Tron has been host to a number of video game adaptations, some more faithful than others, but with the exception of ‘Tron Arcade’ there has never been a title to properly reproduce the light-cycle portions of Disney’s IP. Distance, while inspired by this sci-fi series, is not an official Tron licensed game, but given its neon-infused appearance, it might as well be. Refract Studios have produced the spiritual successor to Nitronic Rush, a spellbinding arcade racer with mesmerizing thrills littered throughout the vibrant environment. The gameplay can be hypnotic as you maneuver along rooftops and engage thrusters to jump over missing sections of the circuit.
The sole objective throughout Distance is to scramble across the finish line and avoid a deluge of perilous obstacles in the fastest possible time. Each course contains hazardous circular saws, rotating spikes, laser beams and elongated blades which decimate your vehicle into two molten pieces. The physics model employs a high degree of sensitivity and this means you can react quickly to oncoming objects. However, successfully evading these obstacles involves an astute management of your overall speed as blindly careering around corners using full throttle will end in disaster. Your top speed is determined by a nitrous gauge positioned on the car’s rear bumper. While this increases your overall velocity, it is only for a brief period as the engine overheats and eventually explodes until you ease off the nitrous button. The implementation of this feature is brilliant as the meter is embedded into the car’s appearance and doesn’t distract you during intense moments of gameplay.
Another key function is the jump ability to ascend over roadblocks and climb onto airborne strips of tarmac. There isn’t a huge margin for error when timing the jump button but I still felt compelled to leave it until the last possible moment as a means of perfecting the stage. As a result, I failed these sections on a regular basis, but restarting from the last checkpoint is a quick process and encourages you to maintain a persistent approach. Distance is extremely unique as the track isn’t fixed and there are exploration opportunities down secret paths and shortcuts. Instead of driving along a flat surface on the ground, you have to jump from one layer of the circuit to another. The majority of these platforming sections revolve around side-jumps and attaching the vehicle to overhead walls. These aspects can be quite tricky at first as you have to tilt the car until a suitable landing angle is found. Furthermore, you must attain a high velocity through the nitrous system to achieve the appropriate height for these jumps. Thankfully, there are two visual aids to help you along the way. The compass on the rear window shows your car’s alignment and above that is a circular gauge that measures the current speed.
The unusual physics engine isn’t limited to traditional racing as you can extend a pair of aeroplane wings and glide across open spaces. You must proceed carefully as the wings require a nitrous boost to function correctly. Despite this, the sections based around flying aren’t too demanding as there are large circles which regenerate your nitrous bar and cool the engine down for a limited time. It still involves some user-input as the rings adopt a non-formulaic position and thrusters are needed to navigate through them accurately. Refract Studios have got the balance right here as the flying aspects could become monotonous if they started to detract away from the core racing experience. Distance incorporates a wide variety of game modes including Adventure, Arcade and an assortment of Multiplayer contests.
The Adventure option is a basic tutorial which explains the fundamental mechanics and controls. I would highly recommend trying this first as the more advanced jumps take some time to get acquainted with. Currently, the early access build doesn’t include a story but there are plans to make a fully-fledged plot line. The Arcade mode contains the unlocked tracks from Adventure and a few special oddities. Here you can tackle stages to try and top the global leaderboard and find the optimum route. Distance also recognizes points (eV) for stylish driving such as wild flips and rewards you with a time deduction. This is quite an interesting decision as you have to find the balance between being stylish and adopting a clinically quick driving style.
The Challenge events utilize an instant failure state with no checkpoints and is very unforgiving. Obviously, track memorization is a must and you have to be fairly patient to get near the later sections of each stage. I personally found the added difficulty to be incredibly satisfying and an excellent alternative to the standard checkpoint-laden affair. You can also compete in stunt events which judge your prowess at performing death-defying tricks. I’ve never been too fond of similar modes but at least they are included as an additional bonus.
The current build of 3315 does have a multiplayer component but there aren’t any dedicated servers. As such, it can be troublesome when connecting to a game and experiencing a lag-free match. In terms of game modes, you can select Reverse Tag, Sprint, Challenge and Stunt. The Reverse Tag is an intriguing option which requires you to reach 3 minutes as the tagged driver whilst avoiding contact from your opposition. Similarly, the Spirit, Challenge and Stunt mode are identical to the single player Arcade variants and add a more competitive edge. The online system is quite rudimentary at the moment and port forwarding is recommended to avoid compatibility problems with other players. However, I intentionally disabled port-forwarding and still managed to host an enjoyable match.
Refract Studios have embraced user-created content in the form of custom circuit layouts thanks to the exceptionally detailed level editor. Many racing games have an editor that is fairly tame and doesn’t feature many customizable attributes. This is certainly not the case here as the editor is brimming with detail and it’s possible to create some spectacular courses. At the time of writing, there are over 295 wacky community levels to download. This adds an almost endless amount of replayability especially if there is an active multiplayer scene.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Distance is spectacular due to the futuristic, neon environment which adds a sense of ambiance. The only minor complaint I have is the car model which lacks a certain level of definition and possibly needs a better form of Anti-Aliasing. TORCHT, the composer from Nitronic Rush, returns to create an ambient fusion of electronic music with thumping adrenaline-fueled beats. While this isn’t necessarily to my taste, it does coincide with the game’s theme pretty well. However, it seems like each musical track is fixed to an individual level and this can become a bit tiresome after a while. Nevertheless, the soundtrack is superb and more than enough to induce a psychedelic LSD feel.
The options menu is brilliant with separate volume sliders, rebindable keys and an ample supply of graphical tweaks. You can alter important aspects like Texture Quality, Depth Of Field, Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, Shadow Quality, Draw Distance, Particles, Real-Time Reflections and more. It’s not perfect though as AF is limited to partial and full instead of specific variables of x2, x4, x8 and x16. The choice of AA is restricted to FXAA, SSAA and NFAA which is pretty good but I would like to see TXAA for those who prefer that method. In addition, there is a windowed mode which works proficiently and support for 16:10 resolutions like 1680×1050 and 1920×1200.
Distance, in a similar vein to Trackmania, is surprisingly comfortable with a keyboard due to the need for small corrections and high sensitivity physics model. Using a controller is still the best control method, but the keyboard is perfectly playable.
As with any early access game, performance can be a little unpredictable and Distance runs fairly smoothly at 2560×1440 on maximum settings with an average framerate of 56.7fps, minimum of 49.8fps and maximum of 64.9fps. There isn’t an integrated benchmark so these results are from a number of levels whilst monitoring using MSI Afterburner If VRAM is a concern, then there’s no need to worry as the game uses a maximum of 1.4GB. It’s important to reiterate that I’m using an i7 4770K and SLI 970s so I would expect much better performance when a proper SLI profile is available. In case you wish to cap the framerate, there is a Vsync setting for 30fps and 60fps setups.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
I’m always hesitant to recommend early access games given the expectations most consumers have of unfinished products. However, Distance is an anomaly in this field as it’s a beautifully crafted, arcade racer with tons of innovation and a glorious theme to boot! The amalgamation of jumping, driving and flying is undeniably special and Refract Studios have created a worthy successor to the highly regarded, Nitronic Rush.