The Cyberpunk 2077 Review Drama

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The Cyberpunk 2077 Review Drama
Image: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077 is out in the wild. After eight long years the whole world can now judge it for themselves, through whichever perspective or tint of glasses they so choose. And best of all, for 99.9% of those players, they won’t ever have to justify their feelings to the rest of the audience.

However, for the last couple of weeks a select and tiny number of people have had access to the game, on PC alone, and since Monday they were permitted to share their thoughts about it. The reaction has been… well, predictable and demoralising.

The Authority Of Print

There was a time when game reviews appeared to be held in a very different esteem. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, paper magazines were released once a month, and keen readers would pore through them to learn all the news and opinions about their chosen medium of gaming. Each magazine would have a Reviews section, in which the team of writers shared their thoughts and feelings about the latest games, and then, inevitably, gave them a score. If they were lucky, something out of 100. If they were unlucky, something out of 10. If they were cursed, something out of 5. It was an inherently silly endeavour, writing detailed opinions, subjectively explaining the nature of the game and its flaws and successes, and then contradicting any notion of nuance with a fixed numerical score. Of course, it was the first thing anyone looked at, and then — in ideal circumstances — they read the words through the prism of that number. Most of the time, people would see a “67” and just turn the page. Despite this, perhaps simply because of the scarcity of alternative information — remember pre-home internet there were no other avenues for gaming information, no TV channels, no mainstream media coverage — the reviews held weight. They had authority.

Come the widespread access to the internet and that authority became immediately diluted. Not only could people immediately access a range of alternative scores and opinions, but — more insidiously — they could gather information about the games directly from the creators and publishers. While print gaming magazines had their significant flaws and their (rare) scandals, they were at least a filter between the people who wanted money, and the people who had the money. The internet broke that barrier down, and now the optimistic spin and outright lies of the publishers could reach the players directly.

At the same time, the costs of running a gaming publication disappeared. Anyone could set up a site reviewing games, and all the checks and balances, all the process that ideally filtered out the deceitful, the inept, or the terrible, were mostly removed. No matter how problematic it might have been, when there were just a fixed number of established print outlets there were at least editors, publishers, lawyers, and, peers, between anyone who fancied it, and actually doing the job. This of course had all sorts of deeply negative results, too. It’s why games magazines were predominantly staffed by white men who looked and sounded like each other. They hired someone else who “fit in,” and as such, it was a homogenous and mono-cultured voice, that while unquestionably represented the majority of the potential readers, simultaneously alienated absolutely everyone else. It also meant that if a bad apple ran an outlet, that outlet would tend toward hiring more bad apples. (Anyone in the industry can point you to a bad era for a particular print publication.) However, with all these flaws, that authority remained, but was soon to go.

The Evil Empire

It was absolutely right that the audience for gaming outlets started to question their integrity and authority, and the internet provided the means and space to do so. I’ve been writing for gaming publications for 21 years, and I have spent that time privately and publicly questioning that integrity and authority, too. I’ve regularly questioned my own. I’m hardly alone. And as a result, bad apples have been more regularly caught and plucked out, albeit and unfortunately in a far more public and cruel way. (I’ve been part of that cruel public, too.) All this was and is great. However, somewhere along the way this process tipped over from a healthy scepticism to conspiratorial lunacy.

While obviously 2014’s “GamerGate” clusterfuck was always at its core about obliterating the voices of women and minorities in games criticism/journalism, the lie of “ethics in games journalism” caught a large number in its wake. This notion that the entire process was institutionally corrupt, run by a cabal of venal shills, went from the silly whispering of the few to a broad outcry of so many. The disenfranchised, the lonely, the rejected and the naive were swept up by the cruel and the crazy, and coalesced around an identity that relied on there being this Evil Empire for them to oppose. Gaming wasn’t broadening its appeal to more people because more people were making games — it was because of the Evil Empire forcing their progressive politics down our throats.

Never mind that vastly more of the types of games this audience demanded were being released than ever before, never mind that white dudes holding giant guns still appeared on the boxes of every other game, their culture was being stolen from them, and all the bad, sad feelings inside them were because of Them.

