Game Review

Driver (1999)

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“I’m losing my favourite game,
I’m losing my mind again”
-Peter Svensson and Nina Persson, My Favourite Game



FF3-NES-WhiteMage1  “The following is a guest post by the Purple Prose Mage.”

It is the 30th of June 1999. A fire at South Korea’s Sealand Youth Training Centre kills 23 people. Jennifer Lopez is at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with If You Had My Love. Also, GT Interactive Software unleash onto the world Driver (which was subtitled You Are the Wheelman in North America).

For some reason, it always comes back to this for me. The earliest days of my gaming life that I can remember are also the earliest days of my life at all. There were no seasons, just summer, and all the days bled into one long recess. Driver is the first time I ever became truly obsessed with something. If I were into the whole concept of “fandoms” (which I’m not, but the reasons for that are a whole other article), then the Driver fandom is probably the first one to claim me, before anything else.

So how did we get here?

What made Driver so unique is that it was the first to do what almost every game of its genre is expected to do as a standard, and which has subsequently become something which is now taken for granted. The players of Driver – its first wave of players, that is – most certainly did not. Martin Edmondson had been the creative lead on development of Destruction Derby (1995), a racing game that – like most others – was about driving around a circuit.

Image result for Destruction Derby (1995)

Destruction Derby (1995) was the game that led to Driver.

Driver was something of a spiritual successor to the Destruction Derby series, and placed the gamer in four real world cities – with landmarks – and presented the opportunity to drive around, unimpeded. It’s not quite “open world” in the way that we would understand open world to be today, but it was the beginning of that concept for driving games.

The amazing thing is that such a gimmick was enough in its time to work, and could’ve been the only thing Reflections felt necessary to do. Even a title as simple and minimalist as a noun tells you all you really need to know about it, because unique selling points were significantly less necessary for videogames in 1999. That there’s more to it than that – the thing which makes it notable – is no small feat; especially given the abundance of “important” works which are only considered such due to a technical method being applied for the first time or in a certain way, but which don’t hold up on their own beyond that. When looking at Driver, it’s important to remember that while it premiered the idea of free exploration in a 3D city for a driving game, there is an entire second layer of quality – and, frankly, masterful – videogame development and digital artistry at work here. This is something I only came to realise recently in revisiting Driver for the purpose of nostalgia; in its heyday, the surface is all I saw, and it was enough to satisfy me. Having gone back to it all these years later, there was still so much more left to discover.

It turns out that Driver is a game which pushed the limitations of what was possible for its time by including so many elements of design and gameplay that didn’t need to be there. These elements build upon each other to make Driver a gift for its players. The sad truth is that Driver was released too early, and had it been only a few years later when it finally came out, it would’ve likely been flawless.

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The 8-Bit Review
visual1 Visuals: 7/10

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Trust me, this cut-scene is the most watchable one.

The visuals of Driver are its greatest weakness, and that’s entirely down to the cutscenes. It’s to be expected that the first instalment of a series would have the worst visuals, but here, the cutscenes are only used when it’s really necessary. The software was so crude that the cutscenes are directed in ways which avoid detail – there are lots of pans, wide shots and characters silhouetted. It might not be much, but it’s pretty obvious in watching those scenes that they are the way they are as a way to reduce those limitations. They’re blurry and covered in shadow as much as possible. By today’s standards, they might be pretty bad, but they really did do the best with what they could. The greatest giveaway is that the characters’ mouths don’t move, so they’re never shown close-up when we hear their voices. This made it difficult to tell each character apart (except for protagonist Tanner, whose face is on the menu and loading screens). That and when Tanner makes a phone call, the image freezes over the dialogue. And in other cutscenes, the lack of mouth movement reminds the player that the dialogue has been put-over afterwards. You can see the mechanism. It’s a very jarring disconnect. The cutscenes are very primitive, but there were no other ways of showing those scenes.

There’s a very high contrast between the cutscenes and the gameplay. As it is, the cutscenes are only a way of providing information, and don’t last very long, either. It comes down to not how good the cutscenes are, but the way they’re used. Videogames aren’t cinema, so I don’t expect it.

