Sunday, May 31, 2009

Team Fortress 2 Unlockables and Achievements: Back to Normal

Valve has updated the item unlock system of Team Fortress 2 to include achievement milestones again.
Added Sniper/Spy milestone achievements as an additional way players can get the new unlockables.
So, in addition to the new random drop system, we also have the old exploitable/grind achievements model. While, I like that there is a directed way to unlock the items for a single class again, I can't help but sigh at the fact that Spy and Sniper achievement cheat servers are going to run rampant. I'm not sure this benefits any legitimate players, as it appears the random drop rate for items has been increased. I'm getting new items faster than before and I've not suffered a duplicate item since my run in with Natascha x4.

Keen believes this combined system redeems Valve for the early stutters of the random drop system:
Thankfully they came to their senses. Valve fixed the unlock controversy with a patch today that makes the item unlock system work how it should have worked all along: Items are once again unlockable through earning achievements in addition to being found through drops. I’ve noticed that the drop rate has been increased as well (found 3 items, that I already had, in under an hour of actually playing).
I don't see how it redeems Valve. With the increased drop rate, I can't imagine anyone playing fair would actually go after the achievement milestones as a way to unlock an item. Which means, the only players using the achievement milestones are the cheaters that want the Spy/Sniper items (or whatever class is next to get updated).

In my opinion, this just shows how poorly thought out the unlock system was to begin with. As I've stated in the past, Valve should just dump the system and keep the random drops for things like hats.

Keen ends the argument for me:
Honestly, it’s a bit easy and if you play for any time at all you’re going to get items but that’s how a FPS game should be - all skill with these extras being fluff.
It will be interesting to see the spike in the number of Spys and Snipers running around with their new toys, all gained through legitimate means no doubt.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Free Realms Hits 2 Million, None Could Be Reached For Comment

Free Realms, fresh off their first million players announcement, has announced that they've reached the 2 million mark.
Today Sony announced that over 2 million unique users have registered to their new free2play MMORPG Free Realms. Of those users, 75% are under the age of 17, 46% under 13 and 1/3 are female gamers. To be honest I thought Free Realms was going to be a flop. I didn’t actually play it, but I obviously severely underestimated the draw it would have on young people. Two million unique registered players in less then one month is huge to say the least.
Certainly a remarkable feat, although moot in the grand scheme of "is it making any money?". However, I honestly question where these two million players reside. I've logged a few hours in Free Realms now and I have yet to actually speak to anyone in game directly. I haven't even seen local chat between players. Even when playing the card game, there is limited to no talk between players. So far, Free Realms is a 3D web site that forces you to run from mini-game to mini-game instead offering the instant access of a standard website.

I'm really confused on what to think of Free Realms. The mini-games get repetitive fast, but yet tie back into a larger world which varies the goals and makes the repetition at least mildly interesting. Secondly, the game play is solid and the game itself runs without a hitch (so far).

But as I approach more than a few hours played, I am starting to see the freebies run out and the game increasingly asking for a credit card. Plus, it loves to remind players at every loading screen that member benefits are only $4.99 (per month) away and as anyone that plays Free Realms knows, there are A LOT of loading screens.

Unfortunately, I don't think SOE cares. They are hitting their age demographic and as I have no teenagers/young adults in my household, Free Realms is most likely to be lost upon me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

No Such Thing as a Free Game: Quake Live

Ever heard that there is no such thing as a free puppy? Sure, the puppy is free, but the food is not, veterinarian bills don't pay themselves, and that poop in the back yard isn't going to clean itself up. Nothing is ever free; there is always a price to pay.

Quake Live: Free to play, ad supported

Why Quake Live isn’t a free game: because there’s a $1,500 gaming computer sitting on the desk.

