Holiday gift ideas: AfterHours (video games and toys)

Video games, toys and other entertaining gift ideas for IT boys (and girls)

Video games are not just for kids, most of us who grew up with either the Super Nintendo or Atari 2600 game systems know that. So don't feel guilty about perusing our favorite games for this holiday season, whether you own a Sony Playstation 3, Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii. Plus we threw in some "regular" games.

Batman: Arkham Asylum(Available for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC)

Batman: Arkham AsylumBatman: Arkham Asylum is the latest video game offering to feature the Caped Crusader in his never-ending quest to rid Gotham City of crime. Like so many other games of late, it uses the Unreal engine, which means you’ll be looking at Batman’s back in an off-center-left angle for much of the game.

The game starts off with a bang – Batman is bringing the Joker to Arkham Asylum after capturing him “easier than usual”. Then, surprise(!), Joker has set a trap – he wanted to be captured – and it’s up to Batman (you) to return control of the asylum to the guards and administration.

I grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series as a kid, and I was elated to learn the game is written by one of the show’s main writers. Most of the acting talent is back too – including Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, and I’m pretty sure whoever played Harley Quinn is the same too. As such, the voice acting is top notch – the best I’ve ever seen in a video game. Hamill especially shines, as all the scenes involving the Joker are over the top and pretty much exactly what they should be.

Unlike the cartoon, which was designed for youngsters, Arkham Asylum takes on a much more menacing, much more “realistic” tone – even as a child, it seemed strange to me that super villains like Joker, Two Face, Poison Ivy, etc, never managed to off anyone. Well, that’s all changed. While never overly gratuitous, the supervillains earn the distinction here – the poor guards at Arkham never stood much of a chance. I was initially surprised by how mature the game is, but the darker atmosphere leant a much higher degree of credibility to the villains and therefore enhanced the game.

The animation and graphics are also outstanding – you can explore the game as much as you like, and be constantly exposed to high detail, gruesomely gorgeous environments. Or you can activate “Detective Mode”, and see everything from a different – slight bluer – perspective. I spent most of the game in detective mode, because it was easier to see doors and live bodies are illuminated and can be seen through walls (and the floor), making it much easier to get the drop on bad guys. It was a shame to spend so much of the game in detective mode, because you lose out on seeing all the intricate artwork in the game – highly detailed walls in normal vision are uniform blue in detective mode – so in the sequel it might be nice for Batman to have a naturally enhanced ability to see bad guys.

Gameplay is phenomenal, especially hand-to-hand combat. You have the option to elusively take down your prey from the relative safety of ceiling rafters/ledges/rooftops, and doing so makes sense when facing a small army of goons armed with automatic weapons. But when I came across a big group of unarmed thugs, I found it more fun to jump right in, fists first. The more you play, the better you get. And it’s fun (and satisfying) to control Batman as he beats the stuffing out of the escaped prisoners, and uses their weapons against them. Batman is merciless, and although he never kills any of the thugs, if this were real life, most of them wouldn’t get up after the beatdown they received.

Of course, Batman isn’t invincible himself. He has relatively little armor throughout the game, and won’t survive many gun shots/steel pipes upside the head. Avoiding a swinging pipe, with practice, is fairly straightforward – the game designers did a great job giving Batman a “sixth sense” to alert to an incoming direct attack. I found it much harder to locate assailants when they were shooting at me, which logically makes sense but makes the game harder. That crops up more in the extra missions/downloadable content, and not as much during the game. And when it does happen, it never frustrated me to the point where I got sick of the game.

Edward Nigma, aka the Riddler, has left well over two hundred hidden objects/items/puzzles throughout the game, and he’ll taunt you to find them. As this is written, I’m standing at well over 75%, without using any strategy guides. Some are much easier to find than others, but each is an accomplishment. There’s a ton of cool stuff to find for diehard Batman fans, and I came across a few references I didn’t get. If you’re a diehard fan, or just like tracking things down, you’ll enjoy this aspect of the game. It added a fair bit of value for me.

