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Review in Progress Part 1: ‘Assassin’s Creed Origins’ – A Series Saved from the Brink of Death

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My initial impressions of Assassin’s Creed Origins were unreservedly glowing. Having spent some more time as Bayek, the wayward Medjay, on his quest to thwart a sinister conspiracy that threatens to plunge Egypt into utter chaos, it’s fair to say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The game has only improved as it’s progressed and has remained continually impressive in its consistent provision of high quality and high quantity gameplay experiences. Ubisoft might have just accomplished the gaming equivalent of solving the riddle of the sphinx when it comes to how they’ve blended a deft awareness of the mechanical necessities of a vast open world with the requirements of a well-paced narrative. The company has had a lot of practice in recent years. For most of the last generation as well as this one if you were to describe the latest Far Cry title as a “Ubisoft game” then people would instantly know what that meant.

It’s more than expected that Ubisoft can deliver a competently executed open world game. Indeed, the Assassin’s Creed series itself is the largest contributor to their reputation but such success can often be a double-edged sword. The gameplay elements that Ubisoft have made industry standards mean that every new game has a certain immediate familiarity; a familiarity that can turn to fatigue. Even a setting as refreshing as the 18th century Caribbean in the Golden Age of Piracy as featured in Black Flag was not enough to stave off it off entirely. If the previous two games could be considered test-beds then Assassin’s Creed Origins is more than proof that the experiments of Unity and Syndicate were worth it. Refinements have been made across the board with every aspect of the established formula that fans have come to love being upgraded and tweaked in some fashion. The result is a game that stays true to its franchise heritage even as it simultaneously reinvents itself to provide what might just be the best open world experience since Horizon Zero Dawn.

pyramid view Assassin's Creed Origins

The AnvilNext 2.0 engine has been at the core of the last two games in the series and after some distressing and hilarious missteps, it seems that Ubisoft have finally discovered what it’s capable of. Playing at max settings on a PC with an i7-7700 3.60GHz processor, 16GBs DDR4 memory, and a GTX 1070 graphics card, I encountered no problems with the game beyond a few audio dropout and frame dip issues that were confined to cutscenes. Although they were a little jarring since they had no impact on the fluidity of gameplay it was easy to overlook them. That said I did see an upside down chariot whirling through the streets of Memphis like a demented spinning top, as well as a man stood waist-deep in water staring with deadly intent at the prow of a boat. Bugs like that should obviously not be present in a modern AAA title but in all honesty, I find them more endearing than off-putting. No open world game is complete without one or two belly laugh-inducing glitches, as Bethesda fans well know.

The in-game graphics options are comparable to those available in most modern PC titles but when it comes to anti-aliasing you can only switch between presets rather than selecting the exact type you prefer. A minor gripe but one worth mentioning for those who want total control over their exact display settings. Players with mid-range set-ups are probably looking for performance results at or above the current generation of consoles. After the horrendous debacle that saw Unity largely unplayable at launch, Ubisoft Kiev (responsible for converting most of the company’s PC releases) have gone above and beyond in doing their part in bringing to market an aesthetically stunning open world that could give even Uncharted: The Lost Legacy a run for its money. No matter what you’re doing or which way you turn, Assassin’s Creed Origins is so flawlessly beautiful that your eyes will devour the scenery like ravenous scarab beetles. The attention to detail and sense of verisimilitude are astonishing. Whether it’s a flock of flamingos launching themselves out of a shimmering lake, a field of flowers stirring gently in the balmy evening breeze, twirling coils of sand wafting over the surface of scorching dunes, or crowds of civilians going about their lives in the shadows of towering stone edifices studded with torches that flicker like the stars overhead, every corner of the game world is presented with immaculate skill.