Pros:
  • Free to play and the advertisements are not intrusive.
  • It runs or will run on almost any PC.*
  • Quake Live is quick and simple to get started with. The game itself downloads while players play a practice match against the computer.
  • The social and community features are well done. It’s easy to track friends and join them in matches.
  • The achievements system is well done, adds challenges, and contributes to replay value.
  • Tons of maps and several game types also keep replay value high.
  • Match-making based on skill level helps to keep a level playing field.
  • Finding a match that interests a player and offers the game type they want is dead simple. One of the best mergers of a server browser/match making system that I’ve ever seen.
Cons:
  • It claims to be web browser-based, but requires an installer that runs outside of the web browser. **
  • The game does not seem to cope well with latency. Any little bump in latency or lag will result in a deteriorated play experience.
  • Game-play is twitch-based and fast. This limits the game to a niche audience.
  • The text output onto the UI is tough to read and follow.
  • The graphics are dated and special effects are lacking.
Conclusion

Quake Live significantly lowers the barrier for entry into the FPS gaming genre and as a game that is meant to be played in a web browser, it’s good. For those players lacking an up to date gaming rig, Quake Live is a golden opportunity. For those players with an up to date rig, like me, Quake Live feels dated. I have always believed in quality of game play over eye candy, but when I can pick up games like Team Fortress 2 or Unreal Tournament III for $10-$20, Quake Live loses ground. However, free is free and Quake Live delivers exactly as it has promised and offers a FREE escape for a few minutes of FPS fun. For that, I give it two thumbs up. So, go give it a try!

*as of this writing, only a Windows installer is available, but they are working on Linux and MAC versions.

**the installer installs a plug-in based on the web browser being used. For me, it was Firefox, which normally can install plug-ins without the need to download an installer and regardless of what operating system I am using at the time.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Team Fortress 2: Spy vs. Sniper Unlocks/Item System Woes

It was not long ago that I questioned Valve's item unlock and achievement system for Team Fortress 2. The original system, whereby new items were unlocked by completing achievements, promoted grinding and cheating. It wasn't any fun.

Fast forward to the Spy vs Sniper update and Valve has introduced a new system. Gone are unlocks via achievements; arrived are unlocks via random luck (or so it seems). The new system:
For the last number of months we've been working on using the Steam Cloud to store a player's inventory. With that finally in place, we were able to deploy a new system focused on the giving of items to players. That new system watches the amount of time that players are playing TF2, and gives them a chance to find items at regular intervals. They aren't guaranteed to get the item at those points, but they have a pretty good chance. We based the system on granting items on the amount of time played because we don't want players to have to do weird things like join achievement grinding servers to get new content. Basing it off time also has the benefit of ensuring that if you play a lot of TF2, you're going to get more items than players who don't.

However, this has spawned a new type of cheat. Players are filling up cheat servers, going AFK, and after X hours are receiving their items. Whereby, a lot of players who are actually playing, are getting items at a slower rate because when someone actually plays, there is downtime between matches as servers load new maps. There is a slight advantage to the cheaters currently, but honestly, if the items can be attained legitimately by just playing, the cheating isn't as detrimental as within the old system.

Valve has stated the system is suffering from some bugs and they are investigating it. The major issue where players were receiving NO unlocks after hours of play has been resolved.
In the first few hours after the release yesterday, we had some issues that prevented the system from working properly, so that timeframe was not indicative of the system as it's designed.
Unfortunately most of my playtime with the new patch was during the affected timeframe, so I do not have much experience with the system to give a thumbs up/down. So far, in about an hour of play outside that window, I've yet to stumble across a single item. Thus, I am ending this post and getting back to the business of bitch-slapping some spies and hoping for random drops. It almost makes me wonder if I'm playing an FPS or an MMO!

Update: After 2.5 hours of play, I have "found" my first item. I died and then a screen popped up stating that I had unlocked Bonk! Atomic Punch for the scout.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Were You Surprised?

Proving that not even updates are safe from a backstabbing Spy in Team Fortress 2: Valve. Simply. Owns.
First there’s the Dead Ringer Spy Watch, a brand new golden pocket watch. As many speculated last night, this is a device designed to create a ‘feign death’ move. Activated once the Spy has received a non-critical hit, he cloaks for up to eight seconds, while a fake corpse collapses to the ground.

Then there’s the Cloak And Dagger Spy Watch, a regenerating cloak device. Stand still and it will refill your power gauge, only draining when you move.

