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Pacific Drive

Pacific Drive

Escape a gigantic, perilous dome by car. An original concept, but can developer Ironwood Studios realise its potential?

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If a game were to be judged solely on the mood its premise, mechanics, structure and presentation can generate, Pacific Drive would not only rank among the year's best, but would join a host of other indie gems as evidence of relatively small studios' immense creative prowess. Exploring the so-called Olympic Exclusion Zone in your trusty station wagon is a subtle experience where you can never count on anything and where the tactile nature of controlling every variable really takes you by surprise.

But unfortunately, atmosphere isn't everything, or if it is, it's achieved and maintained in other ways too, and this is where Pacific Drive's lack of technical polish and slightly too uneven survival mechanics start to grate.

Pacific Drive
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Let's start at the beginning. Pacific Drive takes place in our world, but with one critical difference: a number of years ago, an anomaly of sorts began to emerge somewhere in the Pacific Northwest region of North America (think Oregon, Washington State and parts of British Columbia). It's a geographical, biological and utterly incomprehensible event that introduces phenomena in a radius of well over 100 kilometres, and in true Annihalation fashion (seriously, watch that movie) makes animals, plants, the ground we walk on and the air we breathe funny, unpredictable and changeable. Man decides to study the zone, but ultimately the results are too uneven, too strange, and instead it's decided to encapsulate the phenomenon with a several hundred metre high dome, leaving a few behind the walls.

This is where you get sucked in for no reason, and the few survivors inside the zone decide to help you escape. This can only be done by taking care of an old station wagon, a real 70s American family car, and turning it into a tool that can help you map the phenomena in the zone and eventually escape.

Pacific Drive

I'm spending more time than usual setting the scene here, but maybe that's just to make sure you realise how well this whole setup works and how efficiently and seamlessly the game manages to set its scene. In more practical terms, the game is a slight mix of different elements we've seen before. The game takes place in first person, and from a base, which also happens to be your workshop, you set out on expeditions in relatively large open zones within... well, the zone. Here you gather resources, avoid hostile phenomena and escape back to the workshop to make necessary repairs, upgrade the car and ultimately expand the workshop with new tools that allow you to travel deeper into the zone, where only worse dangers lurk.

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So yes, a little roguelite, a little survival, a little crafting - it's all here, and you get the pleasure of maintaining an overview of your resources, saving up for crucial upgrades, while at times being thrown under the bus by the game's various malevolent phenomena and having to return to the workshop with a smashed car, while poor in crucial resources for even the most basic repairs.

However, the game does manage to structure your experience with obvious goals, so while you can freely explore selected parts of the zone and collect resources in one go, there are specific sub-goals to achieve, such as reaching a certain part of the zone or interacting with an object. It's all quite cleverly put together, and although the game lacks a more organised narrative structure and therefore more emotional moments, it manages, like Firewatch, to make the most of not really having any characters in the picture. However, robbing the player of their own voice is a real mistake.

Pacific DrivePacific Drive

The coolest thing, though, is how tactile it all is. Everything in Pacific Drive requires input. Putting the car in D or P, turning on the wipers when it's raining or lights when it's dark, taking off a broken wheel and putting on a new one - it all requires you to be there, present, and contributes to a loop characterised by rudimentary but satisfying tasks.

So what's the problem? Solid atmosphere, a good premise, nice survival structures? As with so many projects, it's the little things. Firstly, the game is in poor technical condition to say the least on PS5, where the frame rate is usually 30fps, but it's also characterised by drops to 20fps, which is downright unacceptable. Furthermore, it's great to be so tactilely involved in the repairs, but the whole convention, the set of rules behind which buttons do what, is so confusing that it took me days to familiarise myself with the whole setup. And in the end, it's all just a bit unbalanced. It requires too many resources to make general upgrades, the nights are a little too long and rob you of some pretty basic visibility and thus an overview of what the heck is going on, and certain phenomena seem like rather unfair jabs at the player rather than solid challenges that can be overcome or avoided.

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In other words, Pacific Drive was probably a QA review or two away from being ready for primetime, which is a shame when the developer is supposedly pushing themselves to get the game out in perhaps the busiest month of the year, especially on PS5. I'm not sure why, but it seems particularly inappropriate when the game's primary problems are related to fine-tuning, balancing and technical refinement - all of which could be achieved with just a few extra months of development time.

However, it also means that even though I'm giving it a 7 today, Pacific Drive could one day be something special, one of those wonderful indie darlings that really puts the studio on the map. Keep an eye out for it, because this idea is just so damn cool.

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07 Gamereactor UK
7 / 10
+
Fantastic atmosphere. Lovely tactile mechanics. Great stylistic choices throughout.
-
Pretty abysmal technical performance on PS5. Some uneven structural problems. Some steep difficulty spikes here and there.
overall score
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Pacific Drive

REVIEW. Written by Magnus Groth-Andersen

Escape a gigantic, perilous dome by car. An original concept, but can developer Ironwood Studios realise its potential?



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