By Scott Ramage / February 22nd, 2019
|Release Date||September 18th, 2018|
Among the words I wouldn’t expect to see side-by-side when describing a video game, “survival” and “racing” would be fairly high on the list. Billed as a spiritual successor to Nitronic Rush, which was made by a group including two members of Refract, a Kickstarter campaign saw Distance get funded and hit a couple stretch goals way back in November of 2012. After almost six years, was it worth the wait?
Describing the basic gameplay of Distance isn’t that simple. Yes, it’s a racing game. However, it’s a racing game with its own psychotic twist on some traditional elements. The closest comparison would likely be Trackmania, though even that doesn’t fully encapsulate it. For one, the “survival” aspect of this game means there are no laps on any tracks and many collisions or falls off the track usually end with a fiery death. The cars in this game have boosters, which gradually cool down when not active and can cause the car to explode if used for too long. These vehicles can also jump and rotate in mid-air, use thrusters on top of the car to slam into the ground, and sprout wings to fly through parts of the stage. By the game’s midpoint doing two or three of these things at once is all but required. Thanks to the general responsiveness of the controls and the ability to both remap keys and adjust sensitivity of things like steering and vehicle rotation, this quickly becomes easier with a little practice. It helps that the game introduces each element in ways that make sense and ingrain commands faster into the player’s mind and muscle memory.
Based on everything these cars can do, it seems like they’re built for platforming and exploring. Well, that’s an element Distance has plenty of. Tracks twist up, down, side-to-side and every conceivable and inconceivable direction. Barriers either appear a short distance away or force cars to jump, then sometimes slam into the ground quickly to dodge a low tunnel entrance. Tracks break apart and require the player to, for example, jump over a barrier, rotate 180 degrees, then slam up into the “ground.” Gravity, it should be mentioned, is a common threat; going too slow on an upside-down, vertical or sideways section can cause the car to lose its grip and fall off. Lasers, lightning bolts, grinders and giant saw blades threaten to slice cars apart. Note that this isn’t always an instant kill. Cars can take a certain amount of body damage before exploding, to the point that a few times I slid a no-wheeled metal husk across one of a track’s checkpoints. These are the only relief in each stage, with one exception I’ll get to later. They not only act as respawn points, but completely cool down the car’s booster and fix any damage. They also end up being a way to tell how challenging a track is, since the harder ones usually place checkpoints further apart. Of course, that’s if you don’t take advantage of the car’s abilities, fly off the track and find your own way through parts of each stage. If you’re ever left wondering how someone got an arcade time 30 seconds faster than you, that’s probably how.
Visually, Distance is quite easy on the eyes. It’s not always easy to notice what with being focused on the road the whole time, but the visual design works well. That’s less so the case with Arcade play, where environments vary wildly and some are of noticeably lower quality. Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it isn’t. On the plus side, lag is a rarity across the whole game. The futuristic, cyberpunk-esque motif through most stages blends well with the game’s soundtrack, which mostly consists of a mix of house, electronica, dance and ambience. As a nice added touch, every crash causes most of the music to drop out until the car respawns. That along with the sounds of the grinding saws, humming lasers and cars slamming into environment pieces form a solid audio presentation.
The sense of speed in Distance is hard to describe, and even harder to show with screenshots. There is no odometer—no HUD at all actually—but if there were it might end up being a bit slower than the likes of Fast Racing NEO or F-Zero GX. Considering the odd twists and flips and flights the car has to take, it doesn’t need to be that fast to be intense and challenging. This is aided by the visual design of the tracks and environments. Background pieces and the middle of the road tend to be darker or more subdued colors while obstacles tend to be either too big to miss or coated in various shades of neon. All that being said, the difficulty curve can be either nice and gradual, or more like a difficulty wall. It depends on what mode you’re playing.
Distance provides a few ways to play, with single player consisting of Campaign and Arcade. Campaign mode puts the player in a vehicle, one with the number 650782, and a computer states that the Array, a city-like space station drifting in Earth’s orbit, initiated a teleportation sequence back to the planet. Said teleportation happens in under four hours, but an “anomaly” is in the sector where it’s supposed to take place. This is all prefaced with an abstract sequence showing some sort of data-based mutation of what can be assumed is the station’s core computer. The exact time remaining until the sequence starts appears as a timer on the back of the car. While passing through each sector, the Array screws with the player in a variety of ways. These include abruptly cutting to abstract interpretations of itself and the corrupted portions of its database, or tossing the player into a completely dark roadway with no visual cues for obstacles. Need more of a challenge? It also spins the car around at inopportune times, lowers the timer on the back of the car by several minutes, takes away random abilities (e.g. flying or jumping), or forces you to “drive” to a checkpoint through zero gravity.
You might guess this is the more difficult way to play, and you’d be wrong. The initial campaign does a good job of pacing itself, not being unfair with its tricks and letting the player acclimate to each new mechanic, then asking the player to perform greater and greater feats with them. The storytelling isn’t quite as strong, relying solely on observations of the environment and occasional intercom messages to piece everything together. It’s a double-edged sword, being intentionally vague so as to let the player fill in the blanks, but also easy to ignore or miss key points. I was intrigued, but had to admit by the end I had only a slight idea what was happening.
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