The villains were well done, and the guards would have conversations throughout the game without once repeating themselves. Yes, you heard that right – none of the hundreds of guards repeat what another said earlier in the game. And AI works well, they’ll search you out. If you do an inverted takedown from the rafters in front of the other guards, they’ll notice you and keep shooting at you…but if you time it right and they don’t see you, they’ll wonder what happened. You can lure them into traps and gain additional points by performing special take downs. More fun challenges. Or you can be like me and keep trying to take them all on at once.

On the PS3, you can play extra missions as the Joker, and it is HARD. The Joker isn’t just an image of Joker overlaid on Batman’s body with the same weapons and such – he has his own unique moves, and a totally different style of play. And since the Joker isn’t nearly as powerful as Batman physically, the missions that involve him taking on armed guards are quite difficult. Again, more value.

You’ll also gain additional value by the free downloadable content Rocksteady Games keeps making available. They’re adding more missions and such available for free (on the PS3), which is awesome. There was already a ton of love and value that went into the game; by the time you’ve beaten it, you’ve gotten more than your money’s worth. And yet they continue to give you more.

If you couldn’t tell, I loved this game. It started off a little slow, but boy did it ever speed up fast. I would recommend it just for the story and voice acting, but honestly, the game itself is top notch. If you have a PS3, Xbox, or PC that can handle this, do yourself a favor and pick up Batman: Arkham Asylum immediately.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars: $60.00

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Reviewed by Daniel Hunt

Ultimate Alliance 2(Available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, PSP, Playstation 2)

Ultimate Alliance 2Sticking with the comic book theme, Ultimate Alliance 2 presents a lot of the superheroes from the Marvel universe, letting you control a team of four heroes as they battle their way through a variety of levels.

The story follows the action revealed in the Civil War storyline in the comic books, where superhero actions cause the U.S. government to pass a Superhero Registration Act, in which all heroes must register with the government or be considered a criminal. Iron Man takes the pro-registration side of things, while Captain America leads the resistance. In the game, after a few missions, you as the player has to make the same choice - do you side with the pro-registration heroes, or join the underground? It's always good to save your game progress before you make the choice, as you can then pick the other side later. Your choice then gives you access to the heroes who made the same choice as you did, and you get to run missions specific to your side's choice.

Gameplay is similar to other games in the Marvel hero game universe, such as the original Ultimate Alliance, and the two X-Men Alliance games. You get a top-down view of your four heroes as you move through the different levels. If you get lost, there's a map as well as a "compass" that points you in the right direction. During any mission you can change members of the team, and if you create certain teams you get additional bonuses. For example, if you form the Fantastic Four (Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Human Torch and the Thing), you get a bonus that you wouldn't get from a random team.

Different buttons give you different attacks, and if you defeat enough enemies you eventually build up enough power to execute a "fusion attack," which really makes the game fun. In a fusion attack, you get to choose another hero and team up with them to create a super attack. Fusion attacks can be targeted (aimed at a specific villain, good for bosses), clearing (a good way to get rid of lots of enemies at once) or guided (once the fusion begins you can aim your attack in different directins). Like a good role-playing game, fighting and winning give you experience points, that you can then trade in for additional powers, attributes or other items.

In addition to the main gameplay, there are several unlockable items you can acquire (movies, game art, background data), and several simulation missions that you can play out for training purposes or extra experience points. Like earlier versions of the game, there's a trivia game that can earn you extra experience points, so if you are a Marvel whiz you can get points quickly. There's even a Stan Lee cameo, just like in the Marvel movies!

You can play the game solo or team up with a friend to play cooperatively, which can make the game more entertaining - as the AI on your team sometimes isn't that good. The game also includes downloadable content that gives you additional missions and also lets you play as Carnage, Magneto, Psylocke, Cable and Black Panther.

