My first thought, as I start to jab happily at the cursor keys, is that it feels a little like the glory days of Midtown Madness - albeit with more people and buffing. Such idle nostalgic conjecture, however, throws few dice with Need for Speed World's creators - a dual-attack squad from Canada and Singapore tasked with creating Need For Speed in its very purest form. Their mission is to distil the essence of the franchise, cherry-pick their audience's favourite modes and maps, and then expand them into a free-to-play PC MMO they hope will be as unstoppable as a Toyota on the school run.
NFSW's lobby is a vast open city where servers full of petrol-heads can race around willy nilly, conversing while reversing into oncoming traffic. You can badger police cars until they chase you through the winding streets of the conjoined cities of Rockport and Silverton, or leap into instanced races with other players through said (strangely road-centric) conglomerations.
If these tracks are familiar to you, it's for a reason - if you've played NFS Carbon or Most Wanted you've thundered over them before. EA is essentially asset-stripping everything from the NFS back catalogue and either placing it within the game at launch, or prepping it for premium add-on packs that will be released every three months or so. In the same way that Battlefield Heroes and Battlefield 1943 repurposed fondly remembered material lurking on a dusty shelf, tracks, cars and game modes are getting a hefty dose of Mr Sheen. If it's ever had the NFS moniker slapped on it then it could well appear.
There are also great efforts being put into creating a game that matches the ambience of the franchise - a value given a somewhat ethereal quality when you're chatting with the developers. "We're going for that classic Need For Speed," explains producer John Doyle. "We're pretty much going back to what made Underground popular: stiff cars, tap-tap controls and great speed.
"Then from Most Wanted, which was one of our top titles, we've brought in a little bit of drift physics - making the cars slightly floatier and driftier. Then there's the cops that are in there for the full immersion, which were always popular. As for ProStreet, well, we're looking at what parts of the world to bring in from that game - and what modes made it good. We're basically taking bits from every NFS that we know are popular and blending them into a larger arena. It really is a classic Need For Speed."
First and foremost though, NFSW is an MMO - meaning that stats will grind behind your ongoing car shenanigans. In each race, or indeed solo endeavour, you'll earn Rep (cool-speak for XP) and whenever you level you'll be able to unlock power-ups from various skill-trees.
You can then purchase stocks of each one-use-only power-up to take into the fray by spending in-game cash, also earned by racing. There are different arrangements of power-ups to slot into numbers 1-4 on your keyboard for convenient in-race discharge, and if you save up enough cash you'll be able to splash out on a nicer, faster car to boot - although if you think a few go-faster stripes and a Hello Kitty face on your bonnet are all that's needed then you can do that in your 'Safehouse' menu screens for free.
The power-ups themselves, and specifically the way they cool down after use, are probably the closest the trappings of the traditional MMO get to NFSW - but their uses become more extravagant than the base-level nitrous 'go-faster-now!' ability. Emergency Evade, for example, helps when pursued by AI cops - blasting the cars in your immediate vicinity high up in the air, in a manner happily reminiscent of the spring attack in Carmageddon 2.
Traffic Magnet, meanwhile, makes the player in front irresistible to the cars and buses that were formerly tootling through their endless journey with few suicidal urges. Perfect Start and Extended Nos, meanwhile, are fairly self-explanatory - and due to be joined by many other race-enhancing factors come the time of the proposed summer release.
Where's EA's bucket of gold coming from in this venture then? Well, primarily through paid-for expansions as NFSW develops itself into new and exciting directions over what its creators hope will be a long and fruitful life. There will, however, be microtransactions sewn into the fabric of the game too - with your own hard-earned converted into a universal currency known as Boost. With this you can rent cars that are above your stature for a certain time, or you can stock up on power-ups without having to undergo the chore of earning cash through races. The actual process of Rep/XP-harvesting, however, will remain unaffected.
Quite whether NFSW is the pure seam of Need for Speed wonderment that EA hope it is remains up for debate. There's little doubt that it's an impressive construction, with some intelligent design work gently revving beneath the bonnet, but whether it nails the ethereal NFS vibe that's being touted is another matter.
NFSW is being touted as having 'the biggest scalability ever' - EA wants it to run on everything from a top-class rig to a toaster with an LED display - but when turned up to 11 the graphics lack the silky sheen that we've come to expect from modern driving games. What's more, when I think of pre-Shift and post-Underground Need for Speed games I habitually think of street racing, undercover cops, neon lights, women with pretty legs and music that I'm not cool enough to recognise.
In a former life these were all the reasons I criticised the franchise. Ultimately they're all unnecessary, but they're still worth mentioning in comparison to a world that (after a mere 20 minutes of play of early code, I hasten to add) does seem faintly airless and wipe-clean.
Need for Speed World looks like being another worthy free-to-play PC experiment from our gracious EA overlords, and another attempt to festoon our hard-drives with pirate-defying money-making schemes, but the jury remains out in terms of just how many hours (and coins) you'll want to pump into it. When we've had a deeper Nos through the beta we'll let you know.
Need for Speed World is due out for PC this summer. You can apply to join the closed beta at world.needforspeed.com.