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March 28, 2009

My New Favoritest Game
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:08 PM * 39 comments

So there I was in Nashua, doing some back-to-school shopping with my younger daughter at the Target in the Pheasant Lane Mall (a charming place where the parking lot is in Massachusetts, but the mall itself is in sales-tax-free New Hampshire). To pass the time I looked through the bargain PC game rack. There, in the under-ten-buck section, I found a game called Emergency 3 from Strategy First.

The box looked interesting: “Accidents, natural disasters, police operations, your decisions can mean life or death for those involved!” Hey, I’m there for that. “New: Real-time physics: falling debris, crashing buildings.” Price was right — I picked it up.

There are twenty missions on the game disk for the campaign game. All but one start with a short (approx. 30 sec.) movie showing how you got into that situation to start with. (In the video clip I just linked to, the train consists of boxcars filled with fireworks and tank cars filled with liquid oxygen.) During game play, you’ll be interrupted from time to time by more cut scenes as the world turns progressively to dung in front of your eyes.

This game was originally produced by a German company, which explains the German uniforms worn by the firefighters, the European-style sirens, the German scenery, and the bizarre abbreviations for the vehicle types. DLK, for example, stands for Drehleiter (mit Korb), and is a ladder truck. RTW stands for Rettungstransportwagen, and is an ambulance. RW is Rüstwagen, an equipment truck (which you’re going to need if you want your Jaws of Life or chainsaw).

The game is rated T for blood and violence. (After you have your EMTs pick up a patient from the ground a little red pool of blood remains.)

There’s a Los Angeles mod you can download that puts in US trucks and uniforms, and adds another 19 missions to the game. I believe there are other mods, too. That one’s housed at a Dutch fan site (waves to Abi).

So, anyway, after firing this puppy up I’ve hardly returned to The Sims 2.

I am now about to comment on a review of Emergency 3 from Gamespot, pointing out a few places where the reviewer went astray.

Emergency 3, the latest real-time strategy game from publisher Strategy First, attempts to capture the urgency of life-and-death situations that arise from sudden and unexpected events like train wrecks, automobile accidents, structure fires, explosions, and even failed bungee jumps. But as exciting as it may sound, Emergency 3 delivers much more frustration than dramatic tension, thanks to clumsy controls and the trial-and-error nature of the mission design. The flaws are made all the more apparent by the fact that most of the missions are actually creative and interesting, and that the overall premise of the game is a promising one.
Exciting, aye. I found the controls pretty straight-forward. And, my friend, there’s nothing trial-and-error about the mission design and solutions, provided you apply the principles of the Incident Command System.

First, as soon as you have an inkling of what kind of situation you’re looking at (which will be during that mini-movie and the screen listing mission objectives while the scenario is loading), try to figure out what kind of incident—police, fire, EMS—and what general type of unit you’ll need initially. Then, as soon as you can, start ordering up strike teams (multiple units of the same kind) and staging them around the game map. It takes time for the units to arrive on scene, so if you’re waiting for need rather than anticipating need, you’re not going to do too well.

Up here in the Great North Woods, if I need a medical evacuation helicopter there’s a minimum of 42 minutes flight time from the moment I call for it until it arrives. Heck, it can take me half-an-hour or more before I get to the location to see what’s going on. Therefore it behooves me to call for one long before I know for certain whether I’ll want one.

So, if you think there are going to be casualties, order up a bunch of ambulances now and stage them somewhere nearby yet safe. (In this game you can kill your responders. Which, just like in the real world, decreases the number of responders and increases the number of casualties at the same time. Which puts the “uck” in “suck.”

You’re aided in this by the fact that you can highlight multiple units at once and send them to the same location as a group. And when some person or unit gets finished with a task, send him or it back to staging to rejoin the pool. You’ll find it’s handy if you know where to look for the resources you need.

…You’re given specific objectives to complete and you must use a variety of rescue units to do so.

