Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix
Slashing Dragon recently posted, on his blog, his ranking of the Ultima games. And while he lists the games in chronological order of their release, he appends his ranking to the end of his discussion of each entry in the series. He also makes the interesting move of grouping Akalabeth, Ultima Underworld, and Ultima Underworld 2 into a separate category, apart from the main series games; his reasoning for this is that these games feature a different world scale than the others, and as such merit consideration separately.
And he also mentions, but doesn't rank, several spin-offs of the Ultima series, including Savage Empire and Martian Dreams, Escape from Mt. Drash, and the Runes of Virtue games. Really, it's well worth taking the time to read through Slash's list; he spells out his reasons for ranking each game as he has, and does so concisely and with brevity.
Anyhow, as this is the last Spam Spam Spam Humbug episode of 2015 (yes!) other than one or two more Byte-Sized Virtue shorts, we thought that it might be fun to sit down as a group and offer up our own rankings of the Ultima games, from our least favourite ones to our most favourite ones.
WtFD: Putting together this ranking actually surprised me a bit, and I'll get to why in a bit.
Contra Slashing Dragon, I'm going to go in order of my rankings of the games, from least-favourite to most-favourite. This jumps around a bit, although the first part kind of sticks to a particular era (namely, the Ages of Darkness). Much like Slash, I rank Ultima 2 as my least-favourite entry in the series; it's just really, really weird. Indeed, what appreciation I have for it is mostly its historical significance as the first game in the series (and might just be the first game, period) to include feelies like trinkets and a cloth map in the box. So, Ultima 2 is at #15. At #14, there's Akalabeth, which — sure — was a ground-breaking game in its day, but which really isn't all that much of a game even by early Ultima standards. Again, I appreciate it more for the historical significance. Ultima 1 is at #13, and Ultima 3 is at #12...and I don't have much to say about either. I mean, Ultima 3 was the first Ultima produced by Origin Systems, so there's that historical significance thing again. And it's interesting to look at the technological advances evident between Ultima 1 and Ultima 3. But in some sense, these games were really just adaptations of Richard Garriott's D&D campaigns, and weren't particularly deep games overall. They're stepping stones to Ultima 4. (More on that game later.)
For my #11, we have to jump forward in time a fair bit, all the way to Ultima 8. It could have been — should have been — a very interesting game, but I think more than any other entry in the series, Ultima 8 really parted ways with what had defined the series...especially for its lack of an open world. And that's something which a few more months of development wouldn't have corrected, it should be noted. And yeah, there were issues with the controls, and the jumping. The combat was wonky, the spellcasting was tedious, and the plot was trying a little too hard to be deliberately dark. I really think of it more as a side story, a somewhat poor Worlds of Ultima game that was mislabeled as a main series title.
Now, here's where I surprised myself. Normally, when I'm doing an on-the-spot ranking of the Ultima games, I note that Ultima 7 is my fourth-favourite game in the series. But the more I started to think about it as I put together this ranking, I realized that wasn't really the case (especially because it ignored the spin-off games). And so I ultimately ended up ranking Ultima 7 as #10 on the list, just one point above Ultima 8. Now, what I need to make clear here is that this really represents a step change in what these rankings mean for me. Because I do actually like Ultima 7 a fair bit, far more than I do Ultima 8. The game is a technical marvel for the most part; the open-world, interactive nature of Britannia is a delight to take in and explore, and the world is well-constructed with lots to discover. But the story is kind of lackluster (really, it's just a murder mystery/chase plot; the more interesting tidbits come out in the Alagner side quest), and Britannia itself feels oddly foreign (especially because the Shrines of Virtue are just...dead. Or dormant. Either way, they don't speak or do anything, and that's always been heartbreaking to me.)
I ranked Ultima Underworld 2 at #9 and Ultima Underworld at #8, although in some respects I feel like they're tied. I love that Ultima Underworld introduced a 3D first-person world to us — and then a very detailed world populated by a variety of interesting and well-thought-out races and NPCs — a year before Wolfenstein 3D. And Ultima Underworld 2 very ably bridged the stories of The Black Gate and Serpent Isle, and did so after what was, objectively, a very short development cycle. Still, both games are a bit difficult to revisit these days; control schemes have evolved a lot in the intervening years.
