Grand Theft Auto Franchise Review – A Story of Controversy

I personally love the GTA series. After all, the format of the ‘Crime Sandbox’ was started by GTA and could arguably have been the influence for such series as ‘Saints Row’ and ‘Mafia’ and the ‘True Crime’ games.

The series is also one of the largest franchises with 225 Million units sold and formerly held the record for the largest video game launch until ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’.

Today, I want to have a look at this controversial franchise and go into the games leading up to ‘GTA V’ and the troubles it’s had along the way.

NOTE: This will be limited to games in the main canon and also games that I’ve actually played… because I haven’t played them all.

We’ll start at the beginning.

‘Grand Theft Auto’ was released in 1997 and developed by British games developer, DMA Design and published by BMG Interactive. I’ve played a little bit of the original ‘GTA’ but I was too young to understand what was happening since the format for the first two games are in ‘top down, bird’s eye’ vision and the controls are a bit wonky so it’s both difficult to control and to see what you’re doing.

This game is different from its successors in that instead of focusing on one character and having a main story, the game lets the player choose from 8 different characters and the game takes place in six different levels over 3 cities; Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas.

Freedom is very much the word that can be attached to the first GTA game. Missions are started by going to a telephone box and retrieving the task. When the player completes the task, they are awarded points and when they hit their target, the next stage is opened. Of course, the missions get harder and the target gets higher as the game goes on. However, when the player is outside of missions, they’re free to do whatever they want but these actions come with consequences. The player can earn points by driving around and running people over or they can get out of the car and shoot people but these actions will earn the ire of the police and it should be noted that video games were a lot less forgiving in those days. The first ‘GTA’ had a lives system and if the player gets killed which is very easy since one shot can kill a player character, then they lose a life and if all the lives are gone, the player must start the level from the beginning.

The first game in the series was massively controversial given its extreme levels of violence and so was rated accordingly. In America, the game was given a ‘Mature’ rating meaning 17 years + but it was rated ‘18’ absolutely everywhere else. In Britain, France and Germany, the game was condemned for its violence and Brazil took no chances and banned it altogether.

This, I feel, was the first mistake. Once the media gets hold of something, whether it’s good or bad, they are immediately giving it a platform. Like it or not, controversy sells. But we’ll get into this a little bit more later.

For now, let’s go to the second game which was aptly named ‘Grand Theft Auto 2’, released in 1999 and once again developed by DMA design and published by Rockstar Games.

Even though the sequel sticks with the aforementioned ‘top down, birds eye’ vision, there are still some big changes. For a start, the games focuses on one central protagonist, Claude Speed, who would become a staple in future games.

Another addition was ‘side missions’ which allowed the player to drive taxis and buses and collecting cars which would also feature in future games. An improved saving system made it easier for players to save their progress and the NPCs were given more to do.

Apart from a few extra modes and a couple of graphical and lighting upgrades, I think it’s fair to say that ‘GTA 2’ was a just a more improved version of ‘GTA’.

At the time, for a relatively small studio, sales were going well, and things were looking up. ‘Grand Theft Auto’ sold 3 Million units and its successor (GTA 2) sold 2 Million units. Things looked good but behind the scenes something else was happening prior to the launch of ‘GTA 2’ and the future held a bigger shift which would become a literal gamechanger.

In March 1998, BMG Interactive, who published the first GTA game, were bought by Take-Two Interactive for 1.85 Million company shares and some staff were taken across to a subsidiary of Take-Two, Rockstar Games. Due to the changes, DMA Design lost a lot of employees and a number of projects were scrapped. However, in September of 1999, one month before the release of GTA 2, Take Two announced that they’d bought DMA Design from Infrogames for $11 Million.

For now, DMA Design continued to produce GTA games with two projects in the pipeline. Moving with the times and developing for a whole new console generation, DMA Design were to produce ‘GTA 3D’ and another title, ‘Grand Theft Auto Online: Crime World’. ‘Crime World’ was cancelled but DMA Design’s biggest title to date was renamed ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ and released in October 2001 for the PlayStation 2.

Right from the start, immediate changes. If they’d stuck with the original title, the biggest change would have made a lot more sense, the game has gone full 3D.