…Once you figure out how to address each type of scenario, the challenge is derived from micromanaging several units at a time and balancing your budget.

We do get a bit unrealistic here. Under ICS the span of control is three to seven, with the optimum being five. In this game, once you get beyond the simplest scenarios, you’ll be giving orders to lots more than seven individuals. This makes it lots more challenging than it strictly needs to be. On the other hand, how often do you get to simulate the Finance Sector?
But as compelling as the setup is for each of these missions, they play out in an aggravatingly rigid step-by-step process that leaves little room for error.
Well, yeah. There is just about no room for error out here, and the only way you’re going to have a chance in heck is by using a step-by-step process. You had darned-well better ensure scene safety (e.g. sending a cop to stop traffic or an engineer to secure the power) before you send in your other people. If you don’t you’re going to have rescuers lying on the ground needing rescue themselves.

Out here in the world, because we all use the same step-by-step process, a passing paramedic on holiday was able to join in one of our recent snowmobile rescues as if she had been a member of our team and trained with us for years, even though none of us had ever laid eyes on her, or she on us, before that particularly rotten night by a trail deep in some woods.

The missions will try your patience by requiring you to follow a very specific course of action every step of the way. It’s up to you to figure out what you need to do, be it hunting for a tiny, nondescript control box to turn on a traffic signal to divert traffic away from an accident, or searching for a fallen jumper who has been washed downstream and ended up underneath some underbrush. Chances are the jumper will die a dozen times before you actually find him, and when you do find him, you’ll have to figure out exactly which rescue unit to use to save him.
I’ve found there’s quite a lot of freeplay and options in the way you go about solving each scenario, provided you use sound principles. And you do have to pay attention to details. If you don’t notice the tire marks and the broken guard rail by the river, you’ll never win the scenario because you won’t find all the patients. For that missing bungee jumper, please note that search dogs are available to you. (There are three different rescue units you could use, as it happens, of which the best is probably the helicopter.)

Once you’ve got your strike teams staged around the area, you can start forming up task forces (groups consisting of different kinds of units joined to carry out some specific task).

That brings up another flaw in Emergency 3. There are more than 30 rescue vehicles in the game, but there’s no explanation of what each one actually does, or how to use them. There are the standard fire trucks, ambulances, and rescue helicopters, but then there are much more specialized units like fire boats, K9 units, and salvage trucks. Each unit serves a very specific purpose, but there’s often very little indication as to what that purpose actually is. There .pdf manual included with the game doesn’t explain much of anything, and the in-game tutorial only shows you how to use a handful of different units. There is a bit of brief text accompanying each unit, but you can’t access that until you’re already in the midst of a mission.
Okay, the manual could contain the unit descriptions. And you may not know at first (though it seems pretty obvious in retrospect) that the little guys who have rotating yellow pyramids above their heads marked with a nuclear trefoil are contaminated by HAZMAT (which suggests that you ought to set up a decontamination station to herd them all through before everyone in town is contaminated, and before they keel over and die).
For one thing, the units don’t always go where you tell them to. Occasionally they’ll find their way without any problems, but other times your medics will end up wandering off into the middle of a forest when you try to get them to cross a bridge or enter a building. Other times, your units will get stuck in a confined area and will just give up and quit moving.
You want to bet me that doesn’t happen real-world? That isn’t a bug, it’s part of the simulation.
Even more frustrating is the artificial intelligence (or lack thereof) of the civilians. Rubberneckers will stroll out into the middle of traffic on a four-lane highway to get a look at an accident; pedestrians will walk right up to a burning building, and so on. Since most missions require you to keep the casualties to a minimum, it can be extremely frustrating when absolutely everyone in the game has a death wish.
Oh, baby, let me tell you about that. That’s maybe the most realistic part of this game. (Even after you use the police helicopter to tell people to evacuate you still have to send in firefighters to pull some of ‘em out by their collars.)
The artificial intelligence in this game will have you questioning whether or not any of these people are actually worth saving after all.
A conversation that all of us have had back in the ambulance garage at one time or another.
The game sounds considerably worse than it looks. Even if you forgive the blaring sirens, which seem somewhat necessary given the subject of the game, the sound quickly gets repetitive, even annoying. Each time you issue an order you’ll hear the same confirmation phrase from your workers, and you’ll always hear the same grunts and moans from the people you’re trying to rescue.
When I give an order I expect to hear it acknowledged with the exact same words each time. Sailors never get tired of saying “Aye, aye!” or of hearing it. And after a while you notice that the grunts and moans of the people you’re trying to rescue do all sound the same.
Despite its flaws, Emergency 3 does have a few enjoyable moments, due entirely to its unique premise. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to carry the tedious mission design, awkward controls, and aggravating artificial intelligence that pervades almost every moment of the game.
I don’t know about that. I’ve been playing it a lot, and as soon as I get through all the missions with outstanding scores (you get medals if you do well enough on one scenario or another), I’m going to pick up Emergency 4, maybe without waiting for it to hit the bargain shelves. (Emergency 4, so I’m told, has highway flares and traffic cones. A whole new world opens up….)
Comments on My New Favoritest Game:
#1 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2009, 10:03 PM:

