Changes That Seem All Too Familiar - Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Sweeping changes to Final Fantasy XIV may surprise and delight fans, but the new additions are old hat to those who have played other recent MMOs.
In 2010, the release of Final Fantasy XIV Online was met with heavy criticism. Impressive presentation aside, the MMO was riddled with issues, so much so that Square Enix eventually apologized for the quality of the game. The company promised a complete revamp, and hired a new producer who worked on the online-focused Dragon Quest X to spearhead development.
The result is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. After our lengthy journey through the closed beta sessions of this new version of FFXIV Online using a Lalafell lancer, it's obvious that the producer and his team meant serious business in wiping the slate clean. A Realm Reborn is a completely different experience from the original Final Fantasy XIV. A new story, new gameplay, and a new graphics engine will make this title feel fresh to Final Fantasy fans, particularly those who were longtime players of Final Fantasy XI. However, the new additions to A Realm Reborn may not be eye-openers for MMO veterans, especially those who have played recent releases like Guild Wars 2 and Rift.
While the concepts of random encounters and daily quests aren't new, they are fresh ideas if your experience with the genre is limited to the Final Fantasy MMOs. Take the FATE (Full Active Time Event) system, for example, which is similar to random quests found in games like Guild Wars 2. While players are wandering around the enchanted hollows of Gridania, random FATE events will occur, such as an outbreak of monkey-like Opo-opos stealing coffee beans from a village or a gargantuan horde of Ixali insurgents storming a nearby fort. Players in the game world can jump in and earn more experience or loot by joining in the slaughter of these mobs. To reap the benefits, however, players will need to be about the same level as the requirements stated on the FATE event. High-level adventurers who complete a low-level FATE will get absolutely nothing for their troubles.
Another feature that's reworked is the Levequest system, which works exactly like daily quests in World of Warcraft. Once players have been to their first Guildleve club, they can start doing Levequests. These are entirely optional and do not come with a fatigue system like in the original FFXIV. The objectives for Levequests come in multiple consecutive forms; once a task in a Levequest is completed, players move on to the next until the entire mission is over or time runs out. Players can get bigger rewards if they complete these, though these quests can take up more time than usual and are meant for large groups.
A Realm Reborn also introduces a system called the hunting log, a feature that's familiar to anyone who's played Ragnarok Online 2. Players go through a checklist of enemies they need to kill for the log. Killing a required set of enemies will net adventurers extra experience. Players can take their sweet time and wander around Gridania at their leisure while doing these logs, as they're meant to reward those who explore the sights of the game world.
The new game play additions may be familiar, but they still make for an enjoyable experience. Our play session during the beta weekend was filled with similarly-leveled pugilists and spellcasters joining in unison as we beat down the aforementioned Opo-opos and Ixali birdmen until we had fulfilled the required amount of mob deaths. The up-close offensive capabilities of the lancer we used help complement the ranged attacks of our temporary partners during several FATE missions. Visually, Square Enix again show that they are masters of their craft. The sights of Gridania's huge forest areas and towns are easy on the eyes, while the background music that plays during exploration are relaxing to the ears.
Players seeking for something new in an MMO may not find the FATE and Levequest systems groundbreaking. However, the developers promise that there are more changes to come, like Chocobo-back battles, new player-versus-player options, and other nostalgic additions like enemy Behemoths and Iron Giants (from past FF titles), as well as Magitek Armor mounts (from FFVI). The new additions have done a lot to raise A Realm Reborn closer to modern standards for MMOs, now the challenge remains to elevate it even further.
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You May Not Marvel at Lego Super Heroes
Why the latest entry in the block-building franchise engenders a serious case of deja vu.
"Sand for brain," Abomination mutters angrily under his breath when his partner in crime commits an evildoer's faux pas. The duality of that comment elicits quiet chuckles in the demonstration room. The hulking bad guy insulted Sandman's cognitive abilities and made a factual statement about the makeup of his cerebellum. A delightful pun. Such humor made frequent appearances in the brief demo of the Lego-themed Marvel adventure. Sandman growls, "I've already won, hands down," while trying to smash Spider-Man with his giant, sand-crafted hands. "He threw that car like a toy," Iron Man quips after having a Lego car tossed his way. It's this simple humor that stood out in Lego Marvel Super Heroes, mostly because the action was all too familiar.