Plus, the overall Visuals score is enhanced by the gameplay. For some reason, there’s a lot more attention to detail in this first Driver game than there are in future installments, or indeed any driving games which followed it (which is normally the opposite of the way it should go) in terms of creating a driving experience, as opposed to a developed world or accuracy.

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For instance, if you’re driving slowly enough and you turn the wheels, an indicator will turn on. If you drive at civilians, they’ll run out of your path.

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This is the same thing that happens when the AI traffic also make a turn.

Driver - The Bank Job(6)

This allowed me to plot my path, and was as helpful as when real drivers do the same thing. For some reason, no other city-based driving game I’ve played uses this mechanic. It added to the realism of the driving experience in a small but effective way, which is a recurring theme here.

During a pursuit, the map will flash red, purple and blue, and some red triangles will appear at the base of the screen to indicate cop numbers, proximity and relative location.

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There’s also a lot of world-building with what you see in the cities; planes fly overhead, and there are blimps floating about.

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It’s these kind of flairs (as opposed to the flares on traffic brake lights) that add to the experience, rather than just providing information. The graphics are consistent with and complimentary to Driver‘s hyperrealist style. All these things aren’t even necessary to advancing through the game, yet their presence shows that Reflections have considered everything, and want to make the player feel like they live inside a fully consistent world, instead of just a videogame. Most games that do this do so in order to create a world that I can believe exists, but when Driver does it, it creates a world that I want to drive around. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t get the roads to curve.

The sky is a single background image which remains static. It reminded me of Mario Kart: Super Circuit (2001). It’s a nice touch. Another small little detail is the sun streak across the screen. It really makes the game world that extra bit more believable.

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Another software limitation is the rendering speed, for instance:

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It’s not a big thing, since I never found it to be an issue, and, if anything, it’s indicative of how far Driver pushed its own technology. This is an acceptable sacrifice for everything else.

audio Audio: 7/10
It comes back to the cutscenes again – the voice artistry really lets it down. The actors are fine, and bring the kind of voices to their characters that tell you everything you need to know about them, but their voices aren’t used much, and there are a lot of pauses between each character’s dialogue. Granted, this is because – and why – the cutscenes are only used sparingly, but vocals are the best way to provide exposition for the player, so I often felt in the dark about what was happening. However, when characters do speak, there’s a wide range of voices and personalities that you’re hearing. Brad Lavelle’s Tanner is my favourite incarnation; this is the only time Tanner’s worked without a partner, and he’s very much the incorrigible, determined lone wolf in a way that hasn’t ever been quite captured again.

Just the less said about Castaldi’s Marlon Brando impression, and Allie’s lah-di-dah English accent, the better.

But what about the music?

Well, what can I say? The theme music is amongst the best I’ve heard in anything. This is right at home in the films that inspired it. Music is the most important tone-setter in an audio-visual story, because it expresses a style and tone that words and dialogue can’t. If your music works, everything else will almost always follow. If this track had been used in a film, it would be considered one of the greats, up there with John Williams. And that’s because it has the perfect structure of music for a game of this kind: it starts off cool but slow, before rising into action, ultimately building toward a climactic end.

The other in-game music is derivative of this, but in a way that isn’t distracting during play. There are day and night tracks for the four cities, and each have their own pursuit versions when you engage the cops. Each track is right at home in their cities and wouldn’t work as well anywhere else (for instance, Miami’s music uses a lot of steel drums), while the getaway tracks employ a quicker tempo and motivate the player to escape. Every track is imitative of its inspirations, geographically appropriate and emotionally consistent.

