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Old 11-29-2008, 11:28 AM   #1
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Default Pre-release of review for Steel Fury released (by Skybird)

Neal just told me that it will take him some days to produce some screenshots. I did not do them myself, because my system, although meeting recommended specs, was able to produce mediocre frames only at minimum and minimum-medium graphic settings. The sim looks not bad that way, but I would take even more fire for trying to make it look bad if I would post shots from that low detail setting, so he is helping out.

We agreed that until it is officially set up in a couple of days, a pre-release as a simple thread will be posted, to end this unlucky debate about a review some of you already don't feel well with although you do not know it. This is no draft, but the final text, it will later be set up as a regular website feature.

I hope that helps to bring back some calm to things, and helps to let the dust settle a bit.
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Last edited by Skybird; 11-29-2008 at 11:42 AM.
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Old 11-29-2008, 11:29 AM   #2
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STEEL FURY - Kharkov 1942

Review by Skybird


In late autumn 2008, Lighthouse Interactive gave the community what it was craving for since long: a WWII-based tank simulation game, and not only one of it, but even two. However, the first release, "T34 versus Tiger", showed to be a sub-mediocre release with many problems, being rushed out far too early, and having spiked controversial debate amongst customers. Compared to that - so much can be said in advance - the release of "Steel Fury" (SF) seems to avoid that controversy.

Ordering from Germany, the shop in Holland managed the delivery of the parcel after one week, which is okay. I got a DVD box with one DVD, and a small booklet of 38 pages.


CONTENT AND INSTALLATION

Installation went smooth for the main, just until the end: a windows opened and left me the choice to untick several additional stuff being installed, which for the most a non-techie like me finds hard to identify. What I did not like is that the thing did not check whether or not a reinstallation of dir9.0c was necessary or not, and also did not check if the other components like "visual C+++2.x" or ""ogg codec" are installed or not. you could untick it and then run the risk of missing vital parts of the installation, you can leave it checked and run the risk of installing an outdated version, or you can be lucky and indeed install what you need. You are just being left swimming in muddy water here. No good solution.

I then had a first quick read-through of the manual, which is more a pamphlet and left me a bit unsatisfied. The pdf on the DVD has more pages, but adds nothing substantial, just an appendix with abbreviations and systems, plus two more pdf's on the editor, and an encyclopedia with basic technical data on vehicles and weapons of that era.

I later learned that there is one bug with sights movement linked to the command for replacing the tracks, so when turning the periscope left, the tank immobilises itself, gets repaired and then can move in kind of an emergency mode only, not fully mobile again. This bug comes from faulty localisation, and can be evaded by remapping keyboard commands.

Another bug I expected to meet, also already found a repair from the community. Missing markings in the gunner's sights for the Tiger can be added by using a replacement file - the default is broken, again: a localisation error, they say.

After installation, you have a 1.88 GB heavy game folder on your HD. Next you start the game, and start learning about the options.


SPECS

The game does not run with nVidia FX cards (everything earlier than 6600 cards), and it does not like AA switched on. Be sure you switch it off. Eventually you also need to switch off sound hardware acceleration for sound, and certain older soundboards may not work properly anyway. Finally be sure you leave on the option "use desktop resolution", else you multiply the risk of getting system freezes at mission loading (I had 3 in 6 attempts), with the option active you still may eventually face freezes, but not that often (according to my experience). My system pretty much meets the "recommended" specs, and is a P4 3GHz, with 2 GB RAM, AGP 7800GS (256 MB), Audigy 2, and Windows XP/SP3. Although the sim told me in autodetect mode that I could afford to run pretty much at best quality settings, the opposite showed to be true. In 1024x768 at minimum settings for graphic details and everything being switched off, I had a maximum frame rate of around 25, which seems to be engraved in stone for almost every player, I read. With a desktop resolution of 1280x1024 at 72 Hz, I needed to reduce details to minimum-medium, leaving most options and especially shadows and AF off, to get frames not falling below 9 regularly. With these settings, I got frames of 9-15, depending on scenario, and how much was to be seen. This is on the level of what the demo gave me, or slightly less. The more units are in vicinity to you, the lower your frames are, while terrain features like forests do not seem to have such an impact. 9-15 fps - that is playable, but is not really smooth anymore. All in all they need to beef up their recommended specs, and massively so - the recommended specs are practically equal to my system, and create clearly mediocre results at best.

