Toe Jam & Earl III: All Funked Up impressions

Sega shows off the upcoming Xbox entry in the funky series.

While the Xbox software library has been growing steadily since the console's launch last year, it has been lacking something. Most of the major game genres are slowly being covered, and the selection of titles available provides a good range, but there is a distinctive lack of "funk" in the Xbox's library. Sega hopes to remedy that situation soon with its upcoming game ToeJam & Earl III: All Funked Up. The title is the latest entry in a quirky series that started in the early '90s on the Genesis and focuses on two aliens--the aforementioned ToeJam and Earl--and their adventures. Once slated for the Dreamcast, the game has since been announced as an Xbox exclusive. We recently had a chance to view a demo of the game and get a feel for how it's all coming together.

The game's story is told via CG sequences interspersed throughout the game. It seems our unlikely heroes, as well as ToeJam's main squeeze, Latisha, have been summoned by Lamont, the Great Funkapotamus--last seen in ToeJam & Earl 2: Panic on Funk-o-Tron--and charged with retrieving his 12 sacred vinyl albums. It seems Lamont's precious collection of vinyl has been burgled by pesky earthlings and then scattered everywhere. To set things right, the heroic trio hops in their spaceship and heads out in search of the albums. Their journey will span five worlds that feature distinct environments--country, desert, snow, urban, and mossy water. As you'd expect, the journey won't exactly be a mellow sightseeing trip. Instead, you'll find a host of earthlings who've clearly seen too many old horror movies, as they don't exactly welcome outer space visitors with open arms. A zany assortment of earthlings stands between the precious vinyl and the motley heroes, ranging from familiar faces seen in previous games such as the bogeymen and cupid to new faces such as a gospel choir.

While the odds may seem daunting, ToeJam, Earl, and Latisha aren't exactly helpless. Lamont has granted them the ability to use "funk fu" to defend themselves and convert humans to the ways of funk. You'll also be able to use special musical notes to "funktify" humans and convert them instantly. In addition, you'll find upward of 60 items, such as rocket shoes, Icarus wings, and sushi, that you can use during a game.

In spite of the graphical face-lift, the gameplay in ToeJam & Earl III is very reminiscent of the previous entries in the series. The five worlds you'll explore are broken up into chunks of land that are connected or reached via items such as Icarus wings or spring shoes, and they feature the same sensibility as areas in the preceding games. A new twist to the areas is their layout, as they make use of hubs with warps to new segments of land. In a nod to the first game, you'll find randomly generated levels to keep the experience fresh.

Graphically, the game looks very sharp. The jump from 2D to 3D has been a very smooth leap, and it works quite well. The various items and characters you encounter are well rendered and fit with the world quite naturally. The only things that stand out are the game's alien stars, as well they should. ToeJam, Earl, and Latisha feature generous polygon budgets that do justice to their intricate hip-hop attire and requisite jewelry. The various earthlings the trio encounters aren't quite as gorgeous, but their cartoony appearance makes it work. The graphics engine features a host of Xbox-specific features such as bump mapping and pixel shaders, along with the expected real-time shadows and reflections. You'll also notice a distinct day-and-night cycle as you play the game, and you'll come to rue it, as the dreaded bogeymen roam the night with impunity. The game's detailed look is further complemented by the high frame rate--the build we saw, while still early, already ran at a near constant 60 frames per second.

The look of the game is further enhanced by its sound. Given the heavy emphasis on rap music, you can expect ToeJam & Earl III to feature some loopy tunes, including the series' theme song, that suit the world perfectly. More than 40 funky tunes grace the game, and there are also two full music videos staring the mighty three. The voices of ToeJam and his crew and the voices of all the earthlings suit their virtual selves quite well and go a long way toward selling the bizarre cast in the game.

In terms of gameplay, ToeJam & Earl III is mix of the series' classic gameplay elements such as exploration, converting earthlings, and rhythm matching and new elements such as minigames, side quests, and specific earthling missions. The core gameplay will have you select one of the three characters and set out exploring each world, collecting cash, presents, and interacting with characters in each level as you search for the vinyl albums. In some cases this will trigger the aforementioned side quests and minigames.

The last bit of the game we saw demonstrated was the two-player mode, which was still pretty early. The mode lets you and a friend play the game cooperatively. While the action remains full screen when both players are together, as soon as one player drifts too far out, the game automatically splits the screen.

Our demo of ToeJam & Earl III left us excited about the game's playable debut at E3 later this month. Look for an in-depth hands-on then. Toe Jam & Earl III: All Funked Up is currently slated to ship exclusively for the Xbox this fall.

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