These are the two items selected from the Spy’s Dapper Rogue Catalogue, “Catalogue for the Gentleman Rogue”. Others featured include a suit made of macrofilm and a ski mask grappling hook. Of all those mentioned, perhaps the only other realistic option might be the flamethrower lighter.
Oh, and a new "Meet the" movie (guess who it is).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Weeks of Gaming in a Hotel

I will be out of town for a couple weeks starting tomorrow, which means I move onto the great adventure of online gaming via crappy hotel wireless. Or lack there of. Most likely, I will end up installing a few single-player offline games on my trusty laptop.

I was thinking Never Winter Nights 2 (I still haven't finished the single player campaign!). Or maybe Warcraft III. Oh, and The Path to see what hidden secrets I can find. Plants vs. Zombies too, because it simply rocks. Peggle for that matter as well!

Now, lets hope the wife doesn't read this.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You Will Shoot Them and They Will Stick to the Wall and They Will Die

No, the Huntsman doesn't stun. It pins dead/dying players.
Any experienced sniper will tell you how irritating it is when your targets keep moving around. The question is how to stop these cheaters from wind-sprinting around like they own the place. And the answer is to pin them to a wall. How? With arrows!

"Now, hold on," you might be thinking. "I'm strong, but no one could throw an arrow that hard." Introducing the Huntsman longbow, which solves that age-old throwing problem.

"Now, hold on," you keep saying. "Aren't bows and arrows primitive and harmless?" Why don't you ask the dinosaurs? Except you can't, because the cavemen bow and arrowed them to death. One headshot from the Huntsman can mean an instant crit, in addition to a bolt-riddled corpse hanging from a wall that's gruesome and funny.

And even if you don't kill them, they'll carry around a certain arrow-shaped something as a living testament to your awesome archery skills and their frankly unawesome dodging skills. Comes with 18 arrows and a one-second charge for full power shots.
Team Fortress 2 + class updates + sniper + bow and arrow = win. Now, Valve, how about that next "meet the X" video?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mythic Checks Another Item Off WAR's Lazy Designs List

Great. Fucking. News. (for Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning players).
Wards will now be pieced together to form character-centric sigils, which are placed inside of the Tome of Knowledge instead of on the armor itself. These sigils are always active, no matter what armor you’re wearing, eliminating the need to carry the right wards on the right parts. Prior players who are loaded with ward gear, do not fret! Your wards will combine together to form sigils right off of the bat, so you won’t be outdated when the new system hits.
The ward system in WAR, by itself, was not bad. However, the way in which warded gear was limited to certain sets, made all other gear attained in WAR pointless. Often times, epic gear that took 100s of hours of playtime to obtain (RvR influence rewards), had to immediately be discarded because they did not contain any wards.

This proposed change fixes not only the warded gear itself, but the randomness of waiting for a specific piece of gear to drop from a dungeon on a lockout timer.
Even if you don’t have the right wards to get a sigil, you can now unlock “pieces” of the ward by completing achievement objectives, like defeating a boss that would give you that piece of ward armor X times. So even if it never drops for you, you’ll still get it eventually.

The timing for this change is excellent as well, as the Land of the Dead expansion is going to require players to be up-to-par on their wards for the new content. Not only that, but there will be tons of new items that would have otherwise gone to waste had the ward system not been revamped.

Outside of the obvious performance issues, the debate over warded gear raged loudest and this appears to be a silencing shot from Mythic. Still, the performance issue must remain Mythic's priority, and until Mythic gets it under control, no amount of design greatness is going to save WAR.

However, it is still good to see that Mythic is slowly, but surely checking off items on their Lazy WAR Designs List. I just wish the same could be said about the WAR Performance Issues Log.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Free Realms' Similar Demographics

While surfing Aeria Games' twitter feed for any updates on Shadowbane's future, I cam accross this gem of a quote:
We're interested to see what you think of Free Realms. Our Hello Kitty Online will also have similar demographics.
about 24 hours ago from web
Ouch.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mythos: Two Studios, One New Beginning

After Flagship flagshipped themselves, the free-to-play faux-MMOG Mythos disappeared off the gaming landscape. Now there is news that Hannbitsoft managed to hang on to the Mythos license and tech upon Flagship’s demise and are putting not one, but two, development studios to work on resurrecting the game:
The funny thing about Mythos is that it was essentially finished, with future plans being more about additional content than sweeping changes. Hannbitsoft, however, seem to have tasked the new studio (two of ‘em, in fact - T3 Entertainment and Redbana US) with a fairly significant rethink. “MYTHOS is currently in a good condition where it’s being reconstructed” says the official release. “We are trying to keep the strengths that MYTHOS used to have, and strengthen them even more to make more suited as an online game.”
While the linked article notes that Mythos was "essentially finished", something I strongly disagree with, the questions have to be asked.

