Vehicles are often little more than a tool to get players from point A to point B in games, so any title that makes their cars more intrinsic to the experience than that is inherently intriguing. There are games like Days Gone that treat its heroes motorcycle as a main character, as well as titles Death Stranding and Mudrunner that make traversing rugged terrain in vehicles a critical part of the experience. Pacific Drive takes elements from all those games to create something unique: an immersive sim roguelike where taking care of your car is vital to success.
Ahead of Pacific Drive’s appearance at Gamescom 2023’s Future Game Show, Digital Trends attended a hands-off presentation held by publisher Kepler Interactive. We saw a Pacific Drive in action and spoke with the developers to learn more about its racing game influences and the vital role that the station wagon players drive around plays in crafting memorable, emergent experiences. Pacific Drive is undoubtedly one of the more eclectic indies on the horizon and that should put it on your radar if you love immersive sims, roguelikes, and even racing games.
A not-so-joyful ride
In Pacific Drivethe player’s primary goal is to drive a station wagon (based on one of the developers’ cars) through the bizarre “Olympic Exclusion Zone” in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. This plays out in run-based roguelite fashion as players kit their car out in a garage, set out on a drive, and aim to make it as far as possible while dealing with supernatural anomalies that can stop your run if you aren’t careful.
To start the demo, Game Director Seth Rosen repaired parts of a car in the garage before charting out a path to take. Like Slay the Spire, Pacific Drive runs are made up of encounters on interconnected and branching paths, although the individual levels that make up these routes are pretty big places players can drive around and explore in. Rosen was heading toward a giant wall in the game’s world for this specific run, and the game looked and played normally as Rosen drove away from the garage and entered a new level where the large wall could be seen in the distance.
Until this point, the driving mechanics all looked simulation-like, with the car driving differently on and off-road and with tires impacting its handling too. For a time, the driving wouldn’t seem out of place in something like Gran Turismo 7but that quickly changed when Rosen encountered a spark tower. This tower disabled gravity in a certain area, launching the car up and off course. Because of elements like this, Ironwood Studios says it’s hard to palace Pacific Drive on the arcade-like to simulation spectrum that most driving-focused games fall into.
“We’re big fans of how accessible Pacific Drive is and want players to feel the fantasy of driving an old station wagon around,” Creative Director Alexander Dracott tells Digital Trends. “But we also like the inherent storytelling that comes from things like mud and rain that affect the handling of the car a little bit. So we definitely picked and chose the parts of different driving elements that were important to us.”
That’s why when players drive around, they’ll encounter various obstacles of both the realistic and unrealistic variety and have to find a way to solve them. To solve the spark tower situation, Rosen had to get out of the car, find the core powering the spark tower, and destroy it with the impact hammer, one of the many tools at his disposal. Whether in or out of the car, it looks like there are going to be a lot of emergent situations that players will need to adapt to.
A compelling immersive sim
Ironwood Studios is adamant that Pacific Drive is an immersive sim, a style of game that’s very reactive to the player’s actions and typically home to many engaging emergent moments. Players have many tools, car upgrades, and customization options to help them gather resources and deal with various literal and figurative roadblocks. The most impressive aspect of this hands-off demo was how interactable the world was. The game is played entirely from the first person, and you’ll sometimes need to look around in your station wagon to interact with particular objects or check the general health of the car. Even within the garage, the vehicles players are repairing and map used to chart the path players want to take all exist within the game’s world.
Then, once players are out on a run, every bit of terrain and obstacle that an effect that players will have to react to in some way. This simulation-like element adds to the immersive sim feel. While I haven’t gotten a chance to play the game myself, I suspect these emergent moments could deepen my emotional connection with the car and adventure, adding more intensity to challenging moments.
There are both amphoteric and intense moments to be found. After getting to the wall, the player found a sewer opening they could enter through. Once inside, they found a mostly abandoned facility filled with creepy mannequins. After navigating through this eerie labyrinth and coming out on the other side of the wall, Rosen moved on to the next level, a swamp biome. Here, they approached a large Stabilizer tower, which double as points that allow players to return to the garage mid-run.
After activating it, though, the energy released caused a storm to spawn. Rosen called this storm a “Ring of Doom” as it was a destructive force slowly closing in on the exit to this level. Along the way, odd metallic creatures appeared and pulled the car off-road. It then became a race to get to the exit point on this map, dealing with any environmental obstacles encountered along the way. Rosen escaped, but not until he went through such a tense moment that felt uniquely tailored to his run.
That felt like a very personal and emergent experience for Rosen, which is further bolstered by the game’s roguelite setup that makes runs stand out from each other. Ironwood explained that there is some procedural generation at play, with the in-game explanation being that the Olympic Exclusion Zone’s instability is causing things to shift. So, while every player will have to activate a Stabilizer tower in this section, the terrain they come across while escaping and what happens to them and their station wagon in the process will be unique.
It’s a take on the immersive sim that I haven’t seen before, and it pairs surprisingly well with the involved driving and vehicle upkeep systems. There’s no other game out there that’s closely comparable to Pacific Driveso you should be keeping an eye on this one as it approaches launch.
Pacific Drive launches for PC and PS5 in early 2024.