Playground Games’ Forza Horizon 5 is the most gorgeous and dynamic game I’ve played on the Xbox Series X by a mile. That said, the beauty of the game isn’t just in the mechanics alone. It’s in how the game loves, respects, and brings Mexico to life. In this Horizon adventure, racers are dropped into lush jungles, ancient ruins, tight street corners, daring heights, and more.
When it comes to representing Mexico on-screen, Americans like one thing, and pretty much one thing only: Sepia tones. Baked in browns and oranges, representations of Mexico on screen in film and television strip the country of its beauty and distill it down into its most stereotypical parts, often using it to highlight narcos. Blame Traffic. But in Forza Horizon 5 the diversity of the races is met with the diversity of Mexico itself. Mexico isn’t just a desert landscape, and the 11 distinct biomes in the game highlight that.
From a bombastic opening sequence that drops you from a cargo plane, through extremely different courses that take full advantage of the car you’re driving and the track you’re navigating, Forza Horizon 5 never takes its foot off the gas. Sandstorms, volcanos, jungle, suburban areas, urban areas: there is a depth to Mexico, and with over 500 cars to choose from and so many races, there is a depth to gameplay too. It’s amazing to see that every element of the game uses Mexico as more than window dressing.
Online events and side quests make the most of the landscapes. You can find cars in Barn Finds, build your own courses, take photos with archeological objects, and of course break records with speed traps. Truthfully, Forza Horizon 5 is the best open-world racing game I’ve ever played because there isn’t a single addition to it that feels pointlessly tacked on. Veterans of the franchise will know the time-tested mechanics and for new racers looking to jump in, Mexico provides a hook, and one deeply explored. Sure, this series is about the cars, but every single part of the latest addition to the franchise uses Mexico to build its gameplay, immersing the player not only in fast-paced racing but the landscape of the country itself.
All of this is best highlighted in Horizon Expeditions, campaign elements that put you at the center of building out the event across Mexico. Through five-event areas, you get the chance to traverse and explore terrain that varies. Horizon Apex focuses on road racing, Horizon Wilds takes things offroading with dirt races, Horizon Baja pushes the racers cross-country, Horizon Rush is all about big PR stunts, and Horizon Street Scene—my favorite—is just like it sounds, street racing. In each of the Expeditions associated with the event area racers get the chance to explore Mexico in a way that pushes them to do more with the environment than just drive through it. Even in the fictional adjustments to elements of the Mexican landscape, it all sings. Jumping a pyramid in Tulum in the middle of a storm is one thing I didn’t think I would be doing in a racing game.
The environments are just the start. As you explore the world and the story you’ll see stunning murals, meet fun characters with dialogue that feels authentic (saying compadre instead of amigo puts the largest smile on my face), and most importantly learn about Mexican culture and history, a history that spans thousands of years. Sure, this is a fictionalized Mexico, but racing through Teotihuacán, Guanajuato, Gran Caldera, Baja California, and so much more makes Mexico feel grand. Through tours, you get the chance to learn more about the landmark setpieces. While the information flies at you fairly quickly and you may miss the places of interest as you attempt to get that three-star rating, returning to the tour tutorials a second time allows you to take it all in.
It’s true that a more engaged way of teaching cultural and historical elements would have been better, but each and every race offers a mountain of replayability. Whether it’s competing against rivals, competing against yourself, or taking part in an event created by another player, it’s easy to get sucked into Forza Horizon 5’s gameplay loop.
Exploring ruins is easily the most compelling part of exploration, with Ramiro, your guide, telling you facts from Nahua and Mayan culture along the way. The only issue here is that while we get to see the sheer size of the Mexican historical timeline, every line makes it seem as if Nahua and Maya people are only ancient figments of the past, lost to time. However, the indigenous communities of Mexico are very alive today and marginalized throughout the country.
All of this is topped off with a killer soundtrack that keeps the adrenaline rushing. Now, while I wish there were more Mexican artists in the rotation, the ones featured in this soundtrack work perfectly with each station catering to different musical tastes. Instead of stacking all of the Spanish-language music onto one channel, Ozomatli, Ceci Bastida, El Shirota, and GAJATE (to name just a few) are mixed in with The Killers, Dua Lipa, Foo Fighters, and Lil Nas X. That said, Radio Eterna features a stacked Classical playlist with Mexican artists including the Mexico Festival Orchestra.
Even when you pull it all together with Horizon Arcade missions like hitting piñatas just work so well. It’s clear that a lot of love went into Forza Horizon 5. You can see it in the car selection. You can see it in the environmental design. You can hear it in the playlists. This game thrives on a culture of love that is baked into every gameplay element. In every way, Forza Horizon 5 is a love letter to Mexicans, and it’s one I’m thrilled that I opened.
Forza Horizon 5 was developed by Playground Games and published by Xbox Game Studios. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Kate Sánchez is a pop culture journalist and co-founder of But Why Tho? A Geek Community.