The game is quite well played with keyboard and mouse exclusively. I did not use my joystick at all. I thought about mapping some commands to the Throttle handle of my HOTAS, but then decided it just is not worth it – you don’t need joysticks, HOTAS, or anything here.

The menu is sober, and functional. The campaigns are not dynamic, but essentially a series of grouped single missions. Within a campaign, later missions need to be unlocked to get access to the next mission. I personally hate this console-game arrangement, not just in SF, but in every kind of game. You better think of the game as a series of single missions indeed, not as a campaign-oriented game, even more so since there is nothing that really would make you identify yourself with an alter ego of yours within the game, no unit history, no medals and skill improvements, no personalisation worth to be mentioned. Yes, there is a fundamental statistics file for you as the player, but it is hardly worth to be mentioned.

There is no MP - for many people probably the major argument to decide against SF, and in favour of the - MP-bugs-haunted - TvT.


INTERFACE

Hopping into my first try with it, I had a training lesson on how to drive the tank. Here I learned the first time that the interface for changing between stations, opening and closing hatches etc, in my opinion is very anti-ergonomic and more complex and more numerous in keyboard commands, than needed, i think that there really should have gone some effort into reducing the needlessly blown up number of keyboard commands, much stuff included simply is not needed - like hitting F1 to go to a crew member’s station, but if that crew member is dead, you need to hit CTRL-F1 and be faced with a delay to get there. If the man has gone to his ancestors, you could have left the command to F1 and have had the delay implemented nevertheless. Also, there is a very exotic system of "docking" sights, which I simply find absurd for it wins you no advantage for making it more complicated, and I see better solutions for managing complex sight handling in other games. All in all, the keyboard command interface I do not like at all, it is - well, it is very Russian, I think. Of course you can learn it, but it is far more complex than needed, one could have made it more ergonomic without reducing the level of functions at all.


GRAPHICS

The graphics look good (but not spectacular) - if you can afford to maximise the settings. They also look acceptable at medium settings. But at lower resolution and minimum settings it started to remind me of the old Panzer Elite a bit. The way I can run it – 1280x960, low-medium settings and frames 9-15 - is okay, but not much more. You nevertheless get a good impression of the landscape with the rolling hills and meadows, and locations like villages, forests, fjords, rivers, bushes, mud fields, anti tank trenches and ditches, are presented in solid, functional manner. Often, forests and fields of bushes show to be made of 2d-bitmaps that are interlocked, like it is often done: two cards being attached cross-over, when you are close to them they lose detail and become very huge in pixels. Many other trees are individually models and 3-dimensional. Trees, bushes, houses, fences, all that is destroyable by weapons fire, or by riding right over it with your tank.

You have different weather settings and times of day (and night) available to the mission designers, and these changing environmental conditions get represented in the game, again in a solid, fully sufficient manner, and giving you some beautiful sky to watch at. The effects of smoke, explosions, and artillery drilling some new holes into the distant enemy position, look good and make you being worried when you approach them in your attacking tank . However, smoke clouds do not last for too long, I think the vision-blocking, covering effect from these is not adequately represented in the game. Viewing distances are - well, I would estimate them to be around 2 km maximum, maybe 2.5 or maybe even 3, it is hard to say, however: they are totally sufficient for the weapon ranges of that time, so you get a realistic view of the battlefield, in that regard.

On occasions, the scenery looks very 3-dimensional, on others, you almost see the 2-D poster that forms that distant line of trees from the forest, if time of day creates lighting conditions not in favour of the contrasts and colours of these, then it looks like a different game – only rarely I have had so different impressions of the graphical presentation of a game. However, the visual side of the game is fully sufficient and very much okay, and serves the purpose of the game very well, so it is hard to complain here. What I just would like to know is whether or not infantry that you see firing tracers right into the sky so very often is doing it intentionally, or if that is just an eye candy effect that has no representational value for any weapon action on the ground.


