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Hell on Wheels - SF '42

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Fighting in the M4 Sherman in Steel Fury - Kharkov 1942!


Until recently, I didn't realise that Graviteam's Eastern Front WW2 tanksim lets you sign up as a US Army tanker and fight in the famous M4 Sherman tank. It doesn't of course...at least, not out-of-the-box. But SF '42 is one of those sims which has been much enhanced by the work of that intrepid and talented group of people we call 'modders'. And the 'New Tank Add-on' (NTA) mod - current version, NTA 1.8 - includes a Sherman and missions for it. Keen to go to virtual war in an M4  - and to fight some battles in places whose names I could actually pronounce - this was one tank I had to try out.
The mod
Jonesoft Generic Mod Enabler is a must for SF '42 and I have it set up so I can play with either the Steel Panzer Mod (SPM) version 2.0 or NTA 1.8. Each has its own install order for the main mod and some recommended or essential extra components. It's not-at-all complicated to get set up; main thing is, use JSGME and enable or disable the mods, after installing them into JSGME's 'Mods' folder, in the right sequence. It's all here: http://graviteam.com/forum/index.php?topic=10944.0 (NTA) ...and here: http://graviteam.com/forum/index.php?topic=11026.0 (SPM).
NTA 1.8 is apparently the most recent and complete mod and that's what I'm using for this mission, along with the associated sound mod, mission packs and update. Edit, August 2014 - the NTA mod has been discontinued but its successor, the STA Mod, is now available: http://stasf2008.eph...d-on-steel-fury
The tank
Like the Tiger featured in my last SF '42 mission report, the M4 General Sherman needs little introduction. Nicknamed rather derisively the 'Tommy Cooker' or the 'Ronson' (after the cigarette lighter's slogan, 'lights first time'), the M4 may have earned an unenviable reputation for burning when penetrated and it mighn't have been a match for some of the later German tanks in a straight fight. But when it appeared in action with the British Eighth Army in North Africa in 1942, it was one of the best tanks in the world. Even in 1944-45, it could do many of the things a tank had to do, as well or better than its opponents. Strong points included a decent dual-purpose gun, reliability and fast turret traverse
The NTA Sherman is a late WW2 model M4A3, with the 47 degree, single piece upper hull front with larger driver and radio operator hatches; the T23-type turret with 'vision' cupola for the commander; 76mm gun; and internally, wet ammo stowage to reduce the fire risk. The 76 is of course a better AT weapon than the earlier 75mm, comparable to the German long-barrelled 7.5cm KwK 40 tank and Pak 40 anti-tank guns and able to fire APCR tungsten-cored rounds. The latter gave the Sherman 76 a better chance against the later German tanks at shorter ranges but was reportedly in short supply in tank units, being reserved mainly for the Tank Destroyer force, whose towed and self-propelled 76mm guns were supposed to be the main counter to enemy tanks, in US doctrine. The SF '42 M4A3(76) is a really nice rendition, with a just a hint of the 'gypsy caravan' look from external stowage and extra track sections on the hull front for extra protection. There are no interiors; these are of limited use anyway, as you can play just fine from the third person external view or (in the first-person view) from either the hatch-open view or the gunsight/periscope/vision port view.
The mission
From the list of available single missions, I chose 'Everything, but the Bridge!' by prolific Ukranian mission-maker Lockie. This is part of mission pack 2.1, which I think is designed for the NTA mod. Like Lockie's other missions, this comes with a neat loading screen, which includes a tantalising excerpt from a report of an engagement during the Battle of the Bulge, the historical setting for this mission.


