Developer: Bullfrog Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year Published: 1995
Platforms: Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, MS-DOS
A racing game? From Bullfrog?
Bullfrog Productions were chiefly known for their management games. There was Populous, which placed the fates of entire worlds in your mighty hands, their inhabitants revering you as the god you were. On a smaller scale was Theme Park, whose simple yet addictive formula has lead to its re-release today virtually unchanged from the original. Syndicate put you in control of an elite squad of agents responsible for all manner of black operations.
Then there was Magic Carpet. For its time the game was unique among the Bullfrog canon - a fully 3D flight simulator-cum-arcade shoot 'em up. Space Harrier for the mid-90's. It played and sold well, and proved Peter Molyneux's company were able to successfully branch out into new genres - a habit which is still fairly atypical in the video games industry. Things seemed good for the developer and gamers alike.
However not all was rosy. Bullfrog were no longer the young independent developer they had been when they rose to fame when the Amiga was king. January 1995 had seen the company snapped up by EA, and their new parent company was eager for the release of the two highly-anticipated titles brewing: Magic Carpet 2 and Dungeon Keeper. Neither of these were due for a while yet, and the bosses were hungry for results. A stopgap release was planned: put something out of the door quickly, polish Magic Carpet 2 as much as possible, release that later, and reap the rewards. What could possibly go wrong?
Hi-Octane is the result of this sudden release plan: a racing game based heavily on the Magic Carpet engine and pushed out as an early title on both of 1995's most eagerly-awaited platforms as well as the venerable IBM Compatible PC. A futuristic racer, it boasts a range of different vehicles, explosive weaponry, multiplayer action, and ludicrous speed to boot. Does it succeed? Um. Not really, I'm afraid.
Hi and Low
The kindest thing one can say about Hi-Octane is that it simply isn't particularly fun to play. There are many, many 'bad' video games out there, and this isn't one of them; it's playable, certainly, and one could probably get their money's worth if they tried hard enough. But neither is it a game I'd recommend anybody actually go out and actively try to find if they want a fun game to add to their library. First among its many problems is that the racing 'action' really isn't very exciting: races consist of driving around courses at a sedate pace, avoiding other cars and trying to shoot them down for an advantage. If this all sounds somewhat familiar for a circa-1995 racing game, you're spot on: Wipeout used this same formula, only with much more speed, and succeeded well enough to be a defining game for the era and the progenitor of a successful series which continues today.
Not so fast Hi-Octane. Holding the 'up' button on my controller caused my craft to float forwards, but the top speeds aren't at all exciting. Meanwhile, the air-to-air combat can be drilled down to simply holding the minigun button for the entire race, and occasionally tapping another button to fire a missile when another racer pops up into your sights. The lack of any real sense of speed is further hampered by the horrific drops in frame rate whenever more than a couple of other racers appear in your field of vision. While the game's controls are usable, the slowdown makes attempting to race a matter of guesswork at times, not to mention being quite irritating.
"Popping up" can also be handily applied to the graphics, an area in which again Hi-Octane performs less than admirably. That the Saturn box clearly warns that "Screenshots represent IBM PC-CD version" should have been warning enough: compared to other games of its age, Hi-Octane is again resolutely boring. The console versions feature flat polygons devoid of any texturing for their racers, which might have looked impressive on the 16-bit SNES but only looks sloppy on the Saturn and PlayStation. The PC version's racers feature textures about on-par with those of Wipeout's vehicles. The draw distance however fares much worse, with roughly twenty feet of in-game road visible ahead of your vehicle at any one time. The game's engine was beautiful and ambitious in Magic Carpet, but is clearly unsuitable here. Visual effects for the minigun and missiles are rudimentary at best.
In-game audio is provided via the usual generic engine noises and explosions as sound effects, while music is played directly from the CD as Red Book Audio. The music again parallels that of Wipeout but does not contain any licenced tracks, instead consisting of lyricless electronic music composed in-house. Inoffensive, much like the rest of the game's content, sums up this area of the game.
Hi-Octane is not a particularly fun, beautiful, entertaining or really very enjoyable game. In no way does it push any boundaries, and in several it's quite clearly behind the pack - the graphical issues above are joined by a host of other issues, from the misleading screenshots to the fact that one cannot use the Saturn's built-in memory to save a Championship - you have to buy a memory card or be unable to progress beyond the first race. Even the game's box is silly - far bigger than a standard Saturn box despite only housing one CD-ROM. As I said in the introduction, it isn't a bad game, but it certainly isn't a good one. The UK edition of PC Gamer magazine had a near-pathological hatred for this game, which is probably taking it too far - but then again, compared to what came before it, it's safe to call Hi-Octane a poor video game and a terrible Bullfrog one.
I found my copy in a charity shop for 50p; I really wouldn't recommend paying much more. It's not rare nor special, although mine came with a free demo disc inside too (which I fear looks far more entertaining than the game itself).
All information taken from personal playing experience with the game, the packaging, Wikipedia and MobyGames. Hi-Octane is a trademark of Bullfrog Productions Ltd., and probably owned by EA now anyway.