Electronic Arts is launching Medal of Honor today as a critical reboot of a video game franchise that is a big part of EA’s comeback plan.

John Riccitiello, chief executive of Redwood City, Calif.-based EA, has made it his mission to raise EA’s game quality over the past three years. Logically, profits will follow. Medal of Honor was a once-stellar franchise that stumbled, went astray and then went fallow at EA. Meanwhile, the strength of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty games has made it into a superpower of video games. EA, once the undisputed leader, now finds itself the underdog in this battle as it tries to restore Medal of Honor to its rightful place in the first-person shooter genre.

Depicting modern combat in Afghanistan, the game is a direct assault on rival Activision Blizzard’s dominant Call of Duty combat game series. If EA can succeed in selling millions of copies of Medal of Honor, it will steal back marketshare in the shooting game genre and blunt the launch of Call of Duty Black Ops, which debuts on Nov. 9.

It didn’t help that a firestorm of criticism erupted after families of war victims objected on national TV to EA’s decision to allow players to pose as Taliban fighters in multiplayer combat. Facing withering criticism and a ban on U.S. military bases, EA changed the name of the multiplayer foes to the “opposing force,” rather than the Taliban. It also argued that, as realistic as the combat is, Medal of Honor is just a game. And in a game, you have good guys and bad guys.

The controversy hurt EA’s prospects. But it also raised awareness of the game. A similar controversy last year helped boost awareness of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 into the stratosphere. In that game, players could participate in a terrorist massacre at a Russian airport. The criticism was so fierce that Activision Blizzard included an option to skip the controversial scene. Yet Modern Warfare 2 went on to sell more than 20 million copies, making it the best-selling video game of all time.

By cutting out the Taliban name, EA didn’t have to change the substance of its game at all. It can consider itself lucky. Konami had to cancel its Six Days in Fallujah, a game based on real events where military contractors were burned alive in a battle in Iraq, after protests erupted. I am glad to see Medal of Honor survive long enough to make it to the real battlefield: the video game marketplace. Medal of Honor is fundamentally respectful of the sacrifices that soldiers make on the battlefield and the impossible conditions that they face. The Army really ought to consider it a recruiting tool, not a game to be reviled.

I’ve had a chance to play the first few levels of Medal of Honor and indulge in a few rounds of multiplayer combat. Yes, I played a Taliban fighter and managed to shoot an American soldier who was coming at me in a multiplayer match. I found no particular thrill in that act. Nor do I feel that it was despicable of EA to include that option in the video game. To me, it is a game. It is realistic, but it is not gratuitous. The Taliban are an integral part of the multiplayer combat. If you didn’t include them, you would have no game. If you don’t want to play them, you can back out of a multiplayer match until you get to play an American soldier.

Other games have skirted this issue of letting you play terrorists. America’s Army let you shoot enemy soldiers. But you always played an American soldier shooting at terrorists. No matter which side you were on in a multiplayer game, you always saw the enemy as terrorists. EA chose not to take that path, and now the company is dealing with the consequences of that decision.

EA at least has a track record of making games that are respectful, not exploitative, of the soldier’s experience. The first Medal of Honor game was developed by DreamWorks Interactive and published by EA in 1999 on the PlayStation. The best game was Medal of Honor Allied Assault, which depicted the horrific landing of soldiers at Omaha Beach on D-Day during World War II. The scene in the video game was as unforgettable as the D-Day landing in the film Saving Private Ryan. But as EA pumped out sequel after sequel, the quality of the games suffered and the Call of Duty franchise surpassed it with better graphics, combat, and gritty realism.

EA stopped making the Medal of Honor games in 2007 and then rebooted the game under Riccitiello’s leadership. The new Medal of Honor game was built by EA’s Danger Close studio in Los Angeles and the multiplayer part was created by EA’s DICE studio, the maker of the Battlefield Bad Company 2 game earlier this year, in Sweden. EA’s timing was good in one sense. Activision Blizzard saw its Call of Duty studio, Infinity Ward, implode in a bunch of departures and lawsuits as Activision chief Bobby Kotick accused the Infinity Ward founders of planning to defect to EA. Dozens of developers have left Activision to join Respawn Entertainment, a new studio created by the Call of Duty creators that is likely making a game for EA. Those departures were not enough to derail Call of Duty. Activision’s second Call of Duty studio, Treyarch, is launching Black Ops this year.

In this game, you play a handful of handpicked warriors known as Tier 1 Operators. They’re among the hundreds of soldiers who exist within the Army’s Special Operations Command. You have to operate in small squads behind enemy lines in the rugged environment of Afghanistan. In the game, you can duel with snipers, race through dirt roads and dry riverbeds in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), call in air strikes from a distance, and wipe out enemy camps from the cockpit of an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. In many of the missions, you don’t just charge in guns blazing. You have to operate in stealth, making sure you take out the enemies with knives or silent weapons. When you break down doors to rescue hostages, you have to wonder whether you’re just being set up for a booby trap.

The environments of the game look realistic. The market of Kandahar is filled with mud-brick buildings that spout dust and debris when you riddle them with bullets. It is very difficult to stay alive in a battle, and that should give everybody who plays it an appreciation for how dangerous a battlefield can be.

So far, Medal of Honor doesn’t stack up against the Call of Duty games, either Modern Warfare 2 or its upcoming Black Ops title. The graphics aren’t as polished. The game play is somewhat slower. The environments aren’t as pretty. The cinematic sequences — or film-like sections that advance the story in between game levels — are solid but not as riveting as the over-the-top drama of the Call of Duty games.

But even with all of those complaints, Medal of Honor is still a great game to play that is well worth the $60 price. It stands in the shadow of Call of Duty, but it towers above many other video games coming this season.

The multiplayer fights are fierce. As you start out, you can expect to be slain many times more than you kill. It pays to hide out in the corners or the smoke, just because the battlefield is so lethal. But I think that the game is worth finishing and the multiplayer combat could be entertaining for a long time, at least until Black Ops comes along.

It’s just too bad for EA that a rival game is coming up so soon. Medal of Honor will likely be overshadowed by Black Ops, which I previewed earlier this year. I’m waiting to play more of Medal of Honor before I give a complete review. But it’s clear to me that first-person shooter fans will enjoy this game, if only because it is far better than most video games being released now. It delivers a solid combat experience and will likely whet the appetites of hardcore game fans as they await the launch of Black Ops.