ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth
Kristan tackles this week's best Xbox platformer! Er...
We love a good slice of phat Funk here at EG. That's not to say we've got da Funk, because we clearly haven't, but that doesn't stop us shaking our booty every time a bit of down and dirty groin music pumps out (you should see Rauper's moves). But according to the alien trio of ToeJam, Earl, and 'hot new homegirl' Latisha, the Earthlings just haven't got the groove. How patronising.
The 12 sacred albums of funk (and that's vinyl albums, kids, and if you don't know what they are, then you really haven't got the groove) have apparently, for reasons not fully explained, been stolen by us insolent Earthlings. And guess who's got to journey to the green planet to retrieve them? That'll be you, then, controlling one of the three wacky alien characters, who think they're just the bomb, and like to show off their rapping 5KillZ before and during the game, given half a chance.
So, here is yet another Xbox exclusive from Sega - a platform it seems to have an increasing aptitude and fondness for - and again it has gone back to its dim and distant 'glory days' to revive another of its successful franchises. Naturally, the transition of the 2D platform gameplay to 3D has been a smooth one, and is one of the most eye-catching titles we've ever seen in the genre.
Duking it out with some heavyweight competitors
But as some of you will wearily note, it's about the 13th run, jump and collect title to be released in the last three months or so (and this author has played every single one of them, much to Tom's annoyance). With the exception of perhaps Ratchet & Clank, Sly Raccoon, and, at a push, Rayman 3, none of them have been that inspiring. What chance TJ&E3, a game that has been out in the US of A for over four months, and wasn't especially well received?
In common with so many of its peers, TJ&E 3 centres on object collection. On a basic level you'll have to round up a set number of keys in order to unlock each level contained within each world. To start with, you'll be able to enter levels with as few as five keys, but as you progress more levels will become 'unlocked'. You're also tasked with tracking down other objects, such as one of the lost albums, or one of the vast number of 'presents' that litter the levels. And it's the presents that allow TJ&E 3 to stand out from the various other generic platformers, giving you a varied and extensive power-up system that gives even Ratchet & Clank a run for its gadget money - but one that's not without its problems, which we'll discuss later.
As well as numerous objects to collect, you've also got tons of Earthlings to worry about, which can be anything from a demented chicken to a frisky cheerleader. But rather than kill them, in the manner of every platform game ever, you have to teach these uncool beings the ways of the Funk, using your mastery of Funk-Fu. This essentially involves firing a few pink blasts at them by hitting X, which, for the early batch of enemies results in them becoming groovy, and thanking you for showing them the light, smiling and waving cheerily as a result. How sweet. Makes a change from blood and death.
Damn, we're so uncool
As you progress, you'll find that some Earthlings are so uncool that even your Funk-Fu doesn't permeate their senses (at least not until you're more experienced at it), and you'll be forced to adopt one the game's other means of showing them the Funk. Dotted around every level are floating musical notes, which once collected can be fired at the Earthlings by repeatedly tapping Y until they succumb. Luckily, if you miss your intended target the notes will come back to you (unless you run away before they get a chance to return - in which case you'll lose them). Some of these unfunky beings resist even this method of attack, in which case you're forced to resort to using one of your presents, some of which can take out any Earth creature in range like a smart bomb, but you have to use them wisely, as there are not many of these lying around.
In return for being made funky, points and cash explode from their grateful bodies, with the former used as part of an RPG-style upgrade system, while the latter acts as currency to buy more presents of your choice from the various vendors you encounter. The upgrade system is fairly basic, and sets a points target for you to achieve in order to move up the next belt ranking. But once you get there, you're rewarded with enhanced abilities (i.e. higher jumps, etc) that aid you in dispatching the increasingly tough enemies. And they do get quite tough, quite quickly. This is not a game you'll be romping through unchallenged, and the less determined among you will suffer a fair bit of frustration along the way to success - but nowhere near as much as, say, Blinx. TJ&E III just requires you to have your wits about you a little more than the average platformer.
The constant array of new toys to play with as you move through the game keeps it compelling, in the way that Ratchet & Clank achieved so well. But one of the oft-repeated moans in TJ&E III is about a little shit that runs up to you and 'randomises' all your presents in your inventory, meaning you no longer know what they are any more. This happens about 30 per cent into the game, and is just plain evil. Granted, you learn to spot them coming and deal with them, but sometimes they come out of nowhere, and it can stuff your chances of progress on that level as it renders all your special powers redundant until you rediscover what they are again. Why Sega, why? Why spoil a perfectly good game with something so overwhelmingly evil that it renders the game virtually unplayable afterwards?
Much to admire, much to curse
If you can live with that obscene aspect of the game, then there's much to admire. First of all, the mini-games are a pleasant diversion - pushing 30 bunnies off a cliff in less than 35 seconds was definitely one of the highlights [my sort of game - Evil Tom], and we always looked forward to these distractions when they arrived. Meanwhile, the novel presence of a random level generator and the two-player mode doesn't hurt and adds some value, as will the chance to download extras over Xbox Live - available to Europeans from March 14th, of course.
The controls and camera are as good as we've seen in a game of this type. Regular readers will know how much a dodgy in-game camera winds us up, and TJ&E 3 deals with this issue masterfully. If there is any scenery potentially obscuring your view, it becomes transparent, and as a result you're never put in an awkward position. It's a neat system and hopefully will become the adopted standard before long.
As briefly touched upon earlier, the visuals have that sheen that could only be pulled off on Xbox. Even basic things like the grass texturing on the very first game hub are a world away from the blurry standard we're normally fed (on the PS2, it's fair to say), and the scenery is generally up to the same standard throughout. The character models you'll either love or hate; for hardened veterans of the scene they're not perhaps the most endearing game characters ever, despite being detailed and well animated, thanks to their constant quips and cocksure chatter in a spectacularly annoying American accent. The enemy models, meanwhile, don't seem to have the same level of detail lavished upon them, wandering around in their small locales like any number of drones you've seen a thousand times before. It certainly won't win any awards for imagination, but all round the game has that safe cartoon cheeriness that'll make it popular with mums looking for a cute game to buy for their young kid.
For a game that's so heavily music-based, it is odd to note how many non funk musical genres creep in, with Gospel, Hip Hop and Rap not really tallying with our rather more traditional opinion of what constitutes Funk. It's like the developers took the rather patronising view that Black = funky, and just poured any number of musical styles whether it actually worked or not. With a bit more emphasis on real Funk, and maybe some licensed Funkadelic in there, it would have been essential, but as it is we're left with a few forgettable basslines to keep us going during the kleptomania.
The best platform game on the Xbox… this week
If you're an Xbox owner with a passion for roaming collectathons, then this game is arguably the best this platform has to offer currently - at least until Rayman 3 comes out next week. But in the broader sense of the genre, it simply can't compete with the genius of its many competitors, particularly the Sony first party efforts of late. ToeJam & Earl III raises a few smiles now and then, but you'll be grimacing in anguish just as often, which in the final analysis is just not good enough to warrant spending £40.