They say America is in the depths of a financial recession, the extent of which hasn't been witnessed since the Great Depression.

They say most of the states are in dire risk of bankruptcy, with jobs in the public sector due to be slashed, funding reduced for infrastructure, and there's the hint of tax rises to try to balance out a woefully unsteady economy.

The reason for this has nothing to do with an over-extended military, a failed property market, or the fact that the country was run by a gibbon for eight years. No, the reason – according to Need for Speed: The Run – is that every last cent extracted from every citizen in taxes has been spent on equipping each police force in the union with the fastest road-going cars in the world.

An Aston Martin V12 Vantage is a swift vehicle. But it may as well be a Ford Transit for all the good it does against the Bumsville, Idaho constabulary. With their presumably rocket-propelled chariots of justice, they'll catch a 300kph Vantage from standstill in under half a kilometre. Once caught up, the psychotic officer in charge – having recovered from the kind of G-force only experienced by pilots launching from an aircraft carrier – will then attempt to ram the errant speedster off the highway whilst simultaneously setting up a road block and perfecting the type of double-take not seen since the introduction of Talkies at the cinema. "He's turning. Wait, he's braking!"

A methamphetamine-fuelled police presence is really only mildly indicative of the deep problems inherent in this latest Need for Speed release. Jack, the protagonist, has succumbed to youthful exuberance by running up debts and reneging on payment. Fortunately, he's a genius behind the wheel, and is invited to risk his life multiple times in order to beat 200 other racers in a transcontinental sprint from west coast to east. His take is a 10% cut of a 25m prize pool, which should be enough to clear his debts with plenty left over to pay for some sound financial advice.

The race is divided into stages, each affording different environments and varied road conditions thanks to the detailed Frostbite 2.0 engine on loan from Battlefield 3. Taking a decidedly scenic route, Jack threads his way from California through to Las Vegas before dipping into Utah, then on to the Rockies, over to Chicago then eventually New York. At the completion of each racing challenge within each stage, Jack's position in the overall race is logged, and metrics are displayed for comparison through the persistent Autolog feature.

By racing harder and faster than the competition, Jack will level up gradually, with progression rewarded by various unlocks. Strangely enough, these transcend to the racing physics themselves – nitrous is earned at level two, with additional methods of gaining nitrous unlocked at higher levels. The hugely beneficial drifting ability isn't available until level seven. Some unlocks – such as new Autolog background profiles – are functionally pretty useless, making the whole XP system seem a bit pointless.

The cars on offer are a varied bunch, all adhering to a tier-based system that matches mechanical specifications so no real unbalance occurs during stages. Apart from events that are triggered by various plot twists, the only way to change a vehicle is to pull into a gas station along the route, thereby allowing the option of a car more suited to the type of terrain ahead. These petrol stations aren't exactly common, so it is possible to be stuck with the wrong vehicle for a considerable proportion of the stage. It really seems the design team might have painted themselves into a corner with this premise; there's clearly a need to change between various expensive vehicles when new stages are encountered, but quite how this should be achieved during a race hasn't exactly been answered with any conviction.

Fortunately though, the actual driving physics on offer are relatively solid. The game is tailored towards extreme speed, so twitching in and out of traffic is managed well with the kind of thumb-tip accuracy required in these situations. Throttle-off oversteer varies between vehicles quite nicely, discouraging complacency and generally rewarding those willing to keep the power on and trust in their drifting abilities. Nitrous is a handy escape from slow corners, providing the front wheels are pointed in the right direction at the time of deployment. If The Run was merely about driving extremely fast around some challenging tracks, the physics behind it all could be a lot worse.

It's a shame then that the environments and physics are rather hamstrung by poor AI. Jack's competition are provided with generous elasticity, occasionally offering competitive challenge, then slowing down to a crawl to take a corner in a decidedly obvious act of altruism. Other vehicles populating the road are separated between those content to dawdle along causing minor frustration, to those that purposely weave into Jack's path, or merely scream out of a side-street without any warning causing a checkpoint reset. As these checkpoints could be anywhere from a few seconds to roughly half a minute away from where Jack wrecked – and can cause Jack to respawn without any possibility of passing the level – it's clear their integration hasn't been managed with a great deal of thought.

Actually, it's not just wrecking out that will cause a trip back to the last checkpoint. There's a schizophrenic relationship between where the vehicle is on the road, and where the imaginary out-of-bounds line starts. On occasion, it's possible to really motor out wide of the track, skirting all manner of detritus before eventually ending up back on the tarmac. Other times, merely dipping a Pirelli into gravel will see the hated checkpoint reload screen appear. Black Box encourages you to spin the wheel and find out which corner is which.

The newly-introduced out-of-vehicle segments are designed to coax the story along, adding variety to what would otherwise be a fairly typical arcade racer. Jack manages to find himself in all manner of dangerous situations, usually played out with poor lip-syncing and predictable plot exposition. By themselves, they're not awful at all – some scenes are pretty memorable and would make for entertaining viewing, perhaps while performing finger stretching exercises between lengthy bouts of racing. Unfortunately, they've been lumbered with the bane of compensatory video game design; Quick Time Events. Quite why developer Black Box decided upon this aged mechanism is beyond comprehension, but it's a good way to waste two years of cinematic development. When the only way to succeed is to stare at a postage-stamp sized area on the screen waiting for the game to advise which button to mash next, who cares what happens in the background?

As the campaign forces the replay of each scene from the beginning, there's little reason to revisit the race in its entirety once the game is over. But facing off against human competitors online can be a rewarding experience; playlists are structured to allow varied challenges, and once the AI is removed, the racing is much more compelling.

The problem here is that The Run fails to really come together to form a solid package. There are moments of brilliance – in particular, the first hour or so may lead many to believe they're participating in one of the best arcade racers of this generation. The extreme speed on offer may lure in seasoned racers keen to test their reactions, and the palpable sense of exploring a massive country can be hugely satisfying at times. But without any real cohesion between the story and the racing, as well as truly annoying AI behaviour, questionable checkpoints, and cursed Quick Time Events, this Need for Speed may alienate all but the most dedicated of fans.