Premature Evaluation: Distance

I’d like to see a series of Top Gear in which “the lads” are injected into an imploding cyber-horror unreality. Come on, Clarkson, say something off-colour about this giant buzz-saw you’re about to plough into.

Each week Marsh Davies revs his engines and tears off into the nightmarish neon digiscape of Early Access and returns with any stories he can find and/or skid marks. This week he speeds into the distance in, er, Distance – a hallucinatory “Survival Racing” game.

“Survival Racing” say the developers. It’s an ominous appellation that suggests players might have to rumble along the verges on wooden wheels, shunting rubber trees until they’ve shaken enough ingredients loose to build some tyres. Fear not – Distance isn’t that sort of survival game. It is, in fact, a time-attack obstacle course apparently set inside the cheese-dream of a Tron lightcycle. You play as some sort of car AI in some sort of collapsing simulation – the “story” of the story mode is just as deep as it needs to be – and you must speed through these pulsating landscapes of monolithic black shards and streaking neon, all while avoiding inexplicable laser hazards and performing rad stunts. Naturally, there is a throbbing electro soundtrack, too.

It’s already terrifically entertaining. Merely weaving through the stacks and overpasses of this world to the pulse of the music offers a baseline level of aesthetic scintillation, but the game builds and builds upon its core driving model until you are flipping between perpendicular roadways, flying, boosting, jumping with split-second precision as the rhythm pounds and the environment itself contorts and explodes. Cool.


I’d also watch Top Greer: a racing show set within the imploding cyber-horror unreality of an AI Germaine Greer. Actually, I think Tale of Tales made a game about that last year.

The driving model initially seems lacking in nuance – your car jinks side to side without any perceptible concession to physics: your back-end never flies out, your wheels never lift and your suspension never struggles. But that is the necessarily bland vanilla base on which Distance splurts its hot vehicular sauce.

Sure, there are obstacles, erupting onto the track with a pre-emptive flash, forcing you to dodge or jump in tempo – but these are merely colourful sprinkles. The true flavour of this delicious car-cone is boost. While you accelerate with the right-trigger, a thumb on the A button injects a shuddering burst of speed that sets your exhausts alight. It’s necessary to see you sail across a given level’s many chasms, but the longer you boost, the more you overheat, strips of lights along your back bumper indicating the level of alarm, until, eventually, you detonate. Archways along the track reset your temperature (and regenerate parts of your car that might have been sliced off by lasers) – and these have been positioned with an astute sense of pace, challenging you to gauge your boosts down to the millisecond, eking out all the speed you can. Somehow – brilliantly – this tension seems to map almost perfectly to the music.

Top Meer: a racing game set within the imploding cyber-horror unreality of a GDC afterparty in which members of the RPS team attempt to subdue, harness and mount Alec Meer, before battling each other with foam sticks. It is never spoken of again.

You can also bring down your temperature by performing aerial stunts – jumping then using the right analogue stick to fire lateral thrusters, sending you into a 360 spin before landing back on your wheels. Often this trick is necessary to reorient your car to an entirely new road surface, flipping off a jump then landing on what was previously a wall while the roadway falls into the abyss. This I found to be a degree more finicky than anything else in the game: the camera sometimes instantly rotates to match and at other times the game seems to get flustered, allowing your car to come within centimetres of touchdown and then drift away into oblivion, as it settles on some other gravitational orientation.

Sometimes, within an abruptly coiled tunnel, a jump may cause your car to come to a halt mid-air, as the game struggles to work out which of the many nearby surfaces should count as the floor. Though analogue control makes it more of a precise skill test, given that the physics here takes second place to smoke and mirrors, I wonder if a more digital alternative would be better – tapping the bumpers to spin 45 degrees.

Mere Mir Meer: a racing game set within the imploding Russian space-station following a particularly confusing and unlikely GDC afterparty in space, during which members of the RPS team all die while attempting to subdue, harness and mount Alec Meer, leaving him all alone, forever.

It may be that I am just shit at being a cheese-dream magical computer car, but it does seem to stand out as the one obstacle that really nobbles me: the rest of the game is a little too easy. I don’t really mind this, as I play the game for the sensation, the thrilling synaesthesia of sound and vision and action. But even when taken to the competitive stage, the grading of challenge seem a little out of whack: I got a gold first time on every level I played in the leaderboard-led Sprint mode, and that accommodated at least one substantial fuck-up per track. I’m no masochist when it comes to gaming, but even I feel it’s rather too lenient.

It also seems a little light. I blitzed the story mode’s campaign in an hour or so – and though it promises to grow somewhat, the developers stress that it will always be short. They must hope that the substance of the game is to be found in competing for time or score on the leaderboards, or digging through the Steam Workshop’s abundant player-made levels. I suspect this may be a bit of a mistake, if only from a marketing perspective: players always tend to perceive the amount of structured original content that ships with a game as the dipstick of value. You can have the most lively online community and all the user-generated content you want, but if your campaign is just ten levels long you’ll have people demanding their money back because they “beat” the game too quickly.

