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Pacific Drive - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Car becomes an emergent character
  • Encourage exploration and curiosity
  • Almost entirely non-violent gameplay
  • Risk / Reward gameplay designed around logistics and resource-management
  • Grind never feels cynical
  • Traps are deviously effective
  • Calm and meditative moments punctuated by intense encounters
  • Weather effects
  • Overall sound design
  • Scientist characters and sense of humor

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Can get repetitive
  • Anti-climactic non-ending
  • Lacks some ease-of-use UI features
  • Brake and reverse on same button
  • No motion-control steering or VR support?

Overall Impression : A-
A gold standard for survival / extraction games!

Pacific Drive - cover

Developer:
Ironwood Studios

Publisher:
Kepler Interactive

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 5 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download)
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD | $35 USD for Deluxe Edition

Original release date:
22 February 2024

Genre:
Survival extraction game with driving and horror elements.

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
20-40 hours

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
Fantasy Violence, Language

Official site:
www.pacificdrivegame.com/

When I first saw the trailers for Pacific Drive, it was being pitched as a survival horror that takes place entirely in a car. Or at least, that was my takeaway from the initial announcements and teasers. It had me intrigued, such that I immediately wishlisted the game. However, that isn't quite what the game ended up being. Instead, Pacific Drive is more of a survival/crafting/extraction game with light-to-moderate horror elements. There's also an emphasis on logging and cataloguing everything you encounter, which nullifies much of the horror and mystery that it could have, in favor of encouraging exploration and curiosity.

The bulk of the gameplay consists of driving to different parts of the map, scavenging for materials and supplies, and using those materials to craft upgrades for your possessed station wagon. And all the while, you're scanning almost everything you encounter in order to catalogue it (from paranormal phenomena, to resources and equipment, to the different types of wrecked vehicles you find rusting along the roadside, and everything in between). Maybe I misunderstood those initial announcements and teasers. Whether I misunderstood, or the game's concept was poorly communicated, or its design simply shifted over the course of the intervening year or so (which happens), the final game errs much closer to No Man's Sky than to Resident Evil, and might even have tiny hints of inspiration from things like Outer Wilds and Portal.

The crafting focus also means that the gameplay is split almost evenly between driving and scavenging on foot. I'm constantly getting out of the car to search an abandoned building for materials, or using the various tools to break down other wrecked vehicles for their constituent parts. So the idea that the game would be played entirely from within the car also ended up not being the case. In fact, a majority of my opening hours of the game were played on foot, since so much of the early game is a series of tutorials on how to craft various tools and car parts.

Pacific Drive can be serene and beautiful, and almost zen-like.

So Pacific Drive takes a while to really get going. Whether it's the sub-genre-defining horror game that I anticipated, or a more trendy survival/crafting/extraction game with a driving gimmick, Pacific Drive still turned out to be quite good and addicting. In fact, the survival and extraction focus might even have made it a better game than what I was envisioning in my own mind.

Grab 'n' Go

Pacific Drive's core gameplay loop is more akin to an extraction shooter, except that it's single-player PvE (Player vs Environment), and the player uses a possessed, beat-up old station wagon as your primary method of locomotion and eventual escape. You choose an area from a map menu, and the specific details of the area are pseudo-randomized each time you enter (and can change if you return later). You drive around the area, collecting any resources or materials you find, avoiding paranormal hazards, and occasionally finding documents or audio logs that slowly explain what happened to the Olympic Peninsula Exclusion Zone.

But there's also a ticking clock, and this is where the "extraction shooter" influence appears. If you lollygag too long, meticulously avoiding obstacles, and gingerly collecting everything that isn't nailed down, a blaring siren will sound, and a mysterious Fortnite-esque "storm" will slowly engulf the area. If you get caught in the storm, you'll slowly take damage until you either escape or die. And the only way to escape is usually to trigger a warp portal that appears somewhere on the map. These portals can only be activated if you're more than a certain distance away, and once activated, the storm starts to rapidly expand. You have only minutes to drive halfway across the map to the portal and escape, with the storm breathing down your neck.

Each voyage is punctuated by a frantic race to a gateway portal.

Taking the scenic route

Depending on the specific sector of the map, and how "stable" it is, the exploration and scavenging can actually have a peaceful and meditative quality. It's easy to fall into an auto-pilot pattern of rolling the car forward a few dozen meters to the next abandoned house, gas station, or research outpost, get out, and scour the location for everything that isn't nailed down. Then hop back in the car and do it again. There are even abandoned cars on the side of the road, which can provide useful materials and a trunkful of roadside flares, and the occasional freight truck can be a treasure trove of rare materials and resources.

The environments are richly detailed and gorgeous. The forests are dense, and weather effects like fog, rain, or a sunset can add an eeriness to the natural serenity.

