XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Alien Resurrection

XCOM: Enemy Unknown wakes the tactics game from cryo-sleep.

By Gus Mastrapa • October 10, 2012

There’s more than one way to shoot an alien. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a modern update of the 1994 cult favorite XCOM: UFO Defense, takes a chessmaster’s view of a war between a shadowy government agency and invading extra-terrestrial creeps. Eschewing the fine, first-person control of blockbuster shooters in favor of deliberate, turn-based strategy may make the action feel a little less immediate, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s slick, streamlined strategy makes a good argument for ditching twitch for something a little headier.

Players assume the role of XCOM’s director, building an army of heavily armed bad-asses whose specialty is putting bullets in E.T. and mopping up the mess after he’s dead. The sprawling battlefields where these face-offs go down are rendered in great detail. Downed UFOs are found at the edge of smoldering woods, strewn with felled trees and burning wreckage. All the fiddly bits of tactical information are kept out of view so that the lovingly crafted scenery, replete with modern visual flourishes like floating embers and flowing water, can take center stage.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Only when the puppet master leans in to make a move does a battle grid reveal itself, unfurled across the scenery like a checkerboard. When it is a particular unit’s turn to move, the distance they can run is highlighted in the scenery. And browsing the different bits of cover each soldier can duck behind causes handy symbols to appear, revealing which directions will be the best protected. All the data is there, but it exists harmoniously with the kind of vividly realized scenarios more common in overblown action games.

Outside of battle there’s much to wrangle. XCOM’s headquarters house an engineering department for researching new weaponry, barracks for recruiting and training soldiers, and a science lab where dead aliens can be autopsied to learn their secrets. The base can be expanded by digging into undeveloped earth and building new facilities. All these locales are presented in a handsome cutaway view, like one of those cross-section angles in a Wes Anderson movie sans the dollhouse cutesiness.

There’s also the whole outside world to worry about. From a danger room, players get a global view of the alien invasion. Countries where abductions go unanswered eventually explode into panic and defund XCOM’s black ops. It’s from here that players sweep for alien sightings, deploy fighters to take down encroaching spacecraft and scramble squadrons to mop up the buggers who manage to infiltrate population centers.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

This complex, overarching meta-game provides an involving antidote to the ground-level brawls that make up the meat of Enemy Unknown. With scarce funds, spending on one development path means letting another go fallow. Many discoveries made underground provide the player with new goals. The collection of live extra-terrestrial specimens makes every fight riskier and failure (or the the occasional dead agent) that much more likely. It’s this feedback loop between violent action and methodical planning that makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown so hard to pry yourself away from. And it is a dedication to recreating this kind of old-fashioned fun in a contemporary manner that makes the game such a pleasant surprise.

A fast, thought-out and easy-to-tweak multiplayer offering (where the alien faction is in play) offers a quick tactical fix that isn’t chained to the single-player save file. That’s vital, because XCOM: Enemy Unknown encourages players to become attached to their fighting men and women who develop as they get more missions under their belt. They say you have to be in the shit, breathing gunpowder and tasting blood, to truly feel the cost of war. But when that sniper you named after your best friend dies, it becomes clear that even commanders, from the safety of the war room, can get caught up in the action.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PC
Price: PC—$50; PlayStation 3, Xbox 360—$60
Rating: M

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68 Responses to “Alien Resurrection”

  1. This game looks awesome.  More pictures!

  2. Bad Horse says:

    sha-whaaat? A strategy game that interests and excites me?

  3. In the war for my wallet I see this beating Dishonored ever so slightly.  Partly because I love a good tactical game, partly for brand loyalty to the folks at Firaxis whose Civ games have swallowed hours of my time and partly, because I just need a break from the first person for a while.

    The meta-game does sound kind of brutal but I hear that’s the way X-com has always been.

    • SisterMaryFrancis says:

      It beat out Dishonored for me too. They both look like they’ll be my favorite games of the year, but I think X-COM looks like it’ll give me more replayability than Dishonored.

      I’d be able to say more about it if my freaking UPS guy didn’t forget to deliver the game yesterday, but at least it gives me more time to pretend that I’m doing something important.

    • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser says:

      It beat out Dishonored for me as well.  Dishonored looks like a lot of fun, but X-Com looks fresh and interesting, while Dishonored looks like a neat take on stale material.

      And now, having played X-Com for a few hours, I can say that X-Com is also preposterously addictive.  Like ‘cancel plans with friends so you can finish just one more level and then the one after that and maybe a couple more and then just one last one’ levels of addiction.

  4. Ben Dunbar says:

    Sounds a little like Peace Walker to me, which I became very engrossed in. Any mix of tactical combat and base-sim management hits me right in the cyber-lizard brain.

  5. Penis Van Lesbian says:

    This… sounds good. Never got into the original (or played it for that matter), but I do miss tactical gaming. Would you recommend this for a Civ lover?

    • If this is anything like the original (and by all accounts it is), there’s not really much comparison, but it definitely tickles the same micromanagement parts of your brain.  

      I expect though that if you hate doing war-stuff in Civ this is not for you, battles will take up a significant portion of the game.

      • Penis Van Lesbian says:

        Nah, I didn’t hate the war-stuff (although I’m talking  civ 2 and 3, so the battles were fairly basic). But it’s turn-based, right? I hate being rushed in a tactical…

        Edit to add: although I always tried to avoid wars

  6. Chris Holly says:

    So far I’ve been thrilled by this game. Well-produced and engaging in all the right places. Wish there was a little more variety in the voice acting (the accents for your squaddies are all American from what I’ve heard), but that’s a nitpick.

    Playing on Ironman mode really ratchets up the tension, as it means you can’t reload a save if things go pear-shaped. That sniper I shepherded through the first eight missions gets caught in the explosion from a car on fire? Dead, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Such is war, and it raises the stakes unbelievably. It won’t be for everyone, but I can’t imagine playing it any other way.

  7. Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

    Hell yes I want to play this. I tried to get into this series recently but the interface was really outdated and I had a hard time starting up. This looks really fun and is hopefully fairly accessible. I love the tactics of stuff like Frozen Synapse which maybe drew some inspiration from the original xcoms. So yeah, this looks to be up my alley. Anyone play it yet? Thoughts?

    • Chris Holly says:

       So far it’s terrific. The rules are exceedingly simple and combat odds, cover percentages, etc. are all laid out right there on the screen for you – it’s far more accessible than the original (plus there’s a tutorial that guides you through your first few missions).

      There’s a demo out for PC containing the first two missions from the tutorial, grab it and check it out.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        That sounds like exactly what I was hoping it would be.  It actually sounds a lot like Frozen Synapse, which I love to death and hugely recommend to everyone. 

        I love that there’s a demo as well. I doubt I will be able to run it on my current computer, but damn if i’m not going to try it.

  8. Pound for pound the best thing I’ve played this fall besides FIFA. It’s like Final Fantasy Tactics + laser tag + playing Kofi Annan in a model UN club.

    Something really great that Gus didn’t touch on too heavily is how everything can really go to shit in the game. It’s nice to finally play something where you really can lose, but even playing well means sacrifice. No matter what you do, you’re going to lose something, whether its soldiers, a coalition nation, or something. Real stakes at work.

    Shame about the look though. It’s clean looking and everything but it’s all so dark and serious all the time. Lighten up XCOM. If only there was a game with Valkyria Chronicles’ look and XCOM’s economy of rules…

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       Well, in the original, it was a pretty common sight to see your squaddies get killed right as they took their first steps outside the troop transport.  My SOP was to throw down a smoke grenade on around the disembarkation point right away, so at least my troops had a chance to run for cover (invariably, recovery missions were often in farmlands, so cover was pretty scant.)

      I am liking the emerging trend of reintroducing failure back into games.  Understandably, nobody likes the retro toughness-as-a way-of-extending-gameplay style, where you make one mistake and have to redo the level, with a limited reserve of lives.  There is, however, some use for failure-states as a game mechanic, if you put some thought into it:  as a reflection of your game’s themes, as a way to encourage thoughtful gameplay, etc.  Or you can do it Super Meat Boy-style, where you have retro toughness with the flow of modern games. 

