Livin' in a drifter’s paradise
After Forza Horizon 4’s UK-based experience, this time we’re in Mexico where we drive across sandy beaches, through jungle and mangroves, over sand dunes, down mountains and in towns and cities. Idyllic, if you like looking at the sights sideways.
You begin with the main event as usual, but to unlock specific kinds of experiences such as stunts, dirt racing etc., you have to gain enough XP to unlock a sub arena, then more XP to unlock more challenges and so on. Of the various festivals you can unlock, by far the best is street racing which allows you to take on the various NPC Drivatars (Or via co-op or just challenge someone passing by) on the streets, which have NPC cars driving about and aren’t fenced in, adding a more thrilling experience than the round and around again tracks of the main festival. But the main reason for Street Racing being the best of the bunch is it’s all on the roads. It’s once you’re off the road that things take a literal U-turn.
Away from the asphalt you’re endlessly spinning, sliding, correcting, over or under steering just to get somewhere and it takes the edge of the fun of actually driving a Lambo. Okay, a Lambo isn’t supposed to be driving through sand dunes but stop putting all the stunts and races there then. If you’re into drifting, this is the game for you. I spent at least half this game driving sideways. Mexico has a lot of open land, mud tracks, sand and countryside, which is lovely to explore but when trying to get anywhere, let alone ace the PR Stunts – beating speed cameras, danger jumps etc., it becomes a real frustration.
The Supercars, even ramped up to 10 for handling and with off-road tyres, just slide about with no precision and you spend forever grinding; the sound you’ll hear most is your engine revving as the tires spin, even in a 4x4. In FH4 you’d navigate rocks or get knocked off course by a bumpy field, but generally the cars would grip; here you can barely get the speed or accuracy to even attempt to ruin a good jump.
The story elements also take a u-turn into cliché too. In FH4 we had a Top Gear DLC, a Taxi company to run and got to be a stunt man driving classic cars from British film. Here, we have a bratty rich kid who’s driving team we have to beat, and in a cringe moment, learn how to drive from a Luchador.
The other good thing about FH4 was the UK’s unpredictable weather and the changing seasons. It was great going from snow and frozen lakes to wet spring, shining summer and slippery autumn. But in Mexico, it’s mostly always nice. Driving at night while lightning briefly illuminates the road is awesome, as is driving through gales and sideways rain, and you can actually spot a storm in the distance and drive into it, but they’re brief changes the same lovely sunny day that somehow adds to the sameness of it.
The biggest annoyance though is the insanely middle-class, pleasant attitude of the race organisers, and even my character. They’re so inoffensive it’s as if they accidently dropped in the audio from a Paw Patrol racing game. Even when you have rivalries within the story missions it’s all about working through our differences. The whole thing is so uber-Woke I’m amazed we actually win a race let alone celebrate it. We’re all winners just for taking part. At one point my Avatar, in a grudge race, said “I’m not here to win just to have fun”. Get out.
One thing that is commendable is the level of choice you have for your Avatar. I created my driver with what I thought were cool bionic legs until I realised they were amputee options. And now you can also ‘gift’ cars to random players. I gifted 7 cars and only got one for my entire playthrough. That’s not how gifting works! Admittedly I only gifted the crap cars I couldn’t sell at auction, but it’s the thought that counts.
This time around there’s a garage-busting 500 cars to collect, although you’ll only end up with one fave per class and stick with it. There’s a lot of car fodder but the limitless ways to alter and personalise can make them all special. You get to know the cars, their strengths and weaknesses, and ignore all that in favour of whichever you like the look of best. I thought I had the perfect, unbeatable S2-level Koenigsegg until fellow PW.com writer TheMorty decided to join in, and somehow ramped his starter Porsche to a X-class that constantly pissed all over it.
Still, criticisms about the gameplay and handling all come to nothing once you’re out in the world belting around in a dream car, pulling off stunts and winning races. And it only gets better once mates join in, even if it kinda feels like pissing about in a lobby waiting to get into the real game. We all share an online map and the game goes the distance trying to find ways for us to hang out and hook up. There’s constant seasonal updates and challenges, player-made tracks and things to explore. It’s a great place to doss about, spending hours piling around doing donuts, racing and watching each other muck up jumps. It’s a great hangout and far more fun than most co-ops where you’re forced to do stuff. Here you and mates can just take a drive and chat shit.
Ultimately, FH5 does what you expect, gives you a wide-open space and loads of cars to tear it up in. It looks beautiful and I lost hours and hours in Mexico. But for me, despite the ‘universal acclaim’ and it being Xbox Game Studios’ biggest ever launch, I was already having an amazing time in FH4. This hasn’t really added to the experience or improved it in a way that makes me want to leave FH4 behind. The styles of racing being separated and locked into the mini events feels forced, and the Story missions aren’t compelling. And as a free-roamer, the endless no-grip terrain is annoying. If I were in the market for a hyper-car free-roam drive-it-like-you-stole-it-but-no-one-will-mind game, I’d stick with Forza Horizon 4; it’s still popular, looks as good and has the same cars - and is now half the price. Mexico is an amazing place, just a shame I can only see it through a cloud of dust.