I ranked Ultima 4 in the #7 spot, and really, the game needs very little in the way of introduction. Its significance to the Ultima series and to the development of Western RPGs is well-enough documented already. It and Ultima 5 (which I ranked at #6) introduce and flesh out the Eight Virtues, and also lay the foundation for Ultima 6; taken together as a whole, the Age of Enlightenment trilogy represents probably the richest period in the history of the series, in terms of storytelling and the events that transpire during that era.
Martian Dreams and Savage Empire come in at #5 and #4, respectively. While these games don't add much to the story of the main series, both do make very able use of the Ultima 6 engine, and speak to a time when Origin was really maturing as a game development company; they were trying to develop technology platforms that could be used for other games (even in other series; see this product development plan document for mention of a planned Star Wars RPG using the Ultima 6 engine). And they're fun games in their own right.
Serpent Isle is the game I ranked at #3. It's the better of the two Ultima games that make use of the Ultima 7 engine, I think. Yes, the story is a bit more linear (and rather truncated compared to the original vision for the game), and yes the world is rather more barren than Ultima 7's Britannia, but it was nothing short of amazing to return to one of the lands from Ultima 1 and see that history had carried on there in the aftermath of the post-Mondain cataclysm. Plus, I think I'm just a sucker for backstories that incorporate lengthy histories of now-lost civilizations.
Hopefully, nobody is surprised to find that I ranked Ultima 9 at #2. I've written a lot about my affinity for the game over the years, and I don't want to rehash too much of any of that here. The point I really want to draw out here is a rejection of the argument (which has been more common, of late) that Ulima 9 would have been better had Origin Systems kept it as a 3D isometric title (since, after all, games like Baldur's Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment, which came out around the same time as Ultima 9, were isometric RPGs and are generally regarded as excellent and influential). I think to make that argument really misses the point of what Origin Systems was always trying to do with Ultima; they always tried to push the boundaries of technology, after all...and they tried not to do the same thing that everyone else was doing. An isometric Ultima 9 would probably have been fine, but the Ultima 9 we got was really genuinely ahead of its time...not just for the camera angle, but for the level of interactivity that Origin Systems was able to cram into the engine. Other games that came along only a couple of years after Ultima 9 incorporated the camera...but it was over a decade before 3D RPGs returned to a place in which world interactivity was a feature.
In the #1 spot, also unsurprisingly, I've of course put Ultima 6, which really (to me) represents the best that the Ultima series has to offer. The gameplay is solid, the world design is excellent, Britannia is detailed and feels expansive, and the story...the story is still one of the most brilliant examples of trope subversion going. Ultima 6 tries — and tries hard — to make you think that it's a basic “kill the monsters/save the land” sort of tale, and then it rather suddenly pulls the rug out from under its players and turns that idea around. Because really, if you do in fact kill all the “monsters” (Gargoyles), you can't win the game. At all. It's impossible. Ultima 6 takes that not-uncommon fantasy trope and turns it into a story where the resolution is to find (or force, depending on how you look at it) a compromise between the warring sides. And in some respects, it feels like a very natural endpoint of where Origin Systems had been taking the story of Britannia in Ulitma 4 and Ultima 5. If Ultima 4 introduced us to the Eight Virtues, and Ultima 5 introduced us to what happens when the Virtues become corrupted, Ultima 6 was about living the Virtues in some way...not in the sense of accruing points in each, but in the sense that players needed to actually look at the problem presented by the game's plot through the lens of their own sense of Justice, of Compassion, and suchlike, and through that come to understand how to actually solve the central problem of the game.
Linguistic: This is actually a nice little exercise for me, as I hope to do something similar over on Ultima Journeys whenever it is I end up finishing Ultima IX. I expect this ranking will change somewhat after replaying a few Ultimas I haven't touched in quite some time, along with completing a few games that I haven't before, but at this particular moment, here's how the standings look.
Kicking things off with my least favorite, I put Ultima II in the bottom slot. Bad pacing, too much reliance on random factors, and too many factors to struggle to balance in the early game make Ultima II difficult to truly get into, and while once things get off the ground, there's some fun stuff to get up to (running around space is pretty neat, if mostly pointless), but it takes too long to get there. As I've said on Ultima Journeys, it's a transitional stage, the awkward adolescent of the series, and it shows. At #14 is Akalabeth - simplistic and enjoyable in its own right, but a little TOO simple to rank much higher. It's more a demonstration of mechanics than anything else, and light on what else I enjoy about games, namely plot, setting, character, etc. Of course, that's typical of the time, and I do appreciate it for what it was.