    • HobbesMkii says:

      It’s nice to finally play something where you really can lose, but even playing well means sacrifice.

      Did you play FTL? Or one of the myriad other non-$60 releases that came out this year? I think there’s something about that “full-price” tag that makes developers tone down their difficulty. It’s as if because you (the player) paid a fair amount of cash, losing no longer applies to you.

    • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser says:

      I’ve started two saves.

      In the first one, I kept all the nations together and safe but went broke and lost a lot of my best troops, and can’t proceed because I don’t have the funds to do the adequate research, so I have to watch the coalition fall to pieces one by one. 

      In my second one, I sacrificed Japan and Australia, but I have a well-funded, well-run machine that’s managed to keep panic levels in North America, South America, and Europe contained and move forward… albeit, at the cost of leaving my ground troops lacking advanced armor/weapons.

      Words cannot express how much I’m enjoying being able to fuck up and learn new things about the game as I play it.

  9. Electric Dragon says:

    I am delighted that the reviews have been positive and what I’ve seen of it so far has looked so good, because the original (UFO:Enemy Unknown, as it was titled in the UK) is one of my favourite ever games (top 5, probably).

    So many aspects of it are engraved on my gaming memory. The cold knot of fear in the stomach when you hear (but can’t see) a Chrysalid in a tricky terror mission. The gleeful fun of sending a blaster bomb up through the air and down onto the roof of a UFO to create an unorthodox entry point. A soldier opens a door and there’s an alien on the other side of the room. He just has enough time left in his turn to take a snap shot – if he misses, he’s probably dead. The grating impatience at seeing that it’ll take 25 days to finish that Workshop you desperately need. Naming your best trooper after yourself only to find that he has the psionic strength of a radish and ends up under alien mind control the very next mission. Trying to find that last alien hidden in a farmland map. The little wry touches of humour, like the class of alien ship that had a cow dissection room. The frustration that when you badly needed, say, a UFO Power Supply it would so often have been destroyed in the crash.  Sending the cannon fodder rookies into the UFO first to protect the officers, like a callous WWI general. Being able to make money by churning out laser cannons and selling them on the open market (I always wondered what additional chaos I had caused in the world by flooding it with hyperadvanced weaponry and spare alien corpses). The ragequit induced by a brilliant soldier being killed by a fluke shot by an alien on the other side of the map.

  10. GaryX says:

    I am so excited this turned out good. More of these games please!

  11. specksynder1 says:

    A widely lauded and universally remembered experience of playing the original game was the tension involved in searching for the aliens. 1994 graphics weren’t quite up to the task of full immersion, but the designers created an atmosphere that sucked you out of your own head and onto the ground with your troops. Everyone who liked the original will remember that moment when your soldier stops mid-turn, and focuses on two big alien eye-balls glinting out of the middle of a darkened cornfield.
    I played this new release last night, and can confirm that advancing through a gloomy forest and coming upon the half concealed hulk of a larger-than-expected downed UFO almost exactly recreates this experience. It’s pretty bad-A.

  12. Fluka says:

    What is this alternate fantasy gaming universe that I have slipped into, where an ornate steampunk stealth game and a complex-but-fun turn-based strategy game are the big blockbuster games coming out this week?  And can I stay here?

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Just wait. Next thing we get there’ll be a fantasy game without cleavage armor for women.
      These are the glory days, my friends.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      Yeah, and Halo 4‘s out in a month’s time! Ah, what a great time to be alive! 

      …Hey? Why’d you all leave me?

      • Effigy_Power says:

        ” @Effigy_Power:disqus unceremoniously ripped @HobbesMkii:disqus’s medals, hipster-Fedora and golden NES-controller bling from him as a sad trumpet played in the background. The scorn of the squad was clear and obvious. Hobbes had broken the rules and the unity of the corps would suffer for it. This was fair, they thought, even as they held back their tears for a fallen comrade. ‘Get out of my sight, civilian’, Effigy growled. His eyes firmly to the ground Hobbes began the long march to the gate at the end of the exercise yard. A single joke had ruined his career and jeopardized the lives of his fellows. It would be the last and longest march of his life.”

        Excerpt from “Those who cry Halo”, Chapter 8.