The Marvel universe is overflowing with superheroes, evil villains, and innocent bystanders continually scanning the housing markets of cities not overrun with battling bullies. Lego Marvel borrows from comic books (and popular movies) to build its cast of recognizable characters. In the only stage shown thus far, Abomination and Sandman have formed an uneven duo as they hold unfortunate passersby hostage. The police department is obviously no match for the ruffians who rule the roost, which means any disciplinary action falls on the shoulders of those blessed with not only superpowers, but a tendency to stop evil in its tracks.
Hulk and Iron Man team up to smash minifigs, and they make jokes along the way. Later, Spider-Man joins the team, and he is also more than happy to provide some levity while he slings his webbing around. The developers said that combat has been thrust to the forefront in Lego Marvel in an attempt to show what these enhanced people can do, though the focus on bashing doesn't seem radically different from how Lego games are normally structured. Nameless henchmen run toward your powered-up team, and Hulk easily tosses a car or block of pavement their way, or Iron Man unleashes a swarm of homing missiles. Spider-Man likes his criminals sticky, so he wraps them in a tight cocoon before kicking them in their Lego noggins.
Once the good guys' progress is halted, it's time to solve puzzles. In the level shown, sand is everywhere, so you often have to figure out how to pass beach-based barriers. Spray some water toward a wall, and it solidifies, and then you can just bash through it with Hulk. The huge green guy was the focal point of the presentation. He represents a class of giant character called bigfig. These characters are stronger than the average superhero, but lack dexterity. When you need to build a Lego structure, you have to switch to someone with more nimble hands. This could be Spider-Man or Iron Man, or you could just say "Serenity now," become less angry, and turn Hulk into Bruce Banner. What Banner lacks in might he more than makes up for in smarts.
The hands-off demo certainly looked fun, but it also seemed very familiar. The Lego series has existed for eight years (starting with 2005's Lego Star Wars) and hasn't changed much in that time. The action combines platforming, puzzle solving, and combat in colorful worlds. Dozens of characters are available, most of which are squirreled away behind unlock requirements. Building is a side activity: you simply hold a button over dancing pieces that magically form into a predetermined structure. And a lighthearted tone keeps things feeling silly, frequently poking fun at the source material.
Of course, don't forget about the source material. One of the cornerstones of the Lego games is that, aside from Lego City Undercover, they are always based on a popular license. You might be aiding droids in Star Wars, or running from boulders in Indiana Jones. Maybe you're solving the Riddler's puzzles in Batman, or pining for giant eagle rides in Lord of the Rings. Possessing the Boy Who Lived in Harry Potter was fun for a spell, and now you can play around in the Marvel universe. Accessibility meshed with likable portrayals of beloved franchises leads to a winning combination. But how long can that formula be entertaining? Is there a point when bashing enemies and climbing ropes in a familiar world lose their appeal?
Witnessing the single level on display, it appears Lego Marvel doesn't veer from the established formula of its predecessors. However, it does seem to tap into the core appeal that has made the Lego franchise so popular. The humorous take on well-known characters is instantly endearing, and seeing how deep the developers will dive into the expansive cast of heroes and villains is certainly intriguing. The developers said that Wolverine would make an appearance, and would even square off against his (unnamed) nemesis. That Sabertooth might appear in the game created a mild stir in the demo room. And, maybe, those character cameos are just enough to ensure the same formula doesn't get too tiresome.
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The Fungus Among Us: Facing the Infected of The Last of Us
Our first encounter with the Infected of The Last of Us proves to be tense and challenging.
I had the chance to play an early section of The Last of Us at a Sony event last week. I spent most of that time holding my breath.
