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Dec 25 2014

The Beardies 2014! HalfBeard HUD’s Game of the Year Awards

banner cardWell the day is finally here, our much-anticipated Game of the Year awards! We’ve spent the whole of 2014 watching all sorts of exciting and interesting new titles come down the pipe of wildly varying genres, platforms, and budgets. You’ve spent the better part of this week reading our personal top tens and getting a barometer for how we felt about 2014 but now it’s time for the real deal, our official awards, the Beardies!

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FPS game of the yearWhat makes Wolfenstein an absolutely amazing first person shooter, isn’t the new things it brings to the table, but rather the old concepts it brings back. While it does hold to the standards of modern shooters where it counts, offering up a well done perk system alongside plenty of tactical options and cover, it also lets you play the game in the way shooters used to be played. It lets you hold all the weapons the game has to offer at once rather than the modern two, it lets you dual-wield every single one of those weapons even when doing so seems physically impossible, and it encourages you to run around like a madman and kick sliding into Nazis while their bullets plink off of all the armor pick-ups you’ve collected. Hell, the game even lets you employ some surprisingly good and actually fun to use stealth in homage to the original Wolfenstein games. Most important though is the fact that you’re not forced to hold yourself strictly to any one of those play-styles in order to succeed and can mix and match tactics at your leisure, making this one of the most versatile and enjoyable shooters I’ve ever played.

Runner Up: Titanfall

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Action game of the yearWhile it is very much like many of Platinum’s other games in an overall sense, there is a specific flow to Bayonetta that makes it special and the sequel only improved upon it. The flow I’m referring to comes from the game’s Witch Time mechanic that slows everything but Bayonetta down to a crawl whenever she manages to skillfully dodge an enemy attack. This leads to fights that beautifully and naturally progress from one movement to another as you duck and weave through attacks, enemies falling in your wake, with the world itself seeming to ebb and flow with your actions. The sequel keeps that style of action but adds in more weapons, variables, and abilities that perfectly lend themselves to that flow while each adding some new meaningful wrinkle to the combat. Every fight, whether it is against a towering radiant god monster or a pack of slavering grunts, feels like an another excuse to gleefully hone your skills and test your new abilities. Add onto that the surprising amount of variety that the game puts into its fights (instigating combat on land, in the air, underwater, and everywhere in between) and you have an experience that manages to make itself feel comfortable but never tired, always offering up something new but basing it around that all-important solid gameplay flow.

Runner Up: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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Platformer of the yearWhat makes Shovel Knight so enjoyable from a gameplay perspective is the extreme degree of fidelity in the movement. It’s certainly not the fastest game, but the actual platforming is pixel perfect and precise in a way that makes it feel utterly natural. Little things like jump distance, fall speed, and attack range all quickly become second nature, making the game become almost like an extension of your body. This makes killing enemies and completing tricky platforming sections not only incredibly satisfying but more impactful, as is especially the case with the game’s signature shovel-pogo move that has you doing a sort of bouncing downward stomp to your foes. Skillfully bouncing from one enemy to another, using them cross gaps or to help you avoid attacks, just feels plain good. Further tempered with a really smart system regarding player death and supplemented with plenty of upgrades and oodles of secrets to find, Shovel Knight is an absolute joy to play.

Runner Up: OlliOlli

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Adventure Game of the YearCertainly not an adventure game in the traditional sense, Jazzpunk doesn’t have you picking up [item A] to give to [uncooperative asshole B], nor does it have you inserting [goofy item X] into [totally not a keyhole Y]; in fact if you go straight through the game doing only the stated objectives, you’ll be done within about an hour. So why is this our “Adventure Game of the Year” then? Because the true fun of Jazzpunk lies not on that golden path but rather within the scads of entertaining asides and mini-games that hide within every nook and cranny of this game’s bizarre Cold War cyber-world. The adventure here, as it were, comes from finding all of those little nuggets of non-sequitorial glee with which each level is heavily laden. It’s a game where humor, both of the incredibly intelligent and raucously stupid variety, is made integral to the game itself and not treated as a side element. Doing whatever thing that you think will resolve in the funniest possible way will almost always elicit some sort of response and inspecting every random object produces gags ranging from small funny lines to big unnecessary mini-games, such as a wedding themed version of Quake called Wedding Qake. Put simply, this is an adventure game not about solving puzzles or fixing problems, but about having fun and actually having an adventure.