SOUND

Sound is a mixed bag, tending towards the “okay”-side of things, but also having some not so positive “highlights”. The tanks themselves sound not so convincing, I think, they sound like something light in weight, very whiny, and the mechanical components of tanks moving do not convince me. There is little variation in the sound of MGs and cannons, but especially tank guns sound okay. Whether they are realistic, I cannot say, but a first sound mod already is available, altering the weapons sounds. I was unable to orientate myself on the battlefield from listening to the noise of combat. The volume of sounds does not match the distance to the event that causes the sound, and stays the same when approaching the location of origin. When battles get hot and many weapons fire at the same time, the close and the distant all sound the same in volume, giving you zero feeling of distance by varying their volume. The “clong” that marks your tank got hit is the same clonk from that tank 400m away that got hit. Sound also travels at the speed of light in this game, even distant tanks firing you hear at the moment their guns fire, there is no sound travelling, no delay.

The air elements that sometimes show up and strafe the battlefield, also are very loud and do not waste much time with fading in and out, but are more like being switched on and off, and relatively abrupt. They are also not well-recorded, first time I thought somebody switched on my radio, that badly it fitted into the game’s sound environment.

The distant pounding of artillery that you see impacting, is nice and well-done – just not loud enough, a low, heavy thumping sound that contrasts strictly with Steel Fury's infamous battle-birds - the birds in Russia seem to be very battle-hardened, they chirp away even in the heat of battle, even in the night, even at midnight - even with guns ablaze right under their tree where they sit and chirp and chirp, and then chirp more. .

Especially the German infantry that eventually is around you is constantly yelling; “macht sie nieder!” and “die Bolschewisten kommen!” will be sentences that you soon can spell while sleeping and without mistake after a couple of games even if you are not familiar with German language at all. It reminds of the young boys on a schoolyard - the German text scripts really are a bit - well, I think we could have lived without it. Your tank crew always seems to shout in mismatching stereotyping textbook manner, even if the situation gets hot the gunner will not just snap that the gun is ready, but will clearly identify the loaded round by its full technically correct identification in full length - that the commander as precisely has ordered to load just seconds before. It seems, these guys all have been secretaries before joining the army. I think even Germans were a bit more colourful in their language when being in battle. Some more pragmatism would have been better. So, all in all the sound package serves its purpose, but does not go much beyond the basics, which is a bit at the cost of immersion.


TUTORIALS

There are three tutorials. The first is on driving, ordering you from waypoint to waypoint with various kinds of geographic features or obstacles. I found myself ending the tutorial after I was ordered to breach a tank obstacle which showed to be a wide trench with too steep walls as if the tank could climb out. I then tried again and set gears to manual, trying to get over that thing by using sufficient momentum to climb over the wall leading out of the trench (remember, it was no infantry trench, but a tank trap). But the Matilda I was in is the slowest of the three playable tanks, and did not make it out. I assume it is possible with Tigers and maybe even T34s, but on the British design, which was meant not to exceed the speed of advancing infantry (says the manual), I gave up.

I then had the firing tutorial, which started with firing the MG at infantry in trenches, but to no effect. After having fired at them for three or four minutes, they walked out and ran away, but again firing at them and seeing the tracers passing right through them did nothing, just making them crouch. I then advanced to close-in range, and fired – and finally the tracers not only visually ripped through them, but mowed them down indeed. Next was firing at AT and AA guns, and stationary and moving tanks. The available ammo type took care of the AA and AT gun, but only when hitting the gun – hitting the crew around it did nothing. So, the effective target zone is not equal to the visual appearance of the target. The tanks I fired at, in the end at ridiculous close ranges, did not show any effect at all, sometimes they stopped, and later moved again, I do not know if they just stopped by themselves and later continued, or if they got killed, and then were revoked – some better feedback would have been appropriate. Since the tutorial did not produce any more commands, nor confirmed an ending to the mission, I stopped it myself.

I then saved me from the third tutorial almost completely, and managed to find out how the commander works and assigns targets to the gunner the hard way, in the playing missions. Like the rest of the interface, the system to assign targets for the gunner is not optimal, imo, and did not make me too happy. However, all in all you can acchieve with it what you want to acchieve.