But it isn't all peace and quite. The roads are littered with various "anomalies". These range from radioactive clouds, to geysers that shoot corrosive acid, to little metal critters that stick to the car and start eating away at its components, creepy mannequins that only move when you're not looking at them (like Weeping Angles from Doctor Who), and many more.

The roads are littered with a huge variety of strange "anomalies" that act as obstacles or points of interest.

But these anomalies get far more devious. I don't know how the procedural algorithms work for placing these anomalies, but it is insidiously ingenious. They always seem to be in the worst possible locations. They'll sit behind blind corners, or in the middle of a long straight-away that might allow the player to drive faster, such that you build up too much speed to be able to stop or safely swerve to avoid them. They'll fill the entire width of a tunnel or bridge, forcing the player to either tank through them, turn around, or (in the case of a bridge) maybe throw yourself off the ledge and hope for the best.

There is no mini-map in the HUD either. The only map you have is a physical computer screen mounted to the passenger seat. It's not on the dashboard or in the corner of the windshield! It's off to the side, on the passenger seat, which means if you want to check where you are, where you're going, or where you want to go next, you have to turn the first-person camera's field of vision to away from the road and towards a display screen off to the side. Taking your eyes off the road while moving can make it devilishly easy for one of these anomalies to catch you off-guard and blind-side you while you're glancing at your map while driving. A pointed commentary of the dangers of using a cell phone while driving, perhaps?

The ease of avoiding the simple obstacles in the early hours will likely lull the player into a false sense of security. But don't be fooled, by the mid-game, these anomalous obstacles will become surprisingly difficult to avoid. They will combine to create surprisingly difficulty obstacle courses, especially when it comes time to race to the exit of the stage before the storm envelops the map.

Anomalies will transform into increasingly-difficult obstacle courses as the game progresses.

By the middle of the game, it has become impossible to feel safe and secure on any expedition for more resources. These individual expeditions become longer, and the amount and quality of resources you can find will grow. But it also gets riskier and riskier, and each new stage of exploration gives you more to potentially lose if you fail.

Driving grind

Yes, the rinse-and-repeat nature of the core gameplay loop can become repetitive (and maybe even tedious), and I occasionally suffered from some deaths and failures that didn't quite feel fair. If I die or abandon a trip, I loose everything that I've collected. Not only that, but I also loose a lot of the stuff that I took into that particular trip as well (which adds insult to injury), and the car will have suffered extreme damage and might be missing a few parts. So not only do I now have to fix up the car to make another trip to recover what I lost, I also have to acquire extra resources to dig myself out of the hole that the failure dug for me.

But like with old RPGs and with Dark Souls, you can go back to where you died and do a corpse run to recover most of what you lost. But this only happens if you die; you don't leave a corpse to run back to if you simply abandon a trip and return to the garage. So there really aren't many situations in which abandoning a trip (instead of just letting yourself be killed) would be worth it. At least if I died, I can recover what I lost.

After dying, players can do a corpse run to recover lost resources.

This could have lead to spirals of digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole by going out to recover what I'd lost, only to fail again and loose even more. Or feeling like I'm constantly putting all my resources into just keeping myself afloat, rather than actually improving my status or progressing the game. But neither of these ever felt like the case. Like with Dark Souls, Pacific Drive has a number of encouraging little nuances that make me feel like I can go back out and conquer whatever had defeated me before.

What really separates Pacific Drive from other survival games and other games with a crafting focus (especially the live service grind-a-thons in the "AAA" space), is that (even though the obstacle placement can feel insidious) the grind for resources never feels malicious. For example, going into the mid-game, I ran out of Repair Putty, and also the chemical resources necessary for crafting Repair Putty. So I took a free drive out to a couple of the easier locations, hoping to score some chemicals. I only found a single chemical.

Resources are in limited supply.

In any other game, this would have been discouraging, and I probably would have been forced to grind for hours to collect enough chemicals to craft the Repair Putty that I needed, while risking further damage to my car the whole time. I might even have to save scum, if I kept taking more damage during the grind than I was able to repair with the resources I collected, resulting in a time sink of a failure spiral. Or I'd just quit.

But that wasn't the case in Pacific Drive. Upon returning to the hub garage with only a single measly chemical to show for my efforts, I checked the Friendly Dumpster, which rewarded me with a few free Repair Putties and an additional chemical for crafting additional Repair Putty. Furthermore, when I turned in a Dumpster Pearl to the Matter Reconstructor, it spat out like 6 bottles of chemicals (along with a bunch of other resources). Now, it's possible that I just got incredibly lucky that the game just happened to coincidentally give me the exact resource that I needed. But if that's the case, then I got lucky with a lot of these little coincidences, because this wasn't the only time in which I had this sort of experience. It's as if the game knew when I lacked a specific resource that I was looking for, and so it gave me the resources I needed.

