As someone who lives inner-city and doesn’t drive, car culture has always eluded me. I say that with zero malice towards people who enjoy all things on four wheels, it’s just never been for me. For a brief moment though, during a hands-off preview of Pacific Drive with the team at Ironwood Studios, I think I understood it.
As your sole, silent companion and key to survival, Pacific Drive’s initially-junky station wagon immediately stood out to me as something I should care about. If I’m to last any length of time out in the Olympic Exclusion zone, beyond the safety of the Wall, I’m going to need to know this car inside and out. I’m going to need to learn how to fuel it, maintain it, craft and apply upgrades and understand its quirks. Most of all, I’m going to have to learn to drive.
Billed as a “run-based survival game,” Pacific Drive tasks players with venturing out into the dangerous wilderness of a twisted version of the Pacific Northwest, fraught with unnatural weather, mysterious anomalies and all sorts of other dangers that are incredibly weird and sci-fi in nature. As Ironwood demoed the game, taking us on a (sometimes literal) whirlwind tour of the game’s sizeable map as well as the garage serving as players’ base of operations, I got to see a much clearer vision of just what this game is and the kinds of things players will spend their time doing when it launches later this year.
For starters, this is indeed an open-ended survival game that the studio wants players to be able to enjoy almost indefinitely, but it does have a clear beginning and conclusion. Finding themselves stranded in this deadly Zone, the player quickly discovers a station wagon that seemingly has more to offer than a regular car, and through their efforts to figure out what’s going on and escape they’ll also eventually discover what this car’s deal is along the way – at least that’s what I’m told. So the idea is to head out on the road and gather as many resources as you can before finding a powerful artifact to enable a return to your garage, all while staying alive lest you get sent back a little more unceremoniously and lose a portion of your spoils. Rinse and repeat, pushing further and further as you upgrade your car and garage for increased survival.
So far, so rogue-lite, but the twist here of course is your safehouse on wheels. You’re going to want to stay in your station wagon as much as possible, sheltered from all the anomalous nasties and radioactive storms and such that make the Zone the veritable wasteland that it is. The Ironwood folks assure us that other characters do exist in this world, but you’ll meet them strictly through comms and not in-person. You car has everything you need in that regard – radio, maps, environmental read-outs, everything you need to know within the confines of it two-tone panels. Leaving it will be necessary to scavenge and thwart threats, but outside you’re naked and ignorant. I often feel like that.
We also got a look at what things are like within the safety of your garage, where you’ll be able to fuel up and tinker with your car, adding upgrades and replacing damaged parts using resources you find and process after reach run. There’s some upgrading and customisation to be done of your garage facilities as well, which should make the whole gameplay loop fairly compelling as you see your surroundings take shape alongside your odds of survival. The team says it wants to give players “a little bit of a respite” after the intensity of each driving run which, after witnessing how utterly hectic things can get out there, definitely seems vital. I love the idea of making it safely home to then leisurely unpack your car boot, sift through all the junk you amassed, spruce the place up and get a nice, clean mental slate before throwing yourself out there again.
I really like what I’ve seen of Pacific Drive so far. Ironwood Studios is onto something with this blend of driving and surviving, making the station wagon a character of its own that players will need to look after just as much as it looks after them. The runs look full-on, but there seems to be plenty of calm and beauty built in that make it feel less daunting. I’ve never cared about cars before, but I want to care about this one.