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Stranded deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, your car in pieces, you stumble upon a dimly lit abandoned garage. As luck would have it, a battered old estate car sits there waiting for you, key in the ignition, with just enough petrol to get you to safety – what a coincidence! As will become almost immediately evident, this is not your average car, but then, Pacific Drive is not your average survival game.
Pacific Drive takes place in the Olympic Peninsula, a vast swathe of dense woodland in the west of Washington state, and one that has been long abandoned since unexplained anomalies began appearing within it. The Olympic Exclusion Zone now teems with supernatural goings-on, with clouds of radioactive gas, scores of mannequins that seem to move when you aren’t looking, and an ever-shapeshifting landscape. It’s not a horror game, and yet time after time I found the hairs on my neck standing up at the odd rustling in the distance.
One of these anomalies is the Remnants. Not quite living nor inanimate, they manifest themselves as everyday objects, attaching themselves to people and slowly driving them to madness. Your new car is one such Remnant, but as equally as it could be your death sentence, it’s your only chance of escaping the Exclusion Zone.
A couple of kindly folks pick up your signal from inside the zone and direct you to a nearby garage. The garage’s owner, Oppy, isn’t too happy about you being there but figures that the sooner she helps you, the sooner you’ll be gone. She sends you off to one of several nearby settlements, to hunt for scrap by scavenging inside abandoned houses or disassembling the wrecks of cars.
Like your typical survival game, your main goal is to gather materials, improve your gear, and stay alive. And that’s the same for Pacific Drive, only your goal isn’t to upgrade your gear, it’s to upgrade your car. Stronger panels and doors mean more protection against the anomalies, while better wheels won’t blow out on the rugged woodland paths. The better-equipped your car is, the further you can drive and the closer you come to freedom.
Spend too long looting a town and a cloud of radioactive dust begins to flood the air, signalling it’s time to move. Oppy directs you to these strange devices called Anchors. By using the orbs these Anchors generate, you can channel the power of the Zone to power a teleporter, but speeding up the spread of radiation in the process.
You rush to get back in your car. The only thing that matters now is getting to that teleporter, marked by a bright orange beam to the heavens. By this point, your car has been battered by the anomalies of the zone. Perhaps you’ve lost a door, you’re running low on fuel, or an entire wheel has come off. Watching your health slowly tick down from the radiation as you edge closer to the beam is a stressful experience, the likes of which I haven’t experienced in a game for a long time.
But you make it, and in an instant, you’re right back at the garage. You unload the spoils of your journey and get to work fixing up your motor. For something that threatens to drive you to insanity, you get attached to it pretty quickly, but there’s no time to get sentimental. Slap on some new wheels and doors, fuel her up and charge the battery, and you’re back out there on another run – it’s almost roguelite-esque.
A small, but significant touch is how the game handles driving. Wet roads make your car harder to handle. You have to physically look at and turn the key in the ignition yourself, put the car in drive to drive and in park to park. This doesn’t seem like a major deal until you’re escaping from an anomaly and forget to put your car in drive, wasting precious seconds panicking about why your car simply won’t go.
Similarly, any damage to your car is reflected in how it drives. At one point I had a loose tire but not enough materials to repair it, forcing my car to continuously veer to the left slightly, and requiring me to constantly turn right to correct it. These little modifiers add a lot to the game and give each run a nice (or not-so-nice) twist.
But equally, if that’s not for you, Pacific Drive features a massive number of modifiers to completely tailor your experience. All those previous features can be disabled and more. If the game is too easy, you can choose to make you and your car take more damage. Conversely, if you want to focus on the story, you can reduce damage or even prevent dying. Pacific Drive is not an easy game by default, and having options like this for those who want them opens it up to a much wider audience and is certainly a welcome addition.
And speaking of the story, Pacific Drive’s demo certainly promises a lot. The characters who help you along the way are excellently voice-acted, and are full of charm, bickering with each other constantly while you make your way through the Zone. At points, they will give you specific directions, places to go or materials to collect, and will drop tidbits of exposition to tell you more about the Zone and what happened here, the story of which is hopelessly intertwined with your quest to escape. This demo doesn’t dive too deeply into the story, but what’s there sets up what promises to be a gripping experience with plenty of lore to uncover.
Though I only had a few hours with Pacific Drive, I was hooked. The lore of the Zone is deeply intriguing and after scratching its surface with this demo, I can’t wait to delve further into the Zone and its secrets in the full game. Pacific Drive promises to be a truly unique experience, and one that fans of survival games and the supernatural should certainly be excited for.
Pacific Drive arrives on PC and PlayStation 5 on 22 February 2024.