A race is a simple thing: a number of competitors line up, the length is decided and then everybody runs until the best of those involved reaches the finish line first; this is stuff we all learn during childhood and then apply all through our lives.
Car racing in video games is basically the same thing, but with virtual recreations of high horse power, the stakes (although also simulated) are increased, and that means a system of rewards and punishments needs to be developed to appeal to the competitive side of the gamer.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted stands out from the crowd because of how it handles the rewards it doles out and how it makes it pretty much impossible for the player to feel like the game is punishing him at any point.
Take a look at how Need for Speed: Most Wanted handles the police chases that underline much of the game experience.
Players can trigger a chase at almost any point and then spend as much time as they want running around inside the city or outside of it, increasing the police response from normal cars to fast cruisers, spike strips and blockades.
If the player manages to evade the police, they get experience which feeds back into the game and allows them to then challenge the next car on the top ten Most Wanted list, which is great for the player.
When I first got busted by the cops, I thought that Need for Speed was simply trying to make me feel better by simply hiding the cost of my actions, but the player only loses the points that he obtained during the big chase and he is free to get right back into the action.
This forgiving nature is clearly a result of the Criterion design and makes Need for Speed appealing even to those who lack a long-term relation to the series.