Friendly Dumpster always seemed to give me exactly what I need when I needed it.

Pacific Drive could have trapped me in an endless cycle of grinding for chemicals to craft Repair Putty, only to spend it all repairing the damage that I acquired collecting those chemicals. Or -- worse yet -- it could have asked me to cough up a credit card number in order to buy a loot crate of resources that might include chemicals or Repair Putty. But it didn't do either of those things. Pacific Drive offered up the resources for free, giving me more of a buffer to explore and search for more important resources that could be used to actually upgrade my car and progress the main campaign, but with enough limitations to ensure that survival remains uncertain, and that there was always something worth looking for.

This was the moment that sold me on Pacific Drive going forward! It proved that the developers were designing these systems in good faith in order to provide as rewarding an experience for the player as possible, and not just as a cynical attempt to force perpetual, zombie-like "engagement" from the player. And they certainly weren't trying to be outright cruel. In essence, I never felt like I needed to go grinding for crafting resources. If I went out exploring, it was usually because I wanted to keep playing that game, and to explore!

And this generous game design extends beyond simply the Friendly Dumpster. Recycling a tool or car part at the Matter Reconstitutor in the garage gives back a lot of the materials that were used to craft the item to begin with. I consider myself lucky if a survival game gives me back half of what was used to construct something, but dumping a damaged or obsolete item or 2 into the Matter Reconstitutor will dump piles of resources onto the garage floor!

This also feeds into the narrative conceit that the player character is supposed to becoming "obsessed" with the car. My time is spent freely exploring of my own volition, and collecting resources that are used to actually make the car better, rather than just filling essential survival meters. Scavenging never feels like busy-work designed to inflate the play-time or in a cynical effort to sell micro-transactions (of which the game has none). Most of what you need to complete the campaign will come from the campaign missions and from the Friendly Dumpster. If you are out exploring, it's probably because you want to engage with the game, the car, and the play space! But if you beeline through the main campaign, you'll miss out on a lot of the game's story, and will probably also have a harder time due to having limited upgrades.

Scavenging never feels like busy-work.

Smart car / stupid car

Indeed, as the game goes on, the car will become more and more of an emergent character in itself. The player is free to customize the car with different components and paint jobs, as well as stickers and decals. This personalizes the car, and helps to connect the player to your car. But Pacific Drive goes one step further by giving the car its own personality, independent of the player's custom aesthetic touches.

Over the course of the game, the car can acquire different "quirks" that can appear or re-appear as you play. It might be something as simple and relatively harmless as the windshield wipers stuttering at high speeds, or the gas cap popping open whenever the car shifts into drive. It can also be much more disruptive malfunctions, such as the headlights dimming when the steering wheel is turned, or the battery losing charge more rapidly.

The car can develop various mechanical quirks that the player can diagnose and repair.

These quirks can be diagnosed and repaired at the garage, but the player must first do your own degree of testing and troubleshooting to figure out the exact problem and its cause. If you can't figure out the exact cause, or don't have the resources to pay for the repair, then you might be stuck just dealing with the problem for extended periods of time. These problems can also recur, forcing the player to have to repeatedly invest more materials into keeping the car functioning normally. Or you just accept the quirk and try to deal with it.

The characterization of the car goes much further than this, in ways that I don't want to spoil here. Needless to say, no 2 players (or playthroughs) will result in the car looking and behaving exactly the same.

The driving is also good. The controls feel responsive, the physics are believable, and the haptic feedback of the PS5 controller always gave me a good feel of whether the car is holding the road or not. This is a beat up old station wagon. It's not a race car, so it will slip, it will slide, and it takes a while to get up to speed. Once it's moving, it moves though. On paved roads and highways, can cruise at high speeds and handles as well as you'd expect a car to. But you'll also frequently be taking the car off-road, and it becomes much harder to control.

Various upgrades can, of course, improve the car's acceleration, top speed, and tire grip. There's also upgrades to the car's fuel supply, battery, and lights. The upgrades all feel impactful and useful, each in their own way. But there's only a limited number of slots for upgrades and components, which means that the player has to make tough decisions on what to craft and what to equip on the car.

The player is free to upgrade the car how you wish, with a variety of options.

Personally, I liked extra fuel, a fuel synthesizer, wind and solar generators to recharge the battery, and extra roof storage for spare tools and car parts. Oh, and a trusty set of offroad tires so that I'm not bound to the roads if I need to take a shortcut to an exit Gateway. But your preferences and playstyle may vary. Maybe you want to mount sensors to detect resources. Maybe you want some heavy-duty floodlights to illuminate your resource-collection at night and reduce your reliance on hand-held light. Or maybe you want all the spare storage you can get, with boxes and briefcases strapped to every side of the car. It's your car; do what you want.