It was far easier to believe that the world’s most popular gaming sites were all in it together, conspiring against them, pushing their agenda, than to accept the world’s scariest force: change. To anyone in the industry, this concept was so laughable. Let me tell you a secret. We all scrutinize each other. Honestly, if the angry mobs saw how one outlet talks privately about another, they’d abandon that conspiracy faster than a pool as a shit floats by. There was, apparently, a mailing list in which some writers chatted amongst themselves — no one ever invited me, so I’ve no idea what they said. How rude.

I’ve seen stories of some bad ideas being proffered in there, but then shot down by wider consensus. But I’d bet my bum there was a lot less, “Let’s all give Shooter XVII 2/10 because it doesn’t feature enough people with dyslexia,” and a lot more, “Can you believe what Brian Gameshack wore on that video?!” And more sensibly, I’d imagine a lot of writers sharing information that enabled people to better report about the lies and nonsense being said by the publishers. Yet, despite this, trust me — and I know some won’t: no one is holding this industry more to account than itself.

The irony of this is, of course, that no one better knows and cares about the flaws in the games journalism industry than games journalists. (For the record, personally I avoid the term “games journalist”. There are many writers very worthy of the title, a lot of them on this site, but I call myself a “games critic.” Still, “games journalist,” it’s the understood generalisations, so I’ll use it.) Where the furious crowds still to this day let me know that I’m in the pay of publishers, or only saying things so I can have sex with a developer, or whatever ludicrous nonsense they imagine, I’m one of the loudest voices within this industry, yelling at sites and writers to hold themselves to higher standards. And the most miserable thing is, it’s generally the sites that deserve the most vitriol that receive the most defence from these baying mobs of furious games players. It’s the well-managed, truthful, well-intentioned sites that receive the vast majority of the conspiratorial hate.

Screenshot: Metacritic Screenshot: Metacritic

So 7/10?

So what has all this to do with Cyberpunk’s scores? Well, everything. Because this breakdown of barriers to entry, plus the breakdown of trust, is what leads to the utterly ridiculous situation where a game so bug-ridden and flawed that many outlets just refused to review it yet, has been handed out 9s and 10s like confetti. And it’s also why any site that attempts to say anything other, score accordingly, is then subject to unbearable volumes of abuse. Then on top of both, you’ve got an audience that increasingly just doesn’t want reviews to exist in the first place.

Why sites hand out 9s and 10s for bug-ridden games is up for grabs. I know from personal experience that when reviewing a huge game with a lot of expectations around it, it’s too easy to get caught up, to enthusiastically slap on that giant number, only to regret it later. I’ve done it, in the most embarrassing ways, right on the front cover of a magazine. As a result I’ve since become extremely hardened to such things, and got very used to seeing my score at or near the bottom of a Metacritic rundown. Scores that, once the initial period of hype was over, would far better stand the test of scrutiny.

Then you’ve got the few more-established large-scale sites. The ones with history, long-experienced writers and layers of editorial oversight, that — when everything works — provide the security and confidence to ignore the crowds and write in isolation. It’s how you get a PC Gamer score of 78, and a Gamespot review that gives the game a very reasonable 7/10. Which is then responded to by a significant section of the audience as an affront of the game worthy of a public uprising.

(To dignify the stupidity of the argument made by certain blowhards on YouTube with a point-by-point response would be too much, but when someone says, “I never felt any need to do X,” while they spend 50 hours playing a game, that’s a valid criticism of the game, not a failure of the reviewer. They are not play-testers, required to establish the efficacy of every system in the game; they’re people playing, responding, and writing about their own experience.)

Of course, another interesting phenomenon has occurred in the last few years: sites losing scores altogether. Major review sites have realised they’re not beholden to this demonstrably silly constraint, and the writing conveys the information in a far more useful way than a fixed number at the end. So we’ve recently seen sites from Eurogamer to Polygon dropping the practice altogether, alongside sites like Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun (that I co-created) that never assigned them in the first place. The result of this is a large number of the sites that would have given more reasonable, sensible scores to a game with as many issues as CP2077 just don’t give scores at all, and the Metacritic number just keeps climbing higher.

As a result, those lower scores (and remember, we’re talking about 7s here, not 4s) appear to stand out even more, appear to go against some perceived consensus. It’s more “proof” that there’s an “agenda,” look how those sites don’t align. But of course they’re not aligning with a broad spread of less experienced, or less protected, or less established names. They are, in fact, perfectly aligned with the majority of the most established outlets — it’s just most of those don’t give scores any more.

