Written by Joshua Hufton
At its core Pacific Rift is—literally—an outrageous celebration of off-road racing. Any notion of etiquette is cast cliff-side so a rebellious, over-caffeinated youth can clash motorcycles with monster trucks along the same mountainous ravine. Finally. Known only as “The Festival,” the single-player campaign is presented as a demonstrably real experience, yet with an arcade flair. Superbly polished visuals eschew an otherwise superior sense of realism: for example, heavy-footing the heads-up boost gauge will blast one’s vehicle to oblivion. It all comes together to reflect this over-the-top and recklessly care-free mentality quintessentially—but hey, at least they’ve got helmets.
Arriving in throngs by air and sea, festival hippie-gearheads and their souped-up rides make a paradise beach their home, and an exotic island their bitch. Mixing and matching eight vehicle types ranging from light-and-quick to heavy-and-slow, seventeen stunning tracks emblazoned across a whole swath of geographical extremes, and enough branching paths and shortcuts to satisfy the most Ritalen-deprived A.D.D.’ers, Pacific Rift’s strongest suit is the variety. For any genre—particularly a racer—this is a very good thing.
It is due to the variety of vehicles, the relationships between said vehicles, and the variety and design of the many labyrinthine tracks that few races feel exactly alike. Each vehicle behaves differently and provides a unique racing experience. The camera sits low behind the sprightly motorcycle; the controls are tight, responsive, and the game feels predominantly knee-jerk. On the other end of the eight-car spectrum, the Big Rig bludgeons heavily through competitors and environs indiscriminately. The camera is positioned high to allow an unobstructed view over their massive frames, producing a comparatively slowed, cerebral experience.
Additionally, the hierarchical relationships between vehicles directly affect the racing experience, and remarkably the subgenre changes in the process. It’s not terribly bright to throw one’s weight around in a Motorcycle, and it’s never good to tango with a Big Rig unless you’re also steamrolling six fat tires and a deisel V8. Amongst scads of bikes, Pacific Rift feels like a fist-throwing Road Rash or even ESPN Extreme Games racing-brawler. Sprinkle in ATV’s and stick to the jumps of higher routes and the experience evolves to duplicate the jaw-dropping vaults of Pure, breathtaking vistas very much included. Replace the fragility of ATV’s and bikes with a grid of Buggies, Rally Cars, Racing Trucks, and Mudpluggers, and suddenly, a la Dirt, you’re side-swiping, fish-tailing, and otherwise butting heads for the gold. Meanwhile, a fleet of Big Rigs replaces split-second reactions with labored blows of momentum and the sensation of an infinitely more enjoyable Big Mutha Truckers. Nowhere before has the vehicular variety in one game provided so many different styles of racing within one package.
Lastly, stellar level design complements the variety in vehicles and play styles. Seemingly massive, branching tracks are open to interpretation for the fastest lines, though most are tailored for specific vehicles. Terrain architecture, jumps, and all manner of road debris are roadblocks for some, hindrances for others, and yet utterly benign to the rest. What may well be a shortcut for vehicle A is a deterrent for vehicle B; thus, the fastest route between two points is not necessarily a straight line. Presented with liberal applications of polish and Pacific Rift isn’t only among the most robust racing experiences on the market today, but also among the prettiest.
Though it is the variety that sets Pacific Rift apart, one of the game’s strengths also contributes to its weaknesses. Decidedly overwhelming before appreciable, the level design is at first remarkably disorienting. Too many tracks thrown at the player at once, too many paths, and too few indications of where and when to turn all contribute to repeated early failure. Enormous, branching, and criss-crossing paths make getting turned around too easy, transplanting exhilarating racing into baffled frustration and head-scratching “I just completed a lap?” gameplay. Were tracks released at a slower clip, this might very well have been remedied, but regardless, the lack of adequately placed signage turns the first few races on any new track into a crash-by-crash progression of memorization.
Additionally, many of the shortcut routes are well shrouded when they needn’t be. The SSX franchise has always communicated alternate paths to the player via vertical glass panes emblazoned with the game’s logo. While not highlighting every alternative path in the SSX games, it nevertheless encouraged and rewarded exploration, alertness, and fast reflexes: intrinsically motivating the behaviors fundamental to a fly-by-your-pants racer. When discovering shortcuts in Pacific Rift comes more often from barreling through a poorly navigated turn than from a keen eye and dexterous reaction, this becomes something from which Pacific Rift may have benefitted.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Controller-flinging AI design and tough controls both clamor to bring this game down.
Painfully typical to most all racing games, and truly uninspired, is the rubberbanding AI. No matter how far ahead you are, how tremendous your skills are or how flawless your performance, the AI will catch up 90% of the time. Additionally, they are ruthless, and only against the player. As if crashing every five seconds from tough controls and hugely ambiguous indications of where the road is going isn’t already too much, fall behind enough and bear witness to the proverbial Macy’s Day Parade of opponents neatly and peaceably traveling in a tight caravan ahead. Catch up to contest this well-behaved line of vehicles and the hornets’ nest explodes to engulf the player in a side-swiping feeding frenzy, and sometimes an AI opponent will thrown itself over a cliff if it might take the player down as well.
Further, in at least three campaign races I was convinced the boost button effectively controlled the difficulty of the AI. At a point when I could flawlessly navigate the fastest routes with each vehicle and do so while liberally applying boost and while avoiding collisions, I faced insurmountably fast and aggressive opponents. After repeatedly failing despite committing no errors in judgment or execution—and with tumultuous frustration—I slowly became savvy to the fact that omitting the use of boost resulted in slower and more manageable opponents. Whether it was the rubberbanding AI or some other quirk in their design, liberally applying boost and racing well made them undeniably faster and more aggressive. Several dozen attempts later after grokking the game, I learned to optimize my strategy: I intentionally avoided going too fast—in a racing game—and I won.
This sort of mastery comes only after investing the time, and only after slogging through an insufferable amount of crashes, and when vehicles crash and explode in a million pieces like they do in Pacific Rift, it is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because it can look amazing, as it does in this game, but it is bad because crashing will probably play a significant role in each and every race. Quickly, the joy associated with the novelty of fully destructible vehicles is replaced by frustrated awareness of the delay to get back into the game. Add to this the infuriatingly always-on-your-heels AI, and each and every crash could mean game over.
Compound these issues with tough-to-learn controls and a soundtrack memorable only for its noise and Pacific Rift rigidly entrenches itself as a game for the seasoned racer, veteran gamer, and to folks tolerable of terrible music. The game looks great, and eventually feels great, but ultimately it is a steep learning curve that will determine whether players will like or dislike this title. It is far from perfect, most notably illustrated with the subpar AI design, but all things considered, I am able to look past its imperfections to see the game fondly enough to give it another go. Pacific Rift is most definitely not for newbies or anyone that frustrates easily, but for those that stick it out, it is a brilliantly polished and varied racing experience and a must-buy.
Joshua is a graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.
Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com
Follow Joshua on Twitter – @huftopia