The German Ardennes Offensive in December 1944 is probably familiar to most of us, if only from the well-known Hollywood movie which featured grey-painted Spanish Army M47s acting as King Tigers, M24 Chaffees acting as Shermans, and that famous rendition of the Panzerlied with Robert Shaw. As that French General said on observing the charge of the Light Brigade, 'C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre!'
I haven't played much SF '42 until dusting it off recently but in my experience, the typical mission is a deliberate but rather chaotic attack by a combined arms company-based combat team. This one was clearly going to be very different, as I could see from the briefing. Here it is; the mission map anyway. I have minimised the text briefing as it hides a lot of the map and in this case, it told me nothing much, except to defend the bridge:


My little outfit is the trio of red diamonds, bottom centre-left. The bridge is in the middle. From the tactical symbols, the defenders - on the left bank apart from one AT gun - comprise some dismounted infantry, some soft-skimmed vehicles, a single tank, and a handful of anti-tank guns, likely the 57mm ones derived from the British 6-pounder, used by US Infantry Divisions. I believe the map is a re-labelled version of one of the Ukranian ones that come with the sim. The terrain itself is fairly level, not what you'd expect for the Ardennes. It might have been a good idea if I had enabled the winter weather mod to produce snowscapes appropriate for at least the later stages of the Battle of the Bulge but I don't know if it's compatible and I stuck with the original.

Even though this mission is evidently an ad hoc operation, I'd have preferred a fuller, more immersive 'battle picture' and more scene-setting, in the mission briefing. Here’s how I ended up picturing the briefing, in my own mind:
You're a lieutenant in the US Army commanding a platoon of three 76mm-armed M4 tanks from the 66th Tank Regiment, Second Armoured Division, the famous 'Hell on Wheels'. In the confusion following the Division's sudden redeployment to deal with the German Ardennes Offensive, your platoon has become separated from your unit. As you motor uncertainly along a track beside a river, an infantry major and his radio operator step out of the trees to your left and wave you down. The major looks tired but business-like, waving his '45 like he means to use it.
'I'm the Officer Commanding, Company B, First Battalion, 145th Infantry. I don't care who you are or where you're going, but starting right now, you're working for me.
Look at this map. There's a bridge over the Roer River here. It's on your right, just a few hundred yards ahead of you. See it?
There's also a whole bunch of Kraut tanks and infantry heading straight for it, coming from way over there, on your far left - see those blue arrows on the map?
Company B - what's left of us - is in a defensive perimeter, on the near side of the bridge, with a few 57mm AT guns.
The Krauts musn't get that bridge. We've to hold it, at all costs. No more bug-outs.
Take your three M4s up there and keep the Krauts away from the bridge. Their tanks are your priority targets. Your choice, where you set up. But do it quick. Move out NOW!'

They say 'Time spent in reconnaisance is never wasted'. For this mission, as usual in sims and often in real life, my recce would have to be a map one. First job before starting the mission was to take the map and my orders and make a quick Combat Appreciation. For this sort of thing, I used an abbreviated format we were taught by a captain in the RM Commandos - good enough for the booties, good enough for me. It's 'Aim - Enemy - Ground - Plan' and here goes my quick effort for this mission.
Aim - the easy bit, to destroy any Germans making for the bridge.
Enemy - tanks and infantry in unknown, but possibly company group, strength, shortly likely to cross my front from left to right, headed for the bridge.
Ground - looking towards the enemy from the bridge: on the left, a treeline with good cover and some room to manoeuvre; in the centre, a large open space with little cover, which the enemy will likely have to cross, a good killing ground; to the right, a narrow treeline backed by a bend in the river which severely limits mobility that way. Contour lines are few and gentle so the terrain looks rather flat, apart from the rather shallow river banks and a very low hillock to my immediate left. Basically, I'm looking for covered, preferably hull-down firing positions on the enemy's lighter-armoured flanks.
Plan - move to positions in the tree line to the left of Company B's defended locality. Fire into the flanks of the enemy as he crosses my front from left to right, heading for the bridge. My tanks to be in a line, set back from the treeline, sacrificing wider arcs of fire for better concealment. Change firing positions every few rounds, as one does. Cover from fire would be nice but accept cover from view if that's all I can get up there, as seems likely.
Plan made, I loaded the mission and roared off down the track towards the bridge, trying hard not to veer off and fall into the river, conventional Sherman gun tanks not being noted for being amphibious, notwithstanding the abilities of DD versions.


Looking behind me only to see my other two tanks immobile, I realised I'd forgotten to brief them. The F8 key brought up the map again and from its command and control icons, I ordered single file/column formation and 'do as I do'. As they caught up, I pressed on. About 50 meters before the trees on my left petered out, I turned 90 degrees left and rumbled through the woods, some distance inside and parallel to the treeline from which I intended to catch the enemy with flanking fire.