I also fine-tuned the sensitivity of the mouse to make it move faster, the crosshairs will always move to where the mouse-cursor is – and not beyond. This needs a mental change for users of Steel Beasts, where the crosshairs would continue in the direction of the mouse cursor as long as the cursor is not moved to the centre of the crosshairs. It’s two different handling philosophies here. I liked the implementation of the stop-and-fire command, which the gunner triggers when he is ready to shoot – the driver then stops, the gunner fires, and immediately the drivers continues to drive on. A well-considered implementation of this procedure, really, and much needed since stabilization while on the move still was science fiction in WWII.

Ammo selection is done by the gunner, but he also has to hit a separate button to confirm that he really wants this being loaded by the loader. One needless additional key is getting mapped this way, which consumes another slot for those people who want to map some commands onto a HOTAS or another type of dedicated gaming device.


TACTICS, AI, PLAYING A MISSION, IMMERSION

Well, if I were mean I would ask: “what tactics, what finesse?” But mean or not, there is some truth in that question – great surprises during combat you will look for in vain in SF. The missions pretty much all follow one standard procedure. You are set up with one or two platoons of tanks and/or AFV, and maybe some groups of infantry as well, the starting positions are fixed, all and everybody is rushing towards the objective zone, and when being there the tanks rush back and fourth in insane zig zags until they receive the additional order to move to a second objective, which makes them going there, or chasing single enemies in the vicinity of objective 1. Offensive mission objectives always seem to be of the type “reach point A”, there are never any different qualifications for a mission objective (recce, enable convoy to pass through unharmed, escort duty).

This would not be such a one-sided thing if the AI would perform better, but especially the AI often gives the impression to be seriously broken – simply that: broken. The individual micro-managing of vehicles gets extremely easily confused and then does not care to move back by turning its’ vulnerable six to the enemy instead of backing up, it does not calculate the bad effect of exposing flank or rear while passing an enemy firing line (where it does protect itself from that, it seems to be by random chance, not by intentional decision). Having to decide whether to go here or there, passing an obstacle on the left or the right side or right through it, and whether this or that enemy or the one over there should be moved at, engaged, and faced with the front, often leads to an egg-dance that the tank is performing with an agility as if it were a young fawn hopping around in overjoy.

Reaching an objective makes the units headlessly running around like in any given action game. I must really say, the AI is a mess if left to itself. Of course, there are situation when it acts believably, but I have the impression this is only the case when the enemy is at a distance, and in one direction only. As soon as it comes to close distance fights and the enemy no longer being on just one single side of the battlefield, the AI tends to screw up more often than it handles situations adequately.

However, if you have a formation under your command, you have some (somewhat limited) influence on them, you must jump into map view and there find some icons that allow you to choose spacing, line or column or no formation, you can order for taking defensive positions (which created a chaos when I tried it), while behaviour cannot be directly ordered. Interesting is that button “do as I do”, which is meant to make them follow your tank and face the direction you are facing. This has light and shadow, while sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, it also can achieve effects that are opposite of what you want to achieve. For example you are in a line formation and want to change facing direction while under fire, let’s say there is incoming fire from your 9 o’clock position. You turn left. The tanks on your right side move forward in a turn, to maintain their relative position (or they don’t - tja). But the tanks on the left needing to back up, will not backup, but turn their back on the enemy, moving back in forward, and if they survive that, then turn in their new position again. Now thinking of it, I think I have not seen a single tank ever moving backwards, for example in order to fall back from resistance, or to take cover. Also, it is possible that communication brakes down, due to radios destroyed, this seems to effect the unit following your example as well, you then have to switch to flag or light communication, or simple yelling, this sounds like a fun-feature adding to realism, but I must say, I did not find it to be fun – it started to kill my nerves soon, and I also wonder if it really is fully functional. I already had to supervise a really not too clever AI – then also having to deal with finding out what kind of communication worked best, did not really boost my general mood. I would have preferred to leave this feature abstracted, in kind of a delay penalty until commands are being followed, and a brief note on that unit X has broken radios, or the signal lights has no batteries. Then the AI could have given the delay penalty nevertheless, while some smart Mr. Virtual Tankrider picked up the signal flags and started to wave over his message.

