Steering Into Mysterious Adventure in Pacific Drive

Every now and then, gamers are treated to a title that delivers something truly different, even within well-established genres. Baldur’s Gate 3 is one example, and the poker-based deck building title Balatro would be another. And I would argue that Pacific Drive, which is now available for the PlayStation 5 and the PC through Steam and the Epic Games Store, is yet another example to add to this fine list.

At its core, Pacific Drive is all about exploration and crafting as players push ever deeper into an Exclusion Zone filled with anomalies and other dangers. But there are a few key differences between Pacific Drive and other titles with similar mechanics like Chernobylite or the Stalker series. The biggest difference is that you will spend much of your time inside a vehicle, which will act as your home away from home and a mobile command center for your adventures. In fact, almost all of the crafting components you gather in the game or manufacture back at the garage you hang out at between missions will go into upgrading your ride, which happens to be a 1947 station wagon that looks quite a bit like the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1 1959 Cadillac hearse.

And unlike most horror survival titles where players are exploring a dangerous and abandoned landscape filled with anomalies and other dangers, there is no real combat in Pacific Drive, and certainly no first person shooting. You can find ways to interact with different anomalies, like tossing something heavy into a mannequin-like traveler to make them explode (and occasionally drop a valuable resource), but you won’t be mowing down zombies, firing rockets at bosses, counting bullets or anything like that. Yes, the zone is dangerous, but many of the dangers are environmental in nature like lightning storms or dense radiation clouds. For the others, your car can provide some protection and perhaps a fast getaway when needed.

The plot of Pacific Drive is that you play a typical delivery person who is driving past the Olympic Exclusion Zone, which is a large area in the Pacific Northwest where the government did some sort of weird experiments before abandoning the zone and walling it off forever. The problem is that whatever is trapped inside the zone is growing, and it literally reaches out and dissolves your delivery van, transporting and trapping you inside the wall at the same time. Pretty quickly you will locate the station wagon that will become your mobile home for the rest of the game. You will also “meet” the three main characters who will guide you through your adventures, although they are simply voices over the radio.

Your base of operations for the game is an abandoned garage in a relatively safe part of the zone. From that garage, you will plan your excursions deeper into the zone and work on repairing and upgrading your car. After each mission, you will warp back to the garage, so you will be there a lot. In addition to crafting upgrades for your car, the garage can also be equipped with new machines and upgrades, most of which are designed to unlock advanced features and equipment for your car, which Pacific Drive really centers around.

Missions are given to your character via one of the three previously mentioned voices over the radio. In addition to talking with you directly, you can also find various lore about the zone which sometimes is written by or is about those characters. Discovering what is really happening in the zone and why is kind of a subplot to the title. Although you don’t really have to go too deeply into the lore if you don’t want, it’s well written and tells a nice story which I felt added quite a bit to the fun of Pacific Drive.

The main missions generally consist of heading to some anomaly or doing something in a specific zone in order to either help facilitate your escape from the zone, to provide information to the scientists on the radio or in some cases to actually improve the conditions of the zone itself. But you are not just limited to doing those. At any time, you can also plot a course and drive to a dozen or so non-story destinations and will probably need to do so in order to upgrade your car, since you will need to scavenge at least some of those areas to find a great deal of crafting materials of all rarity levels in order to survive.

Most of the levels are procedurally generated and all of them end the same way if you are successful. Basically, in addition to collecting resources, you also need to find special energy orbs to feed the portal generator sitting in your passenger seat. Once you are ready to leave a level, or if the zone is getting too hot, you trigger the portal, assuming you have collected enough fuel for it. You then need to race to the portal, which always opens far away from your vehicle. You will know where the portals can open because they are on your map, but they are disabled if your car is too close. Once activated, the level pretty much starts to self-destruct, so you have to get to the portal quickly before your car is overwhelmed by weather and other harmful effects. Driving through the portal warps you back to the garage, and you can set the game to heal all of your car’s damage once you do – which makes maintaining your crafting supplies much easier since they don’t get eaten up by costly repairs.

Crafting and upgrading the station wagon vehicle can be pretty fun, assuming players really enjoy crafting. There is an extremely huge tech tree that you’ll need to unlock, and then you will need to build all those new objects for your car, so it requires a ton of material gathering. Your car can support a lot of upgrades including things like rugged or offroad tires, steel doors, spotlights and side rails for additional floodlights, improved bumpers, more efficient batteries, bigger and more powerful engines, improved fuel efficiency and so much more.

The funny thing is that you quickly learn that your station wagon is in fact technically an artifact of the zone itself. And traditionally in Pacific Drive’s story, people who find artifacts bond with them until they love them so much that they set off deep into the zone with them, never to be seen again. I kind of laughed at this concept, but then found myself admiring a brand new set of rugged tires that I had just equipped along with a shiny new paint job on my car, and realized that I (as a player) was kind of falling into that trap of overly-admiring my vehicle. That is kind of a neat concept because if players are putting so many hours into fine tuning and decorating their ride, then they are naturally going to start to like it, just like those characters who disappeared with their non-vehicle artifacts many times before.

Pacific Drive and its Pacific Northwest landscape looks great, even post-disaster. And the sounds in the game are nice too. In addition to capable voice work, there are also quite a few radio stations that you can tune into inside your vehicle or while puttering around in the garage. All of that makes for a really outstanding presentation that compliments the unique gameplay that Pacific Drive offers.

Another really nice thing about Pacific Drive is that you can explore the title at your own pace, something I really enjoyed in games like The Long Dark. Yes, sometimes things will happen that will quickly push you out of a zone that you are exploring, but generally you can choose to tackle the main story missions however you want. If you like exploring and crafting, then there is no reason not to take your time and go through all the non-story mission zones that you unlock, especially if you are hunting for specific components to upgrade your vehicle. Whatever main story mission is on deck for you will wait until you are ready to tackle it. You can probably finish Pacific Drive in about 20 hours of gameplay if you drive straight through, but I hit 20 hours while still just scratching the surface. It took me over 60 hours to fully finish everything.

Pacific Drive is certainly a unique take on survival horror. It’s presented kind of at a slow pace which can be really enjoyable for those who like to have time to both fully explore the environment and carefully plan and craft their next set of upgrades. While pure adrenaline junkies might get a little bit bored with the gameplay loop, Pacific Drive presents a pretty balanced and unique experience that is more than worth the relatively generous $30 price tag. As such, those looking for a unique crafting and survival title should definitely turn the key and take Pacific Drive for a spin.

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