Will it remain free-to-play?
How many changes will be made?
And what's the end goal? Traditional MMO? Quick time waster? Other!?

When I last played Mythos, Flagship was in the process of gutting the game from a Guild Wars-style hub-world design to an "Overworld" traditional MMOG. I did not like the move and I believe Mythos lost its charm in the process.

It will be interesting to see what the new developers do with Mythos. I am hoping they can put the technology behind the game to better use than Flagship. The original idea that Mythos was going to be updated on-the-fly while gamers were playing never came to fruition and by the end of Flagship's existence, Mythos turned from a neat little testbed for Hellgate's multiplayer tech to a washed out hack'n'slash game trying to be an MMOG.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Darkfall, The Lost Review (made possible, unknowingly, by Kieron Gillen)

Smart people, when confronted with a bee's nest, avoid it. Others carelessly walk into it and learn their lesson for the next go-around. The rest of us get a stick.

Not letting a crisis go to waste, I present a review of Darkfall, as made possible by Kieron Gillen, edited by me, and published below without permission.
There's an urge to give it one out of ten. Maybe a two, because two sounds more genuine than one. One sounds like foot-stomping petulance. Two sounds considered, as if I really do mean it. I'm not, because I don't, but it'd serve a couple of good purposes. Firstly, if considered solely as a classical game, Darkfall is bloody terrible. Secondly, if you're the sort of person who cares about the review score, it's almost certainly not for you and I should turn you off as quickly as possible.

That's what a lot of this review is going to be about. Darkfall is a strange, unusual, progressive and unique game, which may even be important for the industry and the development of the form in a handful of ways. It's not for everyone. And I've got to write a review which says that, while not turning "It isn't for everyone" into a challenge for people who quite like to think of themselves as one of the Not Like Everyones.

The name "game" is always going to confuse people. You only really work out what something should be called after a name's codified. Names for mediums are always kind of made up on the fly. "Novel" has a particularly tortured history as a word. Comics comes from the fact they were the funny pages in the paper - but soon became anything but. A century down the line, they realized they should call comics "sequential narrative", which cuts to the core of what the medium is. It'll never stick, because it's so bloody ugly and there's already a name everyone knows. C'est la vie. We're stuck with novels, comics and games - and novels that aren't novel, comics which aren't comic and videogames which aren't...

Darkfall is a videogame that isn't a game. Or at least, the game part is deeply vestigial. It is deeply interactive - in fact, in parts about interaction - but in terms of the mechanics which characterize games, there's "sporadically collecting and killing stuff". It's most like an adventure game, but there are no puzzles. The win/lose state is ironic.

That's fine. As a medium, videogames' fundamental characteristic is interaction. The classical "game" is a form of interaction, but it's not the only thing we can do, and certainly not the only thing we've loved - think of the first half of The Cradle in Thief 3, think about the rollercoaster linear scripted sequences in many shooters where you've got no chance of dying, think of selecting jokes to make in old school LucasArts adventures which don't change anything. Games are more than games. Don't come to Darkfall expecting any of that.

Eyes glazed over? It's safe to say that Darkfall isn't for you. It'll try your patience far more than a mere 500-word "what-are-games-anyway-man?" intro. And it's even more pretentious. No, really.

Darkfall is a riff off the old MMORPG. You choose between six races: Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Mahirim, Orks and Alfar. You're then deposited at the start of your racial capital, with little more than a name, some basic equipment, and a neutral alignment. You’re given two commands. One, go kill stuff. Two, be killed. If you obey, another player will kill you in a couple of minutes and you’ll be told by the death screen you've lost all of your gear. You probably won't do that. You go off and find a wolf to kill. Eventually, after the confrontation, you've wandered outside some clan’s city, in the rain, and you slowly limp inside before being presented with a semi-interactive nightmarish walk around the city before you're finally escorted to the death screen with oblique, brutal images. You’ve just been PK’d. Now the death screen says you've succeeded, and you're deposited back on the selection screen with a race played and five more left to go.

