Mass Effect (video game)
|Publisher(s)||Microsoft Game Studios, Electronic Arts|
|Engine||Unreal Engine 3|
Mass Effect is an action role-playing video game developed by BioWare and originally released for the Xbox 360 video game console in 2007. It is the first game of the Mass Effect series, taking place within the Milky Way galaxy in the year 2183. The player assumes the role of Commander Shepard, an elite human soldier who must stop a rogue agent from opening a portal for a highly advanced machine race of synthetic-organic starships that are believed to eradicate all organic civilization every 50,000 years.
Planned as the first chapter of a trilogy from the very beginning, Mass Effect was developed over the course of three and a half years and uses the Unreal Engine 3 as a groundwork. The game was met with positive reviews from general publications. Combat and visuals received generally positive responses, but much acclaim was given to the interactive storytelling. Mass Effect was ported to the Microsoft Windows and PlayStation 3 platforms in 2008 and 2012, respectively. A sequel, Mass Effect 2, was released in 2010.
Mass Effect is a single-player action role-playing game in which the player takes the role of Commander Shepard through a third-person perspective. Shepard's gender, appearance, military background, combat-training and first name are determined by the player before the game begins. There are six different character classes for the player to choose from and each of them has different talents that provide enhanced combat capabilities. For example, the Soldier class is trained in weapon damage and has improved health, while the Sentinel class is trained in protecting and healing allies. At one point in the game, players have the option to evolve their base class talent into one of two specializations, which depend on the class the player chose. Although any class can use any weapon type, each class is only effective on the weapons they are trained in.
The game's overworld is a galaxy map that the player can explore to find and complete quests. Most of the game's main quests are combat missions, while secondary quests generally involve the player gathering items or interacting with non-player characters. As the player progresses throughout the game, six squad members become available, each with their own talents that can be developed. Experience points are gained in multiple ways, such as completing quests, defeating enemies, or finding and collecting items around the environment. Each time a sufficient amount of experience is obtained, the player "levels up" and is awarded a number of Talent Points that can be used to develop talents for both Shepard and the members of the squad. Each talent has 12 ranks that can be unlocked, with each rank costing one Talent Point.
The player's primary mode of transportation is a starship which serves as Shepard's base of operations. Aboard the ship, the player can interact with the squad members, buy new equipment, and travel to numerous planetary systems. Although the game features a large number of planets for the player to examine, only a few of then can actually be landed on and explored. Some of them can also be surveyed to search for valuable resources and quest-relevant items. Upon landing on a planet, the player can traverse on-foot or by using an all-terrain infantry fighting vehicle called the M35 Mako. Most of the game's main quests are geared toward on-foot combat, but some segments may feature combat requiring the use of the M35 Mako. In contrast, secondary quests usually require the player to explore free-roam uncharted worlds with the vehicle. Equipment items, which include armor, weapon, and ammunition upgrades, can be found around the environment or purchased from merchants in settlements.
Combat in Mass Effect is squad-based and two squad members accompany the player on the battlefield. The player has direct control of Shepard while the squad members are controlled by the game's artificial intelligence. Battles take place in real-time, but the player can pause the action at any time to calmly target enemies and select different talent abilities for the squad members to use. The game uses an over the shoulder perspective akin to a third-person shooter, and features a cover system which allows players to strategically hide behind objects while fighting enemy forces. The player may also issue orders to the squad members, such as sending them to take cover behind an object, scout ahead, regroup, or focus their fire on a designed target.
Weapons range from pistols to shotguns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles. Although all of them have unlimited ammunition, they overheat if fired continuously for prolonged periods. In addition, the player can use grenades which can latch onto targets or flat surfaces to be remotely detonated. Shepard and the squad members are protected by a health bar and damage-absorbing shields. The health bar only takes damage once the shields have been destroyed, but environmental hazards like heat or toxic agents may directly affect the health bar if they are not negated entirely by wearing appropriate armor. The health bar can be restored with the use of items called Medi-gels, while shields automatically regenerate when not taking fire for a brief period. Some talents and equipment items can improve the healing rate or shield regeneration. The player can revive fallen squad members with the use of the Unity talent. However, if Shepard dies, the player must start the game again from the last saved point.
