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Imagine the Soviet Union exploding, instead of imploding.

“World in Conflict” explores what might have happened if the Soviets’ economic instability had led to war with the West, instead of the disintegration that actually took place from 1989 to 1991. It’s a story spun by the new computer strategy game developed by Massive Entertainment for Sierra Entertainment.

In the campaign mode, gamers play as a young American officer fighting to turn back a Soviet landing in Seattle in 1989. The initial battles go poorly because the defenders consist of only a handful of Army and National Guard troops. Most other U.S. units are already fighting to stem a Soviet invasion of Europe — which is actually just an enormous diversion.

The bulk of the fighting occurs in Washington state, but a few flashback missions cover engagements in Southern France, a commando raid in Russia and a dust-up against Soviet commandos in New York City.

While some of the details are a bit far-fetched — landing U.S. tanks in northern Russia as part of a discreet raid by Norwegian commandos — the story itself is very rich for a strategy game. In addition to the overriding tale of the Cold War turning hot, the game’s cut scenes and dialog provide touching glimpses into the lives, personalities and motivations of the primary characters.

However, the story just propels you further into what is already an excellent game.

First of all, “World in Conflict” dramatically alters strategy-game conventions. Instead of forcing players to gather resources, build bases and train troops before heading into combat, “World in Conflict” works at a faster pace. The gamer simply “buys” units at the beginning of the mission and calls in re-enforcements when more points are available. These units arrive via airdrop.

During combat, players also accumulate “tactical aid” points that can be spent on artillery, recon or air support. These provide some of the most dramatic animations in the game — ranging from a laser-guided bomb leveling a building to a tactical nuke vaporizing a village.

The graphics are terrific, whether viewed from the sky or ground level. The renderings of the 1989-vintage weapons systems and settings — hey, there’s the Kingdome — are excellent. Explosions and smoke are truly impressive — hey, that’s the Kingdome collapsing under Soviet attack.

It takes quite a bit of power to get these effects, but don’t despair if your computer is a little creaky. The game runs perfectly well on mid-range computers as long as the graphics are knocked back a few notches.

Although the single-player campaign is impressive, the heart of the game is the online multiplayer battle mode, which can accommodate up to 16 players.

In the campaign, gamers are given limited re-enforcement options. In the online multiplayer mode, gamers select a role — armor, air, infantry or support — and must choose units from within their specialization or pay more points. The multiple roles are designed to encourage cooperation and tactical coordination. The team that has too much armor and no air element will fall prey to enemy helicopters. The team that can’t organize all of its assets in a cohesive manner — using online voice chat or the request menu — will be overrun.

The online missions are relatively short and action-packed. They’re the perfect antidote for those who don’t like online strategy games that require a lot of base-building and maintenance.

Despite all of this, the game has one big gap — at least for now. It lacks a single-player custom battle mode. Virtually all strategy games offer the opportunity to create a scenario and go head- to-head with the computer. Many gamers prefer to play in this mode, finding online multiplayer games too chaotic, annoying or fast-paced.

While a “Custom Mission” section appears in the game’s menu, it doesn’t list any maps or options. A Sierra spokesman said this feature is still being fleshed out and will be made available for download in the near future.

Even with that temporary shortcoming, the game is one of the best strategy titles available.

Platform: PC, coming on Xbox 360On the Web:worldinconflict.com

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