In the previous paragraph, read that wolf as "Wolf". It's not that literal. In fact, if you're looking for literal, you're really in the wrong game. The Wolf is what, for better or worse, puts an end to your character. Everything is explicitly shown, and some ends are suggestively brutal. You suspect that the developers would agree with Poe's famous quote about the death of a beautiful woman being the most poetical topic in the world.

So it's a horror game, in an atmospheric, oblique manner. The atmosphere is the point. It's about as goth as Dracula's armpits. And as dark, though less smelly. The visuals are dated, jaggged, and drab. The smears of sound alternate between semi-pastoral and openly nagging oppressive, swelling brilliantly in the game's set-pieces.

And then there's the actual game. You're on a single track, and any interaction with the controls makes you take another step along this delirious route. If you don't keep moving, someone will find you and I've never actually been brave enough to just leave to see what happens. This fact, for me, is one of the finest formalist parts of the game - that step-to-move captures how you feel when you're actually getting PK’d. Running through houses, knowing something's behind you, trying to escape, knowing you're on a track, trapped...

It's not the only place where interaction is reduced for an aesthetic effect - though generally speaking, they're less successful. For example, to interact with anything in the game, you press F, and then your character will wander over and have a nose at whatever's nearby. To interact, you stop interacting. I more admire the elegance of that control system than its obvious deconstruction. The one total mis-step is removing the run option when you're out of stamina, forcing you to walk around. It actually discourages you from exploring these locations as it takes so long to do. The most interesting parts of the game - this misty lake, this abandoned fort, this massive stage - find their effect slightly neutered.

The stars of the game are the other players. From their visual design, to their animations, to the one-liners they respond with to whatever they just did, each is well characterized and memorable. They live and they die and we know them better for that. Replaying the game for a second time, actively seeing what each player makes of something an earlier player did is part of the... fun? No, fun's not the word. But the interest. To see what happens. To explore.

If you put aside its pace - which is its point - the biggest reservations with it are how it both introduces itself to you and how it uses its game elements. The irony of the lose-everything-on-death undercuts somewhat callously any affection you had for your character, for example. When it clicks, the UI is obvious - icons on a hotbar and a map towards the periphery guiding you towards interesting locations - but when a game throws as many visual distortions over itself, it's easy to miss their importance. There's some minor twitchiness around some of the characters - like running into trees or characters magically appearing, which cuts the atmosphere for a second.

The problem with Darkfall is that to explain it is to ruin it. It's an exploratory game, and being surprised by the first time you see something, and wondering what it's for and what it's about is the main thing. The game rarely spells anything out. You spend a lot of time bemused - sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad - and wondering what it's about.

I'll say this: you'll have a strong opinion on it if you play it. Friend-of-Eurogamer Ed Zitron was profoundly perplexed by the game. Others have come claiming it's a rape simulator - which, for the record, I consider unsupportable by the game, even if you take everything on a solely literal level. It is, at worse, a being raped simulator - though I'd say that was a misreading too. What do I think? Metaphorical story of a character’s growth to adulthood, with each "death" leading to the birth of the next. But that's an essay. I don't know for sure. If you play it, you'll have your take. That's kind of the point too. It sticks with you and provokes thought. It's probably art, if the a-word matters to you.

It's totally no fun. It's interesting, but there isn't a fun bone in its mopey body. But I've paid to go into modern art galleries. I've paid for really oddball, minimalist art films. I've gone to gigs where music is divorced from any physical reaction and raised to some cerebral, abstract place - and plenty of gigs where most sane human beings would consider there was nothing actually musical going on. I haven't, but could pay for experimental theatre tickets. Lots of poetry. Whatever.

In our corner of the world, the thing with close-to-pure art-games... well, they're all pretty much free and buried away on the internet. Darkfall is on one of the biggest game distribution systems in the world, for a reasonable yet "proper" price, and still does what it does. Its existence is a statement of belief that, like any other media, there's a small niche of people who are happy to actually pay for this kind of cultural material.