As I motored on, the trees thinned out but I was still screened from the killing ground to my right by a decent line of smaller trees. From that direction, the cacophony of sound I could hear above my engine noise indicated that the battle was already in full swing. I'm using the recommended NTA sound mod, which I assume was responsible for the US tanker voices I could hear on the intercom. This mod changes many of the other sound effects too; hard to say from one usage whether or not I prefer it to stock, which is pretty good too. Anyway, I pressed on, more cautiously now.




The woods thickened up around me and I swung 90 degrees right, to face the edge of the treeline. Beyond, the enemy seemed already to be advancing, heard but not yet seen through the screen of foliage in front of my tank. I began to edge slowly forward, to the point where I would acquire a narrow line of sight out into the killing ground.




As I did so, I ordered my tanks into line abreast, anxiously looking around to see how well my AI Tank Commanders would cope with my series of manoeuvres. The answer, alas, was 'none too well!'


...to be continued!

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Looks interesting. I hadnt heard of this one and have been searching for a good tank sim that isnt over the top, but not simply arcade. Since Panzer Commander, I've been without. This is on at Amazon for $20. Maybe I'll give it a go. The photos from the sight look pretty nice. Easy on the controls?




Hi Jeff


easy on the controls  - have to say 'Not entirely but not so hard to pick up as Panzer Elite (which is complicated, key command set-wise, with lots of two-key combinations...but comprehensive)'. Two reasons - first the key allocations are a bit non-intuitive, second the manual is Ukranian (I presume) translated into English, including such gems as 'Some sights allow carrying out the circular review [T/Y] ie rotating in a horizontal plane irrespective of a gun.' (description of the ability of some sights to scan horizontally, independent of the position of the gun barrel). Solid AP shot is described at one point as 'continuous [ie homogenous, solid?] armour piercing' To help with the keys, I made in Wordpad a two-row list on a single page of nearly all keyboard commands, regrouped somewhat into categories that made more sense to me, instead of the manual's 4.5 page table.


In short, not as simple as PzC but not as complicated as PE. Tho PE's 'complication' could be said to be 'greater sophistication'.



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Into action!



During my manoeuvres to line myself up to trundle towards the edge of the treeline and into a fire position, I confess I hadn't been watching my other two Shermans. Now, looking around, I could see one of them, to my right and slightly further back.




The other one took a bit longer to locate but to my horror, I saw that he had driven on ahead, out into the killing ground, and set up amongst a cluster of bushes about a hundred yards out. I failed to locate any method by which I could get him to fall back on my left, back inside the treeline. Equally I could not think of a way of telling the better-placed tank on my right to edge forward a bit. Whatever happened next, we were going to have to deal with it from our present dispositions, be they good, bad or (in the case of the M4 out amongst the bushes) positively foolhardy.


To digress slightly, in Panzer Elite I would have had four options to set up my platoon in defensive positions. First, there's the one I used in this mission - to drive my own tank into position and then order a suitable formation - line abreast in this case, which hadn't worked well. Secondly, in PE I could have mouse-clicked on a point on the ground and ordered a tank to move there, repeating for each tank (this often produces somewhat erratic results and isn't available in SF '42). The method that works best in PE is to 'jump' to each tank in your platoon then drive it into position yourself: slow but effective, though again, not available in SF '42. That left the fouth method of setting up your platoon. I could probably have used it in this SF '42 mission and it might have worked out better. This is to form up in the desired formation - line abreast in this case - well back from the feature on which I want my platoon to form up - and then advance towards it, already in that formation, halting when the desired position is reached. This tends to work reasonably well in PE as formation-keeping is (usually) fairly precise though I'm not sure if it would have worked any better in SF' 42 than what I did. For now, 'wingman' control in SF '42 appears to me to be comparatively limited, though I suspect I could have done better with more practice. There are some tools available in the F8 planning/orders map which I haven't used, for example.
Anyway, back to the 'here and now'. The din of battle ahead indicated that the enemy must surely be in the killing ground right in front, so I switched to the gunner's sight and scanned left and right. The size of the sight picture came as a bit of a shock - it was like looking at the world through a straw, a tiny field of view compared to German gun sights [edit this may have been because I didn't try the SF '42 gunsight zoom feature). To make matters worse, I had only a couple of narrow lines of sight out into the field between all the foliage, less than I'd have liked. I edged forward, to get better arcs of fire while keeping my flanks hidden.