When you first take control of Joel, the rugged protagonist of The Last of Us, he feels a lot like Nathan Drake. He controls similarly and he moves through the environment with a similar sense of momentum. If you've spent time as that earlier Naughty Dog hero, you might, in these early moments, anticipate combat that delivers the same rush of adrenaline that Uncharted's yippie-ki-yay shootouts could trigger. So many of the other hallmarks of Uncharted are present during your quiet traversal of a bombed-out, post-pandemic Boston--fantastic voice acting and facial expressions, environments so stunningly beautiful that you feel compelled to just move the camera around and take in every detail--that it's easy to expect the game to follow the same tried-and-true template where combat is concerned, too. But as you make your way across the ravaged urban landscape, the calm is interrupted by a piercing wail in the distance; it's an unsettling moment that suggests the dangers lurking in your future are eerily unfamiliar.
The wail comes from one of the Infected, a sufferer of the fungus-based disease that has all but wiped out society. Initially, these poor souls retain some awareness of their humanity, but lack the ability to control their actions. Infected who fit this description are called runners; they still look more or less human, though a pallor to their skin and other details make it clear at a glance that they are not exactly the picture of health. Individually, they don't pose much of a threat, but you don't want to attract the attention of several at once and find yourself swarmed. Because ammo is scarce and weapons like Molotovs--which you can craft from items scavenged from the environment--are so limited, taking a reckless, guns-blazin' approach is a good way to get yourself killed.
You'll spend much of your time crouched, moving silently and trying not to give away your position. Being stealthy and smart is key, but the common stealth game behavior of memorizing enemy movement patterns doesn't work here. These twitchy, miserable wretches behave unpredictably, lurching in this direction or that, so distracting them with a tossed brick or bottle before sneaking past them (or sneaking in for the kill) is a particularly handy tactic. If you can creep up behind a runner, you can strangle it to death or execute it instantly with a shiv (another tool crafted from scavenged items), and if you find yourself face-to-face with one, Joel's brawling skills and his ability to hit really hard with pipes and other heavy objects can usually keep you alive.
But it's not just the runners you need to worry about. Eventually, the infection progresses to a more advanced and more disturbing stage, at which point the fungus visibly grows out from the once-human's eye sockets and covers much of the face. These Infected are known as clickers, and though they are blind, they can still hunt you down. The clicks they make don't just serve to send shivers up your spine; they enable the clickers, through echolocation, to "see," and if one locates you, you're in serious danger. Clickers are far stronger than runners, and in a fight with one, Joel's fists will not save him. Clickers are less numerous than runners, but just one clicker in a group is enough to make you think much more carefully about how to handle the situation. I repeatedly fell into the trap of letting myself get distracted by a runner or two, which enabled a clicker to charge up to me from behind; no sooner did it have its hands on me than its teeth were buried in my neck. In order to survive when clickers are present, staying aware of your surroundings and the locations of those clickers is essential.
Luckily, Joel has a gift for situational awareness; by sitting still and listening carefully, he can sense the locations of nearby Infected, who remain visible (even through walls) until you slip out of "listen mode" and start moving again. But while useful, this is no silver bullet for taking care of the Infected. It's still you--not Joel--who has to keep track of how the Infected respond to your behavior once you stop listening and start acting. One group of Infected, roaming around in the gloom of a disused subway station, repeatedly got the better of me as I tried to use a shotgun to take out a clicker, which gave away my position and led to me being swarmed by runners.
Ultimately, I opted for a sneakier approach, tossing bricks and bottles in an attempt to lure Infected towards each other, hoping that I could then take out several with a single, well-tossed Molotov. As I snuck around the station's hallways and put my plan into motion, I never for a moment felt safe. I was constantly worried that one false move would bring all of the Infected bearing down on me, that I'd once again witness the grisly sight of Joel falling victim to a clicker's attacks. It was only after the Infected had all gone up in flames that I finally felt I could exhale, relaxing for a moment but knowing my safety would not last. Facing the Infected made me tense and uneasy, and I can't wait to do it again.
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The Surprising Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Why Sam Fisher's latest adventure is a far more interesting game than early demos might suggest.
I thought I had Splinter Cell: Blacklist pegged. Watching last year's E3 demo, I saw a new-look Sam Fisher who appeared far more agile and bloodthirsty than ever before. Dashing up buildings, planting knives in people's throats without hesitation--it was as though Ubisoft had dropped Sam Fisher into an Assassin's Creed game and forgot to change the title.
OK, so maybe I was wrong.
