The implicit promise of Forza Horizon is in the name. You see something on the horizon, you can drive to it. Skyrim with cars. Far Cry with more cars and no guns. Forza Horizon 5, the latest game in the venerable Xbox racing series, is no more and no less than that promise—just bigger, brighter, and so, so much more beautiful than its predecessors.

Forza Horizon 5, which is developed by Playground Games and officially comes out on November 9 for Xbox and PC, is in some aspects The Monte Carlo Casino Parking Lot: The Game - 5th Edition. When you’re not driving fast cars on long roads through eye-popping vistas, you’re amassing a collection of obscenely expensive wealthmobiles for no other purpose, I suppose, than staring at them. And having others stare at them, too.

There’s a peppy verve, an almost contagious enthusiasm rooted in some complete absurdity, that gives Forza Horizon 5 its own express lane on the congested highway of racing games. This is a game where you can drive a Warthog (the very same military vehicle from Halo) through vine-covered Aztec ruins.

It’s a game where you can source a Porsche 918 Spyder covered in Mario-themed livery and then summarily crash it into a smoldering caldera. You can push a Lamborghini Aventador made out of burnished mahogany to speeds north of 200 mph, as if such a patently ridiculous vehicle wouldn’t fall apart at the seams in seconds going half that speed.

Yes, Forza Horizon 5 is more than happy to embrace its silly side, an ethos that’s apparent from the jump. The opening sequences rank (no exaggeration here) among the most preposterously thrilling moments I’ve ever played in a game. You start in a four-wheeler, parked in the hold of a cargo plane that drops you on the side of a volcano.

A few minutes later, you’re in a more sensible car, sure, except you’re driving through a dust storm so colossal it obscures the entire horizon. Another smash cut, then you’re crashing through the jungle in a custom coupe. A fourth, and you’re barrelling down beachside highways, culminating in a drag-strip sprint against a neon-speckled airplane while hot air balloons soar overhead and heart-pumping electronica plays in the background. I spent the whole time laughing in glee.

The rest of the game doesn’t quite capture that magic—after 25-odd hours, I’ve yet to see another sandstorm, for instance—but it admirably stays the course. That said, perhaps the lack of ceaseless thrill is because, really, I’ve been down this road before. We all have.

Forza Horizon games are always set in deliciously digitized approximations of some real-world location. Previous entries have visited locales like the English Cotswolds (FH4) and the French Riviera’s Côte d’Azur (FH2), though the latter loses serious marks for somehow neglecting to include Monaco, the global capital of fancy-pants car culture. These maps always center around a traveling car festival, the titular Horizon Festival, whose central grounds function as a home base of sorts for your escapades throughout the region.

Forza Horizon 5 largely fits into that framework, with some welcome tweaks. The setting this time—a coast-to-coast recreation of Mexico centered around the city of Guanajuato—is divided into 11 wanderlust-inducing biomes.

The Horizon Festival itself, meanwhile, is no longer fully centralized. Your initial goal is to accrue enough accolade points, earned by completing events, to establish five new “outposts,” shown as Coachella-like concert stages on the map. Those outposts correlate to a specific event category in the game; earn, say, the Apex stage on the east coast and you’ll get access to road racing events; put up the Rush stage in the northern canyons to get a bunch of high-wire stunts, and so on.

Once you’ve established a stage, you can continue to unlock bespoke missions, called showcases, related to that stage’s discipline. Going through the motions here is how you come across some of Forza Horizon 5’s more creative events, like a headlong sprint against a freight train. (I won.)

It’s also how you find some of the more infuriating ones, including a stressful string of missions wherein you need to maintain speed above a certain threshold. (I lost. A lot.) So Forza Horizon 5 quickly settles into a rhythm: Do minor events, get points, unlock major events, rinse, wash, repeat. It helps that the map is positively littered with icons—so many icons—to the point where the finish line of one race is likely quite close to the starting gate of another, so you’re never not progressing.

Or at least, that’s the way I approached things. You could also just drive around aimlessly for the heck of it. No one will yell at you.

What’s FH5's multiplayer like?

