When The Run is firing on all cylinders, that tension is superbly balanced. This is not about gear ratios and braking points. It's all about streaming towards a blind crest at what frequently feels like an insane speed and wondering if you can control what happens next.
Its simple design is deceptively clever. That coast-to-coast race format has allowed a shooter-like structure that, in removing most choices, allows The Run to be varied and cleverly-paced on its own terms. It's essentially a series of 'levels' - snappy sections with their own individual objectives - instead of the usual cloud of races and championships.
For one section of desert road you may be tasked with passing ten cars, for instance; the next with making up time in heavy traffic; the next with getting through a dust storm; and the next you'll be fighting off cops. They're not wildly original objectives, but they all help remind you why you're doing this, and make a notable change from yet another lap and yet another championship. Fail an objective - or crash and die - and you'll reset to a checkpoint, though resets are limited and using them costs XP. Probably.
Because while the post-race XP and unlock rewards are less frantically zap-bang-boom than in the Burnouts and recent Need For Speeds, we still found them confusing. Watching them is like being beaten up by an awards ceremony. However, race events are not the only place that choice has been removed, so it actually matters less.
The customisation with which NFS has become synonymous remains, but you won't be choosing every rim, wing and decal this time around. Each car has four configurations - standard plus style, tuner and racer packs - and then you get to choose a colour. Limited, but again it works well, funnelling you back towards the real meat: the racing.
It helps that the car models look so good, and the tuned versions are so chunkily sexy. The overall selection is excellent, too, with much to offer beyond now-overfamiliar exotica such as Lamborghinis, Koenigseggs and Veyrons (the last two of which are, along with five other supercars, exclusive to the PS3). You can also drive some insane muscle cars such as Cameros, El Caminos, Challengers, Mustangs and Trans Ams - and yes, the last one comes in a very Smokey and the Bandit black and gold.
It doesn't stop there. The Run also offers classic Euro stuff such as the MK1 Golf GTi, early 90s' Audi Quattros and BMW M3s, plus Japan's brilliant 240Z. There's a pile of more expected but still attractive cars too, such as Skylines, MX5s and Elises, plus a host of modern hot hatches and coupes including the Ford Focus and the Nissan Cupholder. Okay, not the last one, but you get the idea.
Some cars have special Need For Speed versions too. Frankly, it's the best selection of vehicles since Gran Turismo 3, and that's saying something.
New cars can be unlocked in the Challenge mode, where you can select any stage - perfect fodder for the always-excellent Autolog, which pits your times against your friends' in a constant stream of one-upmanship. It may even be the most appealing online aspect of The Run: obviously it has straight, online racing, but the cleverness of Autolog really does add to the game.
The 'rubber banding' of the AI racers is less obvious in the Challenges, too, as it focuses on preset stage times rather than simply entertaining you. For the most part you don't notice it, but mess up near the end of a stage in the story mode and you find everyone kindly slowing down as you catch up, then blast past for the win. This game just can't stand the idea of you being lonely.
The nature of the race precludes regular menu screens, of course, so now you look out for petrol stations and pull in. The different classes - muscle, sports, exotica - are supposed to be suited to different types of road, but it's an area of rare complication. Each car is also in a Tier structure for performance, and also has a rating for handling: easy, normal, very difficult, challenging and expert. In practice we went for hottest and wildest car we dared, and it usually worked out fine.