Dialogue and morality
During conversations with characters, Mass Effect employs a radial command menu, called Dialogue Wheel, where the player's dialogue options depend on wheel direction. The left side of the wheel is normally reserved for options that will continue the conversation in depth, while options on the right side tend to move the conversation towards completion. Responses at the top are generally more polite and selfless, while those at the bottom are more aggressive and hostile. Dialogue choices impact how others react to Shepard and affect the player's chosen morality. Morality is measured by Paragon (charm) and Renegade (intimidate) points. These points allow the player to develop talents that affect the availability of new special Paragon and Renegade dialogue options with significant impact in the game.
Setting and characters
Mass Effect is set within the Milky Way galaxy in the year 2183 where interstellar travel is possible through the use of mass transit devices called Mass Relays, a technology believed to have been built by an extinct alien race known as the Protheans. The term "Mass Effect" is defined as a form of mass-negating technology, allowing the creation of physics phenomenons like artificial gravity or FTL travel. A conglomerate body of governments known as the Citadel Council controls a large percentage of the galaxy and is responsible for maintaining law and order among races of the galactic community. Races that belong to the Citadel Council include humans, asari, salarians, and turians. Other alien races seen in the game include the reptilian krogan, the environmental suited quarians, and a hostile race of networked artificial intelligences called geth. Humanity is represented by the Systems Alliance, an organized body that joined the Citadel Council in 2157.
The protagonist of the game is Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer or Jennifer Hale), a graduate of the Systems Alliance special forces program and a candidate to become the first human member of the Spectre force, agents who are above the law and answer directly to the Council. Shepard's squad members include human Systems Alliance marine Kaidan Alenko (Raphael Sbarge), human Systems Alliance soldier Ashley Williams (Kimberly Brooks), turian Citadel Security officer Garrus Vakarian (Brandon Keener), krogan mercenary Urdnot Wrex (Steven Barr), quarian mechanic Tali'Zorah (Liz Sroka), and asari archaeologist Liara T'Soni (Ali Hillis). Other characters include SSV Normandy captain David Anderson (Keith David) and SSV Normandy's pilot Jeff "Joker" Moreau (Seth Green).
Mass Effect begins when Shepard is sent to the human colony of Eden Prime to recover an unearthed Prothean beacon. After landing on the planet, Shepard and Kaidan meet Ashley, who reveals that the colony is under attack by a geth army. The army is led by a rogue turian Spectre named Saren Arterius, who activates the beacon before escaping. Shepard ultimately locates the beacon and receives a vision showing scenes of war and death. The SSV Normandy and its crew are summoned by Ambassador Donnel Udina to the Citadel Station, but Shepard is unable to convince the Citadel Council of Saren's treason without solid evidence. With the help of Garrus and Wrex, Shepard is led to Tali'Zorah, who possesses a recording of a conversation between Saren and an asari Matriarch named Benezia. In the recording, the two discuss their victory while also mentioning an artifact called the "Conduit" and the return of the Reapers, a highly advanced machine race of synthetic-organic starships believed to eradicate all organic civilization every 50,000 years. Confronted with this evidence, the Council revokes Saren's Spectre status and makes Shepard the first human Spectre. Anderson relinquishes command of the SSV Normandy to Shepard, who uses it to follow several leads provided by Anderson and Udina.
On the world of Therum, Shepard rescues Benezia's daughter Liara T'Soni, who joins Shepard's squad because of her biotic abilities and expertise in the Protheans. On the colony of Feros, Shepard fights off Saren's forces and learns that Saren's flagship, Sovereign, possesses unique mind-control capabilities. On the world of Noveria, Shepard tracks down Benezia and defeats her, revealing that she and Saren are being controlled by Sovereign. After completing these missions, the Council informs Shepard that a salarian infiltration unit has uncovered Saren's main base on Virmire. Upon arrival, Shepard learns that Saren has discovered a cure for the krogan disease known as the genophage and plans to breed an army of unstoppable krogan warriors. When Wrex finds out about the cure, he clashes with Shepard over whether to destroy it, and Shepard must either kill Wrex, have Ashley kill him, or convince him to stand down. After this conflict, Shepard assists the salarians in destroying the base by planting a bomb in it. Inside the base, Shepard is confronted by Sovereign, who reveals itself to be an actual Reaper.