Runner Up: Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

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RPG of the YearDragon Age: Inquisition is the culmination of everything Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age 2 wanted to be. It brings a truly vast sense of scale to Thedas that it had always been missing. Delivering hours upon hours of quests to complete, monsters to kill, herbs to pick, stars to align, decisions to make, and tons of other crap to do, Inquisition lets you wander around and build your story in ways the past games in the series only wished that they could provide. Most important though is the fact that all of that stuff helps you achieve your greater goals in some way. Picking herbs can allow you to bolster the supply and effectiveness of your potions and grenades, slaying beasts and mining ore lets you build better arms and armor for yourself and for your army, and every little choice made at the war table can provide untold benefits later on in the form of gold or perks. It is all of the best things that modern RPGs have to offer, blended together perfectly, and laid out on a silver platter adorned with Bioware’s always enjoyable characters and world building.

Runner Up: Wasteland 2

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DLC of the YearI admit, I’m something of a sucker for Rapture, and as such I make an effort to look at every piece of BioShock fiction that I can. That said though Infinite’s Burial at Sea DLC, particularly the second part, is something special. Not only does it help solidify the connections between the first BioShock and its high-flying sequel by explaining exactly what Elizabeth did after the events of Infinite, but it also completely redefines the gameplay by making Elizabeth the protagonist and having stealth be the focus. Being quiet, setting traps, luring foes, and inciting panic are all things that fit surprisingly well into the BioShock gameplay model and the slower pace means that you get to take a more detailed look at your surroundings and the nitty-gritty parts of Rapture. It is also worth noting that this DLC contains what is perhaps the most tense and disturbing scene in the entire series, I don’t want to spoil it but for those who’ve already played through it and know what I’m talking about …TINK…TINK…TINK..

Runner Up: World of Warcraft’s Warlords of Draenor

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Fighting Game of the YearThe reason Ultimax takes the win here is because it truly has something for everyone. Featuring an incredibly robust single player campaign and a suite of enjoyable solo modes with plenty of options to let you tune things to your skill level, the game provides tons of content for the lone wolves and Persona 4 lore nerds in the audience. By that same token though, there is also a bevy of great training options, ranked and unranked multiplayer modes, and even a freaking avatar driven lobby for the more competitive types out there to ensconce themselves within and build up a healthy community. Of course all of that is built up around a world-class Arc System Works fighting game, with the same bombastic action and well honed characters that we’ve come to expect. It just feels good to play and the fact that anyone and everyone can find some meaningful part of it that they’ll enjoy more than enough of a reason to give it the win.

Runner Up: Ultra Street Fighter 4

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Roguelike of the YearDeath Skid Marks is basically FTL by way of Big Ed Roth, a deeply strategic and insanely difficult ride through a grotesquely humorous wasteland. Fittingly DSM carries with it all the hallmarks of a good roguelike: meaningful starting choices, lots of smartly randomized variables, and deep RPG aspects that make every run feel different. But what makes it truly special is its attitude, there is no pomp and circumstance or posturing about the importance of your choices; instead the kick ass music and off-beat art style breeds a free-wheeling atmosphere that encourages you to try out new things and go with the flow rather than min/max everything all to hell. Obviously making decisions in any roguelike because they’re simply fun or funny probably won’t end with you beating the game, but it will ensure that you have a good time dying and enjoyable deaths are what this genre should be all about.

Runner Up: Full Mojo Rampage

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Indie Game of the YearMuch like our roguelike category, this is a somewhat nebulous topic of discussion; to clarify things though, how we define a game as being “indie” is not by the amount of people of who made it but rather by the asking the questions: “would a major dev/pub ever make a game like this?” and “does it actually work in spite of that fact?” That’s why Jazzpunk is here, because I can’t see Activision greenlighting a four-hour journey composed almost entirely of non-sequitors and references to old cartoons. But it is that exact absurdity and lack of narrative focus that makes Jazzpunk so fun. It revels in its humor and it devotes ample time to random asides that only serve to make them funnier. Things that would have been left on the cutting room floor at a larger studio for fear of being esoteric or overlong are instead embellished upon and given full focus while they’re on-screen. Comedy like this can’t be written by committee, nor can it be edited by corporate lawyers, it has got to come from the heart and that is why is Jazzpunk is our Indie Game of the Year.

Runner Up: Octodad: Dadliest Catch

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Sports game of the yearThe joy of sports is watching them with friends or family, and that’s why Sportsfriends is such a standout game this year: because it’s best enjoyed with companions. The variety of the games offered and the simplicity of the controls make it fun and challenging for any and all levels of gamer and sports fan. When you think of the prominent staples of local multiplayer games: Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, and Mario Party, Sportsfriends can definitely be added to that list. Nintendo may wear the crown, but the developers of Sportsfriends, Die Gute Fabrik, have made their way into court.