Ultima VIII comes in at #13, and that's mostly because it feels like too much of a deviance from what I enjoy about Ultima games. That's not to say I don't like it, but digging through an impossibly cluttered bag while fumbling for the one object you need to cast a spell while trying to finagle your way around approaching enemies isn't ideal for me. The world of Pagan didn't 'breathe' as much for me, either - the settlements were small, characters for the most part didn't hold much personality, and all in all it just didn't gel for me.
Ultima III takes the #12 spot, by virtue of the fact that even in spite of its simplicity and relatively small-feeling world, it still felt rewarding to explore. Combat wasn't particularly complicated but gave you options, and the towns each had a distinct feel to it. It's probably one of the more eminently replayable entries in the series, too, by virtue of the fact there's scads of party combinations that would make the gameplay feel very different indeed - two wizards and two clerics would necessitate different strategies than four fighters. Ultima I edges it out in the #11 spot for similar reasons - rewarding exploration, enough interesting things happening to keep one engaged - and only beats out Ultima III simply because I've replayed it a lot more. They're just about tied for me, truth be told.
#10 goes to Ultima Underworld. It's never been one I've played much, partly because (as I think I've stated before) real-time combat and I don't really get along well for the most part, and it's not helped by the fact it uses a slightly different control scheme than what's become standard these days, and therefore what I'm used to. Even so, it's an interesting setting with some memorable characters and quests (I like the fact attempting to find ways to communicate with the lizardmen is a thing, even if as a linguist I find its implementation a little overly simplistic), and a little disjointed-ness here and there can be overlooked on that basis. Ultima VII gets my #9 spot, for great interactivity and some nice use of a freeform plot, but lackluster combat, aggravating inventory management, and the fact that closed mysteries fall flat very fast in CRPGs. Savage Empire takes #8 for containing the former but less of the latter bits, and while it's nice to see a game that doesn't take itself too seriously, the genre in generally isn't quite my cup of tea.
Labyrinth of Worlds comes next at #7, edging out its predecessor and a couple other games out of sheer creativity. While it, too, is a game I haven't spent much time with due to mechanics not really clicking with me, I love how vastly different some facets of its settings are. The bizarre realm of Talorus, the Scintillus Academy's test of magic that nevertheless rewards a more judicious use of what it's ostensibly testing, the vaguely unsettling mirror-world of Killorn Keep... there's not much I've seen elsewhere to match the unique worlds UW2 takes you to, and while plane-hopping can feel disjointed, it's helped by an adequate framing device. Martian Dreams takes #6 for similar reasons - those dream realms are nothing if not imaginative, and an entire sentient plant-based society is definitely unique - but edges out UW2 on account of being turn-based and therefore better suited to my own playstyle.
Number five goes to U9, and while I think it failed in a lot of things it attempted to do, I like the fact that it at least attempted to return to the idea of giving nuance to the virtues. It was nice to see Britannia in a full three dimensions (and seamlessly, no less), and contrary to a lot of people's opinions, I actually like a lot of what the plot did. It wasn't executed all that well in a lot of places, but I can see what it was at least trying to do, and appreciate it a good deal for that. Serpent Isle takes the #4 spot, making me far more willing to overlook the shortcomings of the Ultima VII engine with a very engaging story that draws in a lot of lore from the rest of the series, even condensed as it was.
Which leaves my top three as Ultimas IV, V, and VI, in that order. They encapsulate everything I enjoy about the Ultima series - the turn-based combat, the philosophical bent to its narratives, the large worlds to explore, the conversation systems that rely on actual typed phrases - to varying degrees. Ultima VI takes #3 simply because I find the interface a bit more cumbersome (it took several minutes to figure out how to get the system to do what I wanted it to on a fair few occasions), and I'll freely admit that U4 mostly edges out U5 due to sheer nostalgia and the fact I know its ins and outs better. I've gone on record as saying that U6 has what I think is the best story as the series, and I'm more than willing to concede that U5's the better game from both a design and a narrative standpoint. U4 is what I cut my teeth on and what I grew up with, though, and I've made no secret of my love for it. I've got a much better appreciation for U6 and U5 than I used to, and the line separating them from U4 is very thin indeed - but there's too many memories tied to U4 to give it anything but my top spot.