I do have some gripes with the game and the mechanics revolving around the car.

One of my pet peeves in driving games (even some that are supposedly "simulation" racing games) is that developers always map reverse and brake to the same control, such that holding the brake eventually causes the car to reverse. This is a very common video game convention, but it's something that drives me nuts every time.

I would have thought shifting to reverse would
require the use of shifter.

With how frequently the player has to stop and exit the car (whether to explore for resources, or perform some kind of repair), and how frequently those stops are on inclines, I would have hoped that it would be easier to come to a complete stop without accidentally starting to roll backwards. For Pacific Drive, this problem is even more apparent because of the inclusion of the shifter as a central mechanic. I would have thought that there would at least be an option to have to use the shifter in order to shift the car into reverse (you know, like a real car). But this isn't the case, and so I periodically have to go chasing the car down the highway because I thought it was completely stopped when I exited (and so I didn't bother to put it in park).

I was also disappointed that there is no option to steer the car using the PS5 controller's motion sensors. Ever since Gran Turismo 7, I've fallen in love with the use of motion controls for steering video game cars in racing games. I hope to see an option for motion steering in every driving game I play on the PS5 now. At least give me the option. Even if it doesn't work as well as Gran Turismo 7's motion steering, then worst case scenario is that I just go back to using the analog stick. Ah well.

Oh, and Pacific Drive would have been a great candidate for a VR game, but sadly, no luck there either.

Road trip in the dad-mobile

Pacific Drive doesn't just play well, but it also has a serviceable and mysterious little story. What happened to the Pacific Exclusion Zone, and just how weird and terrifying it gets is almost enough to keep me playing on its own. But the simple story is carried by a fun cast of 3 scientist characters.

There's a bit of a fun Mulder and Scully dynamic between 2 of the scientist characters. One believes in urban legends like Bigfoot, and is prone to wild hunches and leaps in logic, while the other wants hard data for everything. But there's also a third character who acts almost like a moderating Captain Kirk to the other two's Spock and McCoy. Their banter is fun to listen to, and it's a shame that there isn't more optional conversations between them for the times when the player is just casually exploring or grinding for materials (as opposed to actively pursuing the current objective). Sure, there's hidden log files scattered around the game, but these are few and far between, can be easily missed, and rarely include actual audio dialogue from the three scientist characters.

How much you want to explore the zone to uncover its secrets is up to you.

The main story is actually surprisingly short, but the game's play length can be easily doubled or tripled depending on how much you decide to explore the zone. There are plenty of resources to scavenge, cosmetic decorations to find, and written logs to flesh out the story a bit more. There were a couple of bottleneck missions that required crafting new parts, but I never felt like they were so expensive that they required a lot of grinding to construct and progress the game. In fact, by the time I got to those missions, I usually had most or all of the necessary materials already.

This did leave the late-game challenge feeling a bit off. Don't get me wrong, the threats in the Mid and Deep Zones are very real and very dangerous. However, as long as you have enough Repair Putty and First Aid Kits in your trunk, it's not too hard to race through the late-game missions with just mid-level car parts. The most advanced parts and upgrades simply aren't necessary, unless you really want them for your own. Despite all the extra hours I spent exploring and grinding, I was still discovering new resources, crafting materials, and anomalies through the final story mission! It's a surprisingly big game, with a lot of content, even though the locations are a bit limited and repetitive.

The result is that I ended up putting far more hours into Pacific Drive than I probably needed to. But I did it because I was enjoying the game a lot. The calm, peaceful exploration, punctuated by high-intensity escapes i fun, strategic, challenging, and a bit addictive. The station wagon itself, is a highly-customizable little toy that offers a lot of options for the player to inject your own personality into the game. I highly recommend it.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

Featured Post

The Humanity of NCAA Football's In-Season RecruitingThe Humanity of NCAA Football's In-Season Recruiting08/01/2022 If you're a fan of college football video games, then I'm sure you're excited by the news from early 2021 that EA will be reviving its college football series. They will be doing so without the NCAA license, and under the new title, EA Sports College Football. I guess Bill Walsh wasn't available for licensing either? Expectations...

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'Silent Hill' is NOT about 'repressed guilt'; it's about occultism!'Silent Hill' is NOT about 'repressed guilt'; it's about occultism!03/04/2014 I was going through the comments on my posts a while back, and I came across a doozy of a comment by user Maiden T. I'm not going to replicate the entire post here, but you can review the comment at the link provided. In summary, the commenter asserts that Silent Hill, as a series, was never about occultism, and that all the...

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