Developed using the ‘Criterion Games’ Renderware game engine, ‘GTA III’ became the standard for future crime sandbox games including the games in its own franchise with its full 3D graphics, sprawling environments, open-ended freedom, the quirky characters, absurd missions and inexplicable difficulty. On top of that, the game also had a story.

Claude Speed, protagonist of ‘GTA 2’, returns as a silent protagonist and starts the game by taking part in a bank heist where he is betrayed and shot by his girlfriend, Catalina. She escapes and Claude is arrested but while he is being transported with fellow prisoner, 8-Ball, the prison van is attacked by a group of Columbian men who free a third prisoner. Claude and 8-Ball escape and Claude must gain the trust of the factions in Liberty City in order to find Catalina and enact his revenge.

One other element of ‘GTA III’ which became a running theme in future games was the use of big-name actors. Some of the familiar faces who provide the voices of the characters are Michael Madsen as Toni Cipriani, the late Frank Vincent as Don Salvatore Leone, Robert Loggia as corrupt Police Detective, Ray Machowski and Kyle MacLachlan as Media Mogul, Donald Love.

‘GTA III’ was the first game to establish the ‘wanted level’ and the player would no longer receive points for committing violent acts. Also, unlike previous games where missions were not essential to complete the game, main missions were necessary to advance the story and ultimately complete the game. Side missions were carried over from ‘GTA 2’ but were given different rewards upon completion.

Another inclusion which stayed with the franchise was that of ‘in-game radio’ which featured three and a half hours of material. The development team hired real DJ’s and gave them unusual dialogue to say in between songs.

Originally slated for an early October release, the date was pushed back 3 weeks in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s well known that Liberty City is meant to bear resemblance to New York City and the release was almost cancelled altogether as Rockstar felt it insensitive to release a video game in which numerous and varied violent acts were committed in a virtual representation of New York City during a terrifying, devastating and sensitive time for New York and indeed, the United States.

Despite their initial trepidation, on 22nd October, 2001, ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ was released but with some changes. The colour scheme of the police cars were changed from blue and white which was traditional for the NYPD in the early 2000’s to black and white which is more in common with other police departments across the US. Entire skyscrapers were removed to avoid any resemblance to the Twin Towers, one mission that referenced terrorism was removed along with some pedestrian and in-game radio dialogue. The ‘Airtrain’ at Francis International Airport was made ‘un-solid’ which prevented players from firing rockets at it and the flight path of airplanes through the city were also changed. The cover art was also changed although the original artwork was used for the European release.

‘Grand Theft Auto III’ was a massively successful release for the studio, selling 14.5 Million copies as of March 2008 and was the #1 selling game in the US at the time.

Audiences wouldn’t have to wait long for another instalment. One year and seven days later, after a total of nine months of development, another GTA game was released but in that one year and seven days, things happened.

In March 2002, DMA Design was renamed to Rockstar Studios having been integrated with their long-term publisher, Rockstar Games which in May 2002, was also renamed to Rockstar North whose first release under their new title was ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’.

If I were ranking these games in terms of personal preference and favourability, ‘GTA: Vice City’ would be my second favourite. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I love the 80’s and since ‘Vice City’ is set in the 80’s and the city is representative of Miami and features all the wonderful aspects of that decade, this game is definitely my kind of thing.

Just like ‘GTA III’, its sequel has a massively ‘mafia’ vibe. The story goes thus…

Tommy Vercetti is released from prison after serving a fifteen year sentence for a lot of murders he committed for the crime family that he is employed by, the Forelli’s. Sent by his boss, Sonny, Tommy heads to Vice City to buy some drugs (as you do) but the deal goes south when several masked men arrive and kill Tommy’s bodyguards. Tommy escapes with his crooked lawyer, Ken Rosenberg but Sonny’s money and the drugs are gone. Stranded in Vice City, Tommy promises to find the people responsible and make them pay. Along the way, Tommy meets some quirky characters, makes some new friends and gets betrayed about half a dozen times before the credits roll.

