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2005: The Year in Review

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2005: The Year in Review

Editorial - posted by Spazmo on Fri 6 January 2006, 20:51:01

Tags: The Year in Review

2005: The Year in Review

By the time this article gets posted, 2005 will have ended, and with it, one of the worst years in RPGs ever. It's not that surprising, though, since the two years before it were terrible as well. The RPG genre has been in a slump for years and shows no sign of getting out of it anytime soon. But for now, let's take a look back at this past year and its various events and explain why they sucked... or didn't.

And keep in mind, folks, that while we may sound like whiny assholes, the simple fact is that if you want to read a few dozen pages of developer adulation, you can go read pretty much any other site's end of year feature. We may go overboard, but we figure it's necessary to balance out the torrents of bullshit everyone else spews.

The BioWare Update

It just wouldn't be right to have one of these articles without bringing up BioWare, who are probably the biggest RPG developer out there and also probably partially to blame for the dismal state of the genre. It was their Baldur's Gate series that set the trend all the way back in 1998 for flashy RPGs with linear plots, cliche stories, terrible combat--and blockbuster sales.

But apparently BioWare has gotten tired of catering to the difficult PC market, what with demands for interesting plots, NPCs that aren't a pain in the ass and hey, maybe something without elves in it for a change? No, it's much easier to pander to console kiddies whose idea of RPG gameplay is collecting multicoloured ocarinas or watching twenty hours of FMV cutscenes. BioWare's forthcoming projects are mostly to be released on the Xbox 360 and include a whole trilogy of sci-fi "RPGs" called Mass Effect (colloquially known as "gravity" to those of us with a clue), which might be interesting if they weren't more FPS than RPG, according to press releases.

This is what "epic" and "revolutionary" looks like


But to be fair, BioWare hasn't totally abandoned the platform they got their start on. They're also working on Dragon Age, a fantasy RPG that's supposed to combine the "best" elements of Baldur's Gate (ugh), Neverwinter Nights (ack) and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (aargh), except it's not D&D! They promise! Not much more information has been released about the game since last year, when it was first announced, which is kind of nice since the last thing we need is more of BioWare's well-practised PR bullshit. What information we have gotten on Dragon Age, mostly from forum posts by BioWare designer Dave Gaider, tends to sound generally... promising? It's kind of a strange thing, but with promises of better realised opening vignettes (a promising idea that Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil fumbled back in 2003) and branching plotlines--and let's not forget that everything else on the horizon is completely depressing--DA doesn't look that bad. Of course, pretty soon, we'll get hit with the game's PR blitz, we'll get more information on the really terrible aspects of it, and we'll once again remember why we don't care for BioWare.

Obsidian Entertainment: Why Did We Care Again?

After the unfortunate end of Black Isle Studios, many people were quite distraught because two promising projects from Interplay's RPG development arm were canned. Therefore, a lot of people were happy when most of the BIS team reformed as Obsidian Entertainment. All the cool features and storylines promised in the aborted games for Interplay--surely they'd be back in the fantastic and innovative games that Obsidian would make once it was free of Interplay?

The short answer is: no. Despite being unburdened of Interplay's incompetence, Obsidian now had to deal with the issues of being an independent developer with no funds. So, they relied on the connections they'd made during their BIS days and announced... Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Okay, so they'd be stuck with a shitty engine making a console game that was a sequel to one of the most bland and uninspired games in years. Still, there was the potential to make something of it, right?

Well, there was, but the combined efforts of Obsidian and LucasArts completely squandered it. Obsidian could be blamed for the game's longwinded and pretentious philosophical/psychobabble ramblings, unoriginal plot ("go to these four planets and find these four words of power star maps Jedi masters!") and complete lack of balance. LucasArts could be blamed for the game's notorious bugginess, rushed development cycle and thus its lack of a real ending. The end result is a game that's just terrible. To LucasArts' credit, though, it seems like KOTOR2 would have been terrible even without their efforts to ruin it since the designers of the game apparently completely missed the point of Star Wars: no-brainer space opera where you divert the viewer/player's attention from questions of morality and philosophy and towards the laser swords and space battles.

