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  • Writer's pictureJames Stephanie Sterling

Pacific Drive - Warped Drive Engaged (Review)

Pacific Drive

Released: February 22nd, 2024

Developer: Ironwood Studios

Publisher: Kepler Interactive

Systems: PC, PS5 (reviewed)

The overstuffed genre of survival crafting games is little more than a blur of flimsy pickaxes and exhausting resource menus to me at this point. Not only are there too many of the things, almost all of them offer the exact same experience with barely even aesthetic differences between most of them - an experience largely built on repetition, micromanagement, and a lot of babysitting various life-or-death resource bars. 

Pacific Drive ought to represent everything I hate. It’s a survival crafting game with a hell of a repetitive loop and extreme amounts of fiddling around in little menu grids…

… and I bloody love it.

It’s been hard to pinpoint one definitive reason why Pacific Drive is such a superior experience to its genremates, but I think there’s much to be said for how so many “survival” elements have been externalized onto something you vitally need for protection just as much as it needs you. 

Your car is everything.

While you, as the otherwise unidentified Driver, do still need to worry about avoiding hazards and keeping a health bar topped up, the vast majority of survival-style caretaking duties revolve around the upgrading and constant repairing of a mysterious station wagon with which you’ve developed a strange and possibly terrifying connection with. 

Pacific Drive has a rather simple core gameplay loop - you drive a car around a paranormal exclusion zone, gathering resources and avoiding all manner of bizarre threats while collecting special energy anchors that destabilize your already unstable surroundings. When you have enough energy and are satisfied with your run, you open up a gateway to escape the zone and return to your garage with the take - provided you survive a horrific storm that circles in on you as you try to escape the overworld. 

A story runs throughout, told mostly via unseen NPCs communicating over your radio, but otherwise the premise of Pacific Drive really is just that straightforward - you drive around Wacky Chernobyl, scrapping old cars to collect junk and gathering anchors, all with the aim of returning home, offloading the spoils, and kitting out your car with upgrades to make later runs even deeper and more rewarding. The run-based structure gives it a mild roguelite flavor, but otherwise the foundation of this game is the same routine of collection and crafting we’ve seen in so many similar survival adventures. 

I just love my little car. I can paint it colors, give it decals, and install a button that makes it jump.

The trusty station wagon is your vehicle, your armor, your packhorse… and your burden. Its condition is maintained across four wheels, five doors, two headlights, several panels, and two bumpers, all of which will take a beating. As well as worrying about fuel, the battery is a less pressing but nonetheless present issue that various things can drain. The fact you manually have to apply the ignition and parking when engaging the vehicle really should say everything about the kind of experience we’re talking about.

Actually… what really says it all is that you can fail to close your car’s trunk by standing too close and shutting it on your head for absolutely minor damage. A level of petty so brilliant it defies my instinct to resent it. 

What I’m saying is that Pacific Drive involves a lot of maintenance. All but the most careful of driving will chip away at the health of each car part, to say nothing of so many ruptures, blasts, storms, and abuses thrown a player’s way by the Zone’s remorseless threats. Basic durability is restored by slapping Repair Putty on individual parts, while more specific damage such as flat tires or blown headlights will need specialist repair tools like Sealing Kits and Electrician Kits.

Everything has a limited use, and everything is craftable, so quickly a huge portion of the game fixates on finding materials and making items to keep your car parts from breaking down so badly they’re outright destroyed and need replacing. 

Which, by the way, will be a sad inevitability for each part in turn, as long-term damage inevitably leads to unfixably faulty lights, bald tires, and fragile bumpers. Of course, these parts are also destined to be swapped out for newer, hardier upgrades over time anyway, so making and building vehicle is an unavoidable preoccupation, for good or ill.

This is so much about what I hate in contemporary videogames, yet due to the general speed with which you can progress and acquire parts, the alluringly spooky nature of the environment, and the satisfaction of getting back home safe with a car I’m invested in keeping running has kept me hooked through what would otherwise be a tedious and irritatingly finicky chore.

As I mentioned, the externalization of maintenance is a key factor. Rather than constantly monitoring hunger and thirst meters to keep your character basically functional, here you’re babysitting something that’s babysitting you in turn - without it, dangerous phenomena can chew you up, radiation will poison you, and of course your mobility is a joke. Every time you leave the car to craft tools and scavenge supplies, it’s an intimidating prospect that rather fantastically turns your car into the safest, most welcome sight there is, even if some alien buzzsaw just burst out of the ground and carved its fucking doors off. 