If you thought there were some big name actors in ‘GTA III’, well listen to these names. Ray Liotta voices Tommy Vercetti; Luis Guzman is drug kingpin, Ricardo Diaz, Tom Sizemore as Sonny Forelli, the late and missed Burt Reynolds as Avery Carrington, Dennis Hopper as Steve Scott, Danny Trejo as Umberto Robina and Gary Busey as Phil Cassidy.

For my UK readers, there’s someone else who I feel compelled to mention. Voicing Kent Paul is the amazing, Danny Dyer. That name probably doesn’t mean a lot to my American readers but trust me, over here, that man is absolute gold.

Anyway, what about the changes in gameplay? Answer… not a whole lot. You can ride bikes, fly helicopters, purchase properties, a larger array of weapons and because it’s the 80’s and Miami, it just looks better. Also, I think someone on the development team may have been a fan of ‘Miami Vice’.

Overall, ‘Vice City’ feels like a massive improvement from ‘GTA III’ although both games have their perks and their absurd difficulty.

In the first 24 hours of its release, ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’ sold half a million copies and within two days, a further 1.1 Million copies had sold which made this instalment that fastest selling game in history at the time. As of March 2008, ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’ sold 17.5 Million copies as well as earning numerous accolades as with its predecessor.

However, along with the success, came the controversies and this is where things get serious because… people died.

In the case of ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’; Rockstar Games, Take-Two Interactive and Sony Computer Entertainment faced two separate $600 Million lawsuits over 3 years, both alleging that the game was responsible for one young man killing 3 police officers in Alabama in 2003 and another young man killing 3 members of his family in New Mexico in 2004 after both men had been ‘obsessively’ playing ‘Vice City’.

These cases opened up the question of whether or not violent video games can lead to real-world acts of violence. It’s an age-old question that became headline news after the Columbine Massacre in 1999 that saw violent films, music and video games come under harsh scrutiny in the press.

The debate could go on forever.

However…

In doing research for this particular section of the article, I’ve found a recent study (Feb 2019) from the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford which showed that there is no link between violent games and aggressive behaviour. Here is the link.

Moving on.

Two years went by without much word. And then… on the 26th October, 2004, ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ was released and fans rejoiced.

Once again, if I were ranking these games, ‘GTA: San Andreas’ would be my all time favourite in terms of gameplay, sandbox, story and characters. Speaking of story and characters.

‘GTA: San Andreas’ is set in 1992 and the plot centres around Carl Johnson or ‘CJ’ as he returns home to Los Santos for this mothers funeral. When he arrives, he reacquaints himself with the Grove Street gang that he grew up with. CJ learns that in his absence, Grove Street has lost much of its territory to other rival gangs, the Ballas and the Vatos. CJ’s brother, Sweet is barely holding things together and with friends, Big Smoke and Ryder, the gang is just about holding their own. Seeing how things have deteriorated while he was away, CJ promises to stay and reunite the Grove Street Families, restore the gang to its former glory and find out who ordered the drive-by shooting that killed his mother.

Along the way, CJ is accosted by corrupt cops, betrayals and other influences that force him and his family to cross all of San Andreas before returning home, back where it all started for the final showdown.

Released on the PlayStation 2, ‘San Andreas’ really pushed the limitations of the hardware. At the time, it was the largest game that Rockstar had created. The sandbox map alone was around 36 square kilometres which is almost four times larger than Vice City. The map holds 3 major cities; Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas. The player will visit all of these including rural areas that connect the cities.

On top, more gameplay features were added to enhance the sandbox nature of freedom. The game took on certain ‘role-playing’ elements where CJ is given ‘stats’ such as ‘muscle’ which can be increased by going to the gym. Some story missions cannot be completed unless specific skills are at a certain level for example, there is a mission for Woozie that can only be started if CJ has a high lung capacity. That’s another thing that was added, swimming. In previous games, if the player fell into water, the character would drown but no longer. Not only does falling into water not kill CJ but swimming also increases his stamina and lung capacity.