Runner Up: Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball

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Best open worldA really good open world is one that lets you build your own stories outside of the core narrative and Shadow of Mordor’s…Mordor…lets you do just that thanks to its innovative Nemesis system. Using the environment to build up and then destroy grunts in Sauron’s army, raising them to the highest echelons of power before crashing them back down to earth is just so enjoyable an experience. Not to mention the fact that the road you’ll take when manipulating your particular orcish scoundrel to the top of the Mordorian hierarchy naturally creates in and of itself moment after moment of emergent fun. Frankly at this point I can barely remember what the actual story in Shadow of Mordor was; but I do remember the tale of a plucky scarred orc who hounded me day in and day out and the unnecessarily complex revenge scheme I enacted against him.

Runner Up: Sunset Overdrive

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Best StoryStick of Truth isn’t trying evoke to South Park, nor is it trying to recreate any specific episode or arc, instead it plainly IS South Park. Made not just with permission, but in full collaboration with Matt and Trey, Stick of Truth feels much like its own wholly encapsulated season of the show. The writing holds that same pitch perfect comedic wit and very specific style of humor where jokes are not only relevant to the plot but often integral to it. They also did a fantastic job at providing tons of references to the show and making lots of jokes about gaming in general without putting those things up front and pandering; instead that stuff is worked subtly into the environment and incidental dialogue and only brought up in the narrative when it makes sense. Instead the plot moves from point to point in a very natural fashion, focusing on character interactions and growth as well as South Park’s standard cutting view of current events and modern pop culture. Obviously it helps that I’m a massive South Park fan, but Stick of Truth was easily one of the most entertaining stories that I got to play through this year.

Runner Up: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

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Best WritingI know it seems unfair to give this award to two separate games but we’re counting them like that because both the Danganronpa games were released in North America this year, they’re of equal quality, and are highly interdependent upon one another. Now onto why Danganronpas 1&2 get to win this award in the first place. The reason these games take the prize for Best Writing is because they managed to take a number of very overdone anime archetypes and tropes and give them meaningful context while at the same time using the audience’s knowledge of those things to create false expectations which they could then shatter. They slowly strip away the stereotypical facades of their characters revealing tragically broken human beings underneath and through the gameplay it manages to make you care about these people. Most importantly though, it uses your preconceived notions about those types of characters and the way these sorts of stories normally go to fool you at almost every turn. In the Danganronpa series, anyone can die, anyone could be the killer, and things are never as you expect them to be.

Runner Up: Wolfenstein: The New Order

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Visuals (Technical)While it may not have had quite as much impact as Far Cry 3 did in terms of gameplay or story, no one can say that Far Cry 4 isn’t a drop dead gorgeous game. The beautifully textured and well detailed mountain ranges stretch in every direction with well planned out geometry that makes them all feel distinct. The verdant sun dappled valleys well up with realistic animal life that interacts with itself under the warm glow of the game’s fantastic lighting engine. Hell, even the fog looks good, as it’s got just the right balance of transparency and pervasive depth to simulate the real thing. What fog there is though isn’t acting as a cover for the draw distance either, when you get up high you can see for miles. It’s a game that looks fantastic both from far away but also from up close, thanks to its subtly detailed and well animated character models and nicely high-rez weapons. Once again, you can make whatever jokes you want about Ubisoft trying to recapture the Far Cry 3 lightning with this game, but the fantastic work they’ve done with visuals here is above reproach.

Runner Up: Titanfall

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Visuals (Artistic)Bayonetta 2 is without a doubt the best looking game on the Wii U, and that’s not just because it leverages the power of that console to its fullest. Rather it is the striking art style that Bayo 2 employs that impressed me most. Building upon the ‘renaissance facade over grotesque monstrosity’ style of the first game, the sequel ups the ante by providing not only more designs in that mold but also by giving us a better look at the other side of that equation, showing us the unbridled and unknowable dark fury of that universe’s version of hell, Inferno. This leads to a number of sprawling and decadently over-designed levels that really pop and serve to perfectly showcase the bombastic and amazingly choreographed fights happening throughout them. Everything just looks bigger and better, and the moments when the game struts its stuff, like when you’re kick-flipping angelic monsters on the back of a fighter jet while New York City spreads out below in all of its glory, act as pure dopamine infused visual ecstasy.

