The videogame industry in 2018 was probably one of the greatest years for the medium. Battle Royale was at full steam ahead, grandiose titles such as God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Monster Hunter: World were all in contention to win Game of the Year, and Blizzard spectacularly announced a spin-off to a massively successful franchise, Diablo Immortal.
You guys all have phones, right?
Graphics were fully pushed to their limits while the ninth generation was lurking around the corner, and the indie scene proved once again that small budgets can make a gigantic impact, with the likes of Celeste, Beat Saber and Among Us.
However, there is one more title that flew underneath the radar, that brought in an incredible amount of passion, creativity, and intensity to the genre.
After its Kickstarter inception in 2012, Distance reached its goal within a month and entered early access 2 years later. Distance was finally released to the world in 2018, created by Refract Studios. It offered a whole array of activities to participate in, such as a fully-fledged story mode, arcade, and multiplayer modes, and there was a lot to plunge into.
However, the player base peaked underneath 1,000 users upon release, which is puzzling considering how much was on offer. Nevertheless, the game deserves its own spotlight to showcase what makes it such an incredible experience.
Distance equals speed over time
Upon quick glance, the game delivers an intense attack on the senses with a vivid array of colour, light, and sound, blended into rapid stunts and mechanics.
Trying to understand what’s going on can be overwhelming, but let’s start from the beginning. In the story mode, you’re introduced to a mysterious unknown facility with the aim of escaping before it goes into meltdown, the story slowly unravelling to the player.
You control a car through a time-trial based level, but alongside the basic throttle, brake, and steering controls, the game also contains multiple abilities with an easy to play, hard to master skill level. As you progress through the story mode, you’re introduced to these mechanics one-by-one, with boost being the first ability given to the player.
Boost simply allows the car to travel faster but is hindered by the car’s temperature, with the vehicle exploding when it’s too high. Passing through checkpoints immediately resets the temperature down to a cooler level and allows for more boost to be used. Then there’s jumping, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
After this, the player is introduced to the flight mechanic. This opens the wings and allows the car to fly, but also increases the car’s temperature. While the wings are activated, the car’s movement is limited to pitch and yaw, allowing precise control of where the player wants to go.
The final mechanic is the thruster control. In comparison to the wings, this allows the car to pitch and roll and gives the ability to perform some intense tricks. These thrusters are located on the top of the car and when pushes the car downwards. This is especially useful for planting your car firmly into the ground when going over a steep crest.
Combining these mechanics together is the only way through these treacherous levels. You’ll have to jump off a broken track, roll your car 90 degrees to the side and land safely by using the thrusters. Or, you could simply jump off the track and open your wings to make it across the gap – coming at the cost of outright speed.
Advanced mechanics can be used to skip past long flying sections. This involves flipping the car over to expose its belly while holding the thruster button down. This will push the car upwards without incurring the slowdown penalty the wings provide. However, controlling your car in this manner is incredibly difficult and requires heaps of practice.
No distance left to run
To reach the top of the global leaderboards within the arcade mode requires intense movement throughout the level. This involves taking shortcuts by jumping over tracks and using the scenery to your advantage, while at the same time cooling down your core temperature by performing stunts.
There is not a single track towards the goal within every level, as the designers want you to explore and find the fastest route.
As you progress through the levels, you’re bound to be caught out by obstacles such as lasers, saw blades, emerging walls, environment shards and much more. Almost everything in this game can kill you, and its fast nature requires quick reflexes to navigate through. Even the floor’s laser grid kills you, so falling off the track means certain death.
What’s interesting about Distance, and something no other game does, is its laser mechanics. Not only can these death rays move around at speed, but they also slice your car and affect the handling. For example, slash the roof off and it runs like normal.
However, slice the car in half down the centre, and you’ll lose drive on the entire other half, leading to heavily affected drive and handling, as you can now only deploy one wing. This is such a unique feature I cannot think of another game that comes close to mimicking this.
From a distance…
There is a lot of variety when it comes to level design, including tonnes of different environments you can traverse across. Be it an 80s inspired outrun level, a haunted mansion with unstable obstacles or an event horizon within space, the list just goes on and on.
Specific types of scenery pulse to the beat of the music, another layer that immerses you within Distance’s atmospheric world.
All these levels are perfectly complemented by its electronic soundtrack, created by Jordan Hemenway & The Quiggles, and I’d highly recommend buying this game just for the soundtrack alone. Like the game itself, the ambience is incredible, and it’s such a shame to see that it hasn’t been able to gain greater recognition within the industry.
But, as much as I’d like to continue with the praise, there are a few negatives about this title. My main struggle is down to vision and seeing upcoming obstacles. Considering how detailed every level is, the track and hurdles can be difficult to spot as it blends into the environment.
It’s very easy to become disorientated when traversing through multiple inversions and losing sight of where you’re supposed to go, but there’s not really an easy solution other than “git gud”.
Most importantly of all, however, this game has not received an update since December 2019, but, there’s a very good reason for this.
In May 2020, the Creative Director and Composer, Jordan Hemenway, revealed in a blog post that the three founders had come to an agreement to split shortly after release. While the other two had incredible opportunities lined up, such as the Technical Director eventually going on to work on Halo Infinite, Jordan acquired the entirety of Refract Studios, leading him to work home alone.
He also revealed that his mental health was suffering due to burn-out, and didn’t know what the future of Refract looked like.
Distance had been revealed to be coming to the PlayStation 4 in 2015, but it, unfortunately, had to be put on pause for a while. However, Jordan mentions that progress is likely to be slow, but he’s doing his best and is optimistic about the future of Refract.
Burn-out is a serious issue and working alone on a project is a huge feat. It’s great to see that Jordan has been taking some time away from the project, as burnout massively affects mental and physical health. Jordan and the old Refract Studios team have created an incredible title that deserves your full attention.
Going the distance
These drawbacks are barely a dent in this title, however. The lack of a large userbase is always an issue affecting motivation and continued support, but hopefully, the upcoming PS4 release will bring in more players. Whether that introduces a new update in the future for both platforms is up for debate, but Distance’s future evokes the same thoughts I had on completing its first level.
Mystery, uncertainty, but looking forward to more.
So, if you were to describe this game in comparison to other titles within the genre, Distance contains the mechanics of Rocket League, the gameplay of Trackmania and the atmosphere of Wipeout, all wrapped up into one atmospheric, intensely-sound tracked bundle. I would highly recommend giving this title a shot, as hours can easily be lost within its immersive world.