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It’s a common misconception that deserts are barren and arid places devoid of any life or movement save the skittering of shadows and the searing wind but like a tapestry brought to life, Ubisoft’s vision of Ptolemaic Egypt is a glorious symphony of vivid color that doesn’t just put that misconception to rest but builds it an entire tomb complex, carves it a sarcophagus, and surrounds it with glittering treasure. Granted, large swathes of the game world are dominated by intimidating stretches of empty wilderness but they’re far from being uniform expanses of featureless sand. These wastelands shimmer in the sunlight a dozen shades of terracotta, auburn and ocher which by day turns them into heaving oceans of liquid gold and by night into a velvet canvas laced with threads of moonlight.

In the course of your wanderings, you’ll travel through many towns and cities including Alexandria, Memphis, and Heraklion all of which give new meaning to the term wonder of the world. Surrounded by the lush fields of crops and lily-clogged waterways each of these cities bombard you from all directions with intense bursts of red, purple and blue as banners hung from stark white battlements flutter in the breeze above streets lined with baskets of plump fruits, bolts of silk, and sheets of dried spices. In less careful hands such a melange of color could have easily become overwhelming, but Ubisoft Montreal are not beginners and their work has the indelible mark of a master craftsman. Instead of an assault on the senses, Assassin’s Creed Origins makes judicious use of bold color contrasted against the natural tones of the landscape to bring vigorous life to a place that most people associate with crumbling stone and faded scraps of papyrus.

The world that Ubisoft have built for this installment is unfailingly gorgeous, but it’s a beauty that’s far more than skin deep. Sarah Schachner returns to the series as principle composer after her standout work in Black Flag and Unity. Her use of undulating synths counter-pointed by robust orchestral motifs creates an expertly keyed soundtrack that sounds like a combination of Giacchino’s domineering but intoxicating pieces from Fringe and Djawadi’s achingly poignant work on Game of Thrones, with just a hint of Pawel Blaszczak’s soundtrack to Dying Light. It’s a bewildering mixture that hits the ear like an auditory sirocco which alters in intensity to match the onscreen action, from furious combat to sneaky sight-seeing, in a virtuoso fusion of sound and vision. Coherent sound design and a thematically appropriate score are fundamental constituent elements of a game, even if they are often overlooked, so it’s a pleasure to play a game that makes such adept use of its audio components to accentuate and complement the gameplay experience. Sound effects are no less high quality and there’s some absolutely exceptional Foley work on display here. I’ve yet to encounter an out of place footstep or miscued atmospheric effect. Not since Alien Isolation have I encountered such authentic and effective sound design.

As impressive as the overall world and location design is, it’s the gameplay opportunities they enable that are the metaphorical sauce for the ibis. Since the series began, each protagonist’s individual quest for murderous justice has taken place against the backdrop of supplementary missions that flesh out the main narrative. These side quests and activities have always been as varied as possible within each installment’s design constraints, but Assassin’s Creed Origins makes use of the entire toolkit that Ubisoft have created over the years to construct a gaming experience that is much more than the sum of its parts. Each new location you discover serves as a hub around which are clustered various points of interest (military camps, bandit hideaways, animals lairs etc) that you’re free to discover on your own but are usually the focal points of particular side missions. Many open worlds try and fail with such a loosely structured format, as exemplified by Dragon Age: Inquisition, in part due to excessive repetition. I’m not implying that every mission or objective in Origins is entirely unique, in a game of this size there is bound to be repetition to a certain extent, but what keeps the content from becoming stale before its time is that the places it takes place in are individually crafted and specific to that particular area of the map.

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Quests will take you into dank cave networks that open up into collapsed tombs filled with royal treasure, poacher camps festooned with dismembered animal corpses, burial chambers choked with bones and dust, and shadowy palaces where soldiers guard the secrets of their masters. In certain portions of the game, you’ll even take to the high seas as the naval combat that was such a highlight of Black Flag and Rogue makes a spectacular comeback, and sees you take command of a Greek trireme in a few mission segments. You can participate in chariot races at the Hippodrome in Alexandria or in gladiatorial combat in the arenas of Krocodilopolis and Cyrene that pit you against a series of increasingly difficult opponents. I’d say it was a shame that there were so few of these changes of pace but if more were included then they might have overstayed their welcome. As it stands they’re a welcome diversion from the majority of the gameplay and make sure that no two play sessions of Assassin’s Creed Origins will ever be exactly alike.

