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Pacific Drive Review (PS5) – The Magic Of The Open Road And A Station Wagon

Pacific Drive Review (PS5) – When someone begins telling you about a new survival game, you’d likely first start to imagine all the ways the game would ask you to keep your player character alive.

You probably wouldn’t think that it would be more important to keep a car, for example, running and working, over your player character being alive. Well, your car being pretty much more important than you is just one way Pacific Drive isn’t your typical survival experience.

It’s a game absolutely dripping with atmosphere and mystery, with good vibes throughout to carry you through some less-than-ideal pacing that eventually does reward your time spent in Pacific Drive.

From Ironwood Studios, the mystery of the Olympic Exclusion Zone and the journey you take through it in Pacific Drive is easily one of the year’s best games, and it’s only the second month of 2024.

Pacific Drive Review (PS5) – The Magic Of The Open Road And A Station Wagon

Into The Zone

When I loaded up Pacific Drive to begin my review, it wasn’t my first time entering the Olympic Exclusion Zone. I already had that experience when I got the chance to preview Pacific Drive, which you can check out here.

There I dug into the story basics and the main things you need to know about the world of Pacific Drive, but to summarize the Zone is essentially this Bermuda Triangle-like place where strange things happen no one can explain, and you get caught smack in the middle of it.

Luckily for you, a Remnant in the form of a Station Wagon is nearby once you’re in the Zone, and with the help of your trusty vehicle you stay alive long enough to try and make it out of the Zone while also figuring out what happened to it, and to the people still left there, mainly the ones who talk to you over the radio comms – Oppy, Tobias and Francis.

I don’t want to go too deep into the story’s details, especially because so much of the experience is getting to peel back the layers of its mystery yourself, through the conversations Tobias, Oppy and Francis have, along with logs and little bits of lore you pick up the whole way through.

In the same way that FromSoftware encourages players to read the descriptions of items and pay close attention to their surroundings to discover the narrative in their games, Ironwood Studio’s does an excellent job of making you want to read the descriptions for everything you pick up, each anomaly you find, everything.

Pacific Drive is just dripping in atmosphere, at all times, and tough as the Zone might be each run, I couldn’t help myself but risk the extra time it took to try and find new notes or old recordings. Anything that could help piece together the mystery of the Zone, and further understand what happened to make it ground zero for a calamitous event.

It Feels Good To Be On, Or Off The Road

As much as I loved everything about the narrative and the atmosphere of Pacific Drive, if it didn’t feel good to drive around the OEZ, all those aspects would be a lot more difficult to love.

Thankfully, it doesn’t feel good to drive around the OEZ – it feels great, with the driving feeling responsive and realistic enough for the different terrains you’ll face. The fact that driving and maintaining your car isn’t much of a chore even further encourages you to explore for resources – though you’ll also really, really need to explore for resources.

Even by the end of the game, when your station wagon is pimped out in ways no one would’ve sensibly thought to pimp out a station wagon, adventures into the Zone can go horribly wrong very, very quickly. You’ll always need to be gathering resources to keep going.

Which is why it’s also great that collecting those resources feels good too. Each tool from your always-necessary Scrapper to the Anchor Radar has a satisfying feedback to them, made ever more present by the DualSense controller’s features. The adaptive trigger use in Pacific Drive is especially commendable, as it was put to great effect on and off the road.

The gameplay is also continually ramping up in interesting ways, with new and re-occurring anomalies that constantly keep you on your toes, or more accurately behind the wheel, since for many of them the safest place is to just be in your car.

It’s here where the magic of Pacific Drive begins to really come together. Studying the Zone, discovering more and more about the anomalies, and most importantly learning how to defend yourself against them creates this odd power fantasy of sorts, where the end goal is to simply be untouchable in your car.

Having each panel and door being armored, or protective against Zone hazards like radiation and high-voltages, your wheels being tricked out to be suited for different terrains. Enough fuel across multiple tanks that you’ll be able to make your whole trip without stopping to look for gas.

Enough storage that you can collect an abundance of resources while keeping the tools you may need handy to keep your car on the road in the Zone and keep you alive. Feeling like you can take on anything the Zone offers has a kind of, ‘Dad who is prepared for any situation’ satisfaction to it that really makes it fun to live out.