Sovereign reveals that the Reapers remain outside the Milky Way waiting for organic life to develop and discover the Mass Relays, before being harvested upon reaching their peak. Shepard also finds Saren, who claims that his allegiance to Sovereign will save organic life forms by demonstrating their usefulness to the Reapers, but ultimately escapes. Shepard then receives news that both Ashley and Kaidan have become pinned down and has only enough time to save one of them before the bomb explodes. Back on the SSV Normandy, Liara is able to pinpoint the Conduit's location on a Prothean world known as Ilos. There, Shepards learns that the Citadel Station is actually a huge Mass Relay that the Reapers use to invade the galaxy. During the last extinction cycle, a few Protheans survived on Ilos via cryopreservation and then re-entered the Citadel Station via the Conduit, a reverse-engineered miniature mass relay disguised aboard the station as a statue. The scientists managed to sabotage the process that would summon the Reapers in order to prevent future extinction cycles from succeeding. Saren plans to undo this sabotage, and needs the Conduit to get him inside the Citadel.
Shepard pursues Saren through the Conduit, arriving at the Citadel as it is under attack by Sovereign and a massive geth force. After confronting Saren, Shepard can fight or convince him to rebel, and, if convinced, Saren will thank Shepard before committing suicide. Joker then informs Shepard of a human Systems Alliance fleet massing to counterattack. Shepard can order the Alliance fleet to save the Council and risk heavy casualties or go directly after Sovereign while risking the death of the Council. Saren's corpse is then reanimated by Sovereign, who attacks Shepard while simultaneously fighting off the Alliance. Eventually, humanity prevails, and Saren's corpse is destroyed while Sovereign is dispatched by the SSV Normandy. If Shepard chose to save the Council, the Council will thank humanity and add a human member to their ranks. The other choice will result in the death of the Council, letting humanity take over. Regardless of outcome, Shepard is asked to nominate either Anderson or Udina to this new leadership position. Shepard does so, then turns away from the proceedings, vowing to end the Reaper threat.
Mass Effect was developed by BioWare and directed by Casey Hudson, who previously directed BioWare's 2003 title Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Preproduction of the game began in early 2004, shortly after the Microsoft Windows version of Knights of the Old Republic was released. As the development team was already experienced with the Xbox console, they decided to develop the game originally for the Xbox successor, the Xbox 360, due to its improved processing power and development tools. Mass Effect uses the Unreal Engine 3 as a groundwork, but on top of that the team developed additional components for advanced digital actors, space exploration, and squad combat, resulting in BioWare's largest programming project at the time. During the game's three- to four-year development cycle, Hudson remarked that most of the time had been devoted to the development of these technologies.
As BioWare wanted to create a big and memorable story, Mass Effect was evisioned as the first chapter of a trilogy from the very beginning, and having a big technological basis would help shorten the development cycle of its future sequels. Instead of designing a role-playing game where the player would control a blank protagonist, the developers wanted players to assume the role of a central character that would have to make important decisions. According to Hudson, "This approach allows us to create that kind of truly unprecedented level of intensity and cinematic power, while giving the player as much customization and role-playing ability as we've ever offered before." Choices and consequences were a high priority, as developers did not want players to follow a pre-determined path. Since the game would feature a wide range of dialogue options when the player interacts with in-game characters, the team created the dialogue wheel to help players know which responses belong to which emotions. The use of digital actors allowed developers to create conversations where characters would converse by using facial expressions and body movement.
Hudson explained that they wanted to evolve the pseudo-turn-based combat of Knights of the Old Republic into a real-time third-person shooter interface. The combat was meant to offer the tactics and customization of a role-playing game, but through a simpler and more intuitive user interface. It was also designed so that players would not need to press many buttons to pull off the squad's different attack combinations. The team worked closely with Microsoft on several elements of the interface to make sure the combat was tactical enough, and went through a lot of trial and error to balance the combat between role-playing game and shooter. Creating a big sense of discovery was a major goal. Developers wanted the game to feature an actual galaxy that could be explored beyound the core story locations. Although a very large team manually built several parts of the galaxy, the tools and technologies they developed helped them extend the playable space significantly.
