Growing up in the bush meant us kids had to find…less traditional ways of keeping ourselves entertained than our friends living out in the big smoke. Some of these are tame enough, like going on long bike rides through the local pine forests or building stick forts, but as we got older those simple pleasures weren’t enough for our teenage minds. They craved more and that came in the form of the various disused and barely working cars that our parents had accumulated over the years. These bush bashers were our first introduction into the world of cars and they were ours to take care of if we wanted to keep tooling around our properties. So we learnt how to fix them, keep them going, all on a pocket money budget and the few favors we could garner from our parents. You can then imagine the hit of nostalgia I caught when I saw what Pacific Drive was offering: a tale about you and your junker, trying to make it through the most insane situations. The premise had me from the start but it’s core gameplay loop was enough to keeping me coming back all the way to the end.

The Olympic Exclusion Zone is one of mystery. Once the primary site of a government agency called ARDA, who specialised in developing a new technology called LIM, it has long been sealed off from the public after a string of mysterious disappearances occurred many years ago. For whatever reason you’ve decided to go and visit the area to see what it’s all about, only to be stopped by a seemingly impassable wall that surrounds the whole peninsula. Driving around for a while though you notice a strange an eerie light which suddenly starts pulling you in. Before you know it you’re on the other side of the wall, the junker you drove in somehow making it across as well. That’s when you start getting contacted by some people on the radio, people who’d apparently been missing for decades. It’s clear that not everything as it seems here in the Exclusion Zone and your only chance to make it out alive is by keeping your junker running for as long as you can.

Pacific Drive’s visuals tend towards the simple/stylised with a generous layering of effects. The procedurally generated environments can be quite pretty at times, especially when you luck out and get a wide open environment that’s also not completely shrouded in the dark. The retro-future aesthetic on everything gives it an interesting vibe, the whole game feeling like it has one foot firmly planted in the past while the other is off dangling somewhere in the future. Performance is good too, although it’s clear that some of the game’s more intense moments (often generated by strange interactions) will put your rig to the test. I did have a couple visual glitches and broken models, although they thankfully cleared up at the next checkpoint. Overall I’d rate Pacific Drive’s graphics as standard for this generation.

Pacific Drive’s core mechanics borrow from 2 popular genres: survival horror and base builders. Your car is your main focus, starting off as a barely running heap of crap that you can then upgrade almost all parts of as the game goes on. There’s the obvious things like panels, tyres, engine, headlights, etc. but you’ll also unlock a bunch of different upgrades that can address certain challenges and improve your quality of life. As you go on drives with your car you’ll collect various resources to fuel these upgrades, some directly from resource stashes whilst others will come from breaking down items/cars or mined directly from a resource node. At the end of the run you’ll come back to the garage which also has its own upgrade path, along with a couple other minor progression paths such as upgrades to your clothes. As you progress these runs will become longer and more challenging, the various “anomalies” that you’ll face affecting your car in weird and wonderful ways. Your car itself will also change over time, whether you want it to or not, as it’ll develop “quirks” which you may or may not want to fix. You’ll also be given a main campaign to follow and various things will be locked behind progressing it but it’s by no means mandatory to keep following it, especially once you’ve unlocked the next tier of upgrades you might be chasing.

If this sounds like a lot it certainly is when you first start playing it. The game does a good job of giving you the basics but beyond that you’re left on your own to figure out how all these things come together. Whilst the initial run of upgrades are easy enough to understand (like using proper tyres, upgrading to steel panels, getting a big spare fuel tank, etc.) from there things start to get a lot more fuzzy. There’s a number of different upgrades which all address certain challenges you’ll face and depending on what you struggle with the most you’ll want to preference some over the other. Personally I couldn’t go past the auto-parker upgrade once I found it, just because it became such a chore to put the car into park every time I saw something I wanted to loot. I also found myself struggling with battery quite often, so I ended up kitting my car out with a bunch of different battery charging options to ensure that I could keep all my abilities going without having to worry about being caught out.

Things start to make more sense after you get a few runs under your belt though and you get a feel for the core game loop. Each run starts with you planning your route which will determine what kinds of resources you’ll have access to, what challenges you’ll face and the difficulty in getting back. The main resources you’ll always be chasing is Anchor Energy, which are the upgrade currency of the game. You’ll need a certain amount of it in order to open a gateway back to the garage so you can stash your resources and start another run. Along the way you’ll be able to collect all the other resources you’ll need for crafting salvaging gear, consumables and upgrades to the car and the garage. You don’t have unlimited time to do this though as after a period of time a radiation storm will come with its initial attack being survivable but it will quickly escalate to deadly if you decide to hang around for too long. So you’ll have to balance your desire to loot everything in sight with how much damage you and your car can take before you can get back to safety.