Part of that comes out due to it all being revolved around a car and surviving both harsh and odd conditions, but it’s really the best descriptor for it in my head. Like the most prepared ‘Airport Dad’ constantly being vindicated because the extra effort that was put in to make sure things weren’t forgotten, lost, or broken proves to have been extremely worth it, saving the trip.

That’s the level of satisfaction you can get from a good trip out into the Zone, even the ones where you get out by the skin of your teeth.

Learning A New Love Language

Speaking about your car, this Remnant Station Wagon that, according to Oppy is killing you, truly becomes something you learn to love very quickly. Your car protects you, and you get to protect it, by upgrading it’s panels and making it the most Zone-ready vehicle the OEZ ever saw.

Needing to keep an eye and make repairs or replacements for so many aspects of your car informed that relationship you develop with it from the start, and I could feel it happening the more I played.

One thing that especially made me feel closer to the car was Quirks. These are things your vehicle will pick up when out in the Zone, for no one reason really. They’re a side-effect of the Zone that can and will continue to infect your car until you find them out.

It causes you to have to pay closer attention to how your car functions, along with how healthy, so to speak, the parts that keep your car going are. Quirks can also contribute to having a much more difficult time in the Zone, like one I picked up which sent my car speeding uncontrollably forward when I switched gears into Drive.

Where the connection really deepens though is how you can discover these Quirks and fix them, with a Tinker Station in the garage that demands you describe the thing that’s happening in four phrases. For example, one Quirk I got effected my headlights, and to fix it I had to list it as such: Headlights – Dim – Steering Wheel – Stays Turning.

It felt like I was learning how the car speaks, at least a little bit. I really dug it and felt it was an excellent example of a mechanic influencing narrative, deepening a players connection to the game and adding interesting gameplay all at the same time.

From Tension-Inducing To Annoyance

For everything I loved about Pacific Drive, overall there were still too many moments that felt like they interrupted the good vibes of what was happening. This generally came from the pacing of the game’s main narrative, and the game’s rougelike nature.

The fact that you’ll face something different each time you go out into the Zone, and that you’ll likely be discovering new paths definitely kept things interesting, but the Zone’s unpredictability can quickly become annoying.

Some of the Zone’s anomalies and hazards felt like they got in the way more than anything. Hot Dust was a particularly troublesome anomaly, one that could appear or already be covering an entire area before you got there with deadly radiation, the likes of which you just can’t survive, even with protective gear.

Which would mean that you’d come to an area on your map that looked to be potentially rife with resources, only to have to drive through it because spending a minute outside of your car would be disastrous to your health. It’s the kind of risk I would only take if I needed to fix something on my car to keep it going.

Abductors were also one of my least favourite common occurrences, floating creatures that would grab your car via a suction cup and take you for a spin, one that likely ended up with you crashing over an cliff or into a tree. In that case you’d be lucky to get the tree.

These anomalies never really inspired tension in the way the Zone’s biggest danger did, which were the major storms. These were the storms you could only avoid by heading to the next area or Junction as they’re called, and by getting back to the garage via the giant orange gateways.

Driving towards these giant orange towers you can see from most anywhere in each Junction, making it out before the Zone was at its worst all around you, covered in red, warning signs flashing, everything telling you to get out of dodge – it works perfectly each time as a way to cap off your trips out to the Zone, but they also had a nasty habit of cutting resource trips in the Zone shorter than you needed, since you’re now forced to leave even if you haven’t found what you’re looking for.

Of course you could try and stay but after a while you’d die from being outside your car for less than a minute.

None of the Zone’s anomalies really gave you that tension. The only thing that comes close, are the smaller storms that simply pass through the Junctions, causing a chaos of anomalies in their wake. Needing to drive through a small storm to get to an exit, which generally involved dodging pillars of rock and stone that would appear out of the ground was tense.

Most things like Abductor’s, Hot Dust, Sizzling Mist which were clouds of electricity, the solution was the same. Drive around them, or through them, if you can. There are other interesting ways to deal with the more sentient anomalies like Abductors, but driving away also works every time.