If you're a fan of super-hero video games, the comic book world or if you've played the earlier versions of this game, you'll thoroughly enjoy the game and the storyline. 

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars: $50

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Active Life Extreme Challenge by Bandai Namco (Nintendo Wii)

Active Life Extreme ChallengeLike many Wii games, Active Life Extreme Challenge will get you off the couch and moving around to play. It comes with its own floor mat controller and 15 games on one CD. If you already own the prequel, Active Life Outdoor Challenge and already have the mat, you can just purchase the new game to use with your old mat. The "extreme" games include foot-eye coordination games like BMX (flatland) tricks, base jumping, and rock climbing; memory testing games like Double Dutch fusion and skateboarding (freestyle); and physical activities such as Double Dutch (normal), inline skating and street luge. These games can bring a sweat to even the most physically fit and with the different games, it's fun for the whole family.

Active Life Extreme Challenge can be played by one or two players. When in two-player mode, both players can stand next to one another on the mat and play at the same time or they can take turns, depending on the mode selected. However, the mat is not large enough for two adult men to play on the mat at the same time. Some of the games require the Wii remote, and occasionally the additional nunchaku accessory that does not come with the game.

The mat that comes with the game is more reminiscent of a Dance Dance Revolution mat than the Wii Fit, however it should fit in even a small apartment. But if you are using it in a small apartment, make sure that nothing will fall off of a shelf, the floor is solid and you won't irritate any neighbors below you because many of the games will get you running, jumping and stomping. The sensors on the mat take a little getting used to, but eventually the mat will feel as comfortable to use as a regular controller. We discovered while playing that the mat controller works much better for smaller feet, adult male feet don't fit as well in terms of hitting the sensors.

One downfall to this game is that the instructions for the games are not easily found, and the game won't remind you of play at the beginning of each different event. We played the luge game incorrectly for an hour before stumbling over the instructions to the game. But, even if you're not doing it as it's intended to be played, you can still have fun.

The individual games are quick to play and make it easy for larger groups of people to all play along together. This game is ideal if you're looking to tire out a child, or for adults if you like to goof around and compete against your friends.

Cool Yule Rating: 3.5 stars $59.99

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Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Lego Rock Band(Available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS)Lego Rock BandHands down, this seems to be the weirdest concept for a video game this year (not counting some of the Japanese translations of their games). Who would have thought that taking the Lego game concepts made popular in games like Lego Star Wars, Lego Batman, and Lego Indiana Jones would be able to merge with the Rock Band series of music games. But somehow, the concept works, and this is an entertaining game that more in the family (younger kids) can play.

Like the Rock Band games, you use the guitar controller, a microphone or a drum set to help create your band, and play famous rock songs. But like the Lego games, this all takes place in the Lego universe, along with the snide humor seen in the other games, as well as the ability to collect Lego pieces to build other items. But the basic gameplay is just like the Rock Band / Guitar Hero games, where you strum your guitar or hit your drums in conjunction with the notes that come down the screen. Instead of solid colored bars, Lego bricks come down the screen. When you’re creating your band, you can customize their look and appearance, but with Lego-like artwork and animations.

The best part of the game is the ability to take the music from the Lego Rock Band game and export the songs to your game console’s hard drive and play the songs in Rock Band or Rock Band 2 (at least on the Xbox 360 version). Songs seem to be geared more towards family gameplay (you know it’s geared towards family because of the “super easy” mode), with songs like “Ghostbusters” from Ray Parker Jr., and “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas. But there’s also songs from Blink 1820, Foo Fighters, Incubus and Counting Crows, so adults won’t be completely bored.

If you love the Lego sense of humor and the music gameplay of the Rock Band games, this is worth a pickup.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars: $47

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Beatles Rock Band(Available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii)Beatles Rock BandI'm not the world’s biggest Beatles fan, but I was still pretty excited when I heard about this game, which opened up the Beatles catalog of songs for a Rock Band style game. With the cooperation of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono (representing John Lennon), they have allowed the likenesses of the Beatles to appear in a Rock Band game.

