Forza Horizon 5 was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Microsoft’s Xbox Bethesda Showcase at E3 2021 in June. And while the fifth entry in Playground Games’ critically acclaimed open-world racing series was always bound to turn heads, it’s the stunning, almost photorealistic recreation of Mexico that really left a lasting impression on fans.
Forza Horizon 5’s chosen setting promises to provide players with more diverse environments to drive through than ever before. From silky-smooth sand dunes and wide-open highways to perilous rocky terrain and dense jungles, each biome offers a new gameplay experience for racing enthusiasts to enjoy.
In an exclusive interview, TechRadar spoke to developer Playground Games about Forza Horizon 5’s ambitious new locale, the challenges behind delivering the biggest map yet, and what it was like developing the game on Xbox Series X.
The first question seems like an obvious one: how does the team choose a brand-new locale for every Forza Horizon game? While everybody probably has a dream location in mind (Japan, please) Playground Games’ creative director Mike Brown said the decision on where to take the Horizon festival next is often shaped by numerous factors.
“It’s always a decision that we labor on the most,” says Brown. “We put an incredible amount of effort into making sure that we are making the right decision with that. And we always have a number of criteria that we want to achieve. They tend to be different from game to game, to be honest, and that’s probably part of the reason that we end up in different locations each time.”
Making the biggest Forza Horizon game ever
One criteria that was clear from the outset for Forza Horizon 5 was that the team wanted to make it the biggest game in the series to date, something which an extra year of development time certainly helped with.
“This time, we knew from the start that we wanted to make the biggest Horizon game ever,” says Brown. “We knew that we were going to take an extra year, we were gonna give ourselves some more time and wanted to make some big investments into tech tools and loads of different areas of the game. And one of those areas of course was the world as well, and we knew we wanted it to be huge. So that was kind of the starting point.”
But choosing a huge world comes with its own set of challenges. There’s no point having a gigantic play space if there isn’t much to do, something which Brown said the team was all too aware of. “There’s no point being massive if all that extra space is filled with the same stuff,” he explains.
Having the biggest map in a Horizon game also required a lot of new technical considerations, specifically when it came to the game’s volcano.
“It was a challenge, not just because of the bigger map, but because you can get so high up, and you get these amazing views from the top of the volcano. You can pretty much see across the entire map, so it was a challenge to make sure that those biomes blended in naturally with each other,” says Forza Horizon 5’s art director Don Arceta.
But it’s not just what you can see in the distance. Arceta notes that the team had to pay close attention to how things look up close, and spent countless hours capturing data over a period of months to ensure that Mexico looks exactly as you’d expect it to in real life.
“You know, our team is super talented. And we’ve got all our learnings from Forza Horizon one, all the way through four. And we really kind of paid attention to what things look like in the distance, as well as paying attention to how things look up close, and how detailed things get with all of our scanning and photogrammetry.”
While Mexico might seem like an obvious choice after seeing Forza Horizon 5’s stunning announcement trailer, Brown admits that it wasn’t an immediately obvious choice. However, once the team began the process of researching Mexico, they quickly discovered that it was the perfect fit.
“I will admit that when we started that process [picking a location], I didn’t expect Mexico to deliver in the way that it did,” Brown says candidly. “I think probably from the way that Mexico is portrayed in pop culture and the way that I would perhaps think about it as a holiday destination, I didn’t really think about the sheer breadth of diversity and different biome types it has. But once we started to research and piece things together, it just became an incredible option.”
But it wasn’t just Mexico’s many biomes that factored into Playground Games’ decision. The country’s culture played a pivotal role in solidifying the studio’s choice, something which is portrayed with care in the game.
“As well as the diversity of the world, Mexico is just a great place culturally with the people, the music, the artwork. All of that stuff comes together to give us a location that is just absolutely perfect for an open-world driving game like Horizon,” Brown explains.
From the UK to Mexico
Mexico’s unique landscapes are also set to create brand new gameplay possibilities that wouldn’t have been possible in Forza Horizon 4’s chosen locale of the UK. While smashing through drywalls and down the streets of Edinburgh was extremely satisfying, Mexico will kick things up another gear due to its big open spaces, which should please those who like to put the pedal to the metal.