Drew Karpyshyn, who previously served as a senior writer for Knights of the Old Republic, was the lead writer for Mass Effect. Although each of the game's planets had one primary writer, all of the writers involved in the production had to review each other's work and offer criticism. This process of collaborative feedback and individual effort is common at BioWare, and Karpyshyn had to make sure the style was consistent across all different areas. One of the biggest challenges the writers faced was the amount of volume they had to write to support the game's multiple dialogue paths and story outcomes. It took them three years to get everything into the game, which features about 400,000 words and more than 20,000 lines of spoken dialogue. According to Karpyshyn, this is roughly the equivalent of 20 movies or 4-5 full novels.
Films such as Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Starship Troopers were major influences on the atmosphere and artistic qualities of the game. The team chose Jack Wall, who also penned the music for BioWare's 2005 title Jade Empire, as the main composer of Mass Effect due to his ability to produce a wide range of musical styles. Hudson had a clear idea of what kind of music he wanted in the game, but gave Wall certain artistic freedom to express himself. According to Wall, the main vision was to "marry the electronic instrument palatte of the late 70's/early 80's with more organic elements." Wall had never written this style of music before, but composer Sam Hulick helped him develop the electronic sound on a classic orchestral foundation. By the end of the project, composers Richard Jacques and David Kates joined Wall and Hulick to finish the score on time. Although a total of 110 minutes of music was written for the game, all in-game and cinematic music was crafted as multiple stems to maximize their use and variety. The game went gold on October 22, 2007.
Marketing and release
Mass Effect was officially announced at the X05 trade show in Amsterdam on October 4, 2005 as an Xbox 360 exclusive. In May 2006, a demo of the game was presented at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). IGN editors awarded the game for Best Graphics Technology and Most Innovative Design at their Best of E3 2006 Awards. They also listed it as one of the most anticipated games of 2007. New features of the game were detailed at the X06 trade show in Barcelona in September 2006, while the first hour of gameplay was shown at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March 2007. Mass Effect was then presented at E3 in July 2007, where it received Game Critics Awards for Best Console Game and Best Role Playing Game, and at the Games Convention in Leipzig, Germany in August 2007. The game's release date was announced on August 30, 2007. If the game was pre-ordered at certain retailers in Australia, players could receive a complimentary bonus disc which included a five-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, tracks from the game's soundtrack, and a number of trailers.
Mass Effect was released for the Xbox 360 on November 20, 2007 in North America. However, the street date was broken in Australia on November 16, 2007 by EB Games, which received copies of the game early and took it as a sign to begin distributing. The game was released in both Standard and Limited Collector's Edition format. The Limited Collector's Edition included a bonus disc of exclusive Mass Effect background material, a soundtrack, and design galleries featuring more than 600 pieces of artwork with full audio commentaries. A soundtrack album titled Mass Effect Original Soundtrack, which features 37 tracks of the game and covers a duration of 1:15:59, was released in conjunction with the game. The album includes the song "M4 (Part II)" by Canadian electronic rock band Faunts, which is featured in the game during the end credits. In less than three weeks, Mass Effect sold more than one million copies worldwide according to Microsoft vice president Jeff Bell.
A Microsoft Windows version of the game, ported by Demiurge Studios, was released on May 28, 2008. This version features optimized controls designed specifically for personal computers, high resolution graphics, a new user interface, and other minor changes. BioWare initially intended to use SecuROM, a digital rights management software which would require online activation after installation and additional authentication checks every ten days. However, the company ultimately decided not to use it after listening to criticism from fans. In 2012, five years after the release of the original Xbox 360 version, Mass Effect was ported to Sony's PlayStation 3 console by Edge of Reality, featuring some lighting and visual effects improvements. It was released digitally on the PlayStation Network and as part of the Mass Effect Trilogy compilation.
Mass Effect features two downloadable content packs. The first pack, "Bring Down the Sky", was released as a paid download for the Xbox 360 on March 10, 2008 and as a free download for Microsoft Windows on May 28, 2008. The pack is included in the PlayStation 3 version of the game, which was released on December 4, 2012. "Bring Down the Sky" introduces a new mission where the player must explore an asteroid using the Mako and prevent it from striking an Earth-like planet. It also includes a new alien race and additional side-quest content. According to BioWare, the adventure takes 90 minutes to complete. Ryan Geddes of IGN highlighted the pack's included extras and "stunning" visuals, while Dan Whitehead of Eurogamer criticized its lack of narrative weight and reuse of outpost maps that are also available in the base game.