And then I saw it in the gunsight - unmistakably, one of those Lynx light recce tanks, facing in our direction.




Even as I fired at him, a more serious threat appeared: a Panzer IV crossing from left to right behind the Lynx. The 'Mark 4' stopped with most of his hull screened by the light tank but I got off a couple of rounds at what I could see of him and was rewarded with a column of smoke rising from the bigger panzer.





They say that cover from view is better than cover from fire and I certainly had plenty of the former. I was firing from defilade, but one provided by trees or leaves and not solid earth. Time to change position. I backed deeper into the woods, turned, then edged forward again towards the treeline, so as to arrive in a slightly different position. Meanwhile I could hear up ahead the crash of tank or AT guns interspersed with the rattle of MG fire, and sometimes, see their tracers flashing past.




At this point I realised that my tank commander's hatch had remained shut, whereas in the Tiger mission, my TC had been operating 'unbuttoned', ducking down in the hatch when necessary. Worried about the very limited view from the gunsight, I switched to the commander's position, popped the hatch open and went to the first-person view. This is more like it, I thought, when I saw the result. Two funeral pyres marked the end of enemy tanks, one of them being my Panzer IV. You can see my other M4 - he's the brownish object amidst some bushes in the field, slightly left, about a hundred metres off, living dangerously in the thick of it.



The tank commander's role is of course one that tank simulators should do well. But many seem to concentrate (understandably) on tank gunnery simulation. That's ok, provided they also simulate the tank commander (TC) doing the rest, like making plans, managing the platoon and giving orders to the driver and the rest of the crew, in particular the gunner.


Since later Cold War days, TCs could use their own gear to traverse a turret, so as to line up the gun with something they wanted engaging, at which point they point it out to the gunner who should now be able to see the target in his own sight. More modern tanks' fire control systems enable the TC to fine lay and fire the gun as well. In WW2, what the commander had to do was indicate a target on the intercom. John Foley in his excellent 'Mailed Fist' - my favourite tanker's memoir, based on the author's service in NW Europe in Churchills - describes a typical one like this - 'Seventy-five, traverse left - steady - on! Five hundred - tank in open - fire!' This target indication drill was a characteristic feature of WW2 and early Cold War tanking and is an important element for a WW2 tanksim to cover.


Sims like M1TP2 concentrate on tank gunnery but also force you to operate as a sort of combined gunner, driver and commander, acquiring your own targets and ending up with a simulation that's not one thing or the other. Steel Beasts best portrays the real TC role. Panzer Elite is also pretty good at it, although in the first person, TC hatch open view, it often looks like you’re standing on top of the turret instead of just head out of the hatch. The SF '42 TC unbuttoned view from my Sherman looked just great, especially as I could see the loader's periscope to my left rotating as he scanned for targets or threats. But I was an SF '42 newbie, especially in playing from the TC position; would the AI gunner flounder, with me in command?


The importance of this question was suddenly emphasised. I now had a much better view and felt much more confident in my current position, where before, a King Tiger could have been sitting next to me, for all I could have seen from the gunsight. And my 'TC unbuttoned' view had the option to use binoculars. The problem was with what I could now see, from this view: the Panthers had arrived!
While I struggled to remember and apply the commands I knew existed to indicate a target to the gunner, he seemed to spot the first Panther for himself and cut loose, without needing any help from me. Just as well, really. The visible effects of the main gun firing, seen from the TC's unbuttoned standpoint, seemed a bit underwhelming with little flash or smoke/dust but the effect on the target was clear enough. I got a text message confirming his kill and through the binos, I could see the tail end of one of two burning Panthers, one of which was my man's kill.





Moments later, another Panther appeared, going the opposite way and presenting a nice flank shot. I couldn't resist switching back to the gunner's sight and letting him have a couple of rounds.




