We've covered Distance before, way back at the end of 2014, but I was personally unfamiliar with the game until Jordan Hemenway from Refract reached out to me about playing through an early demo of the game's story mode at PAX West. Distance is a survival racing game that is still in Early Access on Steam, but, based on the Overall aggregate of user reviews, I went into the game expecting it to feel fairly polished. I was not disappointed.
I played a demo of the game's Adventure Mode that started me off speeding down a relatively easy to navigate track and slowly introduced more advanced features for my car, such as boost and flight, as I progressed through the demo. Distance immediately impressed me with the feel of the controls, which are hands-down the most important aspect of a racing game. The weight and maneuverability of the car felt just right. The car went exactly where I wanted it to, but I actually drove a bit too conservatively at first. The car's weight and responsiveness hit a sweet spot that I often chased while setting up various cars in my embarrassing amount of hours spent playing Forza in the past, and I actually expected to lose traction at first when really pushing the car. It took me a few moments to readjust my expectations, and once I did, I was blasting around the track, balls to the wall, impressed even further with the car's handling at what, at times, felt like ludicrous speed.
Entrenched comfortably in a state where I felt perfectly in control, I opened my attention up to what was going on around my car. Distance oozes cool, from its Tron-like cyber-dystopian aesthetic to the fluctuating mix of Electronic music, everything worked together to form a cohesive experience that absolutely sucked me in. As I progressed through the evolving techno-dreamland, the tracks began to throw more challenges at me, from lasers and giant saw blades that cut my car to bits, enormous jumps that sent me flying, and barriers that I had to manually hop my car over, to sections that actually required my car to take flight and maneuver through the air. The progression felt smooth and natural, and, even though the special abilities seemed to be designed to tackle specific obstacles, I found that they could be used in normal navigation of the tracks to take alternate routes, and even to help recover from certain disaster.
At one point, I found myself unintentionally airborne. I had careened off the side of an obstacle that sent me up the side of the track, upside down, towards what I was sure would be another crash. It's easy to reset your car after a crash, but I wanted to see if I could make something from nothing. Out of curiosity I activated the flight mode on my car to see if I could pull out a miracle and, sure enough, I was able to get my car reoriented and back on the track. It was a bit clumsy, and I lost a huge amount of momentum and time, but it hammered home the fact that the special abilities that the game gives you aren't simple gimmicks. Instead, they are ways for you to have even more control over the car. Sure, flight is necessary for some sections, but, after seeing that I could use it whenever I liked, I started to experiment with it.
I asked Jordan about the car abilities, and he told me that it's very intentional and deliberate to allow players full control. Jordan also told me that the game already has a vibrant speed running/competitive community where players have developed techniques using the car's special abilities to shave tiny fractions of time off of their runs. The game also has a level editor, and the community has been busy crafting a huge volume of custom tracks.
Distance is still in Early Access, but it already feels like a finished product. The amount of polish on the game is amazing. Add in random tracks, a full story mode, online multiplayer, and VR integration, and I can easily see myself losing hours upon hours to Distance.