The Mirror Universe

Of course, the far bigger issue is that a loud proportion of Cyberpunk 2077 purchasers (and indeed any other big-name game) don’t want reviews at all. They want reassurance. They paid for this game nearly two years ago, for whatever illogical reason (“I’m supporting the massive multi-million dollar company!”), for no gain, no extra content, no early access, no bonus items, and they want to know they did the right thing. And, for some, paying for a years-away game is just the start of the sort of self-imposed brainwashing that causes someone to switch from being A Person Who Pre-Ordered A Game They Want To Pay to being A Fan. They’ve not only irrationally invested money, but since then have been investing their emotion. They’ve read everything they can find to read about it, hooked up to the PR drip-feed of information that comes both direct from the publisher and the compliant sites that report it all to their readers. This emotional investment mutates into a form of loyalty, a belief that they are now on the game’s side, and a sleight against the game is now a sleight against themselves.

So what is a review other than a criticism of their own loyalty, and financial and emotional investment? If the review is suitably rhapsodic, then they too are vindicated and praised. If a review steps even slightly out of line, even vaguely critiques aspects of the product, then it’s a personal attack. It’s wounding.

That’s at its most extreme, and for the last week I’ve been the oh-so fortunate recipient of a deluge of hate and rage — called everything from “cunt” to “pedophile” — from fanatics of a game they’d not yet played for my perceived failure to be appropriately euphoric about a publisher. A publisher that has, over the years, threatened its own customers for alleged piracy, went back on promises to not crunch its staff, tweeted out awful jokes, and had staff learn of crunch-extending delays via Twitter. (Of course, the external observer might say it’s a good sign when a member of the gaming press holds publishers and developers to account. How naïve they are. In the mirror-world that we now live in, it is in fact a demonstration of “corruption” to do so.) But even farther from those extremes, there’s still a sense of dissatisfaction amongst so many of a game’s potential players when reviews contradict their hopes.

This leaves us in a place where the desired purpose for a review, as proscribed by those most likely to leave feedback in some form, is to reflect the wishes of the reader. Deviation from this is failure, and most likely evidence of some form of foul play.

Which is really quite some distance from the days of a print magazine’s review.

Screenshot: CD Projekt Red / Kotaku Screenshot: CD Projekt Red / Kotaku

A Group Of Strangers

So are genuinely critical reviews therefore out of date? An old concept, an anachronism that a select few outlets still persist with against all sense? Absolutely not! There’s still a huge audience out there for them, just as there was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The thing is, they don’t feel a need to respond. They are the vast, vast majority of the outlet’s readers, the people who know a game is coming, are waiting to see if their preferred critics think it’s worth their spending their money on. And no, they’re not representative of the majority of a game’s customers. Most people will wait to see what their friends think, or buy it because it looked cool in the ads on the side of the bus. Most game players are nothing like what “gamers” think they are like. Most people buy a game, play it, and never feel the need to tell a group of strangers anything about it.

But a large proportion, making up the millions of people who visit particular reputable websites, they still want reviews. They still read them. We, in this job, are told incessantly by nasty, vindictive people on Twitter that our sites are “dying”, that “no wonder no one reads your site any more”, that we have “turned on our readers,” that we “hate” them. It’s what they want to be true. It isn’t what’s true. When I sold RPS in 2017, and thus the last time I can report on its audience figures, it was more popular than it had ever been before, with more organic readers (this was before the site started all that SEO business we were too lazy to do before the sale) than ever, and made more money per year than at any point in its history. All its graphs were curves that continuously climbed, and the events of 2014 or any other time since made no impact whatsoever.

We were hated and blacklisted by some publishers, sort of tolerated by others, and so far removed from being in the pay of any of them. (And because someone will say it, we set up our own internal walls so we weren’t at all involved in who might advertise with us, and their ads appearing were as much of a surprise to the writers as anyone else. I once cost RPS £28,000 in ad money after a review I wrote caused a childish, petulant publisher to pull a campaign, so much was the flow in the opposite direction.)

