While 2005 saw the beginnings of Console War III (or is it IV?) with Microsoft’s shiny white box, the conflict will truly escalate in 2006 (if projections about Nintendo and Sony release dates are to be believed). By Christmas, we’re told we’ll have access to the Revolution and the PS3, and everybody will be selling plasma to afford to feed their high-def gaming addictions. Amidst all this noise of console launches and funky new controllers and world-shattering online services that will do everything under the sun, a tiny little detail gets missed. Consoles are just expensive doorstops without software. It’s about the games, stupid. Ask Microsoft how their 360 launch is doing in Japan if you need further elucidation on this point.

So what’s coming down the pipe? What are the most likely candidates for your hard-earned legal tender? Well, the proof will be in the playing, obviously, but there are a few things floating out there that certainly look like they fit the bill so far. In the category of role-playing games, here’s a few to keep on your radar and track ’til reviews start coming out (presented in no particular order).

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: Bethesda has scored major points with the RPG fiends for all of their previous Elder Scrolls games, but the port of Morrowind to the Xbox opened up a new audience and proved that traditional Western-style RPGs could succeed on consoles and compete with the typically more story-driven Japanese RPGs that have dominated the console market. Oblivion has had gamers drooling since the first set of screenshots hit last year, and the number of Xbox 360 preorders that were placed because of this title was likely significant (I know I was one of them). When the game was pushed to March of this year, I briefly considered cancelling said pre-order and just waiting ’til this title dropped, but couldn’t resist the shiny new toy in the long run. Release date: Currently scheduled to drop March 20th on both PC and Xbox 360.