The second pack, "Pinnacle Station", was released as a paid download for the Xbox 360 and as a free download for Microsoft Windows on August 25, 2009. However, it remains absent on the PlayStation 3 version of the game. The pack introduces a training facility where the player can compete in eight virtual reality combat scenarios, divided up into four different game types like Deathmatch and Capture the flag. After beating the combat scenarios, the player needs to complete four more to unlock a special survival mode, which is the same as the previous survival challenges but requires players to last five minutes. BioWare described "Pinnacle Station" as "a Fight Club-style arena" and originally intended to include a similar arena in the base game, but the idea was ultimately dropped because they were not able to do it well enough. The pack received mediocre reviews from critics, who called it uninspiring and unnecessary.
Xbox 360 reviews
Acclaimed by critics, Game Informer awarded Mass Effect a 9.75 out of 10, declaring it "the next big franchise for science fiction junkies to latch onto... a huge step forward for video games", and that it "rings in a new age of interactive storytelling". The key negative points of the review were the balancing issues and problematic AI of the combat system. Official Xbox Magazine gave Mass Effect the sixth '10' in the magazine's history, raving, "Mass Effect is a great science-fiction novel in video game form. Meaning, it mixes the highest caliber of pure story with the decision making and raw action of the best games." The OXM reviewer also praised it saying "It's the best game I've ever played" and remarked that it had "The best story ever told in a videogame. Period." Electronic Gaming Monthly awarded Mass Effect a Gold Award with scores of 9, 9.5, and 9, also citing that the negative points of the review were balance issues with the character classes, as well as a steep learning curve with the Mako IFV. GameSpy and X-Play both gave it a 5 out of 5 and a special episode "Mass Effect takes interactive entertainment to breathtaking new heights and is wholeheartedly recommended. This is one of the best games of the year, and will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest games ever made." Shacknews praised, "While the core gameplay is nothing new — sometimes disappointingly so — Mass Effect represents a generational jump in storytelling artistry." Slashdot's review also praised the storytelling, saying "[The] storyline Mass Effect will have you laughing, furious, and deeply saddened — in some cases all about the same character." GameTrailers gave Mass Effect a 9.6 out of 10, one of its highest reviews ever. GameSpot reviewed the X360 version as "a great game with moments of brilliance and a number of small but significant obstacles that hold it back from reaching its true potential." It subsequently reviewed the PC version and gave it a higher score calling it "best choice for experiencing this excellent game".
IGN awarded the game a 9.4 of 10, and while saying it was "a new high mark for storytelling in games", it also pointed out a common criticism in most of the reviews for the game, that while "the RPG elements are outstanding", the "glitches, poor AI, and weak squad mechanics weigh the game down". Eurogamer stated in its review, "Mass Effect is most definitely a great game with an awful lot going for it — but one that does not quite deserve unquestioning praise." Edge commented that the game's RPG statistics did not blend well with its action elements, and concluded that the space opera setting failed to provide "the myth and exotica to adequately follow Star Wars". The game's cast of characters and overall tone were also criticised: "Few [in-game characters] are actually worth the effort of conversation. 'Tell me more', says your character. 'Please don't', says the voice inside your head. Where are the vaudeville rogues in this galaxy? Where are the entertainers? ... The game strives so hard to be taken seriously that it winds up feeling relentlessly dour." Naming Mass Effect "the best RPG of 2007", GamePro praised the game's story, depth and presentation, while criticizing the lengthy elevator ride sequences. In October 2008, IGN declared Mass Effect the Best Xbox 360 game.
According to updated figures from Microsoft, in the six weeks after the game was released, it had sold 1.6 million copies.
Early reviews of the Windows version by Ars Technica and PC Zone have hailed it as the "definitive" Mass Effect, and an outstanding port to the Windows platform. The game entered the US Windows game charts at number 2, beaten by Age of Conan at number 1. The first mainstream print magazine review of Mass Effect for Windows was from PC Zone, scoring 92%. PC Gamer US gave the game a 91%, despite stating that "inventory management is a nightmare".