Most people don’t give a shit about any of this! Most people just read about games they’re interested in, and play them without feeling a need to write the developer into their will. Most people aren’t aware the controversies exist, and wouldn’t care if someone tried to tell them. There is, however, a very, very large number that cares an unhealthy amount, and make our jobs much more exhausting, their parroted and always baseless accusations of corruption like tiresome gnats to endlessly waft away.

There’s a significant proportion of that number that go far further, and attempt to destroy the lives of anyone who they decide has crossed them — almost always women or minority writers. These mobs think they represent the audience, the masses, and it’s just yet another conspiratorial delusion amongst so many. And now, as they wrestle with the fact that CDPR deliberately kept any reviewing outlet from getting console code before release in order to hide what a dreadful state it’s in, as they try to rationalise this as either a good thing, or the fault of someone else, their anger will grow and their lashing out will continue to seek exactly the wrong targets. But as they do, the vast majority of games players will never hear a single thing about it. And most readers will be glad of the reviews that warn them of the potential issues.

Comments

  • I found it so weird the first time I read a Kotaku review and there was no score!

    Now I don’t really bother with any other site, the Kotaku review is usually all the info I need!

    Its not just a gaming that has these issues, every advert I see on Facebook has comments a mile long from people who supposedly have issues with that product even though they are clearly die hard “fans” of the rival brand!

    Anyway I appreciate you Kotaku, keep up the good work!

  • Great write up.

    I feel like we should have seen it all coming given the terrible development cycle and the amount of CP2077 merchandise that was being sold before it launched.
    Also because it happens so often now.

  • // It’s what they want to be true. It isn’t what’s true. //

    So it’s just like any time an author here has accused developers/publishers of having issues with or disliking X group.

    Because they might have made a mistake… Or they weren’t inclusive ‘enough’ according to some author’s own personal metrics… So it gets automatically assumed they must dislike that particular group, without proof mind you. THEN it gets repeated over and over again on any subsequent article concerning that developer/publisher.

    • It’s interesting that John mentions blacklisting, because the GameJournoPros leaks make for quite interesting reading in that respect.

      I pay more attention to individual opinions these days than pieces published by websites with skin in the game. I don’t trust video game publishers either, mind you, so I think it’s up to all of us to read multiple independent sources if possible and make up our own minds.

  • I think something a lot o the more… fringe screamlords of the internet tend to forget is that it is 100% okay to like things despite the problematic aspects of those things.

    I fucking love Cyberpunk. It’s not GOTY material by any stretch (Hades wrapped that up months ago), but it is 100% my aesthetic and I love being in its world.

    On the other hand, the game has a horny teenager’s attitude towards sex ans sexuality and does LITERALLY NOTHING with that aspect of the setting. It’s there because it’s kind of hinted at in the original sourcebooks, but that’s about it. There’s so much interesting and cool stuff the game could have explored here, but it doesn’t.

    Cyberpunk is, to quote Manic Street Preachers, “all surface, no feeling”. The surface is glossy and shiny and beautiful, bbut there is nothing below it. It’s as thin as the textures that make up its world.

    And i love the shit out of it anyway because that is a world I want to be in so hard.

    It’s fine to recognise, or accept that the game has issues with the way it presents its world and still say “I love Cyberpunk”. Just… don’t defend its failures. That makes you look like an idiot.

    • Cyberpunk is, to quote Manic Street Preachers, “all surface, no feeling”. The surface is glossy and shiny and beautiful, bbut there is nothing below it. It’s as thin as the textures that make up its world.

      Hm, no. Definitely not.
      If all you see is the surface, that’s on you for not breaking the water’s surface.

      One of my saves is now up to the 31hr mark, and I’ve only JUST – like the last thing I did before I went to bed last night – seen the title card. The dozens of hours prior to that were invested in side-quests, both marked and unmarked, and reading every data shard I could get my hands on.

      What I learned in that time, was context. All of the flavour, the history, the feeling of the outline of who’s moving and shaking in the world.

      At the crux of The Heist, where things go pear-shaped, my partner (who hadn’t been reading all the shards like I had), said, “I assume that guy’s important?” That’s what a surface-level experience gets you on [MAJOR SPOILER EVENT]. Without the context of those hours of cultural-immersion, through shards, overheard conversations, news feeds and propaganda pieces playing in your ear as you walk the city, you don’t get the full weight of WHY the protagonist and crew are shitting their pants. You just get to see that they are, and assume it, at a surface level.