Goldenflame: Let me say from the get go that this is not my ranking of which ones I think are the best games. That ranking comes out differently. (And is mostly a muddle of U4-7+UU and then everything else.) These are which ones are my favorites. Like the others I'll start at the bottom, but I will also note that I have actually not yet played Martian Dreams (I'm currently about 4 hours into it) or Underworld 2 (which I will play when I get to it in my current play through of the series in order.) As such those aren't in the list at all.
#13: Akalabeth. Yes, it gets props for being first, but as a game I have no interest in playing it except for completeness of being able to say I've played all the Ultima games. There just isn't much there. I haven't won it yet, and maybe someday I'll grind at it until I get lucky and do so, but I'm not sure I'll be able to call that a fun experience.
After that point, I actively like all of the games. So yes, I'm putting things at the bottom, but that does not mean that I did not enjoy playing them.
#12: Savage Empire. When I was growing up, eagerly awaiting each Ultima release, I skipped over the Worlds and Underworlds. I honestly don't remember noticing UU2 at all, but when I read about Ultima Underworld (“ok, so they don't recognize their savior and, without doing anything to check his story, lock him in a dungeon that is a giant civilization that is in a mountain that was completely destroyed in a previous game. Huh.”) and Savage Empire (“...what the heck is this?”) my teenaged self decided they sounded pretty dumb and so I skipped them. I finally played Savage Empire a few years ago, and... it's a fine game. The world is amazingly manipulable, and it rested on the firm U6 foundation. However, I do not expect I will ever replay it, as the departure from high fantasy just leaves me cold, as does the sheer goofiness of the game. I enjoyed playing it, and I think it was a pretty good game, but it ranks very low on my personal list.
#11: Ultima VIII. Now, I played the pre-patch version of Ultima VIII, and had to enable cheat modes just to get through the game. Jumping was heinous, sorcery was fiddly, and the intended moral of “sometimes you have to fight fire with fire and there isn't a truly “virtuous” option” I felt fell a little flat when I had to do things to advance the plot that I knew were terrible ideas. Hydros, I'm looking at you. The game did not provide nearly enough options to make it feel like I was choosing the best of bad options rather than feeling like I was completely railroaded. Once again, I did actually enjoy the game (especially once I could just click-drag myself between floating platforms)- I have a huge soft spot for elemental planes and magics, and a lot of the worldbuilding of Pagan was really cool. I just wish it had been less frustrating to play (and I haven't even touched on the awful combat) and had done more with what it was. I've never felt an urge to replay it, though I do plan to do so when I get to that point in my in-order playthrough. Amazing music, though it suffered from a bit of all-the-same-ness.
#10: Ultima IX. I'm going to emphasize once more, for Kenneth, that I actually did like the game! That's the thing about the Ultima series for me- you can go all the way down to the double digits of the list and they are still good, fun games. However, once again I played it when it first came out, which meant it was a crashfest and an only OK example of a 3d fantasy game. The virtues were sidelined, the gameplay was a rehash of Ultima IV, and one of the coolest villains I've ever enjoyed was entirely ruined. Even so, I'm looking forward to giving it another go with the fan dialogue patch. The city designs were really nice and varied, I liked the use of the themes of the three principles being woven into each cities music.
#9, 8, 7: These are, in order, Ultimas I, II, and III. Interestingly, the one that I have the most inexplicable urges to replay is Ultima II, which is an unpopular one in general- there's something about its straightforward simplicity. U1 I can finish in an afternoon, so I don't play it as often. II you can just make a character in 2 minutes and start going. (III, to play well, I feel you have to make a party, give all the food to one person, disband, and repeat a few times to make the beginning of the game bearable... which is too much investment for a “hey, I feel like playing an old game!”)
III is the best of those, though- it solidified into being a fantasy game, with an actual world, and the introduction of music. Yeah, Exodus itself is a little goofy, but I accept it. II is just a silly romp, to be frank. And I... I actively dislike the space ace sequence, but the rest of the game is surprisingly solid for the beginning of the series.