Mass Effect's showing at E3 2006 was well received and resulted in the game winning several awards during the expo, including the Game Critics Awards' Best Role-Playing Game. One of the most recent and arguably more significant awards the game has been awarded the #1 spot on IGN's list of "The Top 25 Xbox 360 games".
Following its release, Mass Effect received numerous awards. During the Spike TV Awards, the game won "Best RPG". GameTrailers awarded the game "Best RPG" and "Best New Game Franchise". During its Reader's Choice Awards, TeamXbox gave the game awards for "Best RPG" and "Best Story", as well as its "Game of the Year" award. GameSpot gave the game "Best Voice Acting" and "Best Original Music". IGN awarded the game "Best RPG", "Best Original Score", and "Best Story". The New York Times recognized Mass Effect as its "Game of the Year". A complete list of awards can be found at the game's official website.
Mass Effect has an optional romantic subplot. Shepard can develop a relationship with a human party member (Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams), or with a blue-skinned alien (Liara T'Soni). The couple can become more intimate near the end of the game; a cutscene then shows a series of fast cuts suggesting a sexual encounter has occurred, although no sex acts or depictions of nudity are shown at all. An article in The New York Times compared the contents to U.S. evening network television.
The scene first came under fire in neoconservative blogger Kevin McCullough's article, "The 'Sex-Box' Race for President". McCullough employed strong, false statements such as "Mass Effect can be customized to sodomise whatever, whomever, however, the game player wishes," and "with its 'over the net' capabilities virtual orgasmic rape is just the push of a button away."
McCullough's article was met with outrage from the gaming community. McCullough issued an apology by saying, "I DO apologize to the gaming universe!" He went on to say, "I still do concur with my original position that the objectionable content in Mass Effect is still offensive." Long-time anti-obscenity campaigner Jack Thompson said about the controversy: "The guy who shot his mouth off about it had no idea what the Hell he was talking about. This contrived controversy is absolutely ridiculous."
On January 21, 2008, a Fox News segment "The Live Desk With Martha MacCallum" discussed Mass Effect with the heading "'SE'XBOX?' New video game shows full digital nudity and sex." MacCallum stated that the game "leaves nothing to the imagination" and features "the ability for players to engage in full graphic sex" where the player gets to decide what happens, cited critics as saying that the Mature-rated game is marketed to children and teenagers, and read a rebuttal from publisher Microsoft stating that the company abides by rating systems and provides monitoring tools for parents. Self-proclaimed psychology specialist and author Cooper Lawrence and video game journalist Geoff Keighley were interviewed. Lawrence described sexual content in video games as teaching their active users, adolescent boys, to consider women as objects of desire valued solely for their sexuality. She added that the game's player character is a man who decides how many women he wants to be with. Keighley focused on challenging the accuracy of previous statements, saying it is a choice to play the protagonist as a male or a female. He also described Mass Effect as having an optional, brief sexual situation as the culmination of a romantic relationship in a 30+ hour game, and argued against the extremely false accusations of graphic, full-frontal nudity within the game. MacCallum and Lawrence admitted that they had not actually played the game.
Electronic Arts, BioWare's parent company, requested a correction of "serious errors" from Fox News in an open letter. Fox News responded that EA had been offered a chance to appear on the channel.
On January 25, Lawrence, who had since watched someone play the game for about two-and-a-half hours, retracted her earlier statements in an interview. She added that she had been told the game was similar to pornography, and noted that she "has seen episodes of Lost that are more sexually explicit". In the interim, largely as a reaction from an offended gaming community, her latest book attracted hundreds of customer reviews on Amazon.com which rated it one star out of five. Many of these reviews satirically noted that they had not read her book, but heard from someone else that the book was bad, and thus voted low. In an editorial, G4's Adam Sessler referred to the interview as a "litany of falsehoods" and parodied Lawrence's statements. The controversy came to be known for the fact that the most explicit content actually shown was the side profile of a breast and led to the popularization of the internet meme "alien sideboob".
Mass Effect was banned in Singapore for a short time before it was lifted with an M18 rating. Censors in the country said that a scene with an alien and human female caressing was the main reason why the game was not allowed to be sold in Singaporean video game stores.
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