But it’s more than just using the songs in the regular game – rather the game follows the progression of the band from its early days in Liverpool, to the British Invasion when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and beyond. The game includes lots of Beatles trivia and information, making this a good gift for any Beatles fan on your list. This is also a great way to get them into the Rock Band / Guitar Hero style of gameplay, as they might not want to rock out to a heavy metal song, but could get into playing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.

Gameplay is basically the same as other Rock Band / Guitar Hero games, where you use the guitar to strum along to notes coming down the “fret”, or hit the drum pads, or sing along. Unlike other games in this series, this seems more geared to the microphone and drumming aspects of the game – the guitar parts were just not as fun. For example, I’d rather sing “Twist and Shout” than play the guitar parts – the guitar parts are just not as compelling. This game seems to be geared more for getting a group together (especially if they all like the Beatles) than playing solo.

The game is enhanced through the addition of downloadable content, which expands the number of songs you can play. Two complete Beatles albums – Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – have been recently added for download (at least on Xbox Live).

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars (4 stars for Beatles fans): $50 for the game only; if you need the instruments it costs $100 (Amazon)

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves(Available on Sony Playstation 3)

Uncharted 2: Among ThievesHaving missed Uncharted 1, I was unsure what to expect when I popped Uncharted 2 into my PS3. The game has received outstanding reviews, so my expectations were high.

My first impressions are thus: the graphics are beautiful, the stories engaging, and the voice acting is superb. The female character, Chloe Frazer, (who I assume, based on what I’ve seen, also appeared in Uncharted 1) sounds like Peta Wilson of La Femme Nikita, so that’s big points right there. Big points.

Gameplay is intuitive and engaging. In my opinion, the game starts a little slow. The first few levels consist mainly of climbing and sneaking around, avoiding confrontation. I prefer more action-oriented games, so I was pleased when the third level shifted towards more gun fights and such. So far, I’m impressed with the game’s engine and opponent AI. An important distinction: you view the main character, Nathan, from a third party perspective, so your view is like that seen in Batman: Arkham Asylum (game of year so far, IMHO) or Assassins Creed (a game I thoroughly loathed) as opposed to Halo. I prefer third-person perspectives, so for me, it’s a welcome setup.

Again, the graphics are gorgeous, the gameplay is fun, and this promises to be an excellent game from a publisher – Naughty Dog – with a proven track record of quality work. We may update this review with my additional thoughts at a later date (the review copy appeared too close to our deadline), but for now, Uncharted 2 and Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time are making the case for 2010 being the year of the PS3.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars: $59.99

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Reviewed by Daniel Hunt

Gran Turismo for Playstation PortableGran Turismo for PSPThe Gran Turismo series of racing games (err, “real driving simulators”) has been around since the days of the original Playstation, but has never been available for the Playstation Portable (PSP) until now. If you are a fan of the Gran Turismo series and own a PSP, the game is a must-get for the holiday season. If you haven’t played one of these games, the learning curve may be a bit more difficult by playing it on the PSP, but it isn’t so bad that you’ll want to give up in disgust. Practice with the system and its controls will yield results.

Like the earlier Gran Turismo games, the focus is on giving players “real” cars to drive around on different race tracks. The PSP version has more than 800 cars to choose from, with several U.S., Japanese and European manufacturers. You start the game with a starter car and a number of credits, and you can buy additional cars at the dealership. Participating in races and driving challenges will earn you additional credits, giving you a chance to buy more cars. The types of dealers available change on a regular basis (in the game, you have different “days” in which they change), so if you want to buy a particular model, you have to keep checking to see if they are one of the dealers of the day. That’s a bit frustrating (I really wanted to buy a Honda NSX after getting smoked by one in a race), but it’s a twist that aims to get the player to try different cars and see how they handle.

