Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Review: 33 and 1/3 - "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"

I’m living in the future so the present is my past

my presence is a present kiss my ass

Our culture is already bored with meta-commentary about the potential effects of the digital revolution. It’s here, it’s everywhere, it’s the water flowing over the gills of the millennial and nourishing an isolated global community of social mavens, prepared to Google-as-a-verb the meaning of the word “maven” at a moment’s notice from a smartphone, tablet, netbook, and eyeglasses. It is no surprise, then, that possibly the most influential musician of the 21st century personifies and embraces the identity-crafting realm of the real-time and connected. It's important that any book about this musician understands the world we live in.

Kirk Walker Graves, author of the 33 1/3 entry for Kanye West’s album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, assumed the burden of dissecting the eponymous album for this very reason. Why focus an intellectual analysis on an album only four years old, nearly devoid of historical context? The author sends the message that MBDTF is the first album that wraps its tendrils directly into the psyche of a society that treats socializing as preparation for personal celebrity, desiring all things immediately not just due to impatience, but because soon now will be irrelevant. Much like the album and our pop culture, the importance of Graves’ analysis cannot be understated, or delayed.

Graves shows a level of enthusiasm for his work comparable to a toddler with a leaf blower in a realm of endless cotton candy. The book begins by giving one of the best explanations of Kanye, the artist and the human, that I have yet read. It helps the reader place him within the digital culture now pervading the world that I previously mentioned. At times, Graves’ ardor lends the book a zest for cultural context that informs the reader of even the most implacable song-sample or lyrical choice. There is a clear appreciation for sociological an anthropological meaning here as well; the many aspects of Kanye and the individual works within MBDTF are frequently described in terms of America’s love-hate response to His ego and ambitions. If you’ve ever felt there’s a fiendishly clever quality to the production of pop-friendly or nearly-pop-friendly songs like “All of the Lights” or “Runaway”, Graves is more than happy to validate you. In most cases, I found myself a convert.

That is not to say that this issue of the 33 1/3 series is without its faults. It feels that on occasion, Graves digs too deep to strike oil on analyses; it’s important that you agree with Graves on the conclusion that Kanye is intractably intertwined with the music he produces, or else all the talk of Kanye’s narcissism and aplomb in the text can become frustratingly psychoanalytical. However, to Graves’ credit, he generally avoids jargon and thesaurus-bombs in favor of flowery and just-short-of-excessive description, leaving it accessible to most learners interested in all the hoopla about Mr. West.

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (the book) is a superb look at how our society is feeding the Kanye machine, producing great works of maximalist conglomeration (as well as Yeezus, which even the author admits lacked the initial vitality of MBDTF). When Graves then opens up the machine to give the readers a look at the parts, he proves his credentials. In homage to his imagery-thick writing style, I offer my personal interpretation of his thesis, for you to decide whether or not to read his book:

Kanye is a pop-culture golem accumulating the discarded love and scorn of the public eye, screaming from the mountaintop of public consciousness, Wi-Fi enabled, spotlights overhead, clutching a fistful of forgotten hooks and blistering verse, daring the cameras to look away. He is a one-man 24-hour news cycle channeling the ferocity of a boundless ego, repressed by men in suits in corner offices and sitting at talk-show desks. He’s producer, pariah, artist, child, deity, caricature and soon-to-be-king of pop all in one, and MBDTF is the promise.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

#21: Loadout - Loads of Fun, Like 2001

Loadout has come out of nowhere to become one of the most popular free-to-play games available on Steam. What's it about? What's the draw of another free shooter?

Simple. Over-the-top, Quentin Tarentino-level violence combined with an addictive weapon building system and combat that rewards the bloodthirsty instead of punishing them for leaving cover.

When considering the appeal of Loadout, remember that gaming has changed in the last decade or two. Loadout reminds those of us that can remember 1 gigabyte hard drives of how drastically first person shooters have changed. Games like Quake, Tribes and Unreal Tournament focused on ultra-fast movement, precision aiming and adrenaline-fueled deathmatches. Since then, the FPS genre has leaned toward Call of Duty and Battlefield style gameplay: fast deaths and a gritty sensibility grounded in reality. Loadout flips the table by combining ideas from both styles into a delicious 4v4 layer-cake of guns and more guns while pulling the camera back to a 3rd-person perspective.

The first thing a Loadout player must do is craft their starter weapons. Though you won't be able to do anything too over-the-top yet, you'll have access to options almost as good as anything a longer-time player can craft, if not the same in function.

For example, you can see in the screenshot below that I've crafted a bizarre rocket launcher named via Zoolander reference. Let me break down the most important parts for you:

Six is better than one, ask anybody!