Driver‘s music makes the game in a way that its other elements simply can’t. I myself have added it to my phone so I can walk through the city feeling like a cool 70’s cop (why else would I be wearing this fancy leather-jacket-and-tight-jeans getup?). And the true testament to its emotional effectiveness is how it plays when driving for real; and in that regard is perfect. It is a soundtrack made for driving at high speed, which would otherwise just happen to have been used for a video game. It’s a soundtrack to real life, and transcends the game’s story world membrane more than anything else. In fact, I think I might have preferred it when driving for real even more than in the game. It enhances a real life experience beyond the perception of the difference between fiction and reality. It’s the same feeling in my mind, so why should it matter whether it’s actually happening? Can other game soundtracks not do this? That’s why it’s the best soundtrack of the whole series, and definitely my personal favourite of any game.

Even then, one of the most memorable things about Driver is the sounds of the cars. Every vehicle has its own unique sound, which responds to acceleration, braking, slowing, burnouts, turning, drifting and crashing. This is accompanied by the sounds of sirens and police radio. The sound design creates a whole world of audio which maintains the illusion of being in a 1970’s car chase film. In fact, The Driver (1978) lent its car crashing sound effects to Driver. That’s either a great artistic choice as callback, or outright theft, but either way, it makes that connection really well. After all, they say that good artists copy what great artists steal.

Just listen to this:

Even the intro is an achievement in sound production. Watch this sequence and make a mental note of every individual sound you hear:

gameplay Gameplay: 6/10
This is such an old game, and I was playing on such an old console, that it does occasionally glitch out. Only every now and again, but it does still happen. And gameplay videos I’ve seen would appear to confirm that it’s not exclusively my own copy. That said, this is the second copy I’ve owned, since the first became unusable after so many years of play. This one is definitely a step-up, and I can only blame time and entropy for the wear-and-tear on copies of the game. I certainly don’t remember it happening all those years ago. Even my (backwards-compatible) PlayStation 2 is the first model to be produced, so that could be it, too. At times, the background music slowed-down, which it isn’t supposed to do. There were also several moments when I found myself colliding with invisible walls that extended slightly too far away from surfaces, and being pushed off the map by physics.

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One memorable moment took place on a very long and straight road in New York, in-which I – at top speed – collided with the front of another car moving toward me slowly. The physics engine freaked-out a bit, and I pinged backwards back down the street, still at top speed, out of control. It was weird, but funny.

There are also some arbitrary time limits, which don’t make missions anymore tense than they already are. Maybe it was supposed to make me drive faster? But that’s unnecessary, because that’s already the whole point of why I’m playing. For some reason, these time limits aren’t used during some of the non-narrative cross-town checkpoint driving games that are perfect for them, and would benefit from them being there, instead of being a leisurely map tour. And yet, the pursuits do use them, even though it’s just a countdown to how much longer you need to keep them in sight in order to win, instead of apprehending them like you can do anyway. The time limits aren’t used where they’d enhance the gameplay, but are used where they don’t enhance the gameplay.

When you complete the story mode – “Undercover” – you unlock some cheats, but they’re a bit underdeveloped and don’t add any “fun factor” that isn’t already there. Driver made driving fun in a believable way, not in a cartoonish way. Unrealistically, but still believably.

The cheat which makes cars smaller, for instance, only does so visually; they physically occupy the same space as they would otherwise, which gets inconvenient and confusing, especially because the rear lights and tyre smoke remain the same.

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Antipodal mode inverts the camera to be upside down, which makes it almost unplayable. It certainly challenged me as a player by inverting the muscle memory I’d taught myself, but it again doesn’t feel as if it adds anything (the map remains the same, though, which does somewhat negate the disorientation – is that cheating, or just technical limitations?).

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Stilts raise your cars’ wheels, but not really, because it’s just the body being slightly higher than usual. I get why there’s no suspension (i.e., graphical limitations), but that doesn’t change how pointless it is.

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Real wheel driving is an interesting challenge, but I became bored of it quickly. It changed the way of doing things, but didn’t provide any new things to do of its own.

