It’s rare that a racing game gains enough traction with our staff to beat out some of the “traditional” sports giants, but it’s impossible to deny Playground Games and Forza Horizon 5 this time around. Forza Horizon 5 does too much right, and while it absolutely stands above the competition on its own merits, some of the other heavy hitters also did just enough wrong in 2021 that even more people than usual widened their scope and looked to a genre they maybe didn’t always notice before. Forza Horizon 5 is the Operation Sports Game of the Year for 2021.
Operation Sports Game Of The Year 2021: Forza Horizon 5
What makes Forza Horizon 5 so fun to talk about at a high level for me is I can discuss why it’s so good from so many different viewpoints. I can talk about it like a buzzword-hungry executive and point out how it’s this open-world playground that is full of content to keep people engaged and connected for months.
I can talk about it on a more personal level and say I love this game because I’m still choosing to mostly avoid travel due to Covid, and so this game is a great outlet to just experience a lush and beautiful landscape as a form of virtual traveling.
I can talk about it from the perspective of being a former game developer who appreciates the iterative process that connects all the games in the series, and how it all still comes back to the original elevator pitch that formed the basis for the original Forza Horizon.
I can even just marvel at it from the perspective of a person who plays a lot of sports games. This is a game that is seemingly throwing everything it has at the wall, but the devs at Playground Games pull it off with Pollock-level aplomb. And they’re doing this while every other “traditional” big sports franchise outside the racing genre is struggling with how to balance out priorities year to year. A lot of these games are so big now that people who pick them up usually only play “parts” of them now. I buy MLB The Show more to play Diamond Dynasty or mess around with custom rosters from the community. That said, there’s franchise mode, career mode, a huge creation suite, March to October, and so on. All these modes have an audience, and all of them need updates every single year or there will be negative feedback.
To put it another way, these games are almost made up of individual silos on a large farm, and it’s not uncommon for NBA 2K22 players to talk past each other at times because some are focused on how the game plays within The City, and then another group is wholly focused on the AI of teams in MyNBA and how the CPU competes game to game. There is no right way to play these games, but they’re so big now that you have these massive audiences who are looking for different things, and they need those different things to be better each year to validate their purchase.
In other words, while Madden or The Show maybe gives franchise updates one year but then focuses more on card-collecting modes the next, Forza Horizon 5 says “we have enough support and ideas to make everyone happy.” This is not by accident. Forza Horizon 4 was not at the level of Horizon 5 at launch, and it took a long time for the developers to sort of find the right balance. But Horizon 4 was ultimately a triumph of the “live service” idea, and some of the risks and big changes they made in that game were iterated on and made that much better during Horizon 4‘s lifecycle and then given another boost here.
However you want to classify this game or talk about why it’s great, the point is that it’s great at so much because it somehow does so much for so many audiences. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a “sim” racer’s favorite game, but if you love racing games it’s hard to deny the moment-to-moment magic driving around Mexico. And if you’re a novice who doesn’t really ever play racing games, then this is absolutely the game a friend should throw in front of you to sell you on the idea of why racing games can be so fun. It’s a beautiful, colorful game that is “safe” (for better or worse) in terms of its unwavering drive to be upbeat nearly every moment in this realistic yet fantastical setting. From the aesthetics to the cultural vibes to the driving engine itself, Playground Games wants you to smile. It’s dopamine hit after dopamine hit, and it’s just a matter of when you have had your fill.
And for a game in 2021, Playground Games does what so many of these other game companies are trying to pull off by attempting to create these giant experiences where each mode somehow feels connected to another so you as a player will scope out other parts of the game.
Forza Horizon 5 is the best looking sports/racing game out there to me. Forza Horizon 5 has the ideal form of NBA 2K22‘s The City in terms of the online open world. It creates a “story” mode that is breezy but is better than anything Madden has been trying to pull off in years because the developers understand what kind of game they are making and what a “story” mode should look like in that world. It even has one of my favorite forms of a “battle royale” mode.
But, look, racing games and other sports games are different beasts. We accept cars blasting off each other at 150 mph more than we would a player dunking the ball from the three-point line. Still, it’s all about how the game is packaged. Could an “arcade” sports game have this sort of depth and size, and be accepted by a large enough audience? I think so, but it’s not something these other companies seem to have interest in right now. Looking at Forza Horizon 5 and how much of a phenomenon this series has become from a critical perspective, it’s maybe time to think about arcade sports games more and realize once again why many of us think back fondly on NFL Blitz, or NBA Jam, or NFL Street, or NBA Homecourt. These games are not classics by accident, so is there a way to update that formula now on a much grander scale that has open-world elements that tie into a universe that can be experienced offline and online?
That’s not a question I’m here to answer today, but the point is to say Forza Horizon 5 is not getting this award by accident. This is a culmination of the years of progress Playground Games has made with this franchise, and the developers at that studio deserve all the accolades in the world for their work.
Community Vote – Best Sports Game In 2021
- MLB The Show 21
- NBA 2K22
- Forza Horizon 5
- F1 2021
On the community side of things, I don’t have a huge problem with how the community voted because MLB The Show does generally win out in this vote. It’s my most played sports game of 2021, and for me it’s because it’s just that comfy sweatshirt I can always wear around the house. I have a ton of issues with the game, and I don’t like how certain aspects of the new-gen transition went down in terms of losing some longtime features that impacted franchise mode, but I still love the gameplay. I play a lot of Diamond Dynasty because it’s fun to collect cards and not spend money to do so, but really it’s because the gameplay continues to be solid from pitch to pitch.
That said, I do think in part The Show won because we do still have an audience who did not move to new-gen systems yet either. The custom roster community and year-to-year saves folks still could play The Show 21 at least one more year and not feel like they’re losing much outside of stadium creator (especially when factoring in cross-gen play). With MLB The Show 22, I do think it’s a bigger flashpoint for the series because I think some are expecting this to be the first “true” new-gen Show game, and that comes with its own set of elevated expectations.
NBA 2K22 remains the big franchise taking the most risks year to year. Everything from the franchise mode to career mode to the gameplay takes swings. There are a ton of bugs, and their ideas don’t always work or make sense, but the developers go for it. It’s commendable even if it’s also frustrating as well.
And then with Forza Horizon and F1, these two games were probably the two most polished and well put together racing/sports games out there from an “objective” standpoint in 2021 — if such a thing can even exist. They ate each other a bit in the vote, but even if they unified they would have ended up falling a bit short of MLB The Show 21 in the vote.