COMMAND & CONQUER: GENERALS, Format: PC CD RoM, publisher: Electronic Arts; price: varies.

SETTING ASIDE whether or not it's a good idea to publish a game about a third world war when we are so perilously close to the real thing, this latest installment of the Command & Conquer franchise has to be one of the most eagerly awaited games of the year.

The original C & C is now seen as something of a video gaming classic. It may have been nothing more than a polished version of an earlier game (Dune II) but the fiendish level design, smart graphics and stunning full motion video sequences made it something special.

That game inspired literally hundreds of clones and gave birth to a whole new gaming genre: real time strategy.

Until C & C strategy games were turn-based affairs that took an age to play through. These titles had more in common with chess than the all-action scenarios they depicted.

C & C changed all that. Because events played out in real time there was no chance to deliberate before making a move; decisions had to be taken immediately and if you made the wrong one, the game rubbed your nose in it by destroying your forces as you watched helpless.

Unsurprisingly, C & C sired a sequel (the even better Red Alert) which took the story in a new direction.

Now the game is back, only this time the battle scenario is disturbingly real.

Where the original game pitted fictitious forces against each other C & C Generals asks gamers to control United States or Chinese armies as they battle a terrorist elite called the Global Liberation Army.

As per the first one, the three sides play very differently. Each requires very different tactics if victory is to be achieved.

The Americans have technical superiority but find themselves held back by the politician's desire to minimise loss of life - something the Chinese don't have to worry about.

Forces from the People's Republic are big on ground troops but short on technology. They have plenty of tanks and lots of infantrymen but remain vulnerable to a sophisticated attack. Mind you, the Chinese do possess the most frightening weapon of all: the nuclear bomb.

The GLA are all about sneaky fast attacks - hit hard and get out quick. They have a chilling arsenal to choose from which includes chemical weapons, suicide bombers and a network of tunnels for escape.

The game starts with the Chinese defeating an offensive by the GLA then switches perspective as the guerillas regroup and go after new targets. The last part of the scenario sees the United States drawn into the global conflict.

Disappointingly, the eye-candy full motion video sequences have gone to be replaced by cut-scenes generated by the game itself. Technically this may be more impressive but the movies don't have the same impact as their forebears.

Perhaps this also explains why C & C Generals requires such a hefty PC to run. The original game fair zipped along on a humble PC133 it's 2003 reincarnation requires a Pentium III at the very least.

At least the visuals are beautifully detailed and the individual units have never looked more realistic.

Many are based on real-life war machines like the Daisy Cutter bombs that can clear out tunnels (and were used extensively on the mountains of Torra Borra in Afghanistan), Scud missile launchers or the Aurora supersonic stealth fighter that may or may not exist. Balanced against this are the flights of fantasy such as the GLA tractor that fires poisonous gas or the giant Chinese tank that can throw up a defensive perimeter.

Every unit can be upgraded to make them even more combat effective. Some of these improvements are straightforward (rockets etc) others are more innovative, like the propaganda radio tower that can help boost the morale of hard-pressed Chinese grunts.

All of this is finely balanced in traditional C & C style to ensure no one side ever has the decisive upper-hand before a scenario is played out.

As before the game may appear to have you out-foxed from the start but there is always a way to win - provided you can think on your feet like all good generals.

Armchair generals will undoubtedly enjoy this new game. It remains a challenging franchise that rewards patience and hard work. More pertinently none of the levels ever frustrate to the extent that you give up. The temptation to have "just one more try" is always there.

Personally I felt a little uncomfortable with the more realistic units but Electronic Arts reckons this is what C & C fans have been asking for since the first game eight years ago. I'm also comforted by the fact that the RTS genre attracts an older demographic who can see the distinction between what is fictitious and what is all too frighteningly real.