It sounds pretty awesome. Do they make it for Mac?

#2 ::: Liza ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2009, 10:49 PM:

Given your description, I'm surprised you would want to play it yourself. Isn't it too much like work?

#3 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2009, 10:51 PM:

Jim, you should send the text of this post to GameSpot. From the sound of it, what this game really provides is a chance for civilians to get a feel for what a trained EMT goes thru on a daily basis. That's a little different from a normal video game, and makes me wonder if someone decided to edge a bit toward the "educational" side while designing it.

#4 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 12:19 AM:

If this is the same game, there was some discussion about it on Boston area blogs this week. Seems people are having fun trashing the subway system.

#5 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 01:39 AM:

I'm imagining the review of a computer game of my real world job. "But as compelling as the setup is for each of these software projects, they play out in an aggravatingly rigid step-by-step iteration process that leaves little room for error. And the 3x5 index cards keep falling off of the white board."

#6 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 02:12 AM:

I never was tempted by Sim Farm.

And luckily real life was never like the farming in Settlers. No little guys wandering over from the next county, wearing brightly-coloured cloaks and carrying swords.

Sometimes that might have been preferable.

#7 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 03:46 AM:

This may be the place to note that the board game Pandemic is now available for free online play (along with dozens of other board and card games) at BrettSpielWelt.

Just today I saw something astonishing: a game concluded not just with the usual four cures, but four eradications. I wouldn't have thought it possible.

#8 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 06:08 AM:

Um, wow. You've brought "taking your work home with you" to a whole new level here. The game does seem pretty nifty, but it sounds like something a company commander would assign rookies to "play"....

#9 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 06:58 AM:

Well, you can have long debates about wether too much realism makes for bad games. I guess it's a matter of taste, or simply of what you're in the mood for at the at the moment.

#10 ::: Nina Katarina ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 07:09 AM:

I'd guess something like this, where unlike real life you can go back and try to save everybody if you miss one of them, would be great for alleviating survivor's guilt, and anxiety over whether you're truly prepared for an emergency situation.

#11 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 07:32 AM:

Huh. I'm wondering if the game didn't start out as a simulation for real German rescue planners and then some enterprising developer realized that it could be enjoyed by non-professionals.

#12 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 07:40 AM:

Liza@2, Mark@8: What you have to realize about Macdonald is that he's the same guy who, while he was in the Navy, used to play the old submarine-warfare game Silent Service in "real-time running" mode for four hours at a stretch. In real-time mode, it was possible, nay indeed probable, that you would spend four actual hours sitting on the surface of the virtual ocean in your virtual submarine waiting in vain for a virtual target to happen along in your virtual area of operations.

