Pacific Drive will make you fall in love with an old station wagon

The Charm of Classic Station Wagons with ‘Pacific Drive

Developed by Ironwood Studios, Pacific Drive is an intriguing video game that offers a unique blend of road trip adventure and survival in a post-apocalyptic setting. The game’s premise transports players into the enigmatic Olympic Exclusion Zone, nestled in the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Here, players find themselves navigating a rugged, old station wagon through an altered reality where conventional physics no longer apply, reminiscent of a fusion between American Truck Simulator and a desolate, survival-centric version of Fallout.

The game Pacific Drive goes beyond mere driving simulation. At its core, it’s an intricate journey revolving around the automobile itself. In the initial hours, revealed through a preview build, players engage in an intense cycle of scavenging, crafting, and exploration, drawing parallels to the challenging gameplay of No Man’s Sky.

The primary objective revolves around gathering sufficient resources to not only keep the car running but also to transform this deteriorating vehicle into a formidable machine, ready to face an apocalyptic world. The transformation process involves turning a rust-laden wagon, complete with makeshift storage solutions, into a custom exploration vehicle armored in a Mad Max style, equipped with DIY technology akin to the gadgets in Ghostbusters.

Pacific Drive ingeniously incorporates elements from roguelite games. Each gameplay session, or ‘run’, begins at a home base, which doubles as a shelter and a garage. Here, players can modify, recharge, and refuel their vehicle. These runs take players through randomly generated ‘junction’ areas, leading to specific mission endpoints.

The game’s pivotal moments occur when players encounter a ‘gateway’ – a colossal, luminous beam shooting through the earth. Entering this gateway is the only means to return home and embark on a new journey. The game’s essence lies in enduring these expeditions, returning with valuable loot to upgrade the vehicle for the next venture.

A cockpit view from behind the wheel of Pacific Drive’s station wagon, with several extra readouts visible. Through the windscreen we see pine forests and a lightning strike
Image: Ironwood Studios/Kepler Interactive

The game’s setting is a compelling portrayal of a forsaken late-20th-century sci-fi environment, interspersed with towering evergreens and landscapes ravaged by gravitational storms and technological anomalies. Based on the preview build, including introductory missions, Pacific Drive promises to immerse players in this intriguing world.

Despite its captivating premise, Pacific Drive presents a steep learning curve, attributed to its intricate UI and unconventional control schemes. The game’s complexity is not an intentional move towards obscurity but rather an initial hurdle in acquainting players with its mechanics.

This complexity can lead to frustration as players navigate through the car maintenance and crafting options while being bombarded with information about their vehicle’s condition. It might be beneficial for players to restart the game after a few hours, once they have a better understanding of the gameplay mechanics.

Pacific Drive also stays true to a retro aesthetic, set in an alternate late 1990s world. This setting is a unique juxtaposition of late analog and early digital technology.

The game’s immersive atmosphere is further enhanced by its soundtrack, featuring a carefully selected array of licensed tracks that resonate with the game’s post-apocalyptic vibe and nostalgic undertones, reminiscent of Simon Stålenhag’s post-apocalyptic scenarios and childhood road trips.

A gloomy, rain-lashed nighttime first-person view of a station wagon with lashed-together panels and homebrew modifications. In the foreground the player is holding some kind of nozzle
Image: Ironwood Studios/Kepler Interactive

One of the game’s most commendable
features is its commitment to immersing players in the game’s world. This is achieved through the use of a first-person camera control, even while driving, and the integration of an in-game map and information system known as the ARC Relay.

This system, located in the passenger seat, replaces the traditional menu screen and HUD, enhancing the player’s immersion. Players can actively engage with their surroundings, glancing over their shoulder at anomalies or adjusting their view to simultaneously keep an eye on the road and the car’s complex navigation system.

Importantly, Pacific Drive is not a high-speed racing game. Instead, it offers a more contemplative driving experience. Players must navigate their aging station wagon through challenging terrain, making cautious decisions to traverse through mysterious scenes and conserve resources.

The game emphasizes the need to manage the car carefully, reminding players to switch off the ignition and secure the car when stationary to avoid wasting fuel or losing the car down a slope.

The narrative of Pacific Drive is subtly woven into the gameplay through radio transmissions from other characters within the Zone. These transmissions introduce the concept of “Remnants” – remnants of technology that have miraculously survived in the Zone and exert a mystical influence over their users.

While the story adds depth to the game, the design and mechanics effectively convey the central importance of the car in the player’s journey, making the narrative elements feel complementary rather than essential.

Pacific Drive is an innovative game that combines elements of survival, exploration, and crafting in a unique setting. Its focus on a single vehicle as the player’s lifeline in a post-apocalyptic world sets it apart from other games in the genre.

The game’s rich visual and auditory design contributes to an immersive experience that draws players into its world. Despite some initial challenges with its complex interface and controls, Pacific Drive promises a rewarding and engaging experience for those who persevere.

Pacific Drive is scheduled for release on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC, available through Steam and the Epic Games Store, on February 22. This release marks a new addition to the growing genre of survival exploration games, offering a fresh perspective and an engaging new world for players to discover.