Car as Companion
Pacific Drive's unique premise, moody atmosphere, and sci-fi road trip setting held my attention ever since it was first revealed during September 2022’s PlayStation State of Play (it’ll also be on PC via Steam and Epic Games Store). It’s a run-based, first-person driving survival game. Marketed as a road-lite (get it, a rogue-like that’s on the road. I know… I know…), your car is your only companion here. Each drive into the wilderness will have you facing different challenges in the form of anomalies plaguing the Pacific Northwest. But over time you can restore and upgrade your car all with the goal of unraveling a mystery as you head toward the heart of the Olympic Exclusion Zone.
My hands-off preview was in a virtual, group setting and consisted of a 20-minute developer-led demo and a 30-minute Q&A where we could type in chat and have some questions answered. Frankly, I left the session less intrigued than when I entered.
Previews are always caveat ridden and I can see the spots where Pacific Drive could shine but I find myself wondering what would compel me to continue. As someone intrigued by the narrative, I was disappointed to leave without much story information. Perhaps it was a limitation of the demo but I worry I won’t be getting the narrative thrills I’m hoping for here.
The demo we saw was part way through Pacific Drive’s story where, after a strange incident, you’ve been stranded on the far side of the outer wall of the zone and discover your old station wagon which is more than meets than eye.
And this old abandoned garage you stumbled into acts as your home base. It’s where you’ll spend time between runs: uploading new intel you find on drives, working on your car, and more.
Art direction wise I am still in love with Pacific Drive’s vibe. Being on the side of the road and wandering into the adjacent garage reminded me of Life is Strange 2’s treks up the highway, aesthetically speaking.
We see the player prep for the drive by filling the car up with gas and charging the battery. It’s worth noting that Pacific Drive will let you leave for the road however you want. If you forget to charge the battery and end up being unable to power your headlights, well, get ready for a darker drive!
This isn’t to say that Pacific Drive is punishing in any way. Quite the opposite. The team wants to provide players with the opportunity to creatively problem solve and, in cases like this, make their own problems. It’s about player freedom and everyone walking away with their own fun experiences on the road.
The team is still figuring out how to best factor in accessibility and approachability. For instance, allowing players to never run out of gas is currently on the table but it's too soon to say that'll be in the final build.
The back wall of the garage has a map where you can chart your route into the zone. It’s a node graph of sorts with routes branching off from the garage. Functionally, it’s your overworld map.
You start with just the garage on it but each time you do a successful run aka make it back to the garage in one piece a new junction is added, revealing adjacent roads that allow you to go deeper into the zone.
Pacific Drive heavily uses randomization to make each trip into the zone different but a few spots on the map are fixed levels.
Your drive can be on-road or off-road, in all kinds of weather, and all those factors affect the feel of the drive without getting so sim-like that it loses fun and approachability. A drive can include surveying the arena, stopping to check out buildings for resources, and driving into various hazards and threats. In this demo, electricity fields damage the car.
There’s a 24-hour time of day cycle and a weather layer that occurs on top of that alongside anomalies such as the alien-like Abductors hovering overhead, pulling the car in different directions if they catch it.
More interestingly, at one point giant mechanical dust bunnies cling to the car and make it go a bit haywire forcing the player to get out and get them off. But by the time the car is clean, the wind blows it away and the player is chasing after it on foot. Luckily a tree intercepts the car before it gets too far away. Amusing for sure but I wonder how often that turns into pure frustration.
In almost every run you need some amount of anchor energy (points marked on your map) in your device to make it back. Anchor energy allows you to create an extraction point to return to the garage. When you open an extraction point you have a set amount of time to make it there before the storm closes in on you (battle royale style) and starts melting your car. Gathering anchor energy is a background task overlaid with whatever main objective you have in the narrative. But runs can also function as pure exploration or resource gathering.
You can discover car upgrades (practical or cosmetic), find music to play on demand on top of the licensed songs on the radio, or discover lore in the form of notes left behind from those who ventured into the zone before you. But never people. While there are characters who will talk to you on the radio, you don’t talk back. This is an isolated experience.
There’s a lot of narrative potential with Pacific Drive, especially considering its focus on exploration (at the risk of invoking a game held in such high regard… Outer Wilds had a similarly hands-off approach). But since I didn’t get any story details, this is purely my own speculation and hope so I’ll focus on the potential I see based on this demo specifically.
The car and the stories you make inside of it. That’s the secret sauce. Cars have such a rich history of being modern-day trusty steeds for many. It’s so clear that the team has a passion for that and I think that’s where the current strength of Pacific Drive lies. And when you combine that with the random routes who knows what hilarious, bizarre, or awe-inspiring moments await you?
The mechanic aspect of it all is detailed but simplified so that anyone can get under the hood. All of it feels incredibly unique but so specific it risks losing more widespread appeal. Whenever you have a game where the onus is on the player to create cool experiences for themselves there’s the risk that they won’t latch on. I can see fun stories happening in Pacific Drive but I don’t think it creates enough opportunities for them to make it universal for everyone who gets behind the wheel.
Pacific Drive is a driving, survival game primarily. You’re tinkering with your car; you’re driving around. It’s a mix of time management and seeing new things. It surely will appeal to some but I don’t know that it’ll be enough for me.
I’m most optimistic about the narrative potential and the fact that it goes beyond the roads and wilderness and gets weird. I just struggle to imagine becoming best buds with this old station wagon. But maybe with the right upgrades, and a cool collection of dashboard bobbleheads of course, I’ll want to keep hitting the road.