“One of the cool differences [that Mexico offers over the UK] is the extra space, especially the desert biomes. They give us room to have really long sweeping roads that really allow the cars to go up to incredible speeds,” Brown tells us. “You can do that on the UK map on the motorway, but the rest of the roads were kept traditionally British, which means that there were a lot of ancient roads with a lot of twists and turns, and bumps and stuff… which Mexico has as well, but Mexico also benefits from the kind of big open spaces where you can have a really long stretch of tarmac that allows you to get your car up to near enough 300 miles an hour, which is the thing that we knew the players wanted – it’s the thing that our car list has in spades, we have so many cars that can do that. And the Horizon 4 map didn’t have that many places where we could really let them stretch their legs.”
As Brown explains, recreating a locale faithfully naturally imposes restrictions on what the team can do. It wouldn’t make sense to stick a jungle in the middle of the British countryside, nor would the idea of shoehorning in other elements. Not only does Mexico allow these types of additions, but it also creates new gameplay opportunities as a result.
“Going into the jungle, it’s a place that’s obviously really dense and packed, it’s full of different types of plant life. But it’s also really humid, really wet. There’s a ton of rivers and waterfalls and lakes… and all that stuff in there allows for races that are dipping in and out of water all the time – it gives you really interesting things to think about when you’re customizing your car when you’re choosing your car for those races.”
It’s Mexico’s distinct biomes, then, that really should have players excited, something which art director Don Arceta was keen to express.
“With the biomes being so diverse, they contrast each other so much. You’re dealing with so many different driving surfaces, you know, different tarmac in each biome is kind of unique: you know, it’s more cracked up in the volcano area and then you go down to the east coast and it’s just a lot more well maintained,” Arceta tells us. “So the variance of the surfaces across the world, because of the biomes, make it quite different as well.”
Speaking of which, there are 11 biomes in total that coexist in Forza Horizon 5: The Living Desert, Sand Desert, Rocky Coast, Farmland, Arid Hills, Volcano, Canyon, Jungle, Tropical Coast, and the Urban city of Guanajuato. Each of these biomes provides the most geo-diverse driving experience to date for a Horizon game, as well as localized seasons and weather conditions such as tropical storms that develop in real-time.
Arceta was given the daunting task of providing us with a greater insight into what each biome contains, something which he handled with aplomb.
The Living Desert
“The Living Desert has all the giant cacti and Boojum trees, that are kind of alien-looking, and really interesting rock formations. It’s full of foliage, very green, a lot of wildflowers show up in certain seasons,” Arceta tells us.
“The sand dunes have silky-smooth velvety sand,” Arceta explains. “You can see the sand wisping over the dunes, and it’s a very different experience due to its topology.”
“That leads us to our Rocky Coast, which features the Arch of Cabo San Lucas,” Arceta explains. “You get some beautiful sunsets and sunrises over there.”
“The Farmland is very interesting as it shows a lot of crops that are native to Mexico, which gives a different feel to the landscapes we’ve seen in previous games,” Arceta notes.
“Near the Farmland area we have our Arid Hills biome, which is very undulating and hilly, as it says in the name,” Arceta says. “But you’ll see a lot of wild prickly pear cactuses that you’ll smash through, a lot of pockets of dense trees that you’ll have to avoid when you’re bee-lining across, so it’s a very nice and different experience there.”
“Obviously we have our volcano as well, which is the highest peak in a Horizon game to date,” Arceta acknowledges. “You get some amazing views up there, and it probably undergoes the most dramatic seasonal change as well where, in winter, it becomes completely snow-capped.”
“In the Canyon, it’s all about vertically and scale. It’s actually pretty awesome there during early mornings as you’ll see the sun hitting one side of the canyon which gives that beautiful kind of red rim of sunlight across there,” Arceta tells us. “And the Canyon is an awesome place that plays up our ray tracing audio. When you’re gunning it down there, you’ll hear all your car sounds bouncing off the walls and yeah, it’s pretty awesome.”