By this time, I could see that the M4 out amidst the bushes was burning. Given his isolated and exposed position, this was not surprising. But it was less satisfactory that there was no audible radio traffic from either him or the other M4 in the woods beside me. What they saw and experienced, they kept to themselves.




It would have been nice to have received at least some rudimentary radio messages from my other two tanks on the platoon/company net, not just hear messages from my own crew over the intercom. If this was simulated in some way, i didn't notice. In this respect, SF '42 seems better suited to playing the Soviet side, were the scale of issue of radios was limited, at least in the early years of 'The Great Patriotic War'.


Sitting back from the treeline, I still had only narrow lines of sight and arcs of fire out into the killing ground..but it was enough for me to spot another Panther. Worryingly, he seemed to have turned away from the bridge and looked to be stalking what was left of my platoon.




Which wasn't much; looking right, I saw that my third tank was also smoking. Just me left, now, with that big bad Panther coming looking for me. And goodness knows what other nastiness, out there in the field, out of sight.


Faced with this threat, I made a quick plan. I would back up and then turn keft, staying in reverse. I hoped this would place me facing the Panther's flank if he came into the woods heading for my last location. I don't think SF '42 has working smoke mortars but if I'd had one and known how to use it, I'd have put down smoke as well, to cover my move, rather than just relying on the woods.


If I could lure the big German tank to close quarters amongst the trees, I might be able to get in the first crack, preferably from the flank. The Panther's side armour was comparatively thin and prone to cracking, I knew. If I could catch him from that aspect, at this range I'd quickly send him to Hell.


But it was not to be! The mission was pronounced failed, and though still intact, I was not given the option to continue, as had happned when my Tiger mission ended with a success.




I appreciate tanksim missions don't have the nice 'back to base' end point but that's no reason for a sudden end. I think that tanksim missions really should NOT end either on a timer (I used to hand edit the silly time limits in many Panzer Commander missions) or when the sim determines that this or that mission goal has passed or failed. Life's not like that! By all means, make the player aware of the success or failure of the main mission goal - a simulated radio message from the force commander would be better than a big on-screen text message - but let me play on after that, if I choose!


Anyway, for me, the war was over…or this battle was, anyway. It remained for me to take a tour of the battlefield. As I did so, the stalking Panther rumbled on, practically ramming my tank, then drawing off before shooting me from behind. Not fair! And a bit silly. Hadn't he heard the 'final whistle'?  Ignoring this indignity, I started tabbing from unit to unit, to see what else had happened out there.

...to be continued!

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The Butcher's Bill



First, my own results, below - not bad, eh? A Lynx, a Panzer IV and two Panthers. Less fortunate were my other two M4s. I forgot what results they achieved but this time, my own tank was very much the star of the show, in terms of damage inflicted upon the enemy. Individually, my tactics had been reasonably effective.




As for the Germans, here's one of two knocked-out Lynx light tanks. Solid and businesslike little things, they look to be, but obviously no match for a 76mm tank round, coming in the opposite direction. Between him and the bridge, you can see a knocked-out US Jeep and beyond that, some Opel trucks and what looks like a Kubelwagen field car. I'm guessing it was the arrival of the motorised infantry at the bridge, or possibly the destruction of the defending units, that triggered the 'mission failed' assessment and the end of the mission itself.



And here are the knocked out Panthers, both caught in the open from a flank.





This Panzer IV was clobbered by one of my M4s or perhaps by one if the infantry's AT guns; behind him, my own similar victim burns.




There were also some Panzergrenadiers in SPWs that I hadn't seen, including this one.




Friendly casualties included my two platoon tanks.





Other US losses included this Sherman partly backed into the river, some .50 Cal-toting jeeps, and the 57mm anti-tank guns and their crews.






Evidently, one of the Panthers had either tried to ford the river or fallen off the bridge, for he lay submerged on the river bed. Perhaps one day, some wreck recovery boys will find him, drag him out and put him on display.