Kreia is an enormous bitch and probably the thing that's easiest to hate about KOTOR2


But even after KOTOR2, Obsidian wasn't done disappointing. Even back when they were Black Isle, they'd just been making games from BioWare's leftovers (see all the Infinity Engine games that kept Interplay alive for a long time), and they weren't done yet. Anyone hoping that Obsidian would do anything more interesting after KOTOR2 had to shelve those hopes when Neverwinter Nights 2 was announced to be under development at Obsidian, because the world desperately needed another D&D RPG that gets everything wrong. Thus far, what we've heard about NWN2 suggests that it'll be an update of the toolset with a new single player campaign. But if KOTOR2 and the execrable NWN campaign are anything to go by, we shouldn't be expecting anything spectacular here, especially since Atari, arguably the best Interplay impersonators out there, are publishing it.

And if you haven't yet totally given up on Obsidian as a company that'll make some interesting PC RPGs, there's one last thing you have to hear: Obsidian Entertainment's third project is the still-mysterious Project New Jersey. Little is known about it, but it is known that it will be console exclusive, use the fancy pants Unreal Engine 3 (for really nice particle effects) and be some kind of action RPG.

So to recap, Obsidian has done/likely will do:
  • A piss poor console port,
  • A sequel to one of the worst RPGs of all time,
  • A bunch of worthless console action RPGs.
Sounds like a real SLAM DUNK! company, but terrible news for those of us looking for real RPGs to play on our computers.

Troika Dies

Last year, Troika Games released Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines: Subtitle: Appendum: Something Else. The game had a lot of strengths, but a lot of flaws, too, to the point that it apparently didn't sell much. After the 2003 release of Temple of Elemental Evil, which sold well but got Troika a bad reputation due mainly to its bugginess, and the poor sales of Arcanum a couple years before, Troika couldn't find anyone to fund their next game, an ambitious post-apocalyptic RPG running on a great-looking internally developed engine. With no publishers to back them and without any real funds of their own, Troika was forced to close shop. According to a post on our very own forums by Tim Cain (because RPG Codex is known as the best place to be miserable about RPGs) Troika closed its doors on February 28th and the last step in the dissolution of the company came on Christmas Eve, which is thematically kind of spooky.

Dead and gone


With Troika went about the best shot PC gamers had at some decent RPGs. Still, it's hard to deny that to a certain extent, Troika brought it upon themselves. If only they'd seen the same wisdom as other developers like BioWare and Obsidian and turned away from this silly PC RPG market, they might still be around today, making godawful Zelda clones for PlayStation 3 and wondering what the hell happened. Instead, they stuck to this goofy idea of making solid RPGs for PC and went bankrupt.

So... anyone want to hire a good artist?

Bethesda: A Case Study of Bad PR

The end result of Bethesda's massive PR blitz


Oblivion teased us with the promise of the winter holidays release and quietly slipped into 2006 to meet various quality standards, which is always a good sign when it happens a month before the release. So, what do we know about this clearly revolutionary title? Let's start with the most important features that were patiently repeated by Bethesda's PR until they were firmly imprinted in everyone's mind: soil erosion, Radiant AI, virtual forests, and Patrick Stewart!!! (Yes, with three exclamation marks). I'm sure that the new generation of Bethesda's fans would enjoy the game with only the four elements mentioned above, but believe it or not, there are other features too. A lot of thought and hard work went into redesigning the game to make it accessible to all, even people without computers. Features were combined to ensure uninterrupted and smooth gameplay experience; features that couldn't be combined or were tagged as uncool by the focus group were removed. Mark & Recall are gone; levitation has been removed from towns and quite possibly from the game; mounted combat has never materialized, being easy to promise, but difficult to implement; the number of factions has been reduced, thereby removing one of the more interesting classes; daggers and swords now use one skill, axes are blunt weapons, staffs are rocket launchers, and we assume you already know that crossbows, throwing weapons and spears are gone. Dialogue screens have been guarded like a fabled treasure by Bethesda PR, probably for a good reason - the unofficial Russian preview showed screens featuring awful writing in big letters for either visually impaired or beginner readers. It looks like Bethesda decided to bet everything on visual aspects and familiar voices, hoping that that's more than enough in the new age of gaming. 2006 will tell.