Weirdly enough, I think Ultima II is the one that I have won the most often out of the entire series.
#6: Ultima Underworld. Only not higher because it really took me a lot of tries to get into the game enough to get past the first level of the Abyss. It's brilliant, once you ignore the fact that the Abyss has been destroyed several times now the story is good, the dialogue is fun. The exploration is pretty nice. I am unlikely to give it a replay, though- the modern age of 3D fantasy gaming makes the weird controls and sluggish responsiveness and combat something that you must endure to get through the game. It's the granddaddy of those games, though, so it gets mucho respect. Once I did get past the first level I enjoyed playing it a hell of a lot more than I expected I would.
#5: Serpent Isle. This was a great game. I really, really wish we could have had the full second half instead of what got pushed out the door. The paperdolls and keyring are so nice Exult back-ported them to Ultima VII. The game itself does a great job of letting us explore a new place while keeping a strong tie to Britannia, a thing which Pagan did not do. (Not that it was necessarily trying.) And, more of the terrifying otherworld villain, the Guardian, who managed to create a win-win situation- either the Imbalance gave him what he wanted, or he removed the Avatar from the scene for at least a time. Extremely buggy but if you were careful you could keep your game intact. I could have done without the Silver Seed, though- I very much enjoy well done time travel stories and did not feel that this was one. It was mandatory for the Ring of Shal, however.
#4: Ultima VI. Brought the world fully to life, in a way that even Ultima V did not, and the moral ambiguity of the story was amazing! A bit buggy, I lost my first playthrough to a bug involving using a skiff near the Isle of the Avatar, but then determined that if you used the SSSH cheat to up everyone to L8 and give them all magic armor and weapons, and were willing to use the orb of moons to raid the shrines without fighting, you can win Ultima VI in about 6 hours. Now I've seen Kenneth do it even faster, but that was pretty impressive to me at the time! It made two major changes over its predecessor that I didn't care for as much, though: the single scale map, which was great in theory but made the world feel smaller, and, weirdly, the brighter palette. I had grown up with the previous games' palettes- where each tile is a black background with something representational on it. Grass was black with some green dots. A forest was black with some green circles. Ultima VI was the first one to make grass primarily green, dirt primarily brown, etc. And for reasons that are probably nothing more than having grown up with them, I liked the more representational versions better. I don't feel like I should, but I do.
#3: Ultima IV. This turned the series from “hey, this is pretty good” to “holy %*)#!”. The huge open world, the virtues, so well thought out and constructed, NPC companions. And no bad guy. The music can still get stuck in my head at the drop of a hat, I spent so much time on my commodore trying to play through in middle school. I think I need to say the least about why I love this game so much, as it has been so well covered in so many places why this was a groundbreaking, great game.
#2: Ultima VII. What a world. The Guardian, what a villain. Even the Forge of Virtue expansion was great, for (a) making inventory management easier (60 STR!) and making the incredibly tedious combat easier (Blackrock Sword!) while also adding some wonderful worldbuilding on the nature of Exodus and Daemons. One of my favorite games of all time. The only reason I haven't played it through more often is the difficulty in getting it to run in the first place. Largely solved now, I've just been waiting to get to it in my in-order playthroughs. As I'm in Martian Dreams now, it's next up.
#1: Ultima V. What can I say? This is my favorite in the series. I've probably clocked the most time walking around this edition, out of the series. It was the first game to return you to a familiar, established world, and therefore could go all-in on showing you how darkness had overtaken it. The Shadowlords were terrifying and wonderful, the music was completely amazing, the world was huge, the dialogues substantially larger than IV's. Interactivity has not yet hit the False Prophet level but was still really cool- moving plants and barrels around, hearing the drips of fountains and the ticks of clocks, stealing crops or the very food off of plates if you were desperate for food, digging up moonstones to rearrange the very patterns of transportation. The introduction of spell circles and words of power, and of course the NPC schedules. Best exemplified perhaps by the skull keys in Minoc, or the sleepwalking mage in Trinsic. This game had it all. Is it the best as a game? Perhaps not... but it's my favorite.
#5.5: Ultima Online. Yeah, not a main line, single player Ultima, but I did play for years, decorating a house, founding a guild, and taking them on adventures of my own imagining (“Hey, there's an artifact at the bottom of Despise! We need to go get it!”, I enjoyed it enough that I felt it at least needed a mention. I'll place it somewhere around 5.5 based on the frequency with which I get the urge to see what it's like these days.