Runner Up: Sunset Overdrive

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Soundtrack (original)It wouldn’t be the Beardies if we didn’t give Jake Kaufman yet another award, but damn did he earn it this year. Shovel Knight’s score, made in cooperation between Kaufman and the composer for the original Mega Man games, Manami Matsumae, is absolutely stunning. Each piece perfectly encapsulates its respective level and adds an extra layer of depth to it that brings everything to life. It breeds a sense of vim and vigor that pushes you through the levels with a determined smile on your face. Packed with subtle nods to each of the composer’s past works, as well as to other classic soundtracks like Castlevania’s and Final Fantasy’s, it is an absolute joy to listen to which is probably why it has been at the top of my personal music playlist since the game’s release. It’s clear here that Kaufman and Matsumae were trying to do more than make a soundtrack that simply sounded chirpy and retro, they were trying to make actual good god damn music and they most certainly succeeded.

Runner Up: Destiny

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Soundtrack (licensed)The Bayonetta games are defined as much by their soundtracks as they are by their crazy frenetic action, and Bayonetta 2’s joyous and up-beat version of Hank William’s Moon River lets you know what that game is about right off the bat. It’s light, breezy, and has an effortless flow to it that tells you to just have fun and enjoy that ride down the Mississippi. It helps to immediately differentiate Bayo 2 from the first game, whose particularly ethereal and dreamy version of Frank Sinatra’s Fly me to the Moon established that game’s unreal qualities. Here the focus is on fun, just going with the flow, and this particular version of Moon River adds that perfect verve to everything and helps really solidify the game’s overall vibe.

Runner Up: NBA 2K15

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PS4 Game of the yearTo be honest, there weren’t really a ton of exclusives this year for either of the ‘next gen’ consoles, but they few they did have were pretty good. On Sony’s front we had the Infamous spin-off/sequel/whatever, Second Son, which let me live my dream of bumming around a virtual Seattle. It retains all the good things about Infamous 2’s gameplay: fun and fast paced combat, lots of abilities to play around with, and some great world traversal. But it also adds some of its own flavour as well in the form of multiple elemental powers to play around with. They all more or less act the same, but they are subtle differences between them that make playing around with it all a lot of fun. Seattle is also a blast to explore, and while the map isn’t as accurate as I might like, it’s designed well for gameplay and the varying districts of Emerald City each have a good feel to them. Probably the best thing about Second Son though is its protagonist, Delsin Rowe; he’s an asshole but he genuinely enjoys being a superhero and isn’t all dour and unpleasant about everything, which is a really nice change of pace.

Runner Up: The Last of Us: Remastered

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Xbox One Game of the yearThe thing that clinched this award for D4 was the fact that it makes actual decent use of the Kinect, justifying that technology and making this an experience you wouldn’t be able to have on the other consoles. Using an adventure game formula, the game employs the oft-misaligned camera primarily as a mouse cursor, a role it surprisingly excels in. Helping things out is the fact that you can play sitting down, as well as with a controller if you prefer. Not that the only thing that makes D4 worthwhile is its Kinect integration. This bizarre Bostonian journey is worth playing regardless of control method, as every minute of it is drenched in that indescribably enjoyable ‘America by way of Japan’ flavour that Swery does so well. The fantastically terrible accents, the completely awesome but totally out-of-place music, and the highly stylized but ridiculous action scenes all blend together into a madman’s melange you can’t help but enjoy.

Runner Up: Sunset Overdrive

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Wii U game of the yearI’ve already talked about how Bayonetta 2’s gameplay is flawless and flowing, how its art design is beautiful and kinetic, and how its music is perfectly evocative; that being the case it’s probably unsurprising that it takes the award for our Wii U game of the year. Despite whatever controversy it managed to elicit, it is impossible to disregard just how fun this game is, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of the general atmosphere it breeds. The high-flying action on display feels great both to handle and to watch and the laid-back but upbeat soundtrack keeps that enjoyment moving at a wonderful clip. Bayonetta as a character is clearly enjoying everything she does and her infectiously satisfied smile will have no trouble finding its way onto your face within a few moments of playing the game.

Runner Up: Mario Kart 8

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PC Game of the yearWhile it’s certainly not the first digital card game, nor is it the best as some people more accustomed to the genre like to tell me, what makes Hearthstone truly special and worthy of this award is the way it uses the Warcraft brand to bring people in on the concept. The fact of the matter is that not everybody jumps with glee at the idea of flipping around pieces of virtual cardboard and as a genre it can be somewhat impenetrable for many people, especially if they’re expected to learn a whole new universe’s lore to go along with a massive set of rules. Hearthstone alleviates that problem by using people’s familiarity with the Warcraft setting, and by couching everything in WoW terms and logic. This has granted the game a massive audience and thanks to some really smart multiplayer and F2P systems, it has absolutely taken off in a way that only Blizzard games seem to be able to do. It also shows that Blizzard is perhaps willing to finally experiment with the Warcraft brand outside of an MMO setting, and while I’ll probably never end up getting Warcraft 4, it’s good to see that fantastic lore of theirs being let off the leash a bit.

