Forza Horizon 5 Drone Mode brilliant virtual tourism exploration Playground Games PC Xbox Series X

Forza Horizon 5 has over 500 cars, apparently. I can’t say I’ve noticed because, sweary license plates aside, I’ve spent a sizable chunk of the game just poking around Mexico. And you know what? Even if it weren’t on Game Pass, Forza Horizon 5 would be worth purchasing for that Drone Mode experience alone.

Because for me, the real joy of Forza Horizon 5 is the way you can ignore the car racing and step into the world of virtual tourism. Ever since I played 2016’s Hitman I’ve been fascinated by in-game locations that either emulate real-world places or are heavily inspired by them. Hitman’s Sapienza may not have been a direct copy of an existing town, but as an amalgam of small Italian seaside towns, it still had an air of authenticity. I spent hours just roaming around its sunny streets and plazas.

Forza Horizon 5 takes the richness of that experience and magnifies it by letting you abandon your car and take control of a drone in Drone Mode. Sure, there’s a distinct lack of pedestrians, presumably so they don’t end up as hood ornaments, but when you’re floating through a forest or soaring over drowned ruins, none of that matters.

Forza Horizon 5 Drone Mode brilliant virtual tourism exploration Playground Games PC Xbox Series X

The sheer spectacle of exploring Mexico, or a compressed chunk of it, can be utterly breathtaking. I’ve never been to Mexico so my lack of firsthand experience works in Forza Horizon 5’s favor, since I’m nowhere near qualified to call it out. When I stumbled across a colossal crater-top observatory, I had no idea whether it existed in the real world. But it felt real enough that I spent a good minute just gawping at it.

Your results may vary if you’re tackling it on a less-than-meaty PC, but on Xbox Series X, Forza Horizon 5’s respectable draw distance helps sell its sense of wonder. It’s an awful lot easier (and faster) to go off-road when you’re piloting a drone, but that’s not its only advantage. You can teeter on the edge of a cliff without worrying about your £100,000 sports car tumbling over. Once I’d finished taking in the observatory, I took a moment like any good tourist to gaze down at the valley below, which was nearly as attention-grabbing as the vast dish behind me.

You might be sick of hearing the word, but designer Playground Games wasn’t kidding when it boasted that Forza Horizon 5 sports 11 distinct biomes — Drone Mode really sells it. Push your drone up to maximum speed and you can roar through multiple environments in a matter of minutes. Although, if you do that you’re missing out on the minutiae of the world — I got the biggest kick from roaming around at a leisurely pace, not knowing what I’d find next.

It’s not just grand locations that make roaming worthwhile; even stumbling across an out-of-the-way cabin can be a rush. Thanks to some neat graphical trickery, you can peer through windows and be presented with a convincing interior. Forza Horizon 4’s Drone Mode also let you gaze into shops and houses, but the rooms were a little off, sporting furniture that looked like it was glued to the back of the wall. Am I too nosy for my own good? Quite possibly, but peeping, as suspect as that might sound, only adds to the joy of discovery.

While the West generally isn’t under lockdown (give it time), becoming a Forza tourist is the perfect pastime for a pandemic, especially as we head into winter. It may seem like a poor substitute, but in the couple of weeks since it’s been released, I’ve fired Forza Horizon 5 up at least a couple of times a day just to chill and enjoy the scenery. Despite the general advice about the effect of LED screens, it’s almost like a mini meditation.

It’s not like I’m doing the developer dirty, riding roughshod over all its hard work. Forza Horizon 5 doles out XP rewards for hunting down certain landmarks, so Playground won’t be sitting there shaking its fists in anger. Sure, at some point I’ll dive back into the driver’s seat, probably when Playground announces a follow-up to Forza Horizon 4’s Lego DLC. (My money’s on Furby-skin seat covers.) And especially right now, a spot of virtual sightseeing is what I need.

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