Progressing through Distance's neon-lit cityscapes, you slowly start to realise there's always been a little Lovecraftian horror tugging under the futuristic racing genre. Who was it exactly that got rid of those guard rails on the outer edges of F-Zero GX's Fire Field: Undulation? Which twisted architect cut the torturous path up WipEout's Sebenco Climb? And where have all the humans gone?
There's something pleasingly subversive about Distance, the work of the Seattle-based studio Refract who've previously explored the genre with Nitronic Rush. Fire it up and you're met with an attractive albeit fairly unremarkable racer, one that sets you across obstacle-littered courses designed to be tackled to the insistent rhythm of its euphoric soundtrack.
That's not to say there aren't details to be admired: your car's a joyfully squat thing, a piece of Daft Punk merchandise as manufactured by Dinky or Matchbox, the readout that lets you know how much boost is too much boost glowing pleasingly from the rear of the car. It's a knockabout world you're tearing through too, a mesh of slick surfaces and jagged saw blades that will slice chunks off your car before they magically regenerate.
There's grace, too, as the mechanics are layered in. Boost leads to jump leads to the moment you realise that, with the tap of a button in mid-air, you can spread the front bodywork out to form a pair of makeshift wings, gifting you the power of flight. It's soaring, engaging stuff, a slightly scruffier Trackmania that's not afraid to bolster its knockabout physics with some pretty outlandish ideas.
When you're bouncing around each stage, dodging lasers and crashing through wormholes, there's a nagging, ominous feeling that creeps up on you. Why are you totally alone? Who's laying down these traps, and why exactly do they want you dead?
It's an odd paranoia, and it's impressive how Refract has managed to subtly imply it in Distance's more downbeat moments - I don't think I've ever spent time in any other racing game pondering over what twisted minds plotted the course through the forests of the Nordschleife, and whether maybe they laid down all that tarmac in a convoluted plot to kill me.
Some way into the stunted story mode - Distance is in early access right now, so much of what is playable is early, albeit spectacular, sketches - the soundtrack subsides into an ominous howl, the neon gets a blood-red tint and the paranoia erupts into full-blown horror. The scares are enjoyably overplayed - the readout in the rear window switches into reboot mode, while the screen flutters and falters like a digital ghost - and it's a wonderful, well executed spin on the genre.
Distance is about more than one gimmick, thankfully - its experimentation with the horror genre is just one facet of how Refract is having fun tinkering with the well-worn world of futuristic racing. It's a pretty good foundation for other people's ideas and experiments, too, with a relatively straightforward editing suite that's already attracted a sizeable community since it went into beta. I can't wait to see how it all comes together as it works towards its full release on PC, Mac and PS4 later this year.