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Medal of Honor: Warfighter debuts on Oct. 23 as Electronic Arts’ latest bid to steal some thunder from Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty franchise.To make a dent in the world’s fastest-selling game series, Warfighter has to step up the competition for the attention of gamers in multiplayer combat, which is crucial to the retention of players over many months.

moh small 1While Call of Duty: Black Ops crushed EA’s 2010 reboot of Medal of Honor, last year’s Battlefield 3 helped close the gap in 2011 against Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Now, EA hopes that Warfighter will take more market share from this year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which debuts Nov. 13.

Having played it hands-on, I say the jury is still out. I haven’t seen enough of it yet. But the game does a good job of putting players in the boots on the ground. That is, it feels authentic.

In Warfighter, the good thing is that multiplayer mode has become a bigger priority. Developer Danger Close handled the multiplayer combat itself this time, whereas it was outsourced in the past. The multiplayer game offers two unique selling points compared to other shooters. The first is that you can play in cooperative mode with a buddy, who can watch your back. When you die, you can respawn right on your buddy’s location, making it less likely that you’ll be instantly shot once you reenter the action. And you can share situational awareness of the map.

The second is that you can choose to play a soldier from any one of 12 special forces units from 10 countries around the globe. For gamers, that means there are a dozen different kinds of soldiers to try out, allowing for endless variety of weapons, armor, and attachments. That adds a lot of depth and replayability. You can meet people from all over the world and kill them in Warfighter’s multiplayer combat system.

The downside of that is a loss of realism. While it might be possible for a rainbow coalition of soldiers to appear in a mission, it’s very unlikely in the real world. But in this game, you’ll see Swedish special forces alongside American Tier 1 Operators fighting against South Korean commandos and British Special Air Service veterans. For a series that prides itself on authenticity, as we noted in our preview of the single-player version, this is a drawback of diversity.

moh small 2Overall, the combat in Warfighter is more like a “scalpel” of surgical missions compared to the “sledgehammer” of Battlefield 3’s large-scale warfare, said Kristoffer Bergqvist, the multiplayer creative director at Danger Close, in an interview with GamesBeat. Warfighter aims to deliver a more personal experience where you can see the enemy in one-on-one combat, rather than blasting at a clump of soldiers with a tank from a mile away.

Warfighter shows more diversity of maps, too. Whereas 2010’s Medal of Honor was focused in Afghanistan, this game covers the globe’s hot spots for terrorism. It also features the Frostbite 2 engine that powered the realistic physics and 3D graphics of Battlefield 3. That makes for better quality images, but at the sacrifice of some speed. EA showed off five maps and four modes at a recent preview event.

Warfighter has some modes such as Home Run that lend themselves to competitive gaming. In that mode, you get one life. If you’re shot, you have to sit out the game. You can’t really use vehicles unless you count remote-controlled drones or a single flyable Apache gunship.

Danger Close has tried to make the game snappy and responsive. But the version I played — a Capture the Flag mission in the ruins of a city — wasn’t that fast. In the close quarters of the ruins, it was very hard to get a bead on the enemy at close range.

That can be fixed with better connectivity and refinements by the time of launch, but the clock is ticking on optimizing the experience for the retail customers. I got some kills but couldn’t dominate. The graphics look good, but the camera zooms in a little too close on the faces of the soldiers after the matches. The problem is those faces don’t look very realistic, and that takes away from the experience.

The game debuts on the Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3. Here’s a screenshot gallery of multiplayer action below:

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