    • NarcolepticPanda says:

      And they’re both rated M! *looks forlornly at birth certificate* *sniffles*

  13. Link The Ecologist says:

    This look pretty interesting. Would anyone compare this game to Valkyria Chronicles?

    • NarcolepticPanda says:

      Manga-hair military school students>dudes shooting aliens in the face, but, yeah, I would assume tactical strategy games can’t differ TOO much gameplay wise.

  14. CNightwing says:

    I’m playing this vicariously through because EUROPE GETS THE GAME THREE DAYS LATE. Get it right capitalism!

  15. The_Misanthrope says:

    So I just read this article on PA Report:

    Here’s my problem with the AAA games industry in a nutshell:  They have driven themselves to such thin profit margins that anything that isn’t a proven commodity is automatically a make-or-break proposition.  Granted, 2K is big enough to absorb the loss, but it does mean that if X-Com doesn’t meets its sales goals, the chance of seeing another big-profile strategy game is unlikely from anybody. 

    Really, I shouldn’t feel guilty that I’m not buying the game yet (because I just don’t have the time to spare right now) but this is where we are now.

    • BarbleBapkins says:

      I really feel like we are teetering on the edge right now, the big “AAA” titles take so much sheer time and man-power, that eventually (if it hasn’t started happening already) the big publishers are going to start running into diminishing returns on their huge, expensive, but safe, franchises.

      I just can’t understand why smaller, more focused experiences like this (even if it only appeals to a niche, albeit one that tends to skew older and therefore more likely to have disposable income) aren’t being done more often. And when games like this are made, they are expected to perform exactly as well as games designed to appeal to as mass a market as possible, or else they are seen as a failure.

      • In the 90s, niche titles were expensive. Final Fantasy III for SNES, for example, sold for as much as $99 at some retailers (Sears Canada). PC games were hard to buy, and were also very expensive. And don’t even get me started on early CD consoles like 3DO. Niche games targeted the wealthy, informed consumer. If you didn’t read EGM, you probably never heard of the 3DO or CD-i, let alone obscure games such as Earthbound or Ogre Battle.

        That all changed in the late 90s. Thanks to the internet, the ubiquity of Gamestop, etc., it became easier for niche games to reach a larger audience. Some niche titles like Final Fantasy moved into the mainstream, with its steadily escalating budgets. Meanwhile, tiny labours of love such as Katamari Damacy were able to find success by selling at half the price of other new games.

        Small games have been getting smaller, and big games have been getting bigger. There is still room for mid-budget games (Atlus’ “Catherine” comes to mind), but the larger studios seem uninterested in anything that won’t sell a million copies.

        • belgand says:

          I bought plenty of PC games in the early and mid-90s and wouldn’t have considered them “hard to buy”. When I bought the original X-COM I just walked into CompUSA or Electronics Boutique or Babbage’s, picked up the box off the shelf and paid for it. Same when I got Alone in the Dark, System Shock, or Civilization. If anything it was easier in some ways because EB and Babbage’s primarily catered to the PC market and only slowly started carrying more and more console titles. These games had more exposure and more visibility in stores whereas now it has mainly been relegated to the remaining PC gaming enthusiasts or tracking down releases on the Internet.

          What is true is that smaller console titles did often sell for much more than standard back in those days. Looking through old issues of Nintendo Power from that era it’s not uncommon to see MSRPs going up to $70 or higher for smaller RPGs. Keep in mind as well that we’re now dealing with inflation and that the average came was generally closer in price to $40 at the time and it really shows the contrast.

  16. nattyish says:

    The original is one of the best games ever. Can anyone who’s played it tell me how different the ruleset feels in this version?

    • Ghostfucker says:

      Honestly, the ruleset is significantly different. If you were to play this one in the same style as the original you’d be toast (and vice versa I imagine). That said, it does an excellent job of capturing the desperation and feel of the original, despite a different set of base rules. The rules are much stricter but ultimately I think they allow for more variety in tactical choices.
      Hopefully that makes some sense.

  17. DjangoZ says:

    I never played the original but always wanted to. I love turn based strategy games, so this looks right up my alley.