I want to go back to the element that I like so much and that lies in the story. Previous ‘GTA’ games saw a protagonist that was a criminal and a drug dealer doing all the horrible things that they do for the sake of power which is fine in context. CJ still does all these things, but his reasoning is not just power but also lies with his family. He’s insanely protective of his family and that’s a strong, driving motivation that players can identify with. Sweet is severely injured in an ambush by the Ballas and then arrested whilst CJ is captured by Officer Tenpenny and dumped in the middle of nowhere. CJ takes missions from his enemy just to make sure that his brother is safe and in one mission, CJ destroys a construction site and buries the manager alive because the workers shouted obscenities at his sister, Kendl.

If you thought there were some big-name actors in ‘GTA III’ and ‘Vice City’, wait until you see THESE names.

Samuel L. Jackson as Officer Tenpenny; James Woods as Mike Toreno, Ice-T as Madd Dogg, Clifton Collins Jr as Cesar, Faizon Love as Sweet, The Late Peter Fonda as The Truth, David Cross as Zero, Axl Rose as the KDST DJ and returning to the series is Frank Vincent as Salvatore Leone, Cynthia Farrell as Catalina, William Fitchner as Ken Rosenberg and Danny Dyer also returns as Kent Paul along with his friend, Maccer voiced by Shawn Ryder.

Making a debut is Chris Bellard who goes by his stage name, Young Maylay providing the voice of CJ and I have to say that although he’s not a professional voice actor, he did a brilliant job. Another young man by the name of Shawn Fonteno also made an appearance as one of many voices of the Grove Street Gang but in another nine years, he will play a much bigger role.

‘GTA: San Andreas’ was a huge game however, a little something extra was hidden in the code of the PC version and was discovered by a modder and placed on the internet. ‘The Hot Coffee Mod’ so named because it showed what was otherwise left implied after CJ was invited inside for ‘coffee’ by his girlfriend was changed to a little minigame wherein the player controls CJ whilst he has sex with a lady with the ultimate goal being to… well you know.

Initially, Rockstar denied having any involvement in the creation of the mod until it was revealed that it was possible to access the mod on the console versions also, showing that the mod was built into the game. Rockstar then revealed the minigame was cancelled from the final version but removing the code from the files would have taken time that they didn’t have and so the minigame was disabled rather than removed entirely.

This controversy had an effect on the rating of the game. ‘San Andreas’ was released with a ‘Mature’ rating from the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) but with the revelation that a sex minigame was hidden within and was relatively easy to access, the rating was changed to ‘Adults Only’, a rating that means that some high-profile retailers won’t stock it.

Rockstar quickly recalled the game, removed the mod altogether and then re-released it wherein the ‘Mature’ rating was restored. Problem over? Not fucking likely.

Nope, politicians got on their high horse and even though the game features murder, drug dealing and various other acts of crime, a bit of fully clothed thrusting was over the line. Take Two were hit with several class action lawsuits under accusations of committing consumer fraud and a settlement was reached in 2007. As a response, Take Two offered to pay compensation for anyone offended by the mod but as of 2008, fewer than 2,700 claims had been made.

In 2009, Take Two offered to settle a class action suit involving the controversy and some previous allegations for just over $20 Million.

In response, Hillary Clinton and a few other senators stitched together the ‘Family Entertainment Protection Act’ which called for ‘federal mandate enforcement of the ESRB ratings system in order to protect children from inappropriate content’. Thankfully, this bill went nowhere.

And that was the end of it.

As of 2011, ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ has sold a whopping 27.5 Million copies worldwide with 17.3 Million sold on the PlayStation 2 making it the highest selling PS2 game of all time. Fourth place belongs ‘GTA: Vice City’ with 9.61 Million copies sold and sixth place belonging to ‘GTA III’ with 8 million copies. ‘San Andreas’ received a ‘Diamond’ award in the UK which indicated over one million sales and the ‘Guinness World Records 2009 Gamer’s Edition’ lists ‘San Andreas’ as the most successful PS2 game.

What with Rockstar reliably putting out a ‘GTA’ game every one to two years, players would have to wait another four years for the next instalment. Yes, yes, ‘Liberty City Stories’ and ‘Vice City Stories’ came out in the meantime but not everybody owns a PSP and yes, yes, ‘Vice City Stories’ was given a PS2 port but not everyone cares.

So, it’s 2008. The PlayStation 3 has been out for almost two years and gamers worldwide are enjoying the amazing graphics and new stories. But over the horizon came the new release that GTA fans had been waiting for… ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’.