That said, some anomalies being less nerve-wracking to deal with just further supports the power fantasy of being ‘master of the Zone.’ It was just frustrating taking multiple trips out to look for a resource to craft something for an objective or an upgrade on your car, only to have to return empty-handed and try again, potentially worse-off than you were before.

Out Of Pace

That’s where the crux of Pacific Drive’s pacing issues come in. You have to spend a lot of time early on making trips into the Zone to further map it out and to collect resources so that you can take a shot at completing the next story segment, which will take you even deeper into the Zone.

Because of just how quickly things can turn on you, whether you’re careful or not, it slowed down the pacing of the game early on so that everything after that point felt like you were rushing to the finish line. It’s a slow start, but eventually you get enough resources and upgrades that you’re only making small repairs back at the garage before heading out to the next story beat, because you’re car’s in good shape.

The upgrade tree full of blueprints to further trick your car out becomes less of a necessity and more of a side, ‘it’s there if you want,’ sort of thing. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it’s a symptom of the game’s pacing being improperly structured, resembled mostly by an ending that just kind of happens, and then you’re set free in the endgame.

I still enjoyed the story the whole time, and all the narrative bits I got along the way were great, it just felt things were so slow for most of my time until a little more than halfway where it suddenly was about to end before I could turn my head around.

Part of the slowness comes from the actual runs out into the Zone. You’re not exactly zooming on these roads, constantly slowing down or turning to avoid some hazard. Finding new routes and just driving through each Junction can still take some time even without stopping for loot.

Especially because you can’t save your game mid-way in a run. Once you start a trip out into the Zone, until you open a gateway and get back to the garage, you can’t save your progress, you have to keep the game open and turn your console off in ‘Rest Mode’ if you want to just come back to it later.

You can abandon your run, but that’ll result in you losing mostly all your collected loot, and send your car back to the garage missing a few pieces. It’s something that’s annoying only in the early hours of the game, when recovering from losing multiple doors or panels will feel like your car has been downgraded, and you’ll need to do more basic resource-focused Zone trips that further slows things down.

The pacing just feels off throughout, to the point where I rolled credits at 37hr 51min (call it 38hrs) and still felt like the main story just ended very abruptly. It’s odd, to say the least, and if not for everything else that feels good about playing Pacific Drive, it would do a lot more damage to the experience.

Punch It, Driver

Pacific Drive’s pacing issues aside, it gets pretty much everything else about what it is trying to do right. The story is excellently written and executed, with a voice cast that was constantly impressing me the further I got.

The music is like a lovely icing on the atmospheric cake that brings the dessert together in a way that’s almost indescribable. The wonderful soundtrack of licensed music, all of which I’ve added to my own library, hit the exact right notes when it comes to road trip listening.

A weirdness to the Olympic Exclusion Zone that felt like both reward and punishment. You want to get a closer look at everything weird and new you find in the OEZ, but getting too close could also be the mistake that puts your current trip out into ruins.

All this capped off with plenty of stories and added lore about the OEZ and LIM Waves to uncover, and a crafting/looting gameplay loop that doesn’t get old, Pacific Drive can be a hell of a time.

I should also mention that I believe the issues I have with it can be solved by the player. By adjusting gameplay settings through a wide variety of modifiers included, you can easily make it so that the game essentially won’t get in the way of you experiencing the core narrative, if that’s all you’re there for.

It’s a perfectly fine way to play that I’d imagine speed up your playtime and fix the pacing issues I have with it. But that experience would also remove many of the survival challenges that are a lot of the fun in Pacific Drive, so keep that in mind if you choose to play that way and can’t relate with the fun tensions I talked about here.

And to be clear, I think it’s great the modifiers are there and so detailed, Pacific Drive’s story is excellent and it’s a very good thing that these modifiers allow for it to be experienced by as many people as possible.

That’s why with all that said, I still think Pacific Drive is a must-play game for 2024, and it’s not even March.

Pacific Drive is now available on PS5.

Review code generously provided by publisher.



The Final Word

Pacific Drive is a game absolutely dripping in atmosphere and excellent spooky vibes, with an exploration-to-looting-to-tense extraction-to-crafting/upgrading and back again gameplay loop that doesn't get old, and a story that is both emotional and intriguing. While pacing issues do hamper it down some, that doesn't damage the experience enough to leave it off anyone's must-play list for 2024.