I've played all the NFS series to date. Those that have not, just remember its a tad arcade. Having said that, its no worse than Burnout, and possibly better.
This copy of NFS is more like Underground 2, in that you tour the streets looking for races; finding a race is easy mind. There are the added bonus fun factor, in that there are police too; much like Hot Pursuit.
So, yes, its arcade; smashing into barriers is allowed and does not penalize. The handling of the car is not all that real (thought Pro Street did a better job, and no NFS comes close to GT games).
Graphics are fine; on par with the last PS2 games. However sound FX are much improved. Pro-logic 5.1 loves it.
Lastly, online is improved compared to Pro Street. There is no lagging or ghosting; crashes are real - you can bump. The downside, I havn't figured how to select races; so end up in the High Performance catagory, where the cars are just stupidly fast; too fast. If they're going to be this fast, then the courses should be longer and more sweeping, a bit like Pro St, or even the old Road Rash bike game; point to point.