Personally, it’s not my favourite and I haven’t played a lot of it so this will probably be the shortest of all the sections.

Once again, we return to Liberty City and this time we’re following Eastern European immigrant, Niko Bellic as he arrives on the shores of Liberty City aboard a container ship to meet his cousin and pursue the American Dream.

My main problem with ‘GTA IV’ is that a lot of the colour has been removed and I’m not just talking about the graphics. I don’t know about you, but I miss handbrake turns. In a high-speed chase, I like to hit the brakes and skid around the corner then hit the accelerator to speed away in my chosen direction. This was easy in previous games but now, with a different physics engine, turning whilst hitting the brakes results in the car spinning out which is not appreciated.

Escort missions have been brought in and sound really boring but I wouldn’t know because I didn’t get that far and apparently, TV stations are now a thing so the player can not play the game and instead watch TV in the game so they might as well just watch real TV and not microwave their PS3 in the process.

In reading up on Niko’s character, he sounds a bit depressing. GTA protagonists in the past are usually fine with being thrust into the criminal lifestyle but Niko, an ex-mercenary, has experienced violence all the way through his adult life and so coming to America and continuing to immerse himself in violence in the form of criminal activity as a source of income wouldn’t be a huge leap. He’s pessimistic and cynical and jaded and miserable probably from his experiences in the war.

All I’m saying is, these kinds of characters definitely have their place in games but I’m not sure if that game should be a ‘GTA’ game.

But what do I know? With 25 Million copies sold, Metacritic gives the game 98/100 and a number of other review sites have given the game a 10/10 so others seemed to like it but for me, it went too far into the ‘gritty and realistic’ direction.

So here we are. We’ve made it. 5 years go by and the PlayStation 4 is announced in February of 2013, but Rockstar didn’t care because on September 17th, 2013, ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ was released.

For a start, it looked like a vast improvement on ‘GTA IV’. The writers made a positive move by having the game set in Los Santos again and it looks like in the 20 years since the events of ‘San Andreas’, the city has expanded and taken on a more ‘Hollywood’ vibe. But lets park that for now and look at the plot.

Michael Townley and his friends, Trevor Phillips and Brad Snider undertake a bank heist in Ludendorff, North Yankton on the Canadian Border. The heist goes wrong and both Michael and Brad are shot while Trevor escapes. Brad is ‘arrested’ and Michael fakes his death to go into witness protection with his family. The next nine years show that Michael has been living in Los Santos under the name Michael De Santa and it’s been a miserable existence. He and his wife fight constantly whilst his teenage son and daughter engage in some less than reputable behaviour. All Michael wants is a quiet life but when he meets Grove Street gangster, Franklin Clinton, the life of crime that he left behind soon makes a return.

It’s clear right from the start that a hell of a lot of work went into this game. There’s a video on YouTube showing all the cutscenes and the in-game conversations that the characters have during the journey to their destinations and it’s over 10 hours long. If you want to listen to all the conversations and watch the cutscenes then that’s 10 hours before any gameplay.

It’s not surprising that the game is so huge since it had a team of more than 1000 people from various Rockstar studios around the world and also had a budget of $265 Million which in 2008 (the start of development) was the most expensive game ever made at the time.

The ‘Rockstar Advanced Game Engine’ (RAGE), which was first used for ‘Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis’ in 2006 but also used for ‘GTA IV’ and other Rockstar titles since, had to be completely overhauled to improve the draw distance for such shots as Michael standing on a balcony and looking at the skyline of the city. They also improved upon elements from ‘GTA IV’ such as the shooting mechanics and cover system whilst also fixing the dodgy driving mechanics so races were actually fun again.

One other aspect that I do like about it is the connection to ‘GTA: San Andreas’. Shawn Fonteno who provided his voice for ‘San Andreas’ returns to voice and provide the motion capture for Franklin, but he is also Chris Bellard’s cousin. I think that’s so cute. It’s like keeping GTA in the family.

Ned Luke was mostly a jobbing TV actor before landing the role of Michael Townley and Steven Ogg was also a fairly unknown before his portrayal of Trevor earned him some new opportunities. His most recognisable role since has been his role in ‘The Walking Dead’ as Simon.