One Year In Development, Two More Years Until Release

It has previously been noted that Atari is run by chowderheads, for chowderheads. One of the more glaring examples of their dumbfuckery was their handling of the release of the German RPG, Gothic II. In Germany, the game was published by JoWood, but Atari was handling the release of the game in North America. It took them long enough to release the game at all, and when they finally did, it was liked well enough--so that the forthcoming expansion, Night of the Raven was rather being anticipated. It was thus surprising when Atari neglected to release the game at all.

Fans of Gothic II had to wait until just last month to finally play Night of the Raven, when it was released by Aspyr Media as part of a Gothic II Gold bundle. It'd be easy to grouse about this, but at least people got to play NotR before Gothic III gets released later this year.

The Combat RPG of 2004

D.W. Bradley is an amusing character. Many years ago, he earned himself some RPG credibility by working on some classic dungeon crawlers--specifically, Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom, VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge and VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. Then, he decided he'd leave SirTech and start his own company, Heuristic Park. This is where everything went wrong for poor old D.W. First, Heuristic did a Wizardry clone called Wizards and Warriors. It was mostly similar to the old fashioned monster thumping dungeon crawlers Bradley had made his name in, except that it was unbelievably horrid. This was back in 2000.

Undaunted by the complete failure of W&W, Bradley and Heuristic Park apparently managed to find a new dupe to publish their next game, an action RPG hack'n'slasher with the promising title Dungeon Lords. From the beginning, Dung Lords (as it has been Christened by people who've run into it) never sounded altogether promising because Bradley did his honest best to make it sound as awful as he could. Bradley stressed that the focus was on action and combat and that nobody should expect a non-linear story or an interesting character system. The DL hype was particularly focused on the nebulous idea that is "immersion". Bradley hoped to further immerse players in the game by removing almost all on screen readouts like health, mana, experience or what have you. This made perfect sense, of course--less information leads to more immersion, as any idiot knows. They also made sure to note at every opportunity that while Dungeon Lords was meant to "revolutionize" RPGs with new ideas, it was also meant to be a throwback to old school RPGs. This may seem like an obvious contradiction to you, but it makes perfect sense when you're in marketing or as insane as D.W. Bradley. The best part of the marketing campaign, though, was when, waaay back in 2004, the game was advertised as the "Combat RPG of 2004". Of course, the game was ultimately delayed until mid-2005, but hey, a good slogan is a good slogan! Even after the delay, they wouldn't give up on it. The press release from publisher Dreamcatcher Interactive announcing the final release date of DL had the game tagged as "the world's first combat role-playing game". It's still not exactly clear what the hell that means, because while there have been action RPGs and hack'n'slashers for years and years, I guess nobody's thought to make one and call it a "combat" RPG before. The peculiar circumstances surrounding the demo for DL didn't help either. First, it was meant to be released in September of 2004, which of course didn't happen since the game wasn't finished yet (mind you, it wasn't finished when they finally released it, either). And even when they did release it, the demo was such horrific crap that Heuristic Park had to vigorously deny that the final game would be anything like the demo, which seems to defeat the purpose of a demo anyways. But let's just recall the last time a developer released a demo and then had to promise the final game would be totally different. Think back to 2003. Think back (if you can stand to) to Lionheart. This was an important clue in the Mystery of Whether Or Not Dungeon Lords Would Be Crap.

WHY, BRADLEY, WHY?


After such a disastrous hyping campaign, troubled development and general idiocy on the part of everyone involved in the game, it wasn't altogether surprising when Dungeon Lords, upon release, turned out to be horrifically bad. Even without the ridiculous bugginess and the missing features, it was just a godawful piece of crap game that wasn't worth playing. But the really scary part is that even though everyone absolutely hated Dungeon Lords, they've inexplicably decided to release a Collector's Edition. DL getting re-released at all is a miracle, but a full collector's edition is a clear example of failing up... or maybe Dreamcatcher is just completely desperate.

Geneforge How Many Now?

We've always really liked Jeff Vogel's Spiderweb Software because his games are clear examples of how one guy working hard can make a huge, non-linear game in an original setting, something great big companies with colossal budgets consistently fail at. The Geneforge games are the best example of this. Set in a world where powerful spellcasters called Shapers use magic to make creatures for various tasks ranging from agriculture to war, the Geneforge games were fascinating explorations of fully realized and well fleshed out worlds that were always full of surprises and neat twists.