Though Playground offered multiplayer sessions against members of the studio, I opted to laser-focus on single-player gameplay for this review. Any test of a multiplayer mode won’t be representative of what it’s really like to play. Stay tuned for impressions of the multiplayer when Forza Horizon 5 is live and open to everyone.

Each of the six outposts (the five you establish plus the one you start with) wrap up in a final competition for the category, a test of stamina that has you navigate a route from one side of the map to the other in road-racing, dirt-racing, street-racing, and so on.

The pinnacle of these is The Goliath, on the main stage. The so-called “final boss” of Forza Horizon 5 and the “biggest race in Forza history,” to use in-game parlance, the event is suitably named—a circumferential race around the entire game map. At nearly 35 miles long, you’d expect it to be a half-hour endeavor, easy. I chose to race in a blisteringly speedy 2014 Lamborghini Huracán and finished in just 15:10:748. To give you an idea of how close Forza Horizon 5’s road races can get, the second-place finisher clocked in at 15:10:848.

Had I not come in first, I’d have felt the urge to try again, since the podiums in Forza Horizon 5 have room for just one driver. For better or worse, the game abides by Will Ferell’s “if you ain’t first, you’re last” refrain from the 2006 film Talladega Nights. Score gold, and you’ll get 1,000 accolade points, plus a tidy checkmark next to the event’s icon on your world map. Come in anything but first, and you’ll walk away with 750 points—and, worse, no checkmark. (You get more accolade points for the “boss”-style events.)

There’s no differentiating between a resounding loss or a nail-biting one. On the one hand, this made me feel better about the few races where I came dead last. On the other, c’mon, couldn’t I at least have some recognition for those perfectly acceptable second- and third-place finishes?

Forza Horizon 5 can be a difficult game if you want, but it doesn’t have to be, mostly thanks to two tools that seriously lower the barrier to entry. The first is the optional driving line, a superimposed navigational guideline that shows you exactly where you need to be on the road and exactly how hard (or not-hard) you need to accelerate to nail down the best-optimized time for a race. It’s enormously helpful, but is nothing next to the Forza-patented option of rewinding time. Drove off a bridge? Took a turn too sharply? Just tap Y to zip back five seconds and try again. There’s no consequence for using it ad infinitum. Combined, you could use both tools to win literally any race, provided you have the patience to hone your every maneuver.

There is incentive to learn how to drive without such aids, however. Making the game more difficult allows you to earn more credits, an in-game currency used to buy vehicles, houses (which are little more than pretty fast-travel locations), and cosmetic options. It’s a lovely way to dictate how rapidly you want to earn all the stuff, of which there’s so much, on your own terms. Games like Destiny have proved the grind can always be a marathon. But if you’re skilled enough at Forza, it can be a sprint, too.

As my colleague Mike Fahey noted in his preview of the game, Forza Horizon 5’s character customization is quite thorough. You can identify as male, female, or nonbinary, a trio of options that sadly still merits praise in 2021. Your voice isn’t tied to gender, thankfully. Neither is your wardrobe. In a series first, you can have prosthetic limbs. (Some legs feature gorgeous illustrations from the Mexico City-based artist Raúl Urias, who also designed a mural that shows up in the game.) And you can customize your character however many times you want, pretty much as frequently as you want, except for when you’re in the middle of a race.

There’s a veritable Nordstrom inside Forza Horizon 5, allowing you to dress up your avatar in, by my count, hundreds of pants and dresses and shirts and shoes and accessories of all manner, plus dances and other emotes. In a sign of our pandemic-stricken world, you can have your character wear a face mask. In addition, there are, as the game’s marketing loudly touts, more than 500 cars to collect—each one with its own fine-tuned kit. The mind boggles when considering the sheer amount of work Playground must’ve spent designing 500 vehicles that function distinctly.

Yes, you can purchase basically anything with credits, but let’s face it, you’re probably hounding those to save up for the 1997 McLaren F1 GT (15 million) or other museum-grade cars. The easier way is by playing a slots-like mini game called Wheelspin. Every time you level up, which happens when you accrue enough experience points, you get to play a round. Rules are simple: Spin the wheel. Get a free item. (Most often it’s a sizable chunk of credits.)

