PAX East 2017: The Cyberpunk Arcade Racer Makes a Strong Showing with Distance [Preview]
When it comes to racing games, I’m the kind of person who will choose Mario Kart over Forza every time. I don’t care if a game can perfectly recreate my 2008 Ford Focus right down to the dust on the dashboard if that car can’t then race up the side of a building.
That’s what drew me to Distance, the stylish and brutal racer from Refract Studios. The game’s marriage of cyberpunk horror and arcade-style madness may make it the most creative racing game I’ve played since Grand Theft Auto V’s Cunning Stunts expansion.
In Distance, you take control of a robotic sports car with more neon than the cast of 2 Fast 2 Furious. The adventure mode features a short story that leads you through an empty city to scope out the unknown threat that drove everyone away. It acts as an extended tutorial for Distance’s many other modes.
After going hands-on with the single-player, I’m a big fan of how the game controls. Cars are light and have a lot of grip, giving the game a zippy arcade feel. I didn’t feel like I was fighting my own car to take a sharp turn; Distance throws out that pesky realism to make way for more dangerous and much cooler traps.
Your car has the ability to leap over meat grinder-like obstacles and huge chasms. If you feel so inclined, you can hit that jump button again to sprout wings and get away from the track --- that is, until you run out of fuel and fall to your death. Your car also has a magnetism to it that will let you climb walls and drive on ceilings without making sure you have enough centrifugal force.
But my favorite danger in Distance may be the buzz saws and laser grids that can cut your car into pieces more than Papa Roach playing Metal Gear Rising. As I was trying to avoid one of the lasers, I was a bit too slow and it took the top half of my car clean off. But I was still hurtling forward. In Distance, your car will keep going as long as it has one wheel still turning, tossing in a fun extra challenge.
“We’re trying to make failure somewhat fun,” said developer Jordan Hemenway. “It’s an all-wheel drive car, so if you got one wheel, you’re good.” As Hemenway tells me, the player base has already found new ways to take advantage of this mechanic in the track editor.
The story mode for Distance has some horror elements, which I saw a touch of toward the end of my demo. I caught a tease of some giant, jagged tendrils popping into view just as the “thanks for playing” screen showed up. If Distance is going to lean into mixing scares and high-speed racing, I’m all for it.
These mechanics give the player a whole lot of freedom when approaching the track. I watched one player get bumped off the course, and then before she fell to her death, she popped out the wings, flew under the track for a moment and then looped around and kept on racing. While Distance’s physics aren’t obvious at the outset, I picked up on them quickly and found ways to get through the world more creatively, if not more easily.
For as much as there is of Distance that excites me, there’s even more that I didn’t play at PAX. New to PAX East was the game’s Arcade mode, which includes straightforward races, a reverse tag game, a stunt mode and head-to-head races on randomly generated tracks whose creation can be influenced by keywords you put in, like “long” or “twisty.”
Distance is in Steam Early Access, and Hemenway says the game has already developed a strong player base, which may be thanks in part to the game’s crowdfunding on Kickstarter. “We have a really voracious community,” Hemenway said. “They organize their own tournaments and their own weekly events, just kind of hanging out together and playing multiplayer.”
That player base led to the recent hiring of three community players whose creations impressed the team at Refract. “We were like, ‘This is crazier than what we’re doing. If we work together with the technology, can you help us finish the story mode?’” Hemenway said. Alongside that story mode, Distance is expected to launch with around 50 developer-created tracks. According to the game’s site, there are currently 1,800 community-created levels.
I’m definitely interested in seeing where Distance goes next. My time with it at PAX felt like a sampler platter of mechanics and modes, but I’m ready for the main course.
Distance is currently available on Steam Early Access. It’s also expected to launch on PlayStation 4 in the future.