I know what I like. I like electro-house ala Carpenter Brut, I like fast cars that look a little bit like a bar of soap, and I like ominous, space-horror virus-demons threatening a utopian space city. Distance is a healthy mix of these things, and I assure you that whatever screenshots or gameplay you may have seen of it, it must be played to be understood.
The main campaign is the obvious starting point here. Distance has been in development for… a long time. It released in early access way back in 2014, with a pretty healthy fanbase and plenty of backers holding it up along the way. A game this entrenched in a dedicated community might slip into something inaccessible after such a long time, but developer Refract Studios has found a way to make the progression as smooth as the sci-fi roadways.
Adventure mode opens with what is essentially a horror racing game. Your very obtuse goal is to get to somewhere before the timer on your back windshield reaches zero, which it does increasingly quickly as you trek through abandoned residential areas, factories, and mainframes. The atmosphere is large, looming, and horrifying. Some gentle challenges give way to more difficult ones in a forgiving manner, just enough to keep the player on their toes as they take it all in.
Overhead streetlights pass in a flash, making a satisfying “whoosh” sound as they whiz overhead. The squeal of tires can be heard faintly on tight turns. Parts of the track pulse in beat with the excellent music, which ranges from ominous overtures to pumping dance ballads. Headlights cut through the oppressive darkness in derelict foundries. The whole presentation is just perfect and paced such that intense sections are broken up with more introspective story beats. It’s a 200 mph Inside or Limbo, and I would argue half the experience is just seeing the entirety of the beginning campaign.
The feeling of controlling your car is, initially, jarringly tight. Imagine Trackmania Turbo with unlimited friction. It turns on a dime and stops on an atom, but it soon becomes clear that no matter how well a car controls, you’ll need reflexes to keep it from veering into a wall. There are essentially two kinds of obstacles in Distance: things you need to avoid, and tricky jumps. The variations on these are impressive and thematically fitting, making the entirety of the campaign feel fresh and evoking plenty of “Oh, wow” moments.
The “avoid” obstacles include saw blades and lasers which slice your car in twain quicker than Raiden in Metal Gear Solid Rising: Revengeance. If your car is cut in two, you drive the bigger half, which behaves exactly as it should depending on what’s left. The “jump” obstacles can be as simple as barriers that are simply hopped over, or as complex as track laid out 90 degrees in front of you that has to be jumped, turned, and accelerated to. It sounds complicated, but once I was in tune with the game’s controls I was performing aerial feats that would make a pro Rocket League player swoon.
While the whole experience is over in about four or five hours, there’s still lots to do after the terrifying story mode reaches its finale. A second campaign unlocks, which isn’t a prologue in a story sense, but in a development sense. I presume this is the initial game that Distance was built around, and was replaced with the darker story which opens the experience. This “Return to Echoes” campaign is much more difficult, so it flows perfectly if you’re looking for a little extra challenge. Besides this, there’s a random track generator that uses seeded words. Pro tip: try out “poopybutt” if you like lasers.
The star of the show from a longevity standpoint is the Steam Workshop. Player-created levels are already featured in Distance’s plentiful challenge modes, and they’re fully (and rightly) embraced by the developers. There are tons of offerings, spotlighted by the devs weekly on the main menu screen. One such track (at the time of this review) features a drive through the eye of a lightning storm, avoiding pillars of electricity and escaping into the blue yonder. It’s impressive on every front, and the game features a track editor so simple anyone could make at least rudimentary creations. As long as a game like this has a community, high-quality content is basically endless. Still, the two campaigns on offer from the start are, in my opinion, more than worth the price of admission.
As a side note, I have to give a shout out to the fantastic user interface. It’s all displayed on the rear of your vehicle, and it is positively slick. Personally I rank it up there with most well-integrated interfaces in gaming, alongside Dead Space and Metroid Prime. It goes to show the level of detail and world building poured into every pothole; no set dressing goes by without building the atmosphere of Distance‘s mythos.
A fantastic arcade racer and an even better atmospheric driving experience, Distance delivers on nearly every front. While some obstacles can seem unfair at first pass, leading to some hangups in an otherwise heart-pounding experience, the adventure mode is excellently paced and beautifully delivered. Further challenge modes and the endless outpouring of great tracks from the community via Steam Workshop ensure Distance will keep anyone hooked for more than their money’s worth of time.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Refract Studios.