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A race to the horizon

Forza Horizon 5 Vs Forza Horizon 4

The Forza Horizon franchise quickly and efficiently carved out its own space that no other game or franchise has been able to compete on. Using the foundation of the Forza Motorsport series – drivatars, physics, handling systems, etc. – Horizon added a lighter tone, open-world activities, and casual options for racing, to provide a fantasy that modern racers never wanted to; the ultimate road trip, where the road is an entire country and the cars are as exotic and expensive as in real life, yet easily acquirable. Not as bonkers and goofy as Burnout, not a full-on simulation like Forza Motorsport, but just enough of both placed in an enticing context to appeal to a wide audience. Despite this, it was Forza Horizon 4 that made a breakthrough to a wide audience with Xbox’s new game service, Game Pass, being the perfect vessel for people who would enjoy this type of game to actually give it a shot; someone like me, who enjoys open-world shenanigans and driving fast in digital worlds, but would never actually spend 60 euros on a game that is just that. Horizon 4 was also the entry that actually shook things up and presented new ideas and gimmicks that actually made Horizon unique and something that felt like a balance of genres rather than a compromise. Then, Horizon 5 came out and truly overshadowed its predecessor in every measurable way; more players in less time; better critical reception; better fan reaction; changes that slightly adjust the overall experience but have made the end product “better”. I love Horizon 5 and I’ve left its predecessor in my rearview mirror alongside the community, but I disagree that it is a better game; it’s a game that is more aware of what the community wants and is better at delivering on that, but I’ve missed a lot of aspects of Horizon 4 and in this article, I’m going to showcase why – not as an attempt to drop Horizon 5 down a notch, but as an appreciation of 4 and as a showcase of why 5 succeeded for most.

Let’s start with the “boring” stuff; UI changes that were made just for the sake of changing something but are worse than what came before. Lots of franchises do this, especially ones with yearly releases, but Horizon 5’s UI is basically the same with 4, however it does make changes that are for the worst. The Festival Playlist is a great example; it’s still the same, however, the images and style have taken over information that was clearer in 4. As a result, in 4 I would check the playlist to see which rewards sounded interesting to me and which events gave the most points so that I could do those as well; in 5, that information is still there but I just can’t be bothered to find it in the playlist menu and instead have to check each event individually on the map screen. Then, there’s the stuff that makes the game look bad like still having the ‘payout’ section in the message screen, despite that part of the game being cut (more on that later). Having said that, my biggest gripe with the game’s visuals has to do with a change of style; while touring Mexico and stumbling upon its many impressive sceneries, I can easily say that Horizon 5 is a visual upgrade technically. Draw distance, fidelity, no visible pop-in, and no real issues handling the technical demands. However, I find that I miss the art style of Horizon 4; the yellow leaves of fall, the frozen lakes of winter, the clear skies of spring, the heat of summer. You can still find all these elements in Horizon 5, but the ‘feeling’ is different; Horizon 4 had me logging in each week for a couple of days to get my daily and weekly tasks done for each season and I never grew tired of that world, because each week it was a different season. The lake one week would be frozen and the next it would be filled with water; roads would have the golden leaves of fall color the tarmac, while the next it would be slippery because of the snow. It’s not really the gameplay changes that kept me coming back – and I do empathize with people not wanting to spend an entire week in a snowy open-world – but it was the artistry and the feeling of playing the same game with new parameters; I empathize with people not wanting to be forced into a car that can handle snow, but I loved that. It made winter seasons more about open-world shenanigans, about spinning out of corners constantly and trying to keep that combo meter going, while seasons like the summer were all about setting or beating records and getting 3 stars on activities.

Evidently, I was in the minority on that last point, because the biggest change that Horizon 5 makes, is that it gave people exactly what they wanted; Horizon 4 was criticized for how long it would take for multiplayer to open up as the 8-hour prologue had to be completed first – Horizon 5 only takes 10 minutes before the entire world is available for you and your mates. Horizon 4 demanded that you interact with each of its components to progress; Horizon 5 rewards you even if you never enter a race. Honestly, I like some of these changes a lot; I love that I can spend an entire session just mucking about and still feel like I progressed through the game in a meaningful way, whereas in Horizon 4 I was only incentivized to do that after I had “completed” the main path. In Horizon 5, instead of progressing through a campaign, players are given a list of accolades that they can complete in order to reach the next threshold and unlock the next stage of the campaign; once that is done, you are now in the “Hall of fame” and you have some extra accolades to complete should you wish to do so or just keep getting the old ones. I was surprised at how well this worked; some of those campaign unlocks were purely achieved through mocking about, which just allowed me to play the game the way I wanted from the start. That is also a shame because had this been my first Horizon game, I would have never fallen in love with mocking about or off-road racing because I was solely focused on fast and exotic cars when I jumped into Horizon 4, but I finished the prologue with an appreciation and a desire for other styles of play; its more freedom at the expense of not having to try ideas that you may like but have no reason to assume that or try them out for more than one race or event.

Thus, it’s not the structure that made me feel like Horizon 4 is a better game – it’s more the content that Horizon 4 offered. The best example of it are the “story” events and their “downgrade” in Horizon 5. Obviously, this is purely subjective, but there is one thing that is not; removing the ‘daily payouts’ from these events makes them less interesting and also makes the game feel more grindy, even if the economy seems to balance out. However, given that most of those events had to have a ‘daily payout’ it allowed the devs to have some fun with those events and add character to them that is sorely missing in 5. Take, for instance, the exotic car rental business from 4; this was an opportunity for players of all progression states to drive the fanciest cars and put their skills to the test with tracks that always began in busy city roads, which meant that finding the most effective route was always tricky and interesting. Even without the payouts, those story events were a delight; recreating classic games like Outrun; drift clubs; a delivery service with a van that Vin Diesel would be proud to drive in Fast & Furious. In Horizon 5, there is a rehash of the stunt driver story from 4 and glorified tours of the map; the only standout is the luchador training, which tries to be goofy and is actually challenging to get 3 stars. This doesn’t make them obsolete, by the way, it just makes them less interesting than what came before, just like houses. In Horizon 4, you could buy a castle, complete with one of the most challenging danger sign activities on your lawn; in Horizon 5, you buy houses that all look…nice? I understand the restrictions of working within a real location and wanting to create a coherent world that remains faithful to the actual country, but that is also what Horizon 4 did without forgetting to have some fun with it.

To wrap this up, like I wrote before if a new player asks me which one to get into first, I would say Horizon 5 at the moment. It’s where the community is at this time, the changes it does make are much friendlier to newcomers, there is an emphasis on community spirit with gift cars and multiple arcade events (basically pop-up multiplayer events with random tasks for players who want to join), multiplayer being open immediately is a great change, and it allows for meaningful progression in any way you want to play. However, despite spending a lot of time with it and planning to spend so much more, I still prefer Horizon 4 over 5 and do hope that some of its ideas and features are implemented back into 5 or future sequels.

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