    However, after reading the reviews on metacritic it seems like a bunch of folks find the new version much less strategic than the original. Everyone agrees the graphics are great, but the general consensus seems to be that the game had been simplified and dumbed down to draw in the Mass Effect crowd. It kind of took the wind out of my buying sails…are they right?

    • Fluka says:

      Hum, that’s not been my impression at all.  The vast majority of reviews that I’ve read seem to emphasize the fact that the game has not been that much simplified at all, but mostly revitalized and refurbished for the modern era.  Lots of people have been saying that this game is actually quite special in that respect.  People will die, and it’s your fault.  It lets you fail hard, and every single move and tactic matters.  (Unless you’re reading metacritic user reviews, and why the heck are you doing that?)

      “..simplified and dumbed down to draw in the Mass Effect crowd.”

      Oh pooh.

    • Ghostfucker says:

      I think that reaction is heavily overblown. There’s a lot less number crunching involved (the original required painstakingly figuring out the number of “Time-Units” it would take to complete any particular set of actions) and some of the mechanics get a little wobbly in some places (There doesn’t seem to be a gradual flanking bonus, you’re either flanked or not) but the game is very tactically robust, particularly as you get new items and abilities to use. In the original the end game had very little variation in the units.
      If you haven’t even played the original, I’d say you’re safe in completely ignoring those people. This is one of the best turn based tactical games released in decades. 

    • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser says:

      That reaction is… curious.  It’s a turn-based strategy game through and through – resource management, final death for characters, the vital importance of positioning – updated to the standards of modern gaming.  Which means letting visuals tell the story for you, at least in part.

      But that doesn’t make the game ‘dumbed down’ in any way.  It just makes it less cluttered.  Believe me, as a huge fan of turn-based strategy back when turn-based strategy games were actually being made, this will definitely scratch your itch.

      • DjangoZ says:

        Thanks for the detailed responses everyone. You’ve definitely answered my concerns. This game moves to the top of my next to buy list.

        Very excited now!

      • belgand says:

         I think what’s being complained about are things like how you only get one accessory item to carry with you, not a full inventory that you can customize as you like (want someone to be nothing but a med-pack mule? Sure!), the way the turn has been lightly neutered into only having a move and action phase rather than a set of action points to spend as you wish, etc. The bits that made the game more complex have been smoothed out to make a game that, while still tactically sound, no longer has the same degree of customization and control that it really ought to. The fear being that players don’t want fiddly bits. However, many of the hardcore fans of deeper games, myself included, particularly LOVE fiddly bits. You might regard them as “clutter” (and wouldn’t be alone in that), but in my mind a game without them has definitely been dumbed down. “Streamlined” is a dirty word right up there with “heart-warming”.

        Yes, it looks like it’s still a good game with the key elements intact, but it would be folly to claim that it hadn’t been streamlined, simplified, or dumbed down in a way that’s likely to be objectionable to many.

  18. Ghostfucker says:

    As a devotee of the original XCOM this has really delivered the goods as far as what I was looking for. If you’re not familiar with turn based tactical games, I recommend playing a couple missions on normal or easy, and then switch to Classic. 

    I’d also recommend playing it Ironman style, meaning you never reload a save; the fun is trying to fight your way out of an almost impossible situation, and then starting over from scratch when you inevitably lose. Humbled, but equipped with new knowledge and hopefully a new plan for taking on the invaders. 

    Don’t bother turning on the actual Ironman option unless you’re incredibly weak-willed about that sort of thing though; having a single save is just asking for corruption. I’ve already lost an Ironman savegame to bugs. luckily it was only about 4 hours in.

  19. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I LOVE turn-based strategy games, and have always preferred them over real-time strategy for one major reason: Due to the nature of computers, forces controlled by the AI always have a major advantage in RTSes – they can control all of their units at once, while you are limited to what is either on your screen at the moment, or what you can control via hotkeys.

    I loved the original Warcraft, but Warcraft II and StarCraft infuriated me because by the time I’d managed to construct a barracks and a couple of troops, more often than not the enemy AI was already sending a constant stream of warriors to destroy me.  So rather than being strategic, it would just be a race to who could build the same crap the fastest.  More recent RTSes fix some of this by programming limitations.

