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Forza Horizon 5 impresses at Gamescom 2021 gameplay preview

New gameplay footage showcases awesome rides, Fast and Furious-style airdrops and a closer look at the massive new Mexican game map.

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Forza Horizon 5 will feature the Mercedes-AMG One and the Ford Bronco Badlands on its cover.

Playground Games, Microsoft Studios

Microsoft Studios and Playground Games gave us another peek at Forza Horizon 5 at Gamescom 2021 this week. The previewed gameplay consists of the opening "showcase" mission that players will experience when starting Horizon 5 for the first time. The Forza series is somewhat known for setting an epic tone with its intro sequences and Horizon 5, it seems, will be no exception.

Forza Horizon 5 is the latest entry in the Forza Horizon series of racing games, which is the casual, arcade racing counterpart to Microsoft Studios and Turn 10's more serious Forza Motorsport racing sim titles. We chatted up Mike Brown, Forza Horizon 5's Creative Director at Playground Games, for more details about what players can expect from the game beyond that first taste of speed.

Each segment of the showcase begins with a Fast and Furious 7-esque vehicular airdrop from a colorful cargo plane into the game's fictionalized representation of Mexico. The first ride we meet is the 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands, one of two vehicles that will grace Horizon 5's cover art. The Bronco parachutes onto the top of a snow-capped and active Gran Caldera volcano -- the highest point ever for a Forza game on a map that's 50% larger than Horizon 4's UK map -- before descending rapidly to the Baja desert where we get an oh-so-brief preview of the game's off-road circuit.

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We get our first look at Forza Horizon 5's opening mission at Gamescom 2021.

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

Horizon 5 will offer a wide mix of game types and activities, new and old, beyond simple point-to-point and circuit racing. There's a new casual Horizon Tour mode that combines a virtual car meet -- where players can check out each other's liveries -- with a co-op championship against a team of Drivatars, the Forza series' AI-powered drivers. Horizon 4's Eliminator battle royale mode returns and promises tweaks that make it more fun on the new, larger map. There are also Horizon Arcade minigames strewn across the open world and a new EventLab toolset that allows players to create and share custom events. EventLab promises to be surprisingly robust with game rule scripting and customization that should elevate it beyond just building custom tracks.

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Driving, both on-road and off, is a key component of Forza Horizon 5, but that doesn't always mean racing, specifically.

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

"Forza Horizon 5 is an open-world driving game," says Brown. "A lot of what you do in the game will be racing, but at the same time, if you didn't ever really want to do a race, that is OK. I think you probably have to do one showcase event towards the start, but after that if you didn't want to do another race, you could play through the entire game and that would be totally fine. The game would support you in that. You could progress through exploring the world, taking part in PR stunts, through Horizon stories through finding all of the bonus boards; there are a ton of different avenues through which you can progress your game that don't have to be racing."

The next vehicle to get airdropped into the sequence is a 2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, which hits the ground running for a bit of on-road driving. During this segment, I got a peek at one of Horizon 5's new weather conditions, a massive dust storm. The game's new weather system means that conditions like the dust storm can be localized to a portion of the map, seen kicking up on the horizon from other points far across the map and then driven to and experienced by the player. Horizon 4's weather conditions, by comparison, happened homogeneously across the entire game world.

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Vehicle customization will still be a big part of the Forza Horizon experience. Check out this widebody Corvette Stingray.

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

Forza Horizon 4's weekly seasons will be returning for the series' fifth entry, though obviously they'll work differently in Mexico than they did in the UK. During the winter, there will be snow, but only in high-altitude areas such as the top of the volcano. More dramatic will be the difference between wet and dry seasons, with riverbeds filling up and drying out between weekly seasons, changing the way you're able to traverse the map.

Next up in the showcase is the Porsche 911 Desert Flyer, which crash lands in the Mexican jungle, one of 11 separate biomes featured in Horizon 5 ranging from rocky coastal areas to the surprisingly green living desert to snow-capped mountains to urban zones and cities like Guanajuato. The jungle in the preview shows off air thick with humidity and haze, dense foliage and roads pocked with water and mud.

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Eleven different biomes are represented in Forza Horizon 5's Mexico map, from deserts to jungles to an active volcano,

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

"There are different types of mud in the game, which have different levels of reaction," Brown explained. "There's full-3D, deformable mud that you'll leave massive trenches in. There's other mud that's thinner where you'll leave tire tracks. All of it will give a big kick up as you pass through it and stick to the side of your car or the side of other cars if you're driving past them."

Beyond the mud, Horizon 5 promises to be the best looking entry in the series yet. On the Xbox Series X, I'm told to expect the highest detail with 4K graphics and the highest quality lighting and shadows available. Horizon 5 is the first Forza game to feature ray traced graphics, but only in the game's stationary Forzavista mode, where players can explore the details of each car, inside and out. Series S players should expect mostly the same high quality graphics and even ray tracing, but at 1080p rather than 4K. The game will even run on the original Xbox One, though detail will likely be scaled way back for the older hardware.

After the Porsche reaches Ekʼ Balam -- one of the recreated temple sites that Horizon players will be able to explore -- rousing a flamboyance of flamingos upon arrival, the showcase switches gears to feature the Formula 1-powered Mercedes-AMG One, the second and most prominent car featured on Forza Horizon 5's cover art. After dropping from the cargo plane, the One makes a final sprint to the Horizon Festival which, as in previous titles, serves as the central hub of Forza Horizon 5's various activities. 

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The Mercedes-AMG One will feature selectable driving modes, just like in real life, that affect the look and performance in-game.

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

In game, the AMG One will feature different player-selectable driving modes, a first for Forza Horizon or Motorsport. Just like in real life, the One's Track mode lowers the hyper car's suspension, elevates the rear wing and opens up various aerodynamic intakes and flaps around the body. Players will be able to activate the Track mode while driving around and virtually feel how it affects the performance of the car in game. It's unclear whether other cars in the game will also feature user-toggled drive modes.

During the three years since Horizon 4's debut, Forza's designers were able to invest more time tweaking Horizon 5's physics engine for a better balance of realism and playability. For example, they've rebuilt the way suspension simulation works in the game, so vehicles should react more naturally with the road surface. Similar updates have been made to simulation of brake pads and discs. Perhaps most importantly to longtime Forza fans, the reproduction of engine and exhaust sounds should also be improved, shoring up what many (myself included) believe is Forza's biggest Achilles' heel.

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Playground Games promises "hundreds of cars, more than any previous Forza game" for Horizon 5's launch.

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

Forza Horizon 5 is set to release in November 2021 for Xbox One, Series X and Series S consoles and PCs running Microsoft Windows. Horizon 5's full roster of vehicles has not yet been announced, but during the preview I spotted a Porsche Taycan, a McLaren Speedtail, a Koenigsegg Jesko and a Ford GT -- which previously featured as the cover car for Forza Motorsport 6 -- in addition to the showcase's four hero cars. Playground Games promises "hundreds of cars, more cars at launch than any of our previous titles." We expect to learn more about the lineup of launch and DLC cars over the coming months.