Over the years, the DS versions of EA's Need for Speed games have been patchy affairs. 2006's Own the City seemed to suffer from the developer's lack of experience with the platform but 2007's ProStreet really pinned down the urban modding theme. 2008's Undercover returned to lacklustre status however.

No wonder Tracy suggested EA put the cars back in the garage until someone sorted out where the series was headed. And to a degree that's happened. (The latter rather than the former though.)

At least there's no PSP version planned for 2009 and the DS release - Need for Speed: Nitro is a separate development from the Florida studio of DS racing experts Firebrand (TrackMania, Race Driver: GRID and Ferrari Challenge).

The game itself brings a more playful approach to the concept of racing. Graphically, there's a strong cartoon look both in terms of vibrant colour scheme as well as the almost Paper Mario-style environments.

This feeds into one of the game's underlying mechanics - tagging. As you're racing around the various tracks, you'll regularly come across Sonic-esque gold rings slowly spinning on the track.

Run into them and you'll automatically tag the world in your car's colour and graffiti design. It's a neat feature as the whole screen flashes with colour whenever you or the other racers collect the rings. Tagging also becomes a objective in its own right in some of the races, which will require you to tag certain parts of the track in order to make progress.

In terms of the flow of the main career mode, it's based around six city locations, ranging from San Diego to Madrid and Dubai. You can start at any point, unlocking races and modes as you desire. Winning races and gaining points will enable you to pimp your ride too.

We played a couple of the game's early levels. The first point-to-point race had us racing across the Mexican-US border, as well as being chased by the border patrol. The handling was smooth, with the usual array of acceleration (A button), boost (left shoulder), and drift (right shoulder) - drifting around corners builds up your boost. In addition, hitting the X button when prompted onscreen sees you performing aerial stunts, which racked up more points.

The tracks were a little narrow in places, but the locations were interesting - you raced through a baseball stadium and over a rollercoaster.

We also played a snowy and mountainous track-based level. This still contained the tagging mechanic and some police pursuit but was more of a traditional racing experience. And there were special smashable objects such as snowmen and the tables and chairs outside a roadside cafe.

Finally, we played a full-on smashable level in which we had to crash into 48 pinatas arranged around a baseball outfield within a fixed time limit.

So, at this early stage, things seem to be looking good for Need for Speed: Nitro. With Firebrand at the helm and the freedom to be more expressive and adventurous in terms of the licence, we have high hopes 2009's NfS vintage could be the best yet.

Need for Speed: Nitro for DS will be released alongside the Wii version sometime during the autumn.