Having spent a couple of hours playing the game at a Ubisoft event last week, it's clear that last year's E3 demo might not have painted the most accurate picture of what this Splinter Cell reboot is all about. Blacklist is a much broader game, one that draws influences from Assassin's Creed and doesn't stop there. At various points during the demo, I was reminded of Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, and--bear with me here--XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
The story is that Sam Fisher has become the leader of Fourth Echelon, a newly formed government organization with a focus on clandestine operations. It's a nice little promotion, but one that comes with some serious responsibility.
In taking the reins of Fourth Echelon, Sam has assembled his own small intelligence team. It's a unit that operates not in an office park in Langley, Virginia, but in a flying spy plane. Said spy plane is called the Paladin, and it essentially functions as the mission hub. On a basic level, it's where you peruse intel reports before launching the next ground operation. You can see which missions are available, what they entail, and what sort of threat to your existence they pose. That sort of thing.
But there's more to the Paladin than simply launching the next mission. For one, you can walk around the plane and start up conversations with your team. There's Grim, the redhead who shares a complicated history with Sam; Briggs, the guy who tags along with Sam on missions to act as ground support; and Charlie, the tech whiz who doubles as comic relief. What's impressive about the game's presentation is that you really get the sense that this is a team, complete with all the tension and occasional attempts at lightening the mood that you'd expect from such a high-stakes operation.
Taking the time to talk with your crew presents a few different options for Sam. Each member of your team will occasionally suggest a side mission that you're free to accept or turn down at your leisure. Beyond that, you can also talk to your teammates to upgrade your operation with all the cash you've earned from your latest mission.
Talking to Grim allows you to upgrade various parts of your plane, from radar technology that will improve the information displayed on your HUD during missions, to cushy holding cells that will induce your captives to inform you of black-market weapons dealers. Then there's Charlie, who will upgrade the gear you bring on your mission, such as new weapons and gadgets, as well as various outfits tailor-made for stealthy or aggressive approaches.
That whole economy of upgrades and enhancements is heavily influenced by your play style. The game tracks your style according to three classifications: ghost, panther, and assault. Ghost is the quiet, nonlethal approach that favors knocking people unconscious if a fight must occur; panther is similarly silent, but in a lethal, silenced-handgun kind of way; and the assault approach has you going in with guns blazing, setting off every alarm in the mission. Simply completing a mission in a sloppy, haphazard way will get you some cash (see: assault), but sticking to the ghost or panther play style will net you far more extra rewards and cash.
Curious to see how far I could distance myself from last year's blood-soaked E3 demo, I spent my time taking the ghost approach. It's a far more challenging route to take than the other two, but Sam has plenty of equipment to tilt the odds in his favor, from sleeping-gas grenades to a silent crossbow equipped with several different types of bolts. The latter was especially fun to use, whether I was firing an electrically charged bolt that zapped enemies to sleep or luring enemies out of my path by firing a noise-making bolt into some distant corner.
In my attempts to no-kill my way through the demo, I was a little disappointed to see that there was at least one story-driven sequence that forced me to kill people when a rescue operation went sideways. Though, to be fair, in the two missions I played (one in daytime Benghazi and the other in dark, rainy London), those moments of forced lethality made up a very tiny portion of the demo. Overall, it was reassuring to see that the stealth system in Blacklist remains open to different play styles--and being rewarded in cash to upgrade my flying spy bird for focusing on one of the more challenging approaches is a nice touch.
Perhaps I was a bit quick to write off Splinter Cell: Blacklist as another example of Ubisoft blurring the lines between its major franchises. Sure, there's something initially jarring about just how easily Sam Fisher can dash up walls and scurry along ledges. But this isn't simply Splinter Cell meets Assassin's Creed. It's a bigger, far more interesting game than that.
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Bioshock Infinite Proves There's More to the Series Than Just Rapture
It retains series' trademark combat and emphasis on theme, but Bioshock Infinite handles world design and storytelling in an entirely new way,
Say goodbye to the confined, melancholy remnants of Rapture, and hello to the unbounded beauty of Columbia. The heavenly, strictly American society, sequestered from the unworthy foreigners below, exists thanks to Father Comstock, the prophet who, amidst the darkness of uncertainty and external pressure, lit the path towards a brighter future for Americans. In his vision of the future, they are the chosen, and they are the deserved.