The map handling also is not really my cup of tea, maybe I am too used to that of SBP, but in SF you certainly lack flexibility to orchestrate your forces. It also becomes obvious that the missions are planned to be short pieces of gameplay only, and in fact I have not played any mission for longer than maybe 15 minutes before it was completed (the game is not too difficult to win, most battles you can win by simply avoiding your tank to be the spearhead and avoiding to get killed – often the rest of your forces, no matter how chaotic it all is, will win the battle for you – on highest difficulty level, I mean…)

The battles all are small in size, you have 6-12 tanks and/or AFVs, some dozen of infantry organised in several groups and usually not under your direct command, so do not take the word “epic” in “epic tank battle simulator” that is printed on the box too serious. It all is quite small, especially for the context of the huge historic battle the game claims to describe. And at least on my system, more vehicles would kill frames completely. Multi-company sized forces are a dream only. If I counted correctly, you do not even get one full company of vehicles.

The AI showed a nerve-killing tendency to let the crew embark to repair broken tracks even while the tank was peppered with MG fire and small and huge calibre feeling attracted by it’s hull. Not that I lost tracks often, but still...

The enemy AI left me unimpressed. It makes troops trying to leave and escape the trenches when having been overrun, and makes it’s unit move around, but I found it hard to see a plan behind it, or a behaviour that reacted to my own actions, it seems to be pretty much scripted. I did not bring up the interest to check the mission editor in depth, but I assume my impression on enemy AI is due to mission design, and relatively non-autonomous AI controlling the behaviour of the enemy. Here, I am used to far more flexibility from games like Armed Assault, or sims like Steel Beasts Pro. It is a somewhat rudimentary affair.

All this results in that you have relatively little possibilities, if any, to truly outsmart the enemy by setting up some tactical surprises, or try something new, the mission runs relatively linear. Playing hide and seek – a speciality of SBP – is not really possible, because the trees as well as the buildings are not only fully destroyable, but get flattened very quickly indeed, leaving troops and tanks no hidden space to hide inside of villages – which is very different to scenes of in-town-fights you know from war movies, both fictional and documentary. In the tactics department, this game disappoints. Tactics I never needed to win – just letting my force linearly move towards the objectives, and sooner or later they succeeded, no matter how unorganised and chaotic the scene was (on highest difficulty settings, there are several sliders to adjust this).

One member of the tanksim forum said that SF is an arcade game that tries to look like a simulation. That is a fitting description, in my opinion, there are simulation elements that are convincing – the physics of driving are working well enough for me – and the physics also affect kinetic ammunition loosing penetration power with growing distance - but realism also is defined by operational procedures, by the way the events unfold and interact, and the possibilities for straying off from predefined ways of solution. But as I said: you will find it hard to see a true tactics simulation in this game, or to use some finesse in setting up your plan, or to ambush the enemy on the fly. The way the battles unfold, are limited in diversity, and they are very limited in size, and they are not very believable in behaviour of units and the way the story is being told. As a sim, this is below average standard. As an action-oriented game with some reference to real events, it is acceptable, maybe even nice. But I am indeed hesitant to call it a simulation the way I understand the term “simulation”.

A consequence of all this is that for me – having neither an antipathy nor a sympathy for the WWII-theme – SF is massively lacking in immersion. It reminds me of IL2, which in the simulation department does a lot of things more convincing than SF, but again: also has little immersion, and almost no atmosphere. The feeling to be there and being sucked up by the action and the place and the time, did not come to me, not one moment. It was a game I played while sitting at my desk, from the first to the last second. Emotionally, it left me totally unaffected. When I play SHIII, and hang around below the surface of a stormy North Atlantic to sit out a storm, while listening to “Lili Marleen” or Glen Miller’s swing and swinging 40s songs from the gramophone I modded with additional music – I feel lonely, almost melancholic. The desk disappears, my mind is gone away. And when I play a lethal game of hide and seek with SBP, I often have wet hands, am emotionally aroused and maybe even desperate, cursing at that damn thing getting it to me once again. In SF – I sat and manipulated a keyboard and mouse to see pictures on a monitor. You must admit, although this of course is a very subjective assessment by me: from my perspective this is a very clear judgement about the quality of SF when being seen as a simulation. After having thrown the hail-mary pass a couple of times and see everybody rushing after it, sooner or later the experience becomes repetitive and lacking in originality, and you do not feel surprised anymore.


