How's this for a turn of events? It's 2011, and there's every reason to look forward to this year's Need for Speed game.

EA's racing brand is almost unchallenged - three words that, in the minds of some gamers, are more or less synonymous with 'racing game'. Yet the publisher still came close to wearing it out in the late 2000s with half a decade of derivative and occasionally risible street-tough tuner dramas.

But then came an experiment, in the form of the free-to-play Need for Speed World and Slightly Mad's credible semi-sim, Shift. And last year, salvation: with Hot Pursuit, arcade king Criterion arrived and blended its Burnout heritage with the open roads and lascivious licensed supercars of vintage NFS.

This year, with Need for Speed The Run, the series is back in the calloused hands of Black Box, which released no less than seven Need for Speed games between 2002 and 2008 and presided over the series' ignominious slide through Carbon, ProStreet and Undercover.

But this time the hardworking Canadian outfit has been given an unprecedented two and a half years to complete its work. Could The Run see the return of a refreshed studio - the same Black Box that brought us 2005's Most Wanted, the high point of its own run on NFS?

It's certainly come up with an appealing concept. The title refers to an illicit coast-to-coast race across the continental United States from San Francisco to New York. It's the stuff of Gumball Rally or Cannonball Run dreams, an epic point-to-point charge against a field of 150 rivals, taking in city streets and swooping scenery.

"Think of that race across the States, think of all the cool locations you could go to. We're hitting a lot of those," says producer Alex Grimbley when I chat to him at EA's bustling stand during E3.

It's an interesting move for a series which has been associated with open-world designs in recent years - but many will welcome the open-road spirit, not to mention the exclusive focus on point-to-point rather than circuit racing along its 325 kilometres of road. It also dovetails enticingly with Autolog, the friend-tracking leaderboard system that introduced the welcome spice of offline rivalry to Hot Pursuit.

Forza Motorsport studio Turn 10 quips that Criterion didn't invent leaderboards, and it was probably the late Bizarre Creations that was first to understand the primary importance of friends-only boards. But Autolog's deep integration of time-trial competition in single-player was the fullest acknowledgement yet of what racing games fans really care about and how they actually play (a ball dropped by Forza 3 in particular).

So Autolog monitoring your friends' aggregate times over the whole coast-to-coast itinerary of The Run makes perfect sense. The single-player journey of this "action racer" and its multiplayer component are as one. "Maybe you beat the AI to New York, but did you beat your friends?" says Grimbley. "It would be really compelling if your friend got to Chicago 10 minutes quicker than you did."

More encouragement comes in the form of the announcement that The Run will be the second game, after DICE's super-shooter Battlefield 3, to use the Swedish studio's remarkable Frostbite 2.0 game engine. Not often do racing games, let alone Need for Speed, find themselves at the cutting edge of graphics technology.

Video: The E3 demo.

Most eye-catching of all, The Run wants to tell you a story. This, we're promised, will be more than a race; it will be a spectacular Hollywood drama, with action set-pieces and a new humanity inherent in sections where you leave the car and travel on foot.

EA and Black Box aren't saying much about this story. Our hero is called, excitingly, Jack. He is being pursed by "cops" and "the mob". There is "a reason" for this, as well as "a reason" he has to get to New York as fast as he can. (Who wants to bet against his girlfriend being kidnapped? Thought not.)

Pre-E3 rumours about on-foot sections combined with the Frostbite announcement led certain excitable minds at Eurogamer (mine included) to speculate about Mirror's Edge-style first-person free-running interludes. With its concentration on efficient movement lines and smooth execution, this kind of action would be the perfect companion for tarmac racing, wouldn't it?

No, apparently not. That would be interactive cut-scenes with big, flashing button prompts for running and punching men and jumping over things and dodging other things, such as machine gun fire emanating from this year's must-have E3 accessory, a slow-motion helicopter.

This is where things start to fall apart for The Run. And it gives me no pleasure to report that they fall apart still further when you play it.

The sequence available to play at the E3 booth has Jack - who has dark hair cropped short, and an angry face - commandeering a police car after a thwarted race and needing to escape the streets of Chicago. Against a countdown timer, you tear through the streets looking for cover from the pursuing helicopter's searchlight; if caught in its glare, the guns will tear you apart.

You need to weave constantly or use elevated train tracks for cover as you pursue the linear course, directed around each bend by walls of neon arrows, as per racing game convention. At scripted moments, control is snatched from you for a few seconds while dramatic cutaway cameras and the ubiquitous slow-motion force your appreciation of the sheer excitement of it all.

It looks good, but it disrupts your rhythm, which is already having a hard enough time coping with the sluggish handling and cumbersome weaving technique. Action racing scenes like this are far from a terrible idea, but they can certainly be more entertaining.

Survive long enough and you're forced into a crash anyway. Cut to inside the car, and you must use a prompted combination of stick gestures and button taps to get an upside-down Jack to free himself from the wreckage before it's hit by an oncoming train. It seems as though this can resolve itself in more than one way - but the gestures are unintuitive, feedback is unreliable and the sense of player involvement in the scene is opaque at best; it's like a lobotomised Heavy Rain.

It doesn't look anything like as impressive as Battlefield 3 either, aside from remarkable shading and texturing on Jack's face that would give it a lifelike quality if his features and facial animation weren't so lifeless. During the chase sequence through the cut-and-paste downtown, The Run simply looks like any other arcade racer.

A few minutes' play is certainly not enough to condemn The Run's handling or overall performance as a racing game. Black Box has form - of both the good and the bad kind, it's true, but we know the studio is capable of punchy tarmac opera.

But as an action game? The presentation is slick, but the beats are hackneyed, the interaction is stilted, the lead has no charisma, and it's hard not to worry that The Run's cinematic ambition will get in the way of its racing fun. Less than 10 per cent of the game will take place out of the car, promises Grimbley, but even that sounds like too much.

More to the point, it might be a misguided idea in the first place.

Arcade racing is suffering a panicked identity crisis. Bizarre has closed while fellow Brit specialists Black Rock and Evolution have had headcounts slashed. They all released racers that flopped. Each game was a high-concept, Hollywood twist on the genre. Each time we were promised that a great, lost audience for racing games was just out of reach, and that this was the game to find it.

It wasn't a question of quality: Blur, Split/Second and MotorStorm: Apocalypse are all fine games. Their failure has been blamed on a "shrinking genre", although it was just this shrinkage that they were trying to reverse with their gimmicks.

Yet within this supposedly flagging niche, we find that games that concern themselves exclusively with sexy cars going really fast - games like Hot Pursuit, as well as sims like Forza and Gran Turismo - enjoy great and continuing success. What does this tell us?

I'm not saying The Run will be the next victim of the great racing cull; if nothing else, it's protected by those magic three words. But perhaps Black Box, and anybody else that's still left making racing games, needs to have a little more faith in our collective need for nothing more than speed.