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Creative Director Ken Levine discusses Bioshock Infinite's new direction and the difficulties involved creating a companion as complex as Elizabeth.
Bioshock Infinite opens with you, Booker DeWitt, en route to Columbia on a mission to either rescue or kidnap a girl in exchange for the forgiveness of past debts. A chest of your personal belongings is revealed: a pistol, a key featuring an etched birdcage, and a note containing symbols. When your boat arrives at a lighthouse in the middle of an angry, stormy sea, your porters depart.
Inside the lighthouse, Booker sits down in a conspicuously lonely chair. The floor opens beneath your feet, and whirring, powerful machines begins to stir. The lighthouse comes alive, bellowing and flashing an ominous red light. Gyrations cause your gun to slip away into the chaos below. Without further warning, the lighthouse skyrockets. The ocean disappears from view and turbulence increases as the lighthouse passes through the rain and clouds. The cocky Booker is shaken, and uncertainty overcomes any remaining shreds of confidence until suddenly, a serene blue light washes over the lighthouse interior. Columbias fabled airships and monuments come into view. Despite its idyllic appearance, Booker knows theres more beneath its glossy veneer. If his mission is worth the forgiveness of his debt, and requires a pistol, theres a fair chance Columbia isnt as peaceful as it appears to be.
The lighthouse docks, and the door opens. Booker find himself in what appears to be a flooded chapel. Robed men with blank stares and clasped hands line the halls. After a set of stairs leads you past religious iconography and architecture, you enter the chapel hall. More men in robes tread through knee deep water towards a congregation lead by a priest. You work your way to the front of the line, and he sees that you are burdened under the weight of past sins; sins which must be cleansed prior to your acceptance into Columbia. Once, twice, are you baptized in the holy waters of Columbias chapel. Initiation complete, your entrance to the city is finally granted.
The opening to Bioshock Infinite is heavy, foreboding, and a clever introduction to Booker and his past. Youre given just enough of his backstory to understand his motivation and personality. Columbia, too, is presented in such a way that paints a picture rife with hints and clues of its origins. You see that its a utopia, youre told that its lead by the prophet Comstock, and you observe that his sheep are utterly devoted to his vision for America. Citizens figuratively refer to it as a heavenly place, or simply, as heaven. As the player, its easy to want to connect the dots that are given, but inferences only tell so much of the story.
Upon arrival into the heart of Columbia, Booker finds himself wandering into the middle of a carnival. Men, women, and children are enjoying attractions, games litter the boardwalk, and the city is bustling with anticipation for the upcoming raffle drawing. Your first objective is to obtain a ticket, but the vending machine refuses your request. After exploring the area, you happen upon a woman selling Vigors, tonics crafted from technology that grant the consumer with new abilities. She offers you the Possession Vigor, giving Booker the ability to control machines and robotic contraptions. After a quick zap with your newfound possession power, the raffle machine dispenses a ticket, and its off to the drawing. Before you arrive, you notice a billboard warning people of the beast that bears the mark, A.D., the same mark that appears on the top of Bookers right hand.
Up until this point, Columbias darker tendencies have yet to reveal themselves. Once you arrive at the drawing however, it becomes clear that Columbia is built on a foundation of exclusion, religious persecution, xenophobia, and racism. While its immediately shocking to hear a character utter lines such as Have you ever seen such a pretty white girl? as she presents the basket of raffle drawings, it's even more unsettling to learn that the winner earns the ticket holder the privilege of publically stoning an African American. This spectacle definitely drives home the notion that Columbia is unwelcome to anyone who defies their ideals. That is, anyone like Booker.
Of course, Booker wins the raffle. The host of the drawing offers you a basket of baseballs intended to be thrown at the bound, mixed race couple who are pleading for your mercy. As you wind up, prepared to lodge the ball into the hateful mouth of the host, a policeman notices the mark on your hand and grabs your wrist. In that moment, your cover is shattered, and the game truly begins. You wrench a hook from the hand of an officer and gouge the face of his partner in order to make your getaway.