This year, Spiderweb released Geneforge III, and the series is starting to show its age. The main problem is the engine, which has been in use for far too long. The Geneforge games always succeeded in spite of the engine they ran on, but it's been used too often to overlook its glaring flaws. The combat system in Geneforge was always weak, and this is really the biggest gripe people have with it: combat, which is generally a pretty big part of Vogel's games, just isn't that much fun in GF. GF3 doesn't do very much to change that. The game isn't bad, but it's really just more of the same, and we have to expect more from developers. For this reason, we have to ask Jeff Vogel to do two things: first, please get a new engine. Second, please do a new game with it. Something completely different from Geneforge or Avernum, because until you do, new Spiderweb games just won't be that exciting anymore.

The Witcher: RPG Hype Redefined

It seems that Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski wrote a series of fantasy novels centering around a character called The Witcher. Then, it seems CD Projekt, Poland's largest games publisher, wanted to get into the development business, so they decided to make an RPG based on the popular Witcher license. Thus, they announced that a game called, sure enough, The Witcher was in development at CD Projekt Red. Witcher was going to be an RPG set in a rich, detailed game world and would feature fast paced action combat, fantastic graphics and even promised some deep RPG elements. Sounds like pretty standard fare in the modern RPG genre, but what really sets The Witcher apart is the hype. You probably do need to go the extra mile in hype to attract the world's attention when you're an unknown Polish developer, but that doesn't mean we're going to let anyone get away with bad hype. In a long-winded interview, the people behind the game declared they were going to deeply examine the RPG, see what basic elements make the genre tick and then try to redefine the whole damn thing and make something new. Long hours of deep thought were invested in this ambitious endeavour. When you're dealing with something as monolithic as RPGs, you have to be real careful when you go about redefining it. Finally, though, their arduous mental labours bore fruit. As the Witcher developers told FiringSquad in the interview: "And here are the results of our considerations. The crucial elements of the game should be: the storyline, combat system, freedom and non-linearity, character equipping and development. At the same time, all the aforementioned issues should be most intuitive and easy-to-use for the gamers."


Witchy


Wow. Way to go, CD Projekt. In all the history of RPG development, we've never heard of anyone focusing on story, combat, non-linearity and character development! We especially like how redefining RPGs means imposing a predefined PC with his own extensive backstory on players. For reinventing the wheel and coming up with a square, we award CD Projekt our Hype of the Year Award--and they never even used "epic" or "revolutionary" once.

The Red Menace

You gotta love those Russians. They clearly love their video games over there, and so it's not all that surprising that they, too, should try their hand at making some games. Unfortunately, due to poor localization, poor funding or just poor gamemaking, the stuff they produce is all too often just not that great. Consider Metalheart: Replicant Rampage. This Russian-made RPG had a cyberpunk theme and was heavily inspired from Fallout (because lord knows we love developers who try to use the Fallout name to promote their own worthless games). Especially promising was the promised robust turn based combat system. Unfortunately, the final game was complete garbage.

On the other hand, though, you'll occasionally end up with a real gem coming out of Russia. Consider Nival Interactive. In 2003, they wowed us with the excellent World War II tactical turn based Silent Storm. They were back this year with a follow up of sorts to SS: Hammer & Sickle. Set in Cold War Germany, H&S has you playing a Russian spy (which is a neat twist on every other spy game, movie or novel) trying to prevent World War III. The game originally started as a mod for Silent Storm made by some enterprising fans, but Nival felt it had so much promise that they decided to turn it into a full game. What we've heard so far about Hammer & Sickle is very positive. The game is incredibly responsive to the player's actions--and reactivity is an absolutely crucial thing for an RPG to do--and the tactical combat everyone loved in Silent Storm is back in force (which isn't surprising as it's the same engine). In a year when North American developers could do nothing but develop boring action RPGs or try to squeeze just a tiny bit more light bloom into the latest screenshots of their ultra flashy new game, Nival seems to have reminded us what RPGs ought to be.