That's who Darkfall is for. And if you're one of them, Darkfall is probably worth it.

If you're not, really, run for your bloody life.
For those of you lost; Aventurine declined Eurogamer's offer to have Kieron Gillen re-review Darkfall. But don't worry Kieron, I've saved you the pain of having to stoop to their level.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

$24 Million Dollar Arsebiscuits

News today, Richard Garriott blasts NCsoft with $24 million lawsuit:
Yesterday, Kotaku broke the news that Garriott was suing his old pals at NCsoft to the tune of $24 million for fraud, and generally being a bunch of fetid arsebiscuits.
Interesting, this shall be.

By the way, what are arsebiscuits?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

H is for Hypocrite and Heartless_


Yes, I am playing Free Realms. Yes, I still hate SOE, but I simply can't argue with a quality free games. Yes, I just referred to SOE, game, and quality in the same sentence without any curse words.

After a couple hours of play, I like the basics of Free Realms: do whatever you want, whenever you want. There is competitive, co-op, and solo play galore. Free Realms boils down to a bunch of mini-games connected via a hub world.

So far, I have not run into anything in-game asking for a credit card number, but then again, I was side tracked at the race track with the destruction derby mini-game for most of my playtime. I know micro-transactions are out there and that the card game (which is of great interest to me) relies heavily upon real cash.

I am skeptical that the micro-transaction model can generate enough revenue to support, what seems to be, a traditional game with a significant development footprint. Especially when a lot of game is available free of charge.

My other concern, after a few hours of play on US Server #1, is the lack of socialization in Free Realms between players. I found myself wandering aimlessly, rarely meeting another player in the hub world. In the destruction derby competitive mini-game, it wasn't very clear how to identify other players or how I could communicate with them. On top of that, Free Realms encourages players to always be doing something, which makes it hard to socialize properly.

Oh well, look for me online as Heartless Gamer, male of the human variety.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Quake Live Dev Says Mac and Linux Are "Top Priority"

We have news today that support for Linux and Mac will be coming to Quake Live:
Mac/Linux
These have proved more difficult than expected, but we're getting close. We expect to also be testing Mac and Linux versions of QUAKE LIVE internally this month and then making those publicly available just as soon as we feel they are ready. This work is being done by a separate programmer in parallel with the other work that we're doing, and is his only priority - point being, that this is a top priority for us and not being delayed because of other work.

Personally, I want to know why support for Linux and Mac is even needed. After all, Quake Live is a browser-based game.

Anyways, beta is probably a good time for figuring this stuff out.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Aion and Other NCSoft Titles Available via Steam

Being the Steam connoisseur that I am, not sure how I missed this one: NCSoft adds its titles to Steam.
If you're one of those gamers who prefers the digital minimalist approach as opposed to having game boxes everywhere then you're in luck. MMO-giant NCSoft have announced they will be offering their titles -- including City of Heroes, Guild Wars, and Lineage -- via Steam. They're also planning to offer their latest, most anticipated and shiny MMO, Aion as well when the game launches later this autumn.
Aion has me somewhat intrigued, even though I am on a free-gaming kick currently. There is just something a subscription-based MMOG delivers that freemium, free-to-play, and micro-transaction games don't.

Honestly, it will be great to finally have an MMOG available at launch via Steam. I'm still bitter that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning was months late to the Steam party.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Not Gone Yet!

Shadowbane, as far as Ubisoft cares, is gone forever.

However, the development team doesn't seem to be giving up without at least some sort of massive send-off.
Following our recent news, the support and enthusiasm the community has shown for Shadowbane has led to an extension of the closure date to July 1, 2009. This should allow the community enough time to play out its final days appropriately. We are looking into various options to make these final days as fun as possible!
Shadowbane, the cockroach of MMOGs-that-should-be-dead-already.

Update: Aeria Games has twittered some interest in buying Shadowbane and keeping it afloat.
@game_zine Not yet. We are discussing with Ubisoft on Shadowbane. Let us know what you think about the game.

@LisaFinefrock Please give us feedback as we are very interested in Shadowbane.

@grumpywalker Please let us know what you love about Shadowbane.
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