EA Reverses Course; Taliban No Longer Playable in 'Medal of Honor'

Bowing to pressure from consumers, the military and retailers, Electronic Arts has made a last minute change to its upcoming “Medal of Honor” video game and will no longer allow players to play as the Taliban in the game’s multiplayer mode.

Medal of Honor: Taliban
Source: Electronic Arts
Medal of Honor: Taliban

Citing feedback from friends and family of fallen soldiers, the company on Friday announced in a blog post that the enemy in the multiplayer component of the game would be renamed “Opposing Force” to mute the controversy.

“Friends and families of fallen soldiers who have expressed concern over the inclusion of the Taliban in the multiplayer portion of our game,” said Greg Goodrick, executive producer of the game in a blog post. “This is a very important voice to the ‘Medal of Honor’ team. This is a voice that has earned the right to be listened to.”

Players will still fight the Taliban in the game’s single player campaign — where they play as a Tier 1 Operator, a relatively unknown branch of the Special Forces, fighting the War on Terror.

The change to the multiplayer mode is a relatively minor one from a coding standpoint and should not delay the release of “Medal of Honor”. EA hopes, however, that it will remove a hot button issue that has shifted consumer focus from the relaunch of the once powerful franchise to a small portion of the game.

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

Electronic Arts had previously dismissed the condemnations — and as late as last week had denied there were any plans to remove the Taliban from the multiplayer version of the game.

Beyond the usual criticism from game industry opponents and politicians — including the UK's Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox, who called for a ban of the game — retail partners were also reportedly uncomfortable with the controversy surrounding the game.

GameStop refused to carry the game in its stores on military bases, after a request from the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, the purchasing agent for military. And insiders say Wal-Mart may have put some pressure on EA to make the change as well.

The decision to change the naming of the enemy forces in the multiplayer component of the game comes just three days before EA begins a four-day open beta test, letting fans and critics play the multiplayer mode themselves.

“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.

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, Activision’s “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.

When word got out that players could play as the Taliban in the multiplayer portion of the game, though, concern began to mount about sales. While Friday’s decision could calm some of those fears, it won’t quell the other chief concern by analysts.

“Medal of Honor” is scheduled to ship on Oct. 12 – less than a month after Microsoft’s “Halo: Reach” (which generated sales of $200 million in its first 24 hours) and roughly a month prior to “Call of Duty: Black Ops” — expected to be the best selling game of 2010.

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.

“We are increasingly concerned about the prospects for ‘Medal of Honor’," said Kaufman Bros. analyst Todd Mitchell earlier this week. "The game is not developing the level of buzz necessary to knock ‘Call of Duty’ off its perch.”

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