There are several different gameplay modes – you can race against computer opponents, race a time trial or a “drift trial”, and you can also play multiplayer against other humans across a wireless LAN. Like the other Gran Turismo games, you can customize your car with different equipment settings, but this is only recommended if you really want to tweak your car and know what you’re doing – for the most part I avoided changing those settings, other than changing the tires on the car from regular to sport or racing tires for extra grip. Unlike the other games, you don’t have to go and spend a bunch of money on the equipment, the credits are used to purchase cars only. I liked this feature (as well as the game awarding more credits for the races), as it let me purchase more vehicles faster without having to grind race after race in order to get enough cash to buy another car.

Driving is more difficult with the PSP controls than with a regular Playstation controller (or, better yet, a steering wheel and pedal accessory), but as long as you don’t go too fast into the corners you should be able to use the gamepad to steer. The track variety is awesome – more than 35 tracks are available, with different computer AI opponents to make them challenging for you.

While not perfect (loading the game and getting ready for each race takes more time than I’d like, and pressing the X or O button to accelerate eventually cramps your fingers), this game is a great driving experience for the PSP, and the wide variety of tracks, cars and customizable settings make this a winner.Cool Yule rating: 4 stars: $37

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Darkest of Days(Available for PC, Xbox 360)

Darkest of DaysI’ve always been a big fan of time-travel storylines, so the idea of adding a time-travel element to a first-person shooter game intrigued me. The basic plot of Darkest of Days – you’re a soldier who’s about to meet your maker at the Battle of Little Big Horn (Gen. Custer isn’t too happy), when a blue bubble appears ahead of you and takes you to the future. Since you would have been killed anyway, you are now a soldier “out of time”, and you’ve been recruited by a secret time-traveling organization to go back to historical battles to help right the timeline, rescue people or do other missions. Meanwhile, there’s a rival organization that is trying to do the same things (are they good? Are they bad?).

Most of the early missions take place in either the Civil War era or World War I (Germans fighting Russians), but other areas eventually show up later in the game. For the most part your character has to use weapons indigenous to that time era, so during the Civil War missions you’re going to be using a musket a lot. In some missions you’ll get to use modern weapons, making it very fun to mow down a bunch of Confederate soldiers with a machine gun. It’s like playing a Harry Turtledove novel! An added wrinkle – certain soldiers have blue auras around them, which means you shouldn’t kill them, otherwise the timeline gets screwed up. If you kill too many blue-aura soldiers, the bad guys show up with their big and bad weaponry. Fortunately, you have some stun grenades that can immobilize the blue auras without killing them.

The missions aren’t super hard as long as you pay attention to the mission goals, and don’t try to go all Rambo all the time. I got stuck a few times on certain missions (especially one where you have to ride in a zeppelin in World War I with soldiers firing rockets at you), but not so much where I gave up completely.

I’m not a huge first-person shooter game fan, but the time-travel storyline and historical battle elements drew me in. The game has a good sense of humor, although as a Mature title there’s going to be some salty language – definitely keep the headphones on while playing.

I hope they make a sequel to the game that addresses even more historical eras – I’d love to fight in lots and lots of other famous battles from all sorts of different eras.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars: $35

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Alienware OptX AW2210 Full HD monitor

Alienware AW2210 monitorWhen I hear Alienware I usually think of high-performance desktop and notebook systems optimized for gaming purposes, so it’s interesting to see them come out with a high-definition monitor. The AW2210 provides up to 1920 by 1080 full HD resolution on its 21.5-inch widescreen display. Other tech specs include 80,000:1 contrast ratio, 16:9 aspect ratio and a 2ms response rate, great for gaming apps. It includes one digital video input for your computer, but also dual HDMI inputs, which would let you hook up a gaming console like the PlayStation 3. This would make for a good unit in a game room where you can connect a PC and gaming console in one location instead of having to switch or rely on a TV for the gaming console.