Most of your time with the game will be spent either traversing the world or engaged in combat. The Assassin’s Creed series is first and foremost known for its franchise-defining combination of parkour-inspired movement system and its stealth oriented combat, and like every other aspect of the game, these have seen significant improvements. Movement has always been a key focus for the developers when it comes to these titles, with each release making character control increasingly liberating. Climbing almost impossible surfaces, leaping between buildings and skulking through the underbrush has never felt better than it does in Origins. Bayek’s movements have a greater feeling of flexibility, strength, and precision than any of the previous protagonists. This carries over into combat with the paired animation system used in previous titles replaced by a style more akin to something that you might find in a Soulsborne game. It’s much less hardcore and unforgiving of course, but at least you can’t just roll at bosses until they die.

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This departure from the former combat mechanics can make fight sequences seem less elegant and sophisticated. However, what’s gained in exchange is a deeper sense of control of the engagement and situational awareness that turns each encounter into a grisly dance. Players are free to move in whatever direction they see fit, switch targets on the fly, and take advantage of moment-to-moment changes in the fight as they occur. Since you’re no longer locked into battle with one enemy at a time you’re able to take advantage of environmental factors such as wandering animals or rebel patrols that can be lured in to attack your foes; or urns of oil that once ignited can incinerate entire camps full of enemies before they even know you’re there. Speaking of, stealth is very much on the back seat in this title but that’s not entirely a bad thing.

A lot of the situations that required stealth in previous Assassin’s Creed games often felt incredibly forced. A situation that wasn’t improved by some mission-critical characters having auras around them that instantly resulted in detection and failure. Bayek isn’t forced to obey such arbitrary restrictions which makes stealth an optional extra, one that adds tactical nuance to each engagement as you poison targets from a distance to thin their numbers or quietly exterminate them one by one with well-placed knife strikes. On the whole, combat isn’t treated as a punishment for failing to remain undetected but rather as an unavoidable consequence of jumping down from a rooftop and putting a knife through your target’s throat. By giving Bayek a wide variety of weapon choices and abilities that enhance specific aspects of battle, Ubisoft are encouraging players to experiment with a variety of different play styles that give combat a surprising amount of complexity and depth.

With thirty hours spent so far in Assassin’s Creed Origins, I’ve completed the main story and explored half the map, which by the looks of it offers at least another ten or so hours of solid exploration and gameplay. That’s actual varied activities, not the busywork collectathons that some of the earlier games in the series devolved into. Going off that alone it’s more than worth a purchase if you look at it in pure per-hour terms. From a technical and gameplay perspective Assassin’s Creed Origins is a veritable tour de force, one that not only revolutionizes the franchise but will likely make more than a few ripples in the open world genre itself. But that’s not the main reason I’d suggest adding this game to your collection. For that, you’ll have to wait until part two of my review in progress, where I’ll discuss the game’s story and deliver my final verdict.

Chris is a Cambridge, UK based freelance writer and reviewer. A graduate of English Literature from Goldsmiths College in London he has been composing poetry and prose for most of his life. More than partial to real ale/craft beer and a general fan of sci-fi and fantasy. He first started gaming on a borrowed Mega Drive as a child and has been a passionate enthusiast of the hobby and art form ever since. Never afraid to speak his mind he always aims to tell the unvarnished truth about a game. Favourite genres: RPGs, action adventure and MMOs. Least favourite genre: anything EA Sports related (they're the same games every year!)

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. ArcticTaicho

    November 4, 2017 at 5:34 am

    Really enjoyable read. I’ll certainly be back for when Part 2 of your analysis becomes available.

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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