And he thought that this was fun.

#13 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 07:52 AM:

janetl @5, you mean something like the third item from Sim Games for the Successfull?

#14 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 08:34 AM:

I thought that the big problem with 688 Attack Sub was that if you didn't rush everywhere, cavitating, you suddenly lost the game because you hadn't escaped, despite being completely undetected.

#15 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 08:51 AM:

To be fair, I'm not sure it's possible to make an EMT game that a real EMT finds accurate and fun to play, that isn't horribly frustrating for a member of the general public.

The EMT Simulator, for example. I had fun setting people on fire, but I'm complete crap at actually saving people (my skills being limited to "YOU! Call 911!" and untested CPR training).

#16 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 08:55 AM:

Hrm. It sounds like they made a good game, but didn't provide enough training material for the average civilian. If you ever decide to mod the game, a tutorial sequence based on your explanation of the Incident Command System would be real helpful. From the sounds of it, a triage tutorial mission could also be a great help.

Which of course suggests another post... how not to tick off SAR teams who have to go look for you.

#17 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 10:32 AM:

Raphael@9: that was my first thought when I read the complaints -- along with the suspicion that there are probably way too many people who think that whatever excitement a game designer dreamed up is true. I'm thinking there should be a rating that means "unrelated to the real world" to go along with warnings about violence, sex, language, ....

It also sounds to me like a game that actively rewards replay -- there's a \lot/ of room for learning if you don't already know the systems that the real world has worked out -- which is something the reviewer misses. cf Connie@11's comment that this could have grown out of a training tool; the computer games I've seen tend not to tell you where you goofed, and training tools often have a human for that purpose (as in T's Bus Trainees Can Now Fake the Wheel)

#18 ::: Mikael Vejdemo Johansson ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 10:32 AM:

Rikibeth @ 1:
They don't seem to sell it for the Mac, but I've just bought it and installed it with my Crossover installation.

The installation goes through smoothly, however, I have not yet been able to actually, y'know, _launch_ the game.

Your best bet for the Mac probably is to get a parallel windows installation (works for the Intel Macs at least), but I don't know whether that will actually work.

Jim: Read your review. Bought the game based on it, and without double checking that I could play it here. THAT's how impressed I was. :-)

#19 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 11:02 AM:

Debra Doyle @ 12:

Wobbler had written an actual computer game like this once. It was called "Journey to Alpha Centauri". It was a screen with some dots on it. Because, he said, it happened in real time, which no-one had ever heard of until computers. He'd seen on TV that it took three thousand years to get to Alpha Centauri. He had written it so that if anyone kept their computer on for three thousand years, they'd be rewarded by a little dot appearing in the middle of the screen, and then a message saying, "Welcome to Alpha Centauri. Now go home."

-- Terry Pratchett, Only You Can Save Mankind

#20 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 11:54 AM:

Raphael @ 13: Oh, my — the Brunching Shuttlecocks. Thank you for the flash from the past.

#21 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 03:01 PM:

IIRC there was a huge pissing contest between MA and NH about that parking lot. As I heard the story, one of the mall anchor stores (JC Penney?) originally had one small corner over the line, and MA was insisting that store had to charge MA sales tax. Instead, they removed that corner of the store. Then followed some stupidity about who had to patrol the MA side of the parking lot, and for a while no one would do it and cars were getting broken into constantly. Yadda yadda and so forth. I don't know how it was eventually settled, but it doesn't seem to be an issue any more.

But yeah, nice quiet little mall.

#22 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 03:46 PM:

#12, #19:

Arthur Ganson had a work of art at the MIT museum where there was a train of gears that had an effective gear ratio of several billion to one. The first gear was spinning freely. The last gear was embedded in concrete.