Pacific Drive’s map is divided into 3 tiers: outer, mid and deep zones. Logic would dictate that these ramp up in difficulty as you go through them and that’s partially true, mostly because you’ll have to traverse through all previous tiers to get to the next one. Longer runs then become a balancing act of what resources you need, what hazards you’ll face and how you’ll make it back out of there. There’s no one build that’ll see you addressing all of the game’s challenges so you’ll always be sacrificing something in order to deal with the things that annoy you the most. For me it was: puncture proof tyres as I was forever popping my others on everything, a combination of radiation/reinforced panels over most of the car, one of each battery generator with an extra battery in the back all capped off with a turbo charged engine. This struck the right balance of survivability for hazards I couldn’t go around whilst sacrificing my survivability for ones I could. I won’t lie, I certainly paid the price for that a couple times (like an acid blob turning my entire car red in seconds a couple times) but otherwise it worked amazingly.

The quirk system is honestly pretty hilarious, especially once you become fully aware of it. Initially you’re simply told that your car might develop some weird behaviour and, should you want to fix it, you’ll have to diagnose the fault over at a specific terminal. What they don’t tell you is how some of these quirks can actually be extremely beneficial or completely unnoticeable. The ones I seemed to always get were my lights dimming whenever I steered left or right, incredibly annoying whenever you were trying navigate a dark hill. Others were weirder and seemingly triggered by events not even directly related to the car, like whenever I turned on or used a radio (which can be outside the car itself) the boot would open. That one took me a while to figure out when I was going around collecting the cassette tapes as that seemed to set it off as well. I unfortunately didn’t get any of the really cool ones like honking the horn makes the car lurch forward (free speed boost) or another lucky duck who got their battery charging by opening the doors.

The progression in Pacific Drive feels really great for the vast majority of the game. Once you know what you’re going for it’s easy to prioritise the right resources so you can unlock it after the run is complete. You’ll always be lusting after the next big thing of course, but after the game’s first 4 hours or so you don’t feel like any of the cool upgrades are too far out of your reach. Where this falls down though is in the end game. Many of the high tier upgrades require a significant investment in resources which would take multiple runs to gather. Whilst this isn’t a bad thing in itself when I see people with over double my play time complaining about the grind you know it’s an issue. There were a couple car builds I wanted to try but given I’d already put over 20 hours into the game and wasn’t really interested in doing multiple hour long runs just to get the mats to try something new I figured it was time to make a beeline to the end.

Games like this are a hotbed for glitches, emergent behaviour and all round crazy shenanigans that were 100% not intended by the developer. I lost count of the times that my car clipped something in the wrong way and got sent flying, sometimes to my benefit but often not. Some of the car quirks can also lead to…sanity depleting effects (like the infamous horn honks horn honks quirk) which whilst part of the game still feel like they’re not exactly the intended effect. The procedurally generated levels can also create some things which will lock you out of completing certain objectives which, whilst usually frustrating, are thankfully not game breaking. These things will likely get better over time and the few patches I saw in my playthrough certainly calmed a few of the more egregious ones down.

The narrative, delivered by disembodied voices which are very well acted, is compelling enough to keep pushing you through the game’s campaign but I’d be lying if I said it was the game’s main appeal. To be sure it has it moments, especially towards the later end of the game where revelations start to make the world feel a little more grounded, but it’s clear that a good chunk of the worldbuilding is hidden in walls of text and other collectibles strewn about the world. Whilst this is great for completionists I had already spent over 20 hours getting through it. Had I dived into every block of text I came through I’d probably be double that easy. I much prefer the narrative to come along with me, rather than me having to dump out of the game to experience it.

All this being said though I really, truly enjoyed my time with Pacific Drive. The hook of reliving my younger days, rampaging around in a beaten up car carried me through the game’s early moments which gave it ample time to get me into the core gameplay loop. The process of gradually upgrading your car, figuring out what routes to take and the ever present chatter on the radio keeps the game going for a good long while. The end game is where it falls down a bit, the later upgrades taking too much time investment to really be worth it, especially considering that most of them are simply not required to finish the game. Still I know for some people that’s not the point so there’s a non-zero number of people out there who will likely enjoy that grind for what it is. For me though I was happy to cap it off there and I’m very happy with what I got out of my time with Pacific Drive.

Rating: 9.0/10

Pacific Drive is available on PC and PlayStation 5 right now for $43.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 24.6 hours total playtime and 59% of the achievements unlocked.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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