REALISM, PHYSICS

Well, that is in parts hard to judge for me, since I know not much about weapons in WWII.

On side of physics, there is driving, and this they have done really good, I think, the system mimics the tank control via two steering sticks, to manually handle the gears is tricky (even more so since the keyboard interface once again makes it more complicated than necessary, I would recommend to consider a complete remapping anyway if you plan to stay with the game), and the behaviour of the tanks regarding speed, acceleration and mass momentum when climbing a hill or diving into a valley seem to follow healthy reason and what you would expect in the actual situation. If you need to climb over a hill, things can really go real slow. And eventually, you get stuck and cannot make it.

On side of weapon effects, I would think that kinetic ammunition indeed looses destruction potential the greater the distance is, and that it is important from what aspect you are firing at your target. The basic formula “turret stronger than hull, front stronger than flank stronger than rear”; seems to be true here. The efficiency of explosive ammunition and MG I cannot judge, just that small calibre tracers can go right through infantry but eventually causing no harm, is irritating. I think it is eye candy only, the counting real projectiles are simply deactivated if the target is beyond a certain range, only the eye candy effect moves on in the linear direction – at least that’s how it feels to me.

Since “realism” is closely linked to the sub-section we had before, there is not much more to say. It goes without saying that what I have said there, influences the overall realism of the way the mission plays and unfolds, and the options for you how to influence the events. I must say that I see it more as a complex action game, but not as a realistic simulation. For an action game, the approach is complex indeed, but nevertheless it should not be mistaken with realism for the only reason of being “complex” – for a simulation, the complexity ends with the interface and handling of the tanks – the missions are not complex at all, and so isn’t the reality created by them.


THE INEVITABLE CHAPTER

Of course, people knowing me, expected that I cannot avoid to compare Steel Fury with Steel Beasts Pro PE. Is SF really a tank simulation able to rival SBP in the simulation department?

Originally I planned to write a long separate chapter just about this comparison – but the longer I played SF, the more I realised that this would not make sense, since it is pointless. A tanksim is more than just correct physics, it is about formation interaction, a believable mission environment interacting and reacting to actions of the player, it is about AI, and general handling, tactical depth and opportunity to implement real world tactics. These are things you can compare even when taking into account that WWII and the present, tank technology from 70 years ago and from the present, cannot directly be compared to each other.

I think, by what I already have written, it is clear by now, that in the general tank department, SF in no way can compete with the benchmarks set by SBP. SBP is simply superior in AI, handling, mission design options, scaling, tactics, procedural realism. I personally also prefer the graphic style of the SBP world, but that is a question of taste, however, SBP gives you the greater maximum viewing distances, and WAY greater maps, if you want it that way.




These brief remarks may also serve as the conclusion of this small review of Steel Fury. Of SF and TvT, SF seem to be the better choice, and with the addon “Fall Blau” already finished and a deal being created for release in 1Q2009, and the developer already having revealed plans to go for a SF2 which then also will include MP, WWII tank-buffs currently have no real alternative than to go with the SF franchise. However, be aware what it is that you get: a solid, complex action game, but nothing that justifies to be seen as a realistic simulation, not even saying: “study sim”.

In schoolnotes from A to F:
as a complex action game, I rate it as “B-“, or even “B” if you point a gun tube at me.
As a simulation, I cannot rate it higher than “D”.
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Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.– Hannah Arendt

Last edited by Skybird; 11-29-2008 at 12:07 PM.
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Old 11-29-2008, 11:54 AM   #3
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Comments in a separate thread, please. This pre-release will be deleted once the text got set up at tanksim.com.
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Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.– Hannah Arendt
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