#23 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 03:50 PM:

I've been down there once; we'd made a shopping run to Nashua instead of Portsmouth for some reason, and ended up ducking across the border to the Trader Joe's which is on the MA side of the state line but if you spat out the back door it would land in NH. This is one of the closest Trader Joe's stores to my current residence (the other one being in Reading, MA - one thing I miss about PDX is living within walking distance of a TJs) and apparently the reason it's not in Nashua has got something to do with NH liquor licensing and TJ's wine rack.

I'd really like them to open a store or two in Maine. Three plus hours is a bit far to go for groceries.

#24 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 06:23 PM:

Erik Nelson (#22): It's still there AFAIK.

(Note to Fluorospherians visiting the Boston area: the MIT Museum also has an exhibit of Doc Edgerton's strobe photographs and equipment, and a short ride away on the MBTA #1 bus is the Mapparium at the Christian Science Mother Church.)

#25 ::: caffeine ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 10:26 PM:

I've been through ICS and NIMS training for work, and most of it seemed like, well, common sense.

Then I was indirectly involved with an exercise the FDA recently held. That agency, as far as I'm aware, doesn't do ICS training, and I was astonished by how many of their issues could have been solved with basic ICS/HSEEP training.

#26 ::: Bob ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2009, 12:08 AM:

Wow, you've provided me with this weekend's internet trifecta! Thanks!!!

NIFC has shuffled their links around - the current link to the IFC docs (aka the Red Book) are buried under Policies / "Interagency Standards for Fire & Aviation Operations 2009" which is certainly obvious to anyone new to NIFC. Um. Yeah.

Then again, I spend a lot of time on the NRC's website chasing down NUREGs so from one .gov website to another the search wasn't too bad, comparatively. :)

Somehow that led me to FEMA (I think it was your original post on ICS) and I found the gem of FEMA's correspondence courses on emergency management. As Austin Powers would quip, "my bag" is nuclear safety and radiological analysis, so I'm always interested in how different agencies & organizations write up their radiological & industrial safety training. I have to say that FEMA did a damned good job with IS-3 "Radiological Emergency Management." Though I have to wonder if it's been gathering dust since the Clinton Administration last took emergency management seriously or it's the work of a Bush Administration hire who took the old-school Civil Defense stuff to heart or it's the work of a shiny new Obama Administration hire who understands reality and good management and good government. Regardless, whoever put it together made it refreshingly lucid, accurate, and straightforward.

But most of all, thanks for a new bargain videogame to occupy my copious free time. I'm far past my prime 'twitch' game years, we gave away our TV and stereo when we moved north in November and haven't found the time to get a replacement (upshot: no PS/2), and I still maintain an unnatural fondness for Jack Webb's original "Emergency!" from back in the early 70s when paramedics were a new concept. Hopefully the game will help me build delegation skills ("You there, do something useful!" <click> <click>) Monty Burns meets the Wizard of Oz meets Dr. Brackett.

Not that I have a lot of free time for videogames, but between FEMA, ICS, and little poor little electronic Germans being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I should have my hands full for the next month or so. Thanks!

#27 ::: sjw ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2009, 08:16 AM:

David Goldfarb @7 - I initially didn't read the game rules correctly and thought you didn't win until you got all 4 eradications.

We did manage it with only 4 epidemic cards in the deck, playing a scientist and a medic. It was more common to run out of player cards in the deck before we could finish. Now that we figured out that you just need four cures, it is much easier to win.

#29 ::: Sebastian ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2009, 10:28 AM:

sjw @ 27 : I've played a handful of two-player sessions so far; one on "easy" (four epidemics) with scientist and medic, which went fairly smoothly. The next three games were set up with five epidemics and we used all the other characters at least once -- we lost every game to cascading outbreaks. I suspect scientist/medic is the easiest combination of players to work with, especially Scientist -- four cards of a colour is significantly easier to get and hold than five with a hand limit of seven. I also suspect Dispatcher is a much more valuable role if there's more people playing: the "move any player's pawn" and "move to any player's location" powers are ... limited ... with only one other player.