Picture quality is outstanding, and the slick black coverings and slim matte bezel make for a nice fit in smaller areas. The unit tilts and swivels and adjusts for height, but it doesn’t rotate (not sure how many monitors rotate anyway).

If you are a gamer, this can make for a great system to get a larger screen for your games, especially if you also want to play games from your gaming console or to watch movies on (the PS3 does have that Blu-Ray drive, after all). The price is good for a system of this quality.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars: $300

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Mind Flex by Mattel

MindFlexMind Flex is one of the first of what promises to be a whole new genre of games, in which human brain waves are used to move objects in the real world. At first glance this sounds like a giant hoax and since Mind Flex only costs $80, it is hard to believe that this game, which features a lot of chintzy looking plastic, actually contains any cutting-edge technology. But it does.

A user puts on a headset that goes across his forehead like a headband. A sensor built into the headband measures their brain wave activity. Two ear clips that dangle down from the headband and get clipped to both of the user's earlobes.

The underlying technology comes from a company called NeuroSky, which is marketing its technology for a variety of uses, including military, education, stress reduction, accident prevention, etc. The concept is that brain wave activity is different when you're concentrating vs. not concentrating, when you're agitated vs. when you're relaxed, etc.

In the case of Mind Flex, when you focus and concentrate, the headset picks up your heightened brain wave activity. This makes a fan on the game console spin faster, which then makes a light, foam ball about the size of a ping-pong ball rise into the air. If you stop concentrating, the ball drops back down. Since the headset is not connected to the console except wirelessly, there's no way anyone can manipulate the ball or the fan. It's all done via brain power. Seriously.

In fact, my 12-year-old made the ball rise and fall just using her mind. OK, I'm still skeptical that this little sensor thing-y can actually read brain waves. Maybe it's just like a mood ring that's measuring heat on your forehead. Maybe it's measuring your pulse rate. Who knows? In any event, it seems to work and that's pretty cool.

The next question is – how good is the Mind Flex as a game that somebody would play again and again. Or is it just a one-time novelty. There are a few things working against the Mind Flex as a game. First, the headgear gets really uncomfortable after a while. The little sensor button ends up putting a dent into your forehead and the ear clips are no joy either. Second, the game only allows you to do one thing – you can raise the little ball and then watch it drop. Mattel has added a bunch of little plastic doo-dads that allow you to play multiple obstacle course type games, but it's still just raising the ball and lowering it. In addition, since there's only one headset, only one person can play at a time. In order to play with more than one person, you'd need to set up a game, such as going through a maze, and then time it. Then, hand the headset to the next player, and time that person.

Bottom line: This reminds me of the Roomba in a way. In other words, here you have the promise of this amazing robotic technology that can supposedly navigate the real world and do all these amazing things, and what you end up with a $200 dust mop. Similarly, if this technology actually has commercial applications, hopefully some smart entrepreneurs can come with something beyond lifting a little foam ball and dropping it back down again.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars $80

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Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

The Munchables (Nintendo Wii)

The MunchablesThe Munchables for Wii suggests that it's a modernized version of Pac-Man. A similar type creature moves through the rainbow land of Star Ving and the goal is to EAT, with somewhat updated graphics. The land of Star Ving has been invaded by pirates who have stolen food-creating orbs and the poor Munchables are hungry! In order to get the orbs back Chomper and Munchy, the Pac-Man-like characters, must eat the pirates, who cleverly look like various fruits and vegetables. The "bad guys" include Great Grapy, Eggplanter and Brocco-Lee.

On the surface, this very simplistic game seems aimed to get young gamers to eat their fruits and veggies, and with the two main characters it can appeal to either girls or boys. However, due to more-than-suggestive references to the other half of the digestive process, this game seems more appropriate for recreational college gamers than for impressionable young players.

The game claims it's a two-player game, but the second player has such minimal tasks, it really should be only a single player game. This game is not visually or mentally stimulating, but if you're looking for a few good potty jokes, this is your game!

Cool Yule Rating: 1 star $19.99

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Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

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