  • Scope: Laser Guidance System - While zoomed in, I project a laser that steers my rockets.
  • Barrel: Hexabarrel - I have six rockets.
  • Damage Type: Pyro - Instead of dealing all of the damage upfront, these rockets have a damage boost in exchange for dealing a large portion of it as damage over time.
  • Ammo Type: Scuttle - The rockets crawl along the ground toward their target, a la Legend of Zelda bombchus.
  • Shell: Bouncy - If they hit a surface that isn't a player, they will bounce in a new direction.

I could easily have made this gun even wackier by having a Salvo trigger that lets me load all six rockets at once, or a flak-cloud dispersal on detonation. Here's the fundamental question: is this gun better than a basic SMG or sniper rifle anyone can craft with little effort?

Absolutely not. In fact, this gun is quite difficult to kill anyone with. Every time you add some zany attribute to your gun, its stats adjust accordingly. And that's one aspect of Loadout: experimenting with weaponcrafting and realizing that you will make a lot of stupid guns. 

Hmmm. . . My scalp feels. . . hot. 
Once you're in game, you've got three movement options: run, dodge-roll, and jump, all of which are highly advised. Jumping after a roll gives you an extra high jump. The landscapes in Loadout seem intentionally designed with high-jumpable elevations and a sticky quality that lets skilled players climb or chain jumps in ways that reward mastery of the maps. 

Each player's gunplay experience will be different based on their weaponcrafting preferences. That said, riddling opponents with bullets, rockets, cannonballs, or lasers is universally satisfying, with a high pitched hit-confirm sound that you will learn to love hearing. Whether you're adjusting for recoil on your Heavy-style minigun or trying to line up the crosshairs on your bolt-action sniper, it just feels right. 

 The modes in Loadout already put some other FPS selections to shame. There's Blitz, where players rush from point to point trying to claim control. Deathsnatch requires the players to pick up a vial left behind by dead players to count the kill, allowing teammates to deny eachother. Jackhammer tasks the teams of 4 with playing capture the flag, except the flag can be slammed into the ground for a massive radius that kills opponents instantly up to 5 times. Think Gravity Hammer from Halo, except better. This twist finally makes grabbing the flag in Capture the Flag fun, and the flag runner dangerous. 
Sometimes, you just gotta stand your ground.

Annihilation, the "competitive mode" (though ranked matchmaking has not yet been enabled), combines all three of the above with an overall point system, a stat-buffing system that accumulates a stat of your choice across the game session, and a final relay-race with the jackhammer that is about as intense as it gets. A+ for creativity.

Excavation places several carts around the map and litters the terrain with blue chunks of crystal; the role of "Excavator" is rotated among team members on each team. This person must run around collecting these crystals and returning them to carts. While carrying, they cannot fire a gun. These chunks of crystals are volatile, and will explode 2 seconds after a few shots, even while being carried. This mode really rewards mastery of the map.

They also recently added Domination, which is a simple 3-hill King of the Hill mode. You've probably seen it before, but it's still fun.

Gruesome death animations are frequent.
One aspect of Loadout I am particularly impressed by is the attention to detail. When you get hit, your character is visibly, disgustingly maimed. But this detail stretches to tiny gameplay quirks: while on fire, rolling puts it out faster. Tesla damage drains shields quicker. Taunting while capturing a point captures it 10% faster, but leaves you vulnerable. Players can shoot down rockets, making slow propulsion but high damage rockets a risky move. The list goes on.

The game is funded by cosmetic purchases for one of three base characters. You can buy boosts that allow you to gain points faster like in many games, but you cannot directly purchase any points for building weapons.

I'm not all praise, though: it can be a disappointment when you realize that certain gun parts or wacky combinations are simply not as good as more tried-and-true arrangements, which stifles diversity. I rarely see anyone using shotgun-style weapons because the melee attack is so strong. Some of the more interesting equipment in the game requires a hefty investment of earned in-game currency to access, leaving fresh players out in the cold against tricks such as disguises or portable spawn points. The game is also limited to 4v4, and certain modes are abysmal on certain maps (Jackhammer on Shattered, for example). And lastly, if you're a fan of military shooters in which a few bullets results in death, you may take issue with the hardiness of the players in Loadout. 

Still, I find that Loadout is one of the most enjoyable shooters I have played in the last several years. With sessions that last fifteen minutes or less and a focus on casual modes that maximize fun, it's the perfect antidote for the gamer who just cannot handle another high-stakes game of Call of Duty or Counter-Strike. It's a free-to-play game that I can recommend to almost any gamer familiar with shooters.