On the whole, though, I really like the game -- the gameplay works with the theme to produce a great sense of impending doom and the sense that the closest you'll get to victory is a temporary breather. (please, just one quiet night...)

#30 ::: caffeine ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2009, 11:01 AM:

Bob @26: The training I mentioned above was through that FEMA distance learning program. I'm not a fan of FEMA, but training is one area they really get right. The courses seem to have been developed during the last administration, so I'm betting that there's one very dedicated office within FEMA handling them.

#31 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2009, 10:38 PM:

Maybe someone can help me with this:

I said up above that all but one of the missions was introduced by a brief movie segment (sniper in town/bank robbery/hostage situation). Well, looking around on YouTube, I found that there is a movie segment that introduces it -- only it's not on my disk.

The question is, do I have a buggy disk, or is that one not included because of something in the ESRB guidelines that would have given the game a more restrictive rating than "Teen" if it had been included?

#32 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2009, 05:54 AM:

sjw@27: I've heard of others playing with that wrong assumption. I'd assume that makes it all but impossible to win without the Medic. Note that with the correct rules (enforced online), four eradications is much more difficult, because you have to arrange for the last disease to be eradicated on the same turn that it is cured.

Sebastian@29: In a multi-player game I would go so far as to say that the Dispatcher is the most powerful role.

#33 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2009, 12:39 PM:

There's another Pratchettism to the effect that every job, to the person who does it, is just a job. Cohen the Barbarian probably gets up in the morning and thinks 'Oh, no, not another day of crushing the jewelled thrones of the world beneath my sandalled feet'.
12 reminded me of a friend's plan to market "Guaranteed Realist WW2 Re-Enactment Weekends" - it would consist of sitting in the back of a lorry which drove aimlessly around the place for two days solid, and then a cup of tea.

#34 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2009, 08:25 PM:

ajay @ 33

Cohen the Barbarian probably gets up in the morning and thinks 'Oh, no, not another day of crushing the jewelled thrones of the world beneath my sandalled feet'.

So true, -sigh-. At least every once in awhile you get to subdue a mad wizard bent on either world domination or world destruction.

#35 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2009, 08:27 PM:

@#31: Was the game released in the US shortly after (or during) the Washington sniper incident? If it's just that one mission that doesn't have an intro video, deliberate censorship seems very likely, and that would provide a motive for it.

One commenter on the youtube link also states that they never get this scene, which makes an intentional removal seem even more likely. (Unless, of course, you are paranormalpunk379.)

#36 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 03:58 PM:

#33 - I heard that there's someone operating a WWII prisoner of war camp as a place for holidayers - predominantly WWII vets who did time behind the wire. I doubt that the conditions could be quite authentic, especially the food.

A.B. Chandler did a John Grimes novel around the notion of "people who live on the Rim would go to hell for a vacation", as I recall.

#37 ::: Ian ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 10:08 PM:

@13: The really hilarious thing is that Stardock actually has a game like the last one on that page (called Political Machine). I don't think it actually has 3rd parties in it, but you can, say, try to get Kucinich elected President in 2008.

It does sound like quite an interesting game, and probably sunk because revewiers would rather the game adapt to them (differing, I suppose, only in storyline, concept, and such things; all games in any given genre must have the same interface and gameplay, no?) than adapt themselves to the game, which hurts many otherwise fine, even excellent or superb games.

#38 ::: Mikael Vejdemo Johansson ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:00 PM:

Re on making it work on Mac's. After a few frustrating tussles with their tech support, I ended up installing Windows XP under Boot Camp, and lo! it works and it works well!

Enjoying the game well now: Thanks! for the recommendation.

#39 ::: Cadbury Moose sights comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2009, 06:11 AM:

Sigh.... I think it's spam anyway: the poster name links to a game rather that a blog,
and this thread is sufficiently moribund to make it unlikely that the post is legitimate.

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