Leaving with the hook, your search for an escape route and come upon the skyline: a series of tracks in the sky connecting the numerous islands that make up Columbia. An in-game prompt encourages you to leap toward a coupling on the line, and a magnetic force draws your hook to the tracks. Booker is whisked along as he circles around his pursuers below. The track stops above a platform, and a new prompt instructs to dismount the skyline. An unwitting enemy patrols nearby, and a swift blow to the head renders him a non-threat. Booker acquires the mans pistol and continues his escape.
At this point, Bioshock Infinite has introduced its setting, theme, and gameplay mechanics, and its up to you to avoid capture while searching for your target. The girl in question is held captive atop the statue of Columbia, Americas goddess, in the middle of Monument Island. At first, Columbia looks like a completely open world, but its fairly linear at this point in the game. In true Bioshock fashion, there are plenty of alternate paths to explore, but they never take Booker far off the beaten path. Ultimately, your curiosity is rewarded with missing links to the story and occasional coinage or health pickups.
Eventually, you find your way to the tower, and gain access by entering the symbols from the note found inside your chest of belongings. Along the way, Booker is introduced to Elizabeth by way of two-way mirrors. When you finally meet in person, shes startled by your unfamiliar presence and tries to fend you off. Even after you reveal that youre there to free her, she doubts you and your intentions, until you show her the key with the bird cage etching. Only then does she accept that the time to flee has finally come, but no sooner than you unlatch the door to freedom, the tower shakes, and a harrowing shriek resonates through its steel walls. Elizabeth knows this is her keeper, the giant mechanized Song Bird, and as you two sprint for the ground floor, it begins to tear away at the tower in a desperate attempt to prevent her escape.
As the Song Bird rips a staircase, you tumble from the height of the tower only to catch your hook on a skyline momentarily before plummeting into the waters below. The Song Bird dives headlong after you, but seems to give up as Booker loses consciousness. Everything fades to black.
You comes to in a dreamlike state. Youre in an office, and someone is banging at the door, demanding you repay your debt. Answering the door brings you back to life as you see Elizabeth trying to resuscitate you. Youve washed ashore, and though youre worse for the wear, youve escaped for the time being.
For the first time in her life, Elizabeth experiences freedom. A ragtime cover of Girls Just Want to Have Fun plays in the background as she dances around the beach, taking in the sights and sounds of a world shes only experienced from a distance. Shell generally follow Booker, but shes always up to something, usually out of frame. Sometimes, shes captivated by an unusual sight in the environment, swaying to the sound of music coming for a nearby radio, or perhaps shes searching for loose change under an armoire. Shes every bit a living, breathing part of the world, and not a typical video game companion tucked away in a robotic NPC with minimal AI.
As the rest of the demo plays out, Booker and Elizabeth continue their journey, all the while confronted by Comstock and his hordes as they try to recapture Elizabeth and do away with Booker. Elizabeth doesnt possess offensive capabilities, but she can control tears, rifts in time space that allow her to access alternate realities and dimensions. Through these tears, shell reveal secrets and items to aid your mission. Sometimes, she can open rifts that alter the world of Columbia, influencing battle sequences and environmental puzzles.
Though you can occasionally direct her use of tears, she usually has an agenda all her own. When she discovers items in the environment, shell call out for you attention. A quick button press will turn your focus to her so she can flick a coin or underhand toss a health item your way. As much as you are her protector, shes your trusty sidekick.
Our demo concluded shortly after this extended, multi-hour introduction. Like the first Bioshock, the opening draws you into the games world, revealing just enough to captivate your curiosity and send you on your missions path. The heart of the gameplay is again focused on finding creative solutions through the use of varying super powers, but the open environments of Columbia and implementation of skylines in Infinite dwarf the relatively restrictive confines of Rapture from Bioshock and Bioshock 2.
Whats most intriguing about Infinite's evolution is the introduction of Booker and Elizabeth as conduits for the narrative. As you learn about Elizabeth and Columbia, you also learn about Booker. Infinite feels like a Bioshock game, yet it expands upon the elements that made the first game so successful years ago, rather than simply adding to them. Columbia still conceals many mysteries, and uncovering them should make for a truly engaging experience. After another brief delay, Bioshock Infinites newly scheduled release is now set for March 26, 2013.
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