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Tech Check: Electronic Arts Fires Back at Critics Over 'Medal of Honor'

"Medal of Honor," the revival of one of Electronic Arts biggest franchises, has been taking a lot of fire lately. But now the publisher is ready to go on the offensive.

For the past month, several parties have targeted the title after it was disclosed that gamers could play as the Taliban in the game's multiplayer mode.

EA has aggressively defended the move, noting that the series' hallmarks have always been authenticity and respect for soldiers. Since the game is set in modern-day Afghanistan, the enemy is quite clear.

The reasoning hasn't done much to silence critics, though. Now the company is hoping to quell the controversy by letting anyone who wants to play or observe the divisive aspects of the game, to do so for free.

On Oct. 4, the company will launch a four-day open beta of "Medal of Honor's" multiplayer components - letting critics see what it's like to play as the Taliban.

"We … hope that by offering the multiplayer open beta, we can clear up any misunderstanding about the patriotism and respect that are the foundation of this game," said Frank Gibeau, president of EA Games. "The 'Medal of Honor' franchise has always shown extraordinary reverence for American and Allied soldiers - this game is no exception."

At the same time, EA is also speaking directly with military officials in hopes of clarifying any confusion about the game. (Army and Air Forces bases will not carry "Medal of Honor" because of the ability to play as the Taliban, it was announced earlier this month.)

"We've had some conversations with retailers," said Jeff Brown, senior director of corporate communications with EA.

"Our CEO has sent a letter to AAFES (Army & Air Force Exchange Service), the purchasing agent for military] requesting an opportunity to explain our intentions and explain more about the game. I should note, though, that we have not appealed their ruling. We respect their ruling on that."

AAFES did reply to the note and the decision will stand - though other EA games will continue to be sold on base.

It's not just the controversy that's weighing on Medal of Honor, however. Analysts fear the game's release window - set squarely between two of the year's most anticipated games - could prove harmful to sales.

"We are increasingly concerned about the prospects for 'Medal of Honor'," says Kaufman Bros. analyst Todd Mitchell. "The game is not developing the level of buzz necessary to knock 'Call of Duty' off its perch."

In September, Microsoft launched "Halo: Reach," which has proven to be a tremendous hit. The game generated sales of $200 million in its first 24 hours and within four days of its release, fans had spend the equivalent of over 2,300 man-years playing.

Meanwhile, in November, Activision will release the latest installment of its hit "Call of Duty" franchise - which is the odds-on favorite to be the year's best selling game.

Both titles feature rich solo-player campaigns and even more in-depth multiplayer components, which creates a lot of overlap for "Medal of Honor." As shoppers continue to be more conservative with their spending, industry observers suspect they might forego buying all three titles.

Launched in 1999, the "Medal of Honor" franchise was initially 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.

EA put the series on a three-year hiatus, 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 is hoping to steal back some of that pie with this release.

Four years ago, Nintendo could do no wrong in the video game world. The Wii was beginning a triumphant run at retail, and the handheld DS unit had been flying off of store shelves for the past 24 months.

Publishers courted the company and competitors quickly learned their initial scoffing over the Wii's less-than-eye-popping graphics and lack of a traditional controller was wildly off-base.

Today, while Nintendo is still a powerful force in the video game space, it's far from the dominant player it was. Sales are down precipitously. Executives are leaving. And publisher support is dwindling.

That's making the competition a bit more bold. Sony and Microsoft both have motion control devices hitting the market this year-and Apple is making a coordinated effort to take a leadership position in the handheld gaming space-which historically has been Nintendo's biggest competitive advantage.

In an effort to right the ship, Nintendo is gearing up to release the 3DS, a handheld gaming system that offers games (and movies) in stereoscopic 3D without the need for special glasses. Launch details, including date and price, are expected to be unveiled on Sept. 29.

Analysts, though, think the company could have another trick up its sleeve as well.

"It would be naïve to think they don't have initiatives to boost growth," says Colin Sebastian of Lazard Capital Markets. "We're in the awkward part of the cycle where they try to keep momentum going when we all know they have something coming. … I expect a console refresh as early as the last part of next year."

"I think a high definition 'Wii Plus' - something with a much bigger and better online platform - would be fairly significant. It would put them, from a platform perspective, on a more level playing field."

Investors would welcome any sort of boost. Sales of Wii hardware and software have been slow this year compared to the last few-a trend analysts expect will continue. Michael Pachter of Wedbush says the console suffers from "fatigue".

Meanwhile, the company is experiencing a moderate management shake-up at its American offices. Cammie Dunaway, EVP of sales and marketing, this week announced plans to leave effective Oct. 1. That comes less than a year after Denise Kaigler, vice president of corporate affairs, departed the company.

Meanwhile, publishers, who dramatically expanded their development for Nintendo platforms when the Wii and DS were in their heyday, are now pulling back-discouraged by flagging consumer interest in software for the systems.

One way to boost interest in the platform, of course, is price cuts. The DS saw a moderate reduction at the end of August, and Nintendo bundled another game with the Wii earlier this year. But many feel a $50 cut on the Wii could give that system a big push this holiday-especially with Sony and Microsoft drawing so much attention to motion control devices.

Nintendo isn't a reactionary company, though. It prefers to act from a position of strength-often tying its price cuts to the release of strong software products, which allows it to double dip, luring both new customers and enticing existing ones.

If it follows that path, there are two potential releases to watch: "Donkey Kong Country Returns" in November or "Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword" in January.

In the meantime, it will certainly be monitoring how much of an impact the PlayStation Move and Kinect for Xbox 360 have on the market.

If nothing else, the holiday season has historically been good for the company. And while there's still skepticism, industry observers are hopeful the burgeoning economic recovery could revive the Wii software market in November and December.

"We suspect that the more casual segment is far more seasonal in purchase habits, so there is some hope that Wii software sales will recover in the next several months," says Pachter.

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