Another gem from our friends behind the Iron Curtain and one of the best RPGs of 2005 is Space Rangers 2, a space-trader game with RPG elements by developer Elemental Games. Fortunately, those RPG elements are much better than many so-called RPGs we've seen in years. The game features turn-based space combat (always a plus), a very dynamic, living gameworld that doesn't revolve around you for a change, in-depth spaceship customization and tons of equipment, great text-based quests with detailed scenarios and multiple choices, and tons of little things that add a lot, like research, mechs, space probes, etc. This game easily qualifies as one of the top 20 games of the year, so if you missed it, now is the time to place the order.

When Did Action Combat Become a Standard Feature?

Take a look at what's coming in RPGs. Set aside the fact that everything that's coming looks pretty crappy (that was a given, really). Notice how almost all the games that are getting made these days are action RPGs. This year, there were a lot of action RPGs released, and some of them were pretty good, but that's not the point. Why do we have to settle for action RPGs? Why isn't anyone making an old fashioned RPG that isn't just a reapplication of the loot and monster smashing formula Blizzard perfected with their Diablo series?

When we say action RPG, we don't mean anything without turn based combat, but when hardly anything is coming that doesn't have either full blown action RPG gameplay, third person action combat or is an outright FPS with stats, there is a problem. Certainly there's room for these kinds of games--Sacred, whose expansion Sacred: Underworld was released this year, is pretty popular and the Gothic games have a devoted following--but we also need traditional games to be made.

Publishers, who apparently are terrified of RPGs in the first place, seem to think that nobody wants to play even mildly complicated RPGs on the level of Baldur's Gate. Don't believe me? Show me an RPG that's not going to have reflex based combat systems. Even in Neverwinter Nights 2, sequel to a game that, other flaws aside, was the kind of traditional RPG we're not getting, Obsidian is talking about implementing combo attacks. So where do publishers get these silly ideas? Well, they get them from the monstrous sales that a rare few action RPGs get--namely, the Diablos. But what they fail to realise is that most action RPGs tank--and tank hard. Diablo has become the iconic action RPG partially because it's one of the few that's actually succeeded. The reason why most action RPGs fail is twofold. First, most of them just aren't any good. Because the game tends to be easy to pick up and play, it's somehow assumed that it must be easy to make. This is not so. Any veteran Diablo II player knows that although it looks like a simple game, the reality is that they're remarkably complex games that take a lot of hard work to make properly, especially if you want to offer an online service like Blizzard's famous Battle.net. And that's a big part of the second reason most action RPGs fail. They'll attempt to emulate the gameplay of Diablo and sometimes succeed, but they won't replicate the dedicated support and excellent online play that Blizzard offers (and for free). Basically, Diablo II is already there, so why bother with another game that's not even going to offer the depth and replayability of Blizzard's classic?

But nevertheless, publishers hungry for a Blizzard-sized hit without Blizzard-sized investment blindly go after generic and lackluster action RPGs. Meanwhile, the market for traditional RPGs--which exists, damn it--goes hungry because nobody's bothering to make games in that vein. And when they do, they still cop out to this assumed desire for action RPGs by "streamlining" the combat to make it more "immersive"--and probably "epic", too. It used to be that the trend in RPGs was to move away from turn based games and towards real time combat. In what is perhaps an extension of that trend, it seems everyone just wants to make story light, action heavy games that get further and further away from the games that RPGers want to play.

With all that out of the way, let's take a look at one of the better action RPGs this year--and an indie game, to boot. FATE is an action RPG that was basically created by one guy, Travis Baldree. It's a pretty direct clone of Diablo with a number of neat improvements (for example, in FATE, gold is automatically picked up if you walk over it, because, hey, who doesn't want gold?) and some new features like pets and fishing (really). It even has some nice looking 3D graphics. At $20, it's a hard offer to pass up. The only real problem with it (beyond it being an action RPG, of course) is that it doesn't have multiplayer, which is essential to the longevity of a good action RPG.

Honestly, did anyone really want this game to be made?