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Immunity and invulnerability eliminate the make-believe rebellious element of what makes Driver so appealing; in immunity mode, the map will still flash a little bit and police radios can still be heard. There’s only so much the physics engine can take, so apply all the cheats at once for some top glitching! They’re gimmicky and amused me for about a minute, but (unlike everything else) they’re so irrelevant to the experience – and are so underdeveloped – that I could take them or leave them. Given that everything else was added to amplify the realism, it’s confusing that such inconsistently unrealistic cheats are included.

Other than the glitching, this is mostly a great game to play. It was developed before analogue controllers, so the Dualshock 2 analogue sticks only enter the same data as the directional buttons, meaning that the controls are still digital. This polarises the driving between power levels, but that can work if you have enough control. In a way, it makes it a more interesting game to play because the cars become beasts which must be tamed by finding the happy symbiotic medium. Overall, it adds to it, though you might find yourself deciding to just use the directional buttons and ignoring the analogue sticks.

Every car drives in its own way, and have their own personalities. That’s what makes driving games so interesting to me; the way that cars can become their own characters because of how they look, move and sound. Driver has that in abundance, so it never feels repetitive. Take the car used in Miami, modelled on a 1968 Buick Skylark (but never identified for licensing reasons); it’s sleek and streamlined and black. There are no ostentatious aesthetic gimmicks or attention-seeking accessories. It cuts through the Speedforce. This car is a jaguar, the fastest thing on land. That is what I’m talking about. It seems unimpressive now, but in its day, completing a mission in one car, only to be starting the next in another, completely different vehicle, which drives in a completely different way, very much was. This mechanic is fundamental to the genre, and can make or break the game. How each car drives is as important as how it doesn’t drive, because it shows that the creators had a specific idea in mind, that they understand their medium and subject matter.

The loading time is very short, and the environment is fully interactive with its functioning traffic systems and destructible objects. It’s a watertight, well-produced piece of technical art. This may seem unremarkable, but it’s the variety of car types, and the changing feel of them that pulls it all together and makes it work. That’s the heart of the game. Therefore, it’s probably down to technological limitations of the time that there’s no “car selection” feature, so each city has only one car to drive, the only exception being missions which give you specific vehicles. But a positive which comes from that is that I find myself developing a gamer’s relationship with those cars, and eventually the cities become a part of them. If car selection had been available, would I be able to say that? Had they the technology, they could’ve included interior views, manual transmission and other driving features. But had they done that, would Driver have been as fun? It certainly would’ve been less straight forward. In a way, I’m glad that this is the extent of what they were able to do, because it means I don’t have to worry about that – those extras could’ve turned this into Gran Turismo – which is also popular, but for completely different reasons. Car chase movies don’t bother to show the drivers holding a button down for 10 seconds to turn off the ABS, so why should a game imitating them?

Driver is also one of the earliest examples of Machinima being integrated into a videogame, only a few years after Quake (1996) began doing it. Driver includes a Film Director mode which gives players the ability to turn their gameplay into short video files in which replays can be edited between different shot types and cameras that the player can place. Not only does Driver feel like being in a car chase film, but Film Director allows you to turn your own experience into one, and preserve it. As it is, technology prohibited these films from being saved as videos, so the movement of the player’s car would be mapped, with everything else randomised, so the player’s intelligence and common sense would seem to vary in each replay, regardless of how flawlessly driven when playing originally. It isn’t perfect by any means, but the mere inclusion of it was ahead of its time in an era when everyone seems to be making gaming videos in exactly the same way. Each file took up too much space to make them worth while, but it’s another sign of what Reflections wanted Driver to be, and what it would’ve been had gaming consoles of the time been as advanced as they are now. Film Director combines videogames with filmmaking. Driver‘s more than just a videogame, it’s a video editing software. It’s also just too bad that there wasn’t really the capability to do anything with it.

replay Replayability: 10/10
In each of the four cities of the game, Tanner lives in a motel with an answering machine where he receives his assignments.

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Each mission begins in the motel car park with the familiar car of that city.