    Turn-based strategy games, on the other hand, give you time to plan (and strategize) as much or as little as you want, and when it’s the enemy’s turn, they get the same amount.

    My favorite games usually have combat in the middle of these – like Baldur’s Gate or Knights of the Old Republic, where you can pause the action to issue orders, then jump back to real-time to see the results.

    As far as X-COM, I loved this game the first time around.  I can’t wait to play this version, as long as I’m still able to get the remote-controlled alien rockets to fire around corners!

    • DjangoZ says:

      You’ve captured why I love turn-based games perfectly. In RTS games the AI has a distinct advantage that negates what I enjoy about games: taking time to think.

  20. Captain Internet says:

    Between this and Dishono(u)red I don’t think I’ll need to buy any more games for the rest of the year. If you’ve got stabbing and thinking, what else do you need?

  21. KevinSorbo says:

    My high school years were consumed with XCOM: Terror from the Deep. I played it over and over and over, and have killed enough Lobstermen to open my own alien Red Lobster franchise. Then I played it’s predecessor: UFO Defense (also good), and unfortunately its success: Apocalypse (not so good). Over the years, I’d fire up a good game of XCOM:TFTD and revel in its excellence – it was far ahead of it’s time with game mechanics, play depth and complexity.

    This game, with Jake Solomon’s vision and desire to create the best successor to the XCOM series, is an absolute gem. He managed to capture all of the great aspects of the series, streamline the experience, AND add his own game mechanics that make this new XCOM game the best of the series. Hands down, this is the best game I’ve played all year. My opinion might be a bit biased, since I loved the first two XCOM games, but that also meant I had high expectations of this one. 

    This game met, and then continued to exceed my expectations regularly. I’ve only put 12 hours into it so far, but I have enjoyed those 12 hours immensely. 

    Although, if turn-based strategy games aren’t your thing, this could very well be a dud for you. However, if complex decision-making, chess-like strategies are exciting to you, then this is a game you can’t afford to miss. You will love this game.

    • DjangoZ says:

      My mouse finger is twitching in anticipation.

    • Electric Dragon says:

      As I mentioned above, I loved UFO. TFTD was so brutally hard in comparison that I never got more than 1/3 through it. (Those endless cruise ship missions drove me to the brink of insanity.)

      • KevinSorbo says:

        Oh yeah, I hated those missions where there was one Gillman left on a cruise ship, probably hiding in a tiny closet in the belly of the ship. I hated tracking down the last jerk, haha.

        In the new XCOM, occasionally you’ll see sound waves, coming at you from a direction, to give you a hint as to where to go to find the remaining aliens. It’s the little things that make it so great :)

      • Ghostfucker says:

        I feel like having won the war for the land and skies, we should have just let the aliens have the ocean. Not worth the trouble.

  22. David Armstrong says:

    Spoiler alert Plot related stuff.

    So still spoiling stuff, here goes: What was going on at the Alien base? Obviously abductions, but i am thinking about the huge fleshy veins in the background. Is that ever elaborated on in a bit that i missed, or are they simply (Awesome) atmosphere.

    Also, how exactly would the bad guys grand plan work (Ok not exactly, but in the context of the game).
    Bad guys wanted to ascend to a higher state of being
    Send all their failed experiments on a campaign of terror across earth with the apparently sole goal being to unlock man’s psionic potential.
    Invite the humans up for a pow wow on your country sized ship

    (Like what was the winning scenario for the bad guys, killing them gets you some “you will never manage this power without our guidance” type dialogue, while getting killed has the bad guy expressing disappoinment)

    Spoiling ended

  23. BobSmith111 says:

    This game includes some surprisingly crafty and vicious individuals. I wish I could afford to buy it, but sadly I can’t. I did add it to my Blockbuster@Home queue. For a flat monthly fee, I save a ton of money renting instead of buying every game I want. Because I work for DISH I found out about Blockbuster and that’s how I rent all my games. The good thing about Blockbuster is that right now you can even try it out for free. Games arrive in my mailbox and I can play them in the comfort of my own home. It’s awesome.

  24. rachellemadrigal says:

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  25. Colliewest says:

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