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Imagine Russian renegades teaming with Middle Eastern revolutionaries to take on the West.

It’s a scary scenario that fuels “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,” developed by Infinity Ward for Activision. The action, the graphics and the story line are all more intense as the first-person-shooter franchise moves beyond its traditional World War II setting.

Gamers play as U.S. Marines and British SAS commandos on the trail of a strongman wannabe in the Mideast. After a startling turn of events there, the trail leads to a Russian ultranationalist with nuclear ambitions.

The fighting jumps from a cargo ship, to city streets, decaying ruins, rural villages and a nuclear installation. The story line is enthralling and the fighting is intense and gritty.

The only problem is that it’s short — extremely short. I blew through the campaign in a little more than five hours.

However, that five hours — plus many more spent online — presented a visual feast.

The graphics are the best available, with extremely realistic settings, characters, animations and effects. Developers worked closely with U.S. Marines to ensure they had the right look for the weapons, vehicles and tactics. The results are outstanding. It’s impressive just to watch debris blow through desolate streets lined by shattered buildings. Throw in a firefight with all the pyrotechnics and it’s truly awesome.

The game play is excellent — with intuitive controls and nary a hang-up or glitch.

The artificial intelligence of friends and foes is pretty good. Enemies take cover and allies prove helpful, though not too helpful. This is still an action game and you’re the hero who will determine the fate of the world.

Since the campaign is so short it’s obvious that Infinity Ward expects you to continue the fight online. Fortunately, “Call of Duty 4” is one of the best online shooters I’ve ever played.

It offers the typical variety of team and solo competitions — all of which quickly devolve into massive free-for-alls. What sets it apart from the pack are the interesting upgrades and perks that can boost your performance, the interesting maps and great graphics.

You can select from a wide range of modern weaponry and accessories before each mission. And, as you ascend in rank, you gain access to additional weapons and upgrades that increase your lethality, stealth and other attributes. These include some cool perks, such as “Martyrdom,” which allows you to drop a grenade as you die.

After taking out a string of opponents, you can also call in unmanned aerial vehicles to survey their surroundings or fighter jets and helicopter gunships to attack enemies.

The maps do an excellent job of encouraging a wide variety of fighting styles. For example, a warehouse is ideal for close-quarters battles and a Middle Eastern neighborhood mixes vertical and horizontal elements. In each of them, the graphics are crisp and clear — far superior to the often-murky settings in earlier shooters.

However, I have a few gripes.

First, there’s no side-by-side co-op for online combat — or for the campaign mode. The only way you can play with friends on the same console is head-to-head. “Halo 3” — the Goliath among shooters — lets games play both the campaign and online modes side-by-side on the same console. At this point, it’s a big problem if a game doesn’t offer those options.

Another minor gripe concerns melee attacks, which are way too powerful. It’s irritating that it takes repeated hits from a rifle, but only a single swipe with a knife, to take out an opponent. Of course, this is where a final grenade comes in handy.

Despite the short campaign and lack of co-op, “Call of Duty 4” is still terrifically fun and a visual treat. It’s no wonder that it was named the top game by many at this year’s E3 Media and Business Summit — even with “Halo 3” in the lineup.

On the Web: www.callofduty.comPlatforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC. A separate version is also being released on the Nintendo DS.

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