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Once you’ve learnt your way around, you can achieve almost any mission given to you. A videogame’s replayability factor derives from how much it makes me feel like its protagonist, and the best way to do that is by creating a familiar world for them; “this is where they live”, “this is the car they drive”, “this is what their life involves”. That world is completely seamless, but also completely safe. Driver is a fantasy. It made me feel as if I were Tanner, living in his body within a film. I’m living out of a motel in (most of the time) Miami, working wheel deals for the mob. I’m good at it, I know this city inside out, and I’m getting away with it. Driver is the ultimate psychological vacation, and I can be transported there instantaneously. There is a reason that this is the first game I wanted to review, and it’s because it’s the game I most wanted to play again.

 Accessibility: 9/10
Driving games are often the easiest to access (see also: kart racing). All that you need to know is how to accelerate, brake and turn, which comes down to two D-pads and the analogue sticks. If you can remember those, that’s basically it. There are other functions, like parking brake, reversing and burnout, as well as accessories, like look left/right/behind and the horn, as well as change view, but they’re not essential to advancing through objectives. The only real problem is that there’s only one controller setup, so you get what you’re given. Later installments do function slightly differently, so there’ll be a bit of a disconnect at first if you’re accustomed to those. Other than that, this is completely accessible. Knowing the story isn’t required, because a party gaming session can use the Take a Ride or Driving Games modes, which jump you straight into the action. You’ll pick it up straight away.

diff Challenge: 10/10
And here we finally are. Driver is infamous for how challenging it is. The final mission, The President’s Run, involves being chased at night by the entire police department (which has suddenly been given a massive speed boost) in a less powerful car than would be convenient.

That’s one thing, but the tutorial is a whole other level. Can you think of a single game in-which you must first train for the tutorial level alone? It’s inspired by an almost-identical scene in The Driver. Once you’ve mastered the car park training level, you can attempt it again at the beginning of Undercover and only once having completed that can you begin the main story of the game. This training mission – The Interview – is infamously difficult. You’re in an underground car park with 60 seconds to perform a series of maneuvers from a list. You can’t crash more than 4 times. It took me some years to complete this tutorial level alone, and I know I’m not the only one. There’s a demonstration of what you’re supposed to do, but that doesn’t make it any easier to actually do. And testament to that is how many YouTube videos there are demonstrating how to beat it, which says a lot. In fact, there’s an entire Reddit sub-thread discussing this one tutorial level.

The thing is, though, once you finally make it past the tutorial, you do feel as if you’ve accomplished something. And you’re prepared for just about anything that comes afterwards. The tutorial throws down the gauntlet at the very beginning in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated today because it requires the player to have skill, and it does so unapologetically. I’ve only beaten this once, and it got me into the story, which felt like having proven myself worthy of an exclusive club that can access behind-the-scenes areas. The story is something which must be earned only by players prepared to try hard enough. I’ve therefore no desire to go back to it because I’ll just get flashbacks. That said, I applaud it for being as difficult as it is because it can be beaten. The reason I’m as good at driving games as I am is because of Driver‘s tutorial mode, so in a way, it’s responsible for the majority of my history and record as a gamer. It deserves an award for being as hard as it is. An award given through gritted teeth. (And to think that the PC gamers can skip this with a cheat code.)

Then there’s the trailblazers: 100 flags lined-up in a row across the cities which must all be collected in order to complete the mission. You begin with a 20 second time limit and can only gain an extra second by collecting a flag. It is the ultimate test of driving skill, requiring you to weave between traffic and other objects while following a very specific path quickly enough. All of them are generally pretty difficult (e.g. San Francisco has lots of hills and tight alleyways, and requires absolute control), but it’s the Los Angeles level which takes the biscuit. LA’s always at night (for some reason), making the red flags look like car lights from a certain distance – do I drive at them to raise my time, or should I avoid them so I don’t collide with the back of a car, which will eat into so much time that I may as well just restart?