The main gameplay change is in the format. Heist missions are the new thing in the story campaign where the characters are faced with a problem which is typically a lack of money and so they have to rob some place to get the funds. Preparation includes choosing the right strategy, picking the crew and then grabbing some essentials.

One thing that I did notice is that the game seems to be a lot more linear. The game seems to have a bad habit of starting missions for you and there’s less opportunity to get into the world and mess around.

Side missions are back but now they’re in the form of ‘Strangers and Freaks’ and each of the three protagonists get their own set of strange individuals that offer unusual tasks. It’s a nice little diversion from the story.

Usually, with graphics being as amazing as they are, that usually means that the gameplay is scaled back, along with the length of the game. That is not the case here, just the story missions alone can rack up a runtime of around 10-15 hours which is good, but sandboxes have a tendency to last for weeks.

Let’s talk figures and this one is impressive.

In the first 24 hours, approximately 11.2 Million copies of the game were sold which equated to $800 Million in revenue. After just three days, ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ had exceeded $1 Billion in sales which made it the fastest selling product in history. By April 2018, the game exceeded $6 Billion making it the most profitable entertainment product of all time. As of May 2019, ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ had sold 110 Million copies across all platforms worldwide.

On top of that, the game was flushed with nominations for various awards with a total of 108 nominations, 35 of which they won.

But just as quickly as the game was generating revenue, the controversies were racking up to.

The biggest was a mission entitled ‘By the Book’ which sees Trevor using various graphic methods of torture to extract information from ‘Mr K’ about an Azerbaijani man that poses a threat to the FIB. By not just featuring torture but forcing the player to take an active role in the act also, the sequence earned some complaints from various sources with Rockstar being accused of ‘crossing the line’.

The game’s portrayal of women also came under scrutiny with the game being accused of putting women forward as stereotypes whilst the male leads were given character.

It wouldn’t be a GTA game without some lawsuits either. Hip-Hop artist, Daz Dillinger issued a ‘Ceast and Desist’ letter to Rockstar and Take-Two Interactive for allegedly using two of his songs without his consent; Kate Gravano from the reality TV show, ‘Mob Wives’ accused Rockstar of basing a character on her likeness and story but this case was dismissed and Lindsay Lohan also filed a lawsuit that accused Rockstar of basing the ‘Lacey Jonas’ character on her image, voice and clothing line but this case was also dismissed.

So, there we go. It’s been a long journey, taking over 20 years, eleven games and billions in revenue.

After 20 years of controversy, this is a franchise that has shown that it’s not going anywhere, and people can complain as much as they like but video games should be protected just as much as TV and films and literature. If you start banning stuff because it’s got something in it that you don’t like, then where does it end? You know they’re teaching ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to kids in school? Spoiler warning, they both kill themselves at the end.

It’s because of the kids. That’s what all that ‘Hot Coffee’ thing was all about. They were worried about the kids. Excuse me? What are kids doing playing ‘GTA: San Andreas’? Rating systems are there for a reason. It’s because kids shouldn’t be playing it. Parental responsibility is the key. That’s how this works. Game developers and Film and TV studios put content out there and if you don’t want your kids to see it, then don’t buy it for them.

I’ll go back to what I said earlier. All controversies do is fuel the product. By mentioning it, you’re calling attention to it. ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ was always going to be successful but how much had the game been helped once the people who hadn’t played it found out that there was a torture scene in it? Or when the controversy arose that there was full frontal male nudity in ‘The Lost and Damned’?

All anyone is doing by raising a controversy is pointing at the subject matter and shouting “LOOK!”. Responsible, sensible, level-headed adults know exactly how to handle this kind of content and that is to take it for what it is, a work of fiction. Nothing more.

But still, one question needs to be asked. Will there be a ‘Grand Theft Auto VI’? There should be. There have already been rumblings and rumours as to another game.

To my mind, ‘Grand Theft Auto VI: VIce City’ seems a bit too obvious. And way too cool.

 

Would you like me to review something? If so, leave me a comment or email me at rustysoapbox@gmail.com and I’ll do a review for you… at no cost.

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