You can speed up the leveling process by crashing through various XP-granting “bonus boards” strewn around the map. These boards, of which there are 200, are often slightly off the road, requiring you to slow down and crash into them precisely. They’re ultimately nothing more than distractions from the game’s primary point: going as fast as possible for as long as possible. I rarely if ever sought them out. Why buy a YSL knockoff when you can splurge on a legit Koenigsegg? (I also found myself leveling up at a satisfying clip through events.)

As much as Forza Horizon 5 is a game stuffed with stuff, it’s also a game stuffed with stats. I can tell you, for instance, that my average speed is 81 mph. (Top speed: 250 mph.) I’m not what you’d call a “safe” driver, sporting an average rate of 21 collisions per race. (Most in one race: 116.) I am certainly a dedicated trailblazer, though, having driven on 350 of the game’s 578 roads and discovered 52 of its 56 landmarks.

I’ve earned more than 5 million credits, nearly 180,000 accolade points, and most often listen to the Horizon Pulse radio station—the one that tends to play trendy upbeat indie rock you’ll hear in a bar next year. That’s in addition to a dizzying array of hyper-esoteric stats that don’t make a lick of sense to me and never will, like “max right-front suspension stroke” (24.34 in) and “average left-front tire loads” (979.9 lbf), not to mention the vehicle-specific stats like torque or terms like “displacement.”

Right. Okay. Disclaimer time: I’m...extremely not a car guy. In fact, I’m generally anti-car, a fervent foot soldier in the War on Cars and everything. One more than one occasion, I found myself wondering what all this meticulously rendered splendor—from the white-sand beaches of Tulum to the brick-layered cityscape of Guanajuato to the humbling ancient history of Teotihuacán—was for, if all we’re gonna do is drive a fucking car all over it.

My character, Chunk, seemed to share similar thoughts at one point. While establishing an outpost in the woods, she openly remarked how a series of ancient structures stood for a thousand years, but the Horizon Festival lasts just one, and often shows up just to put its stamp all over the place before disappearing forever. From what I’ve seen, that throwaway line is the closest Forza Horizon 5 comes to reckoning with the destructive ramifications it poses in its fiction, yet otherwise glosses over. I mean, the game’s fleet is obviously wreaking havoc everywhere. Need I remind you: 21 collisions per race!

Despite myself, I’ve found myself thoroughly charmed by Forza Horizon 5 at every turn. It doesn’t hurt that, yeah, the game really is an absolute looker—just head-swiveling gorgeous in every frame. Digital Foundry will no doubt have a detailed analysis up in no time, but to my untrained eyes, Forza Horizon 5 looks just marginally better than last year’s Xbox Series X “optimized” update for 2018’s Forza Horizon 4. Of course, that was possibly the most photorealistic console game of 2020. The same can easily be said about Forza Horizon 5 in 2021, a game so thoroughly detailed the developers crafted the individual needles on its cacti. To wit: Every screenshot you see in this review was taken with the game’s photo mode.

I doubt I’m alone in drooling with anticipation to see what virtual photographers—who still to this day are mining Forza Horizon 4 for shots that belong in Road & Track—do with this game.

But to say this game’s inherent joy is purely the result of its graphics, as much as I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, would be silly. The cheesy but honest truth is that Forza Horizon 5 is going to offer a different suite of delights for everyone who plays it. For you, it might be the sheer number of cars you can calibrate down to the bump stiffness, whatever that means. For your friend, it might be the endless collectathon, or the sheer variety of modal races. For me, it’s just fun, man. It is just so relentlessly, infectiously fun.

If all this sounds a lot like Forza Horizon 4 and Forza Horizon 3 and so on, yeah, okay. So what? Sure, Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to. Forza Horizon 5 is constant rise. It’s 138 bpm. It’s uncut MDMA (or so I’ve heard). There are few true thrills in gaming that come without a catch, and Forza’s core is still, all these years later, one of them: It feels genuinely fantastic to be on the open road, zooming toward the horizon with nothing on your mind other than the pulsing beat of a killer song, and the unburdened knowledge that you can keep going as long as you want, with no one and nothing around to tell you otherwise.