Smith-Smith-Smith Smith: Graham Smith stars as a smith who smiths other smiths (who can themselves smith other smiths) set within an imploding cyber-horror unreality... with racing?

I don’t know that they’d be entirely wrong in this case: it’s the drip-feed of new exotic challenges that gives the campaign such a powerfully exhilarating appeal, and you won’t find that in the user-generated levels to the same extent; though the level editor is monstrously powerful, its output is still mechanically circumscribed, and it’s perhaps the delivery and abundance of new mechanics that is my dipstick of value.

Slight though it is, Distance is already a robust arcade offering and regardless of how much content the developers themselves deliver, the presence of split-screen and online multiplayer ensures it an extended lease of life, even if you don’t care about chasing numbers up a scoreboard. The levels themselves are worth replaying too, not simply to get better at them, but because as you push towards that skill-ceiling entirely new routes and interesting sights become apparent to you. When you establish that your car can fly, too, it opens up numerous possibilities for how the game might be extended. Purely aerial user-made levels are a guarantee. But it’s the campaign that’s won me round, not just with the exciting escalation of its aerobatic skills, but in the rare aesthetic of its backdrop – a cyber-horror unreality unravelling itself to the sound of searing synth. I hope I’ve seen only the first part of this alarming, thrilling trajectory; Distance deserves to go much further.

Distance is available from Steam for £15. I played beta 3315 on 10/01/2015.

Rossignol Rossignol Rossignol Rossignol: I give up.

16 Comments

  1. Mr. Mister says:

    You still didn’t stress enough the importance of the communiuty-made levels, though – just like in Nitronic Rush, they’re the next level of difficulty. And boy aren’t they good, saying they don’t introduce new mechanics is a mistake as they make very intelligent new uses of the existing obstacles. Someone even made a batchair.

  2. LionsPhil says:

    (Wot I Sed Last Time.)

    Also, from playing Nitronic again since I dabbled my beta-toe in this, they need to bring back the overheat mix channel to the music. In NR, the overheat warning sound was actually tonally and beat-matched, and it made for amazing atmosphere given you’ll ideally have it building up to a crescendo just as you hit every checkpoint.

    But, man, it’s still great.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      There was also a shimmery background effect that played whenever you were in the air, and it was so perfectly matched to the music that I actually didn’t notice it for hours. It felt like a fixed part of the soundtrack.

  3. Ross Angus says:

    Dat alt text. It’s like a live blog of a mental breakdown.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I approve.

      • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

        It kept making me think of Alec Meer as that guy in the Planetary bonus story that becomes a giant monster and is trapped at the bottom of a well and takes 22 years to die. I now want to write Planetary/RPS crossover fanfiction.

  4. wizaldo says:

    The developers should focus their time on anything but more tracks/campaign. Trust me, the community has race tracks covered. They’ve already surpassed the developers in quality and quantity and I don’t doubt that that is what they intended. Anyone buying this game and not using the workshop has completely missed the point.

    Also, Tracks only take seconds to download. Even with 250kb/s slow internet like mine so a reason as to not use the workshop is beyond me.

  5. wizaldo says:

    My take on it was that the campaign was pretty much a glorified tutorial and the workshop was the meat n’ tatoes of the game.

  6. Premium User Badge

    kfix says:

    “…the imploding cyber-horror unreality of a GDC afterparty in which members of the RPS team attempt to subdue, harness and mount Alec Meer, before battling each other with foam sticks…”

    So, Tuesday then.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    What I want out of Distance is more Nitronic Rush. It sounds like they’re delivering that pretty well, but I’d buy it even if it was shit just to thank them for Nitronic. It’s worth $20. Hell, it’s worth $100.

    I’ve spent an alarming amount of time trying to articulate why Nitronic Rush is my favorite game of the last five years or so. I think I finally nailed it last time, so I’m just going to quote myself:

    There’s been plenty of racing games where you can drive up walls and shit, but Nitronic takes it to a whole new level. Driving straight up a wall and then jumping off of it to land on another wall is pretty sweet, but what really makes you feel indescribably awesome is that you didn’t just hit the “jump to other wall” button, you hit the “jump wildly into space” button and then flawlessly manipulated your afterburner and rotational thrusters to drift across empty space on a column of flame, spin around your long axis, and nail a perfect four-point landing without ever slowing down. Parkour at 300mph.

    • RecklessPrudence says:

      Yes, YES! That’s the best description of Nitronic Rush I’ve ever seen! Bravo, good sir!

      • Premium User Badge

        Phasma Felis says:

        Thanks! It’s nice to be appreciated. :D

        (Hey, RPS, are you hiring? I work for peanuts. Well, walnuts, at least.)

  8. spacedyemeerkat says:

    I’m interested in this but is it full of thumping dance music?

    • babbler says:

      Then mute it and put on your own music.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Depends. Are you one of those people who thinks that anything with a synth and a bassline is “dubstep”?