That concludes my first Sherman mission in SF '42, and it was a big departure from the previous missions I'd played. As for how it went, I can use my imagination to 'enhance' the mission briefing but I'm not sure how much more I can do about controlling my own platoon's tanks effectively. Eastern European tanksims started with you being on a solo tank mission with all AI units scripted. As far as I know, SF '42 is the first of these to elevate you to the platoon commander role, before which it was like playing a flightsim where you could never lead the flight but were never really a wingman, either. Steel Beasts and Panzer Elite both provide a pretty good platoon-leading experience. With SF '42, I need a bit more practice to work out how to make the best of what so far appears to be the more limited platoon-leading functionality available. The other main issue was the curtain being brought down early; the fat lady may have sung but the show needn't have ended just then. I'd also have liked more time to set up, before the German steel torrent arrived at our gun muzzles. Perhaps I could edit files in the Mission Editor that ships with SF '42 to add a better briefing, or let the mission play on after 'failure', if that is possible in SF '42 missions .And maybe delay the German onslaught, though the need for speed is also part of the challenge in this mission.


Overall, this was a really good mission. I especially liked the way it presents the player with the need - or at least the opportunity - to do a bit of quick tactical thinking, then make a plan and execute and adapt it as the enemy attack comes in. The mission taught me the need to get a bit more practice in platoon management and in handling the tank from the TC's position in this sim.  It was certainly a nerve-wracking challenge playing hide and seek with 40-50 ton fire-breathing monsters and it all looked, felt and sounded pretty real! Definitely recommended!



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Nice review - I'm almost tempted to buy. Couple of questions first though. Have you played the "tank sim" mode in Iron Front and if so how does it compare? And my eyes aint what they were, is there a "find next closest target" or similar type key command that would highlight enemy targets?

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No I haven't played 'Iron Front' yet, though I have played in tanks in OFP and a little in ARMA3 - basically, very good infantry simulators with an arcade-like ability to control vehicles, AFVs, planes and helos; fine if you want to play grunt stuff and have a bit of extra fun in the vechiles but not able to compete with a dedicated tank, plane  or help sim even if like me, you are not into 'complex engine management' or fiddling about with multi-mode radars. The daft vehicle physics - in OFP anyway - were a let down, tanks roaring around like dune buggies with a driver high on something psychadelic. Will still try Iron Front at some point; even if it's only a little better at AFVs than OFP, it looks great and I'd enjoy the infantry component and maybe a bit of tanking, if it's not just slower dune buggies. Not into MP so that's no interest to me.


I'm still finding my way around SF '42 but in the mission above, my AI gunner managed for himself, without me as TC needing to spot and hand off targets.


In the TC position, there's a targeting mode in which you can mouse click on a target to indicate it to the gunner, similar to Panzer Elite.


When playing as the gunner, your TC spots targets and gives you rudimentary verbal/audio target indications on the virtual tank intercom, which are more like what I believe was the German TC practice in WW2, which started with a command like 'Turret to two o'clock' instead of 'Six pounder [or 'co-ax'], traverse left - steady - on!' of British WW2 practice. From memory if you are playing as gunner in SF '42 the sort of command you get is 'Three o'clock - three hunderd meters - enemy infantry'. You traverse to the direction indicated then pick up the target. The audio is German if playing German, Russian (or Ukranian?) if playing Soviet. IIRC you get a text translation along the bottom of the screen but I'm finding the German audio is easy to pick up, so far.


I've been playing 'icons off' but with them turned on, when playing as gunner you get verbal TC tgt indications and if the indicated tgt is outside your field of view, you get a little orange double arrowhead device either edge of the screen pointing left or right, indicating the direction you need to traverse, to bring the tgt into your line of sight. You can see this in action about 1 min 54 sec into this clip of some King Tiger action, where the player seems to have deliberately hung back from most of the action to provide a better view of it:



Getting hits on crossing targets or at longer range is not easy but with practice not hard either. It will often take more than one hit on an armoured tgt to get a kill and a killed tank will sometimes just sit there, you can be frantically pumping rounds into it and finally get a wisp of smoke or a bail-out rather than a 'brew up'. All very impressive.


My impression so far is that the AI is not particularly clever but it's probably good enough and once the lead, steel or tungsten starts flying I usually have little time to worry much about what's happening beyond my own little piece of the war! I loved Panzer Commander but while more limited in the theatres of war available, SF '42 is vastly more fun and much more realistic as well as looking a lot better.

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