On the other hand, this year also saw games like Dungeon Siege II. In 2002, Chris Taylor gave us the most boring RPG ever--Dungeon Siege. Three years and far too many development diaries later, we were given a sequel that, to put it simply, still sucks. The reason why is simple. As Saint Proverbius noted, the problem with Dungeon Siege II is that it's an action RPG made by people who don't really understand what makes action RPGs good. Chris Taylor was under the impression that Dungeon Siege II "represents one of the highest density experiences you'll ever get in a box." If you play the game, you will see that it represents nothing but boredom, mediocre gameplay, and bad game design. You get classes with meaningless racial modifiers like +2 to Strength that work in D&D, but are meaningless in a system where stats' values quickly raise to 100+, making race a purely cosmetic choice. You get skill trees that railroad you into one of the 3 stereotypes and force you to stick with one, unlike Diablo II skill trees that supported various and diverse builds, inviting players to experiment with them. The DS2 skills mostly offer bonuses to existing attacks and abilities, which makes progressing and reaching levels less rewarding than it should be. And last, but not the least, the gameplay itself remains as boring and uneventful as in the first Dungeon Siege, which was often thought to be an expensive screensaver. Whereas in Diablo II you have to use different attacks and skills to deal with different situations, in DS2 you have only ONE attack, so you end up holding the button down killing things and waiting for your unbalanced special attacks, dealing thousands points of damage, to charge. At that point you release almost instant death on a poor creature that happened to be nearby, and the “wait for the special attack to charge" minigame begins again. Chapter bosses add to the pain by having tens of thousands of hit points, so defeating them, just like playing the entire game, is a long and boring process, requiring a lot of patience and lack of anything better to do. Rarely has a game made adventure and combat as boring as the Dungeon Siege games do--but hey, at least it looks nice.

Saint_Proverbius's Big List of People We Pissed Off in 2005

It seems we pissed off numerous fans of several games out there. We pissed off a few fans of MIST Land by mocking the developers because they were baiting and switching on us when it came to having turn based in Jagged Alliance 3D. That spawned a few Russian fans to invite our forum and post a few posts about how dumb we were or something.

Really, I think we completely pissed off the Bethesda fanboys. In fact, a huge chunk of them came over here and told us we were pretty stupid in lord knows how many threads. Heck, there's probably twenty or so threads asking why we didn't like Morrowind alone. Here's a hint though, it sucked. That's why we didn't like it.

I'm pretty sure we pissed off Exitium, who is now at Hellgate Guru. He's been talking about how stupid we are for the last few months. Then again, he's now playing World of Warcraft, so he hasn't had a lot of time to tell people how stupid we are lately. If he has, I haven't noticed.

We pissed off Volourn. Yup, he was pissed enough to spam the hell out of the RPG Codex Site Feedback forum. It was something about how we were stalking him or something. Of course, I don't think anyone actually did stalk him, even though he's posted his address on the forum dozens of times and told us to come and get him.

I'm pretty sure Vault Dweller at least moderately irked Pete Hines of Bethesda with the Full of Shit thing. Oh, and Mr. Smiley Faced Dude f-bombed some twit talking about meteor strikes in Maryland, which was good fun.

We continue to piss off LARPers. But hey, they're just furries with ping pong balls and foam swords.

I think the main person we pissed off would have to be Super Bunker Bigot Cleave Blakemore, whom you guys may remember is the guy who spent the last dozen plus years working on a clone of Wizardry from deep inside the confines of his nuclear proof cave deep under Austrailia. We made him so mad, he spent days, even weeks, polluting the front page of his game development site with just exactly how much he hates us. He even threatenned to have some accountants sue us for libel after saying that us linking to his site has been great for the activity of his site. Yup, he's a bonafide GEENYOUS! Oh, and he's also fat.

Here's to 2006

That's about all that happened in 2005 in RPGs that's worth caring about. As you may have noticed, 2005 really, really sucked for the RPG fan. The good news is that 2006 is shaping up to suck just as much. Oblivion, among other stinkers, will likely be released in the coming months, and we can at least expect the BioWare hype machine to hit fourth gear by the end of the year. The trend of the industry (that trend being right into the toilet, if you haven't been following) will likely continue and probably accelerate. The RPG genre is in the unique position of not wondering what Next Big Thing is waiting around the corner to wow everyone, but rather to contemplate what the Next Huge Letdown will be. It's almost enough to make you read a book instead of waiting for the damn computer to provide entertainment. Happy new year anyways, and may your life not suck as much as modern RPGs.

Thanks to !HyPeRbOy! for his Oblivion box

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