I could only answer that when I was too close to do anything about it. They’re spread so far around corners that you don’t know which way to turn until the very last moment. After The Interview, this is definitely Driver‘s hardest level. It is a level which requires utter perfection for its entire duration, which maximises the player’s ability to process what they’re seeing and to respond to it. LA is also Intersection City, so a lot of the time you require an insane amount of good luck and good timing. It felt like having to constantly defibrillate myself to keep my heart alive, which in turn fed back into itself. When I finally finished it, I was out of breath and exhaling quickly to relieve the tension; the transition between being on edge to actually complete it this time and having just achieved something of great difficulty. But it was worth it for the achievement and the relief that came afterwards.


Not shown: videogame controller

Which is not to say that the other trailblazers aren’t difficult, because they definitely are (New York is like lots of different cities competing for space), but LA far exceeds them. There are two in each city, which seemed like the ultimate nightmare scenario at first, but then the second LA trailblazer was very deceptively simple. Whereas the first had been like a rollercoaster through Hell, the second was almost entirely a straight highway. And then I realised… I was being rewarded. Reflections knew exactly how hauntingly trying the first would be, and rewarded me finishing it with another that was a whole lot easier and less stressful. And so, not only is Driver the most difficult game I’ve ever played, it’s also the most rewarding because its developers understand the importance of payoff. This is something I never thought about in my earlier days of playing it because I spent my time in the sandbox, but going through the other modes to rediscover the game showed me how much more to it there is, that it was more than just a fun pastime, and that made me love it even more. As such, Driver is now the standard I use for challenge in video games, since the majority of them that I play are driving games.

But all of these levels can be passed, and I should know, because I have. Which means that if you find these levels “impossible”, they’re not, it really is you (apologise NOW).

unique Uniqueness: 9/10
Driver is not just a driving game. The atmosphere it creates is second to none to put the player in the driver’s seat of a car chase movie in a way that no other games have ever done quite as well since. The bravery with which it was developed is something that would be considered too alienating – too risky – to try today. It still holds up really well as a gaming experience. It has stood the test of time and continues to be a proving ground for gamers, even now. It will still divide new players into the weak and the strong. It is simply overwhelming in how much it asks, and in how much it gives back in return.

Driver is an exemplary case in the importance of a relationship between developer and player. Reflections weren’t prepared to put into this game anything less than the absolute limit of what was possible, artistically and competitively. Nothing in this genre has ever been endowed with more love. And the end result is about as much fun as is possible to have. This game is Important. Every serious gamer should care about Driver, because it is proof of how much can be achieved in two-way creativity between commercial artist(s) and consumer(s). It is the industry standard of giving a damn, and making your game a gift to its players. And had it been developed a few years later, they would’ve been able to go even further with it.

pgrade My Personal Grade: 8/10
This is the most challenging game I’ve ever played, and the one that I’d be the most happy to replay as a result – that is a direct correlation. Its controls can be learned almost instantly. Modern gaming wouldn’t allow for this to exist, because of how borderline-professional you need to be. The sound mixing/editing would be better suited to a surround sound auditorium, the music makes half the game and the environments are so detailed that it feels as if they don’t even have any right to be. The only thing that lets it down is the blocky, underpaced cutscenes and the occasional physics engine screw-up. But even they are the best of what was possible to create. Every gamer has that one game of which they have recurring dreams of being inside. Driver is mine. It comes to me in the night. 18 years after its release, I finally completed Driver 100%: the question is, will I ever be able to do anything ever again?

Driver (1999)

Aggregated Score: 8.3


The Purple Prose Mage can regularly be found kneeling on a gargoyle in the rain overlooking the city. And when he isn’t imagining things, he’s reading comics about someone who does, posting literary reviews on his own blog and working on his writing career. He’s also close to finishing a documentary about the Driver series (follow).


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16 replies »

  1. Oh man….this really brings back some memories. This was actually my first game that I ever played. I bought this together with the PlayStation one console. I remember that my heart actually pounded when I put in the disc and I gripped a controller for the first time. I seriously enjoyed my first journey into computergames and this game was brilliant. I can’t even remember how many hours that I played this game, but I do know that it was seriously awesome. Thanks so much for such a great post, that truly brings back a great nostalgic feeling 😊

    Liked by 3 people

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