“The Jungle just invites the player to explore,” Arceta enthuses. “You kind of feel like you’re in an Indiana Jones movie, discovering these ruins and temples and some beautiful waterfalls throughout the jungle as well. It’s probably the best place to kind of just go exploring.”
“I love the abandoned airstrip there that’s been reclaimed by nature,” adds Brown. “It’s all become overgrown and stuff. It’s a really cool area to explore.”
“Swamp, which is obviously near the Jungle, has these very rooty Mangrove trees dotted around in shallow waters,” Arceta says. “It’s a very different driving experience, as you’re kind of trudging through mud, smashing through the roots of these trees. It’s a more exploratory, slow-paced area I guess.”
“It gives some really interesting choices when you’re playing in multiplayer as well,” adds Brown. “When you’re in free roam, you can often get through there relatively quickly, but it will affect you in multiplayer if someone’s picked a car with a higher ride height than you.”
“In contrast to our Rocky Coasts, this is like the postcard that people usually think of when they think of Mexico, I assume: palm trees, white beaches, loungers, huts and whatnot,” Arceta says. “If you want to feel like you’re on vacation, that’s the area you want to go to.”
“So Guanajuato is our urban biome. It’s an amazing city, it’s colorful, multi-layered,” Arceta explains. “It’s full of history and some amazing Spanish colonial architecture, and yeah, again it plays up that ray tracing audio as well, with the sound just bouncing off because of the narrow roads.”
Changing of the seasons
Fans of Forza Horizon 4 will be delighted to hear that Seasons are returning for Forza Horizon 5, though once again, it’s the real-life Mexico that has shaped how they feature in-game.
“When it’s winter, then you do get snow at high altitudes. The top of the volcano, it’ll get thick snow, the lake freezes over, and you can get blizzards up there,” Brown says. “But in say December, that isn’t actually cold in all of Mexico in real life. So if you drive down to the beach, you’ll still be pretty warm, you’ll still get bright sunny days. And so you can have a blizzard at the top of the mountain whilst it’s a clear sunny day down by the coast.”
Forza Horizon 5 will also include localized seasons and weather this time around, which means you can see a storm breaking in the distance, something which has been facilitated by the game’s larger map.
“We do have regional weather,” Arceta tells us. “In our autumn season, we have these tropical storms that show up in certain areas of the map. And the fact that our map is a lot bigger allows us to do that, so it doesn’t feel like it’s just right in front of you. And yeah, so you can see the storm from a distance and actually appreciate it and could choose like, ‘do I want to have that experience right now?’ And then yeah, you’re in the eye of the storm.
“In other seasons, we have our dust storms, where it makes sense, because you wouldn’t want a dust storm in the jungle. It just doesn’t make sense,” Arceta explains.
Living the Mexican life
So Forza Horizon 5 sounds like it will provide a convincing recreation of Mexico, but what about the country’s rich culture?
“We really wanted to be as authentic to [Mexico’s culture] as possible and not do a kind of version of it that, you know, isn’t respectful,” Arceta says. “We worked with Mexican actors, musicians, artists to make sure that it was as authentic and respectful as we could be with their culture.”
Designing the game for Xbox Series X/S
Seen by many as the first Xbox Series X game that will truly harness the power of Microsoft’s flagship console, there were also some concerns that Forza Horizon 5 could be hampered in some way by releasing on the aging Xbox One. Brown doesn’t share this concern, however.
“Since Forza Horizon 3, we’ve been on PC, so we’ve been a multiplatform developer for quite some time. We’re already used to building a game that can work across a variety of different system specs,” Brown says. “The Series X [version], it does look fantastic. The power that it gives us to cram so much detail into every scene, and just to even have those assets that are so densely packed but they’re just drawing out so far as well. It allows you to create these scenes that just look real, that don’t kind of have that video gaming feel to them. It’s been really exciting, honestly, to work on those consoles.”
A dream drive
It’s clear that Forza Horizon 5 is shaping up to be the biggest and most diverse game in Playground Games’ popular racing series to date. And with a release date of November 5, 2021, as well as being available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers on day one, we won’t have to wait too much longer before we can get to hit the open road and experience the wonders of Mexico for ourselves.