Forza Horizon 5: Talking real-world influences, next-gen optimisations, and system overhauls
We were able to speak to Creative Director Mike Brown ahead of its November release.
With it being crowned as the most anticipated game of E3 2021, Forza Horizon 5 certainly made a bold impression when it raced onto the stage during Microsoft & Bethesda's showcase. Its setting may have leaked beforehand, but we were still blown away by its diverse Mexican setting and its gorgeous visuals, which only seemed possible due to the power of the Xbox Series. Following the game's grand reveal, we were able to speak to Creative Director Mike Brown, and we were able to discuss topics such as its setting, its Xbox Series version, and the infamous leak that led it to being revealed ahead of schedule.
Gamereactor: Why was Mexico chosen as the setting of the game, and what is your criteria for selecting new countries?
Mike: Our criteria isn't always the same for every game. I think depending on what we achieve and don't achieve on a particular title will inform what our criteria will be for the next game. This time around when we started the process, which was really shortly after Horizon 4 had released, we knew that we wanted to make the biggest Horizon yet. We know the way that our players play, we know that they really love to explore these open worlds, we know that they like to spend a lot of time hanging out with friends in these open worlds and by making them a bigger space, you just have so much more excitement and fun.
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You don't get that far down that path of wanting to make the biggest open world before you realise there's no point doing that if you are just providing them more of the same, so therefore, it has to be the most diverse open world we have ever built. That then limits you to quite a small list of countries. Mexico we loved because it's like the whole world in one country. And that perhaps isn't obvious to everybody, but once you look into it it's got snowy mountains, volcanos, epic canyons, amazing beaches, historic cities and also modern towns. It just has so many types of biomes and ecotypes that allow for us to create a really interesting open world that we believe will be really really fun for people to explore.
Gamereactor: What are some of the real-world locations that have inspired the open world?
Mike: The main city that you will have seen on the map is Guanajuato, which is a really large beautiful city which is several hundred years old, so it's one of the cities that is older than cars. Weirdly, that makes it really fun to drive in. You find that most cities that have been designed in the last 100 years have really straight and flat roads, which are great for driving on when you have just got to go and visit your parents, but aren't so good for driving on in an open world game where you really want it to be a bit more exciting.
That's the main city that is really inspired by and replicating the actual city, but we also have a town called Mulegé, which is a traditional rural desert town that has vibrant colours and really beautiful architecture. A lot of the other areas in the world, whilst inspired by real places in Mexico, we have taken artistic liberty in order to make them our own and suit our gameplay purposes.
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Gamereactor: How does the Mexican climate affect the season system?
Mike: The game does feature seasons. That was actually a requirement after seasons became such an important part of our game in Forza Horizon 4. We wanted to make sure any country that we went to next also had an interesting representation of seasons. I have to admit, when we started that did make us think that Mexico might not work and it wasn't until we did that extra bit of research that we realised that Mexico has really interesting seasons.
It's a big country, but it's mostly because it has real elevation change, like it has massive mountain ranges and obviously the coasts are at sea level and that means that in different regions of the world, you get really different seasonality. In winter in the mountains, it gets snowy and you can get blizzards, but winter is actually the dry season in Mexico, so if you head down to the coast it'll be like 28 degrees, a beautiful sunny day and it never rains. At the same time in the same open world, you can leave a blizzard, drive down the side of a hill and go over to a blazing hot beach.
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Gamereactor: How does the Xbox Series enable you to bring these seasons to life?
Mike: We have now introduced really cool weather events in certain seasons. So in the dry season we have dust storms, which you will have seen in our E3 trailer, and during the storm season we have tropical storms, as well. Both of those make really great use of the power of the Series X to really ramp up the atmosphere of the effects. Both of them are regional as well, so you can see that tropical storm coming up the coast and drive towards it. It's not just a case of painting itself across the whole map, it's actually a regional three-dimensional thing that you drive towards and explore.
Gamreactor: How has the core driving experience changed in Horizon 5?
Mike: Obviously, we started from a position where we have a really great physics model and a really great handling system. It's important to understand that any investments you make there are going to be small-ish changes, but something that we have not been able to do before was a pretty big overhaul on some of our physics handling systems. We were only able to do this as we had a three-year development cycle this time, so there was a little bit more room for us to make these investments and do this work.
We have been able to overhaul our suspension and braking systems, they're now more authentic to real life. In terms of the suspension, it now better handles off-road surfaces and it does it in more of a simulation way, so the suspension behaves much more realistically to how a real car would. Interestingly, despite the fact that we have increased the simulation, it actually makes it more accessible - the car behaves in a more predictable way than it did in our previous games. With brakes, we now have a more granular braking system, so as you're squeezing the trigger there is much more movement in the brakes that simulates the brakes clipping the discs in a more authentic way.
Gamereactor: How does Horizon 5 build upon its predecessors with its online mode?
Mike: Horizon 4 became a shared world for the first time and we made real efforts there to make it as welcoming as a place as we could and because of that I think people ended up treating it as a social space where they would come and hang out with their friends, which was great for us and it's a type of player that we really want to make sure that we are serving well.
So we have a huge suite of social and online features, really low friction and high fun multiplayer activities that you can just take part in with your friends. These are things like the Pinata Pop that we saw during the E3 show. That's an event that just springs up in the world that you just have to drive over to and you're taking part in it. You don't have to go through the pause menu or any UI or go through a loading screen or anything like that. All the world is just filled with these little social activities that can spring up and give us things to do when we're just hanging out in the beautiful shared world of Mexico.
Gamereactor: How has being acquired by Microsoft impacted development at Playground Games?
Mike: I have spoken to a few developers who have joined Microsoft over the last few years, so I can't say what I'm about to say applies to all of them, but it applies to all of the ones that I have spoken to and that is that hardly anything changes. I think that Xbox Games Studios kind of knows or have learned that when you are acquiring these studios, you are acquiring them because they come with a culture and a way of doing things and people that are used to a certain way of making games and the best way to have success with these studios is to allow them to continue doing it in that way and that has absolutely been true for us.
I think the number one change is that we now have pretty friction-free communication with other studios, which means that when we are encountering a problem, be that with technology or some sort of systems or tools or even just for a design, we can reach out to another Xbox game studio and say "hey, we know you did this thing with whatever bit of technology, can you tell us how to do it?" Everyone is really warm and welcoming and willing to share their ideas and technologies, which is great and something we didn't have access to.
Gamereactor: Forza Horizon 5 was obviously leaked ahead of its reveal at E3. What was the reaction internally when it emerged that details had been let out?
Mike: Obviously, the games industry is very secretive and we do try and keep everything under wraps and the reason for that is, especially with E3, there is a real showmanship to it - it is really exciting to do a big reveal. The fact that a lot of people knew that Horizon 5 was going to be there and that it was going to be Mexico kind of deflates the excitement of that a little. On the flip side, when you're coming up to E3 there is a lot of anxiety. We have really fallen in love with Mexico over the last few years, but that's not to say everyone else is going to love Mexico when we show it or are going to want to play a driving game in Mexico.
But as soon as that leak happened, everyone's comments were like "ah, what a great idea, Mexico would be brilliant," and I was like "Yesssss!" So there was that element of it that it allowed us to almost test Mexico out without us having to announce anything.
If you want to find out more on Forza Horizon 5's soundtrack you can click here and you can also click this link if you want to know more about the game's Expedition Mode. Forza Horizon 5 is releasing on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series on November 9, 2021