      The depth is there, but the game’s not grabbing your head and forcing your nose into it against your will. It’s abundant especially in the shards most folks probably never stop what they’re doing to read the moment they pick them up, let alone go back into their menu to read in a quiet moment. Without the shards, without the journey of tracking down Cyberpsychosis sufferers, without reading about what walks of life sufferers come from, what circumstances led to their breaks, what happened in their aftermath, all you get is some waypoints and an optional bonus to non-lethally take-down an enemy with a boss health bar.

      The depth is there, but you actually have to participate in it. You can’t claim there’s no depth if all you do is skim the surface.

      Have you done the side-quest yet to retrieve some stolen meds? The ones taken by the embittered veteran who’s considering an act of terrorism against a politician? Have you drunken in the environmental storytelling of where you find them, and what that deliberately says about their situation and their choices? Have you talked them down, left the room… and then come back when there’s a distinct cue to do so? Read the logs about their friends who were worried about them? Then had echoes of that same situation come back to haunt you in the mission Freedom of the Press, where a very real-world scenario is playing out around treatment of vets and these missions are showing the very real impact it’s having on the fiction of the game world and the parts of it that you’re experiencing? That consistency and inter-connectivity, with different tones, just keeps adding the depth you’re claiming it doesn’t have.

      The game isn’t just surface level saying that the military commodification of human lives is bad, it’s showing us the affects of that, letting us interact with them, letting us see the ripples on individuals and indirectly on the people those individuals affect.

      There’s examples of this depth around what causes people to act the way they do. The first story-mission experience of Maelstrom is a surface-level glimpse of the gang’s stereotypical image and experience, but it’s the side-quests that take you deeper into gang philosophies and attitudes and how that impacts the people in their neighbourhoods, the other gangs they deal with, the thought/feeling processes that some poor souls go through when they consider taking up that way of life.

      You pre-emptively say that defending this so-called ‘failure’ of the game makes me look like an idiot, but I think it’s the reverse – claiming a failing without the experience to make the claim. I’d challenge you to find one example of what constitutes the ‘depth’ you’re looking for, and not be able to see an example of how that is also accomplished in Cyberpunk.

      • well said. i havent got as far as you have into the game, but im playing it a similar way by the sound of it. prob about 15 hours so far, last main mission i did was where you meet judy. i havent once used the car when not forced to by the game, i walk everywhere, explore everything, read everything. some games are designed to be played fast and with no real depth, but this game you just let yourself be immersed in the experience for hours at a time.

      • Well said indeed. Both this reply and the article show that if you actually take the time to delve into the things that you yourself see as the well created or the not so fleshed out aspects of your experiences you can better see what it is that will make you pleased with what has been created or what it is that was lacking.
        I am playing in a similar fashion as well, reading all the lore I can find and sitting there listening to the News reports on the screens everywhere – listening to the radio – even conversations that gangers have among themselves can be super enlightening to how they are acting. just because the lore hasn’t been shoved in my face doesn’t mean there is no depth – it just means I have to actively find it, which invests me all the more.

  • I expected lots of bugs, It’s a massive game.
    I expected it not look as good as the trailers, they never do, be realistic.
    I know Cyberpunk, so I expected the backlash at it’s satirical sexism, if you miss the hyperbole, it can seem nasty.

    But, for me, 11/10.
    This is the cyberpunk (genre in general) game I’ve always wanted.

  • How about reviewers be as equally hard on all games no matter what publisher/dev they are comming from then. Because that right now is not happening and hasnt happened since Daikatana.

    The biggest stand out is Bethesda Game Studios. Every single game that they put out is an absolute bug filled mess that is near unplayable due to the amount of quest and game breaking bugs. The only time a Besthesda Game studio developed game get savaged in reviews for bugs is from the games they outsourced to other Developers Such as Fallout New Vegas(obsidian) and Fallout 76 (BGS Austin)

    lets also look at AC Valhalla, on PC gamer that game was given a Score of 92 despite being as buggy and having as many issues as Cyberpunk while having more gamebreaking bugs from what i seen from playing both (over 83hrs with Vahalla and fully completed Story). yet Cyberpunk recieved a 78, which is fine score because it does repreesent the bugs and issues. the Valhalla score does not.