Runner Up: Wasteland 2

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3DS Game of the yearBravely Default evokes a better time in gaming history, when the JRPG was something truly special; backed up by stacks of publisher dollars and made by some of the best minds in game development, they were massive spectacles that sold consoles. While Bravely Default isn’t quite that large in scope, it does carry that same spirit of grandiosity and reminds us of what a JRPG can be: beautifully simple but deeply and subtly layered and incredibly well polished. Its art is a sumptuous watercolour affair, the writing is tight and filled with enjoyable characters, and the gameplay works off mechanics that are simple in nature but end up ultimately being very deep. It all just feels so honed and well thought out, every aspect reigned in and perfectly shaped so as to work better when incorporated into the game as a whole. It brings forward the best of what those old Squaresoft games pioneered and combines it with modern conveniences and interesting new wrinkles such as the titular Brave/Default mechanic, making it a must-play for lovers of JRPGs young and old.

Runner Up: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

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PSVITA Game of the yearI’ve already talked about how this series has some of the most exquisite writing I’ve ever seen, but that’s not all the Danganronpa games have going for them. The gameplay is a fascinating mix of Phoenix Wright’s investigation and courtroom mechanics paired with Persona 4’s relationship building, with that gameplay reinforcing and elaborating upon the already well executed story beats. The art is quirky and stylized, taking the anime base and riffing on it in some really cool ways, especially when it comes to the executions and murders in the game, which aren’t necessarily all that violent but are framed and presented in some very impactful ways. It also has some great sound work in the form of actual decent voice acting, and it’s got a score that blends elements of hip-hop, ska, punk, and a variety of other genres together to fit any situation while still keeping a consistent tone of unease which pervades through the entire experience. Put simply, these are hands down the best games I’ve ever played on the VITA.

Runner Up: OlliOlli

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Worst Game of the yearIf there was ever a game defined by the term “Wasted Potential” it would be Escape Dead Island. Made by a promising independent developer and sporting a genuinely interesting premise, it still somehow managed to fall completely flat and fail on every front. Meant to act as a bridge between Dead Island, Riptide, and Dead Island 2, it explains nothing concretely and what little information can be gleaned from it is so generic to zombie fiction that it should have been left unsaid. It was also supposed to be a cerebral experience, packed with hallucinations, and guided by a clearly unreliable narrator. But they managed to screw that up as well by never properly resolving that thread of the story, in fact by the end things are even less coherent, which is a major flaw when your game is intended to be taken as important bridging canon in a franchise. But even with those egregious problems, it could have been saved with some quality gameplay, but unsurprisingly none of that feels good either. Not enough information or feedback is provided to make the stealth any fun, the melee combat is slow and clunky, and the gun play is floaty and inelegant. The only saving grace is the presentation which is still only mediocre at best. Escape Dead Island is an absolute god damn mess from top to bottom and a waste of good ideas and talent, fully deserving of our Worst Game of the Year award.

Runner Up: Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric

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Game of the YearIf there was anything that defined 2014, it was nostalgia, or to put it more accurately a healthy respect for the past, and no game represents that better than Shovel Knight. The pixel perfect precision of the platforming just feels good to handle, the story is light and simple but still humorous and caps off with a good twist, the music is masterpiece after masterpiece of driving sound, and the visuals look exactly like those old Game Boy Colour games used to but with the advent of being in widescreen and having parallax scrolling. It is the epitome of taking the lessons of the past and integrating them alongside modern gaming ideas, creating a product that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. As a result Shovel Knight was some of the most fun I’ve had this year and a beacon in many ways for what I hope the future holds. So if you haven’t already gotten your hands on it, go buy Shovel Knight right now, because I’m happy to declare it HalfBeard’s HUD’s Game of the Year for 2014.

Runner Up: Dragon Age: Inquisition

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And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our awards for 2014! Thanks for sticking with us and we hope you all have a Happy Holidays and wonderful New Year. Tomorrow we’ll have up the audio recording of our debates for those who are interested, but aside from that we’re all done until January. Thanks for reading and once again have a Happy Holidays!

HBHUD-holiday-card-2014

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