how you want to approach this one. It's not just about a Normal, Easy and Hard difficulty. Nope. There's all kinds of things you can finetune, be it obvious stuff like manual vs automatic shifting to how much brake assist you want, or what you want on the UI or what kind of icons you want on the map or how deep you want the GPS to get. It's almost head-spinning at first, especially as more and more icons start popping up giving you different challenges and diversions. In many ways, this feels like the map of a super deep RPG.
By the way, all those icons popping up all over the map are pretty much the crux of the game. At any given moment, there are about eight million things you could be doing and all of them offer up some XP. That's amazing to me, actually. Not only am I given XP for driving well or drifting or going really fast or performing near misses... I'm even given XP for knocking down street signs or damaging property. It's kind of freeing to feel like however you choose to play, you'll be rewarded on some level.
My first impression of Horizon 5 was mixed. I enjoyed the AAA presentation all the way down to the little things like the game just knowing my first name. I was wowed by the incredible visuals while playing in performance mode on my Series X. But I was also truly terrible at handling the cars. This is a sim racing game at heart so my Mario Kart skills wouldn't really carry over. Luckily, enough tweaking of the menu helped me find a balance of help and challenge and suddenly I went from twelfth place in races to sixth and sometimes even first.
I also started to find the appeal of the open world. Sometimes I want to compete in races. Sometimes I want to seek out hidden garages that hide rare car unlocks. Sometimes, I want to just pick a direction and drive. And thanks to the way XP works, all of these feel like they're productive options in the big picture.
Once I obtained a Bugatti (and dozens of other cars), I started to feel really comfortable cruising around at top speeds. And it became a nightly routine to log in, knock a few icons of the map, and then move on to something else. I think at this point I've like seven or eight hours into Horizon 5, which isn't a lot given the amount of content in the game. But, eight hours in a racing game - a genre that I barely pay any attention to - speaks volumes about the appeal of this one. While I can't see myself focusing solely on Horizon 5 long enough to see the credits roll, I can see this being viable game that I'd come back to from time to time to eek out a bit more progress, or just cruise around with the virtual wind in my hair.