Tech Check

EA's New 'Medal of Honor' to Let Players Be Taliban

Chris Morris|Special to

Electronic Arts is counting heavily on its Medal of Honor franchise to help boost revenue in the holiday quarter, but as the title gets closer to launch, it’s finding itself in the crosshairs of game industry critics.

Medal of Honor: Taliban
Source: Electronic Arts

Set in modern-day Afghanistan, the latest version of the franchise casts players as a Tier 1 Operator, a relatively unknown branch of the Special Forces, fighting the War on Terror. Developers say they are striving to present the conflict in an authentic manner, with respect for the soldiers. But the disclosure that gamers could play as the Taliban in the game’s multiplayer mode has raised a few eyebrows.

Casting the worst of humanity as enemies is nothing new. The Nazis are a favorite go-to in war games, and generic terrorists are in several games. But with the wounds of Sept. 11 still healing and a war ongoing where American soldiers fight and die daily, some find using the Taliban as a foil a bit distasteful, especially since that side will win a fair number of multiplayer matches.

EA , though, dismisses any criticism.

“I think this is all nonsense generated by people who haven’t played a videogame in the last 20 years,” says Jeff Brown, senior director of corporate communications for EA. “This is not a shock to anyone who plays videogames. In a conflict game like this, someone has to be the bad guy ... 'The Hurt Locker' won the Academy Award, but this makes the distinction that game makers can’t portray a contemporary war.”

Medal of Honor: Taliban
Source: Electronic Arts

Heroes need enemies of course. And the Afghanistan setting of this “Medal of Honor” installment pretty much guarantees that the Taliban fill that role. But game industry opponents often seize on details and ignore the bigger picture, blasting those details in media announcements and on the talk show circuit.

The old marketing saying theorizes “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Generally, that’s been true for gaming companies. When opponents would try to derail games by focusing on their controversial aspects, it only resulted in generating lots of free publicity for publishers and often helped to boost sales. (Controversy, for instance, was what initially exposed Take-TwoInteractive Software’s “Grand Theft Auto” franchise to many players.) To date, though, that theory hasn’t been tested against public sentiment toward one of America’s biggest modern-day enemies.

The “Medal of Honor” franchise was launched in 1999 by a team that included Jason West and Vince Zampella, the masterminds behind Activision’s“Call of Duty” and “Modern Warfare” series. The first game was hailed as an instant classic—recreating scenes from the Normandy Invasion that were on the same level as “Saving Private Ryan”. Early sequels got high marks as well, but the quality of the games faded over time.

Medal of Honor: Taliban
Source: Electronic Arts

EA has had the series on hiatus for the last three years, hoping to bring the quality back to higher levels. In that time, though, the “Call of Duty” and “Modern Warfare” games have become the industry’s most popular (and lucrative) franchise.

EA hopes to steal back some of that pie—and, controversy over the multiplayer mode aside, it couldn’t ask for better conditions. The high-profile firing of West and Zampella earlier this year has gamers wary about the franchise’s future. While no one expects this year’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops” to come close to the record setting numbers posted by last year’s “Modern Warfare 2,” some analysts think there’s a little too much optimism on the street about the game’s sales potential.

“We think that [Activision’s] reliance on ‘Call of Duty’ revenues as a panacea presents modest risk, and think that many estimates for the game’s sales may be unrealistic,” wrote Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities in a note to investors earlier this month.

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