November 2021 feels like a different age for plenty of reasons, but the main one for us is that Forza Horizon 5 felt exciting and fun to play.
Fast forward just six months and one of the flagship Xbox Game Pass titles already feels stale and empty.
What has happened to Playground Games' title that was so well-reviewed on release?
All sizzle, no steak
Forza Horizon 5's hype before launch focused on all the shiny visuals of the Mexican map. From dust storms to shimmering oceans and dense jungles, it was a visual feast and to be fair to Playground Games they have delivered on that.
There were other promises too, like improved car models and a world that drew on the cultural heritage of Mexico. But when you peel the pre-release hype away, what players were left with was what everyone feared for.
A re-skin of Forza Horizon 4.
Now this is nothing new for seasoned Horizon players. The original game struck gold with its formula of open-world adventuring in cars of your dreams, but FH2 & 3 didn't do much to innovate off that, only expanding with better off-road performance.
FH4 introduced the seasonality of the map, the basic premise remained the same. It was this game that saw a huge explosion in the popularity of the series, thanks mostly to the weekly challenges and of course Xbox Game Pass.
This new audience, along with day 1 Game Pass availability, is what fueled the early success of FH5. But it looks like the newer Horizon fans have discovered what older ones already knew. These games do not change much.
Once you've explored the new map and smashed the bonus boards there really isn't that much to do.
One of the key aspects of Horizon games is social play. Be that convoying races with friends or playing silly games like hide & seek within the map. It's what kept FH4 alive for so long.
Unfortunately, social play was basically broken on release of Forza Horizon 5. While patches have since arrived to fix issues, the convoy system is still slow to connect and worryingly unstable for a lot of players.
Then there is the fact that FH5 did not bring new modes, race types, or really anything in the way of new gameplay mechanics.
Sure, there are blueprints and the Event Lab for those talented and dedicated creators to go to work on. But they are buried in menus and practically hidden to casual players when it comes to participating in them.
Add the fact that races against the AI have the same rubberbanding issues as the last game and you have a game that feels shallow, empty, and rather lifeless.
Players don't have a lot to do in Forza Horizon 5 anymore, with the main reason to return regularly being FOMO, or the fear of missing out.
With cars like the NIO EP9 and currently the Ferrari Testarossa only available as seasonal reward cars players have to come back to the game at specific times if they want to add these to their garage and not lose out on them.
It makes players begrudgingly log on to play, rather than picking up the game because they enjoy it and want to blast around the map.
It's not just Forza Horizon 5 that does this. Gran Turismo 7 has a similar mechanic with its super-expensive Legend Cars, inducing players to grind races repeatedly for credits to buy a car that is only available for a short time.
This just adds to player burnout and frustration.
Is Forza Horizon 5 dead?
So after just six months is Forza Horizon 5 dead? Well, not quite.
While current player numbers are not promising, at least on Steam (see image below), there is still some hope for FH5.
We know that there are at least two expansions coming to the game which will bring new areas to explore and challenges to complete.
There is also the promise of more cars landing via the Car Pass and Series updates.
These may see players return to the game, but without fresh modes and more stable social play it is hard to see FH5 having the longevity and quality of experience that Forza Horizon 4 had.
We know that Forza Horizon 6 is already in the works. With Forza Motorsport bringing changes to the overall physics engine there is some hope that FH6 will deliver a fresh experience. But players shouldn't get their hopes up when it comes to the future of this franchise.
What was a shining star of the arcade racing genre has started to feel stale and old. Playground Games can revive it with fresh modes and leaning into the evolving map idea that they have started to explore.
Whatever happens, FH5 is going to need some love if it wants to be relevant when games like Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown and Need For Speed 2022 arrive later this year.
*Since publication TDUSC has been delayed until 2023. Read more here.