REVIEW: Distance

Jan
09

REVIEW: Distance

I think that this driving game was quite ambitious and managed to pull off some of its goals alright, but falls flat at delivering a consistent, well-executed game.

Released: Steam
Type: Single-Player, Multiplayer
Genres: Driving
Developer: Refract
Publisher: Refract
Release date: 18 September, 2018

First Impressions

I got the game Distance (D) from a monthly Humble Bundle back in late 2019, wanting it primarily because it was a racing game, which I don’t have a ton of. Watching the trailers, it looked like it would be a high-octane experience, with an interesting visual design to keep me engaged. From what I observed, I figured that there would be options for either racing against other players or AI opponents, but the campaign isn’t really built around racing mechanics. You drive a car, but the idea is more about getting through from one end of the track to the other, by clearing an obstacle course. Although it wasn’t what I expected, does D still go the distance, or does it wind up short?

Did you know that the size of a car’s wings are scientifically too small for it to be able to fly?

Gameplay

D is described as a racing platformer game, which I find slightly off, as most of the game doesn’t including racing mechanics. You aren’t driving against other cars in either the campaign or arcade stages, you’d only race if you went into multiplayer modes. This game is primarily focused on the fusion of driving and platforming, as you’ll weave around obstacles on the track, jump over barriers, clear large gaps, and drive on walls and ceilings as gravity changes direction. There are other game modes available, such as performing stunts and trying to clear time trials, but they really didn’t interest me at all. Plus, trying to pull off specific tricks demonstrated how poorly the spinning is with the car, as what should be a simple backflip will be off-center and go the wrong angle.

That’s one way to get rid of an annoying passenger.

Controls

I won’t break down the controls for D, as they slowly unlock new mechanics as you progress through the campaign. What I will say about them is that in most cases, they are responsive and functional as you’d want from any game, let alone a driving one with tight turns to make. The problem comes from when you jump into the air and have to deal with different gravity forces. From my perspective, if you lined up your vehicle in the right place, presumably doing as the developers intended, you would line up your jumps and momentum properly, falling onto the next stretch of road cleanly. However, if your speed was off or your position relative to the upcoming area strayed too far, the car would veer off into oblivion. Sometimes, even while going in the generally correct direction, as the vehicle floated towards the road either the front or back would start curving the wrong way, and with the car upside-down, I’d invariably adjust it the wrong way almost every time and make it worse.

I tried holding my breath while driving through the tunnel so that I could get a wish, but I passed out about 3/4th of the way through. So you see officer, that’s why I wrecked. I wasn’t drinking and driving.

Story

It’s not really clear what’s going on in the game, let alone the setting, as it suggests I’m in a busy metropolis, but since I’m the only car driving around that seems unlikely. With no displayed protagonist, the vehicle becomes the avatar, which could work just fine as the player would self-insert as the driver. However, things are presented in a manner that’s too surreal and abstract to mean anything. The first campaign shows a timer counting down as I make my way to a teleporter, but without knowing the reason for it or the stakes, I have no investment into it. Following that, the second one has an introduction that’s seemingly more clear, though the payoff isn’t any better, as it’s still too obtuse. For me, everything is so unclear that the looming machines and statements being made are of no consequence or interest.

No, not the Chevy, destroy anything but the Chevy! Said nobody ever.

Graphics

I wouldn’t blame someone for drawing parallels between how D looks and Tron, as vehicles driving across a mostly black environment with neon colors lining it is rather specific and iconic. However, across the different campaign stages and tracks, the palette and amount of lighting change considerably, as sometimes you’re shrouded in darkness and can’t see very clearly, while other times it’s vibrant and colorful. These changes occur within levels as well, as you’ll switch between these strange sections where nothing important happens but it seems like it’s supposed to be ominous.

The future, as foreseen by the 80’s.

Although I generally like the graphics, there are problems with how much they change throughout the tracks. There are barriers you’ll have to jump over, and they have icons on them to indicate you have to jump. Instead of maintaining a consistent color for them though, a more recognizable symbol for most people, they can be yellow, white, or other colors. After a while you get used to it, but this inconsistency is a hurdle to those learning the game, and I crashed into several of them because I wasn’t positive what they signified when I first saw them. This was amplified by how dark early stages are, limiting how far in the distance you could see and respond to upcoming obstacles. Overall, I think the developers had issues conveying their intent to the player, as they’d introduce new mechanics and controls with such abruptness you’d crash before knowing what the text even said. In later tracks, it was common for me to fail areas repeatedly, unsure just what they wanted me to do, and having to rely on trial and error to figure it out and move on.

And here I thought my commute to work was arduous.

Sound Design

As a racing game, there aren’t many sound effects to listen to, though the one that stands out most for me is when I crashed. Either way, this just makes the music more prominent, which isn’t a bad thing at all in this case. The songs in D remind me of techno music, as most of them have fast tempos, prominent percussive sounds, and a beat I could groove to.

What does it all mean? No, seriously, what are all these machines for? Am I supposed to be impressed, frightened, excited…?

Pros

  • Though I didn’t find anyone else online when I checked, you can play with others locally or online.
  • I think the audio/visual design of D is quite good, for the most part.

Cons

  • There appear to be some alternative routes on tracks, but they seem to include the same general design of the normal route you’d have taken. I’m not sure if they’re short cuts because there’s no map system. Either way, I’d have liked seeing more variety in the mechanics available. For instance, slaloming between obstacles was rarely difficult or interesting, whereas they heavily focused on switching gravity and jumping. I was also disappointed by how few areas let you drive up walls or choose a path without having to jump.
  • I noticed that in later tracks, the developers started putting in indicators with lights to direct where players were supposed to go. I think that was a solution to the complaint or issue that things weren’t clear enough. However, these would have also been useful in earlier areas as well, especially in dark corridors.
  • Even though it’s intended to be an arcade driving game, in later tracks it feels more like a puzzle game, because it won’t always be clear how you’re supposed to get past a section, and at least with one track, even where you were expected to go.

Tips

  • Unless there’s a barrier directing you to one side of the road or the other, when jumping from the road you’re on to another part tilted at a different angle, staying towards the center seemed to line up better most of the time.
  • If you see a checkpoint coming up, you may as well boost towards it, as the checkpoint refills your boost meter. Otherwise though, you’ll want to somewhat reserve that resource for big jumps.
  • No matter what, trial and error is simply a requisite for getting past tracks, so get used to screwing up and making multiple attempts at some areas.

Final Thoughts

My criticisms of the game would make it seem as if there are very few redeeming features to D, and that it wasn’t any fun. However, that isn’t the case, as I did find some enjoyment from the game. When I understood what to do, or the challenge wasn’t obnoxious, I enjoyed driving around in the bold environments the game has to offer. The problem is that there are poor design choices scattered around frequently enough to kneecap what could otherwise have been a better driving game. It was all too common to have no idea what was coming up and have no way to respond to it in time, needing to fail it at least once to find out that the jump was massive and I had to boost through it.

This car can dance better than me, even while underwater.

Considering the game theoretically emphasizes speed, and you have to use the boost to get past certain areas, I think it should have been an unlimited resource. If you’re skilled enough to drive at those speeds and respond to everything, you should be able to, instead of having to hold it back for an area it’s mandatory. I really wanted to like D, but I can’t recommend it, especially with its asking price. Unless you greatly enjoy time trials, there’s not enough content to warrant how much it costs.

There’s no practical purpose in changing the perspective like this as you drive, but it looks kinda cool.

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