Stirring Dragon: I am only going to describe my top 3 Ultimas, because as you will see, most of the others fall into a similar category in my mind. I will say briefly that my first introduction to Ultima was at a friend’s house after school, where it just happened to be the first game he bought for his new Commodore 128. I think he bought it at a store called ‘Best’ back then. After seeing it I was hooked and just had to make my own character disk. Since he was the only one with a Commodore at the time, we most likely fought over whose turn it was to play the game after school. Still what was so magical about those early Ultimas, you actually didn’t mind just watching your friends play and you even felt like you were coming along for the journey with them. I think my choice in getting a Commodore 128 back then was just so I could play the Ultimas at home as well. With that said, here are my top 3 Ultimas…
#3: Ultima IV: Yes, Ultima IV, the packaging, the music, the story, it really had it all for an RPG in this category. It almost had too much! Yes that’s right, I do think there is such a thing as too much in an RPG. I believe a good single player RPG should be like a good book. You buy it, spend a fixed amount of time enjoying it, and then put it on the shelf to tell all your friends how awesome it was. Then you desperately await another one from the same author. Adding more pages to the book does not make it any better than adding more hours of gameplay to an RPG would. I really believe there is a formula for crafting a good story, book, movie, or game. This is the secret sauce that makes one designer stand out over the others. Ultima IV got very close to it in my mind, however, the fact that there was a larger party to manage than Ultima III made it almost start going down the wrong path. Just like you shouldn’t expect a book of 20 pages to be a favorite, you equally shouldn’t expect a book of 1000 pages too either. I will say that the systematic way that Garriott approached his design of Ultima IV with the 8 virtues, characters, runes, mantras, town, dungeons, etc.. is probably as close as he every got to his secret RPG sauce and something that every RPG designer should study.
#2: Ultima II: What!? Ultima II in the #2 slot? This is blasphemy! Yes I am well aware of how most Ultima fans feel about Ultima II, and maybe I’m just biased because it was the first one I played. However, I will say that going back a few years ago and playing through the Ultimas again myself really changed my opinions about the game. You see, I think Ultima II gave you a great mix of freedom and exploration. Not only was there freedom to travel to different times and worlds via the portals (and even space), you also had freedom to do things like take ships or planes from inside towns onto the overworld maps. This was something that created a sort of continuity and realism that was lacking in many of the other Ultimas. Ultima II also felt like it didn’t force you to do things a certain way. You didn’t even need to visit the dungeons (or towers in this case) or all the planets. I also really liked the fact Ultima II had a wide screen view, something that later Ultimas had to move away from because of processing power. In fact it wasn’t until Ultima VII that this came back, which is the reason VII is my fourth place. I actually also appreciated Ultima II’s combat because it was as direct as you could get and had zero grind. I never was one of the guys that liked 15-20 minutes per battle and much rather enjoyed exploration. Sure Ultima II had a bunch of bad game design elements to it and not much story depth, but really the exploration and freedom it offered was the beginnings of what I think would make many of the later Ultimas so special.
#1: Ultima III: While Ultima III didn’t have as much story or NPC depth as IV, it did make up for that in exploration. Even though the world of Ultima III was smaller than IV, it felt much more mysterious with its brilliant use of real time shadows and a secret land you could visit called Ambrosia. The underworld in Ultima V had nothing on Ambrosia. Sure the combat was more a grind than Ulitma II, but with only 4 party members rather than the 8 of U4 it was still pretty direct. Of course you can’t talk about U3 without Ken Arnold’s musical score that set the standard all other Ultimas must live up to. The world of Ultima III was full of secrets locations and mysterious places to discover and explore, which to me really makes it my #1. Yes the ending was not the greatest, but it’s scope felt just right for an RPG, not to short, not too long. Like a good book, it kept you turning the pages until the very end.
As for all the other Ultima’s I will say this. What I believe makes a good RPG is how well it abstracts from reality, not how well it simulates it. This is a key point of contention between me and others. I feel that many of the later Ultimas went down the path towards more developed simulations, beginning with Ultima V. The problem with this is that the goal of a simulation is to model or even replace real life, and therefore, you are no longer really making a game.
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