    This isnt the first time this happened with PC Gamer either. Afterall they rated Dragon Age 2 as being better than the Witcher 2, with a score of 96 and 92 respectivily. Yes both very high scores and both were reviewed by different reviewers, yet considering how badly recieved DA2 was to the general gaming public and How well recieved Witcher 2 was to general PC gaming public, one can see the issues

    • I think a lot of people’s views of the game have been coloured by external factors. It’s unfortunate that people feel the need to display partisan politics in reviews, even if those politics are generally accepted as legitimate and well-meaning.

      I guess it’s just the echo-chamber nature of the internet and people seeking confirmation of their political views in all media. If a reviewer tries to disociate the game from either the maker or any elements of the game which have socio-political connotations, then people thing that the reviewer is ‘problematic’ and ‘complicit’.

      For examples of toxic censorship, one needs to look no further than ResetERA, where commenters are routinely banned for things like ‘minimising’ or ‘downplaying’ socio-political concerns about games or their makers. I mean, those are the rules of the forum, and fair enough, but it certainly makes you wonder whether reviewers on major websites are colouring their reviews based on perceived need to avoid being victims of cancel culture.

    • Reviewers tend to be forgiving of bugs because they are typically playing pre-release builds and bugs are more or less expected.

      Further, reviewers reasonably expect that most bugs will be ironed out within a few weeks of patches, patches which nowadays require literally no effort on the part of consumers to apply. Tarring a game with a permanently bad review for something that nine times out of ten will be rectified somewhere within a day and a couple of months of launch is disproportionate to the offense.

      It really is that simple.

  • Well, it’s the culture war isn’t it.

    I reckon articles about games can be many things. Yes consumer advice, but also in-depth critical analysis for people who’ve already bought it. And to be fair, occasionally articles are also vehicles to promote a political cause. I’m ok with all this, sometimes it’s really interesting (random example, Eurogamer’s article about Geralt being a disabled protagonist).

    I guess it’s fair that Kotaku can complain about entitled gamers who are over invested in CP2077. But I also just counted 21 articles about the game on Kotaku in the last 3 days. So when there’s an internet shitstorm going on about a mega-hyped game, it’s worth noting that a lot of different parties have contributed at least partly to making it so.

    (This all reminds me of the similar, but different, shitstorm around TLOU2)

  • I’m just glad that, despite the game’s misgivings, both political and programming, people are still able to enjoy it and give it 11/10s and “instant GOTYs”.
    It’s like the old saying goes, every pokemon is someone’s favourite.

    It is unfortunate that some people who love the game also the need to aggressively defend it from criticism to the point that they make death threats, but that’s just a little quirk of humanity that should have been commented out.

  • Every side focus on the 0.01% when on the attack and uses the 99.99% when defending myself.

    I can’t help but feel we all been pulled down to the same level, the players, publishers and the critic/reviewers. But hey atleast if we can’t all win, might as well all lose.

  • Great article. I wasn’t paying any attention to games journalism/criticism during the era of gamergate so my viewpoint isn’t coloured by that, but what I see as one reason why critics are held in less esteem is that the purpose of criticism has seemingly changed.

    So many games are criticised by reviewers for failing to do what the reviewer thinks the game should have done, whether the developer set out to do said thing. Recent examples from memory are Greedfall being criticised for not giving players more options to disrupt colonialism, and Cyberpunk 2077 being criticised for not allowing the player to be more comprehensively transexual.

    Fair criticism requires the critic to at least try to judge objectively. Fair criticism is a critic trying to understand the developers actual intention and then judging the game based on how well it achieves that goal.

    There is a place for opinion pieces, but perhaps things would be better if the objective review and the opinion pieces were separated. Greedfall doesn’t deserve to be criticised for telling a different story to what the reviewer wanted it to tell, that’s not fair.

    Opinion pieces are always going to get more clicks because they produce drama and controversy, but if there was also a review looking only at the technical aspects of the game, that could be used as a defence by Kotaku etc in response to those who react negatively to opinion pieces.

  • I remember coming out of Phantom Menace thinking it was amazing. We can convince ourselves of strange thing when you have been riding that hype train a long time.

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