More than simply rely upon the car, I came to care about it a great deal, which ties into the game’s own narrative about how inhabitants of the Zone can develop extremely close connections to “Remnants” - one of which the station wagon happens to be. As it continually keeps you alive and gets you home safe, as you gradually kit it out with armor and gadgets, as you paint it and add cosmetic novelties, it’s hard not to fall in love with that clanking mighty wreck. I mean, it can even develop “quirks,” suddenly exhibiting odd and strange behavior that must be dealt with… amazing. 

Pacific Drive is, in fact, the first time I’ve ever come close to understanding why people have any sort of affection for cars. 

Another major edge this game has is its fucking divine suite of accessibility and difficulty adjuster settings, some of which offer straight quality-of-life improvements to the default fixings. This can range from such extremes as turning off hazard types entirely to useful tweaks like improved pickup visibility. Via these settings, Pacific Drive can range from an environmentally violent nightmare to a rather serene (if eerie) driving sim. 

Personally, I made eager use of the option to get a free fix and refuel after every successful run - it’s a perfect example of a time saver that takes nothing away but tedium, which this game’s settings are full of. Other survival games really need to take note.

There’s not much that can be done about what a sprawl of content Pacific Drive becomes. The car, the garage, and your own clothes are all subject to multiple trees and tiers and flowcharts of upgrades to unlock, blueprint, and craft. This element is truly overwhelming at points, with a to-do list that keeps growing and endless materials or other prerequisites that need keeping track of, all while your storage lockers reach capacity with materials that may or may never be needed in such quantities.

Just… why make paint and decals their own depletable resource that needs storing in a special locker? On top of everything else, sorting through paints that you’re not encouraged to use because they’re limited use and randomly found is a special kind of unnecessary hassle. It represents the biggest counter to one’s sense of vehicular investment - playing with your car’s look should be the most free and casual aspect of the entire experience, not another opportunity to manage an inventory. 

Cosmetics here shouldn’t be so precious you’re reluctant to replace a car door because you don’t have enough yellow paint left. 

Be sure though, my complaints do little to stop my obsession with this astounding game.

The Zone is a compelling place to visit, the paranormal events within it feel emergent and, at times, genuinely frightening. Special mention must go to The Tourists, mysteriously posed crash dummies that might appear from out of nowhere and love to explode on contact but otherwise remain horribly silent. 

Broken up into individual maps called Junctions and afflicted with random perils, the Zone is never not snapping at one’s heels, ready to start punching pillars out of the ground or sending a swarm of barnacle-like “Bunny” creatures to latch onto your car. Occasionally the harassment can be more stressful than entertaining, but mostly the balance between risk and reward is perfectly struck when navigating the ruinous environments. 

As well as fascinating, Pacific Drive is also funny. Even the most basic and drab of crafting materials have silly or sarcastic descriptive text attached. Lore entries burst with both evocative worldbuilding and genuinely well written comedy. Every little portion of the presentation is flavorful to the point where you can scan an environmental detail as mundane as a telephone and unlock a compelling diary entry or conversation transcription. There’s a lot of damn literature in this game, and it’s surprisingly worth reading should you choose. 

While a graphically rather basic game, Pacific Drive’s use of lighting and color to create unnerving atmospheres from otherwise unassuming territory is impressive. Most of the Zone is ruined roads and ravaged fields dotted with content (another thing I usually detest), a really boring backdrop that has been given just enough of an alien feel through exquisite use of simple effects. 

Audio more than holds up its end of the bargain. Not only is the in-game radio full of some genuinely quite beautiful music, the Zone knows how to sound fucking horrible when it needs to. Like with the lighting, there’s a masterful use of “just enough” weird noise to keep you on edge without ever sounding too exaggerated or like it should be in a more overt horror film. There’s always some sort of dreadful drone or sinister buzz in the air. 

Pacific Drive is one of those amazing games that I’ve fallen in love with despite it doing so much I’m inclined to loathe. It’s brilliant in its externalization of survival gameplay with a car that acts perfectly in its dual role of burden and bearer. Its humor, style, and a luxury assortment of modifier settings have kept me spellbound. I can paint my car pink. Game of the year contender.



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