As I sit down to play Need For Speed: Rivals, I tell Craig Sullivan, Criterion's former creative director now 'on loan' to Ghost Games, that Ghost's debut has a lot to live up to after Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted. "I think it could be better," he says.
And you know what? He might be right.
So, what do you need to know about Need For Speed: Rivals? Well, first and foremost, it's essentially Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, but with the best bits of Most Wanted's concrete playground thrown in alongside: the latter's jumps, challenges, exploration and freedom, combined with the former's epic pursuits, sprawling world and sense of competition.
There's a renewed focus on pursuits here, and Ghost tells me that there are always 6 racers and 6 cops in the game world, with each dynamically switched between AI and human opponents as other players drop in or out. You can play on either side, and both have access to their own Pursuit Tech, including EMPs, turbo, spike strips and the like.
Races are activated in one of two different ways: firstly, by challenging other racers driving around the game world to a one-on-one battle, or by driving to set points on the map and activating the race. Races start instantly, and there are zero load times or countdown timers: hit L1 (the version on show was the PS4 version) as you approach the start line, and you'll start the race immediately. If other human racers are at the start point at the time you activate it, they'll replace the AI (which ordinarily race up behind you as soon as you start) - and if they're already involved in another race themselves, it's quite possible that you'll cross paths mid-race.
But winning races is only a side point to Rivals. Rivals is built around a risk/reward system, building up points to become the game's best racer. Everything you do in the game world - as a racer, at least - earns you points. Drifting, speeding, jumping, taking down others and finishing races each contribute to your score as an overall multiplier ticks over, increasing after a certain amount of time passes or upon completing particular objectives. But if you're taken down by a cop before banking the points at a hideout, you'll lose them all.
Cops, meanwhile, can earn points by taking out racers with the highest score. The higher score they have, the more points the cops will earn when they take them down. The mechanic leads to some intense games of cat & mouse, as the racer desperately seeks a route to a hideout before they're taken down by the pursuing cop. It's terrific high-stakes fun.
It feels like a Criterion Need For Speed, too. Cars are slightly heavier than they were in Most Wanted, leading to Hot Pursuit-style drifts once you begin to master the handling, and the world feels like a combination of Seacrest County and Fairhaven, with the long rural roads of Hot Pursuit blending seamlessly with the urban jungle of Most Wanted. It's massive, too. Though access to the world is restricted in the E3 demo, the map appears to be far bigger than that of any previous Need For Speed title.
I'm almost convinced, then, that Ghost could have out-Criterion'd Criterion on their first go. Need For Speed: Rivals is the best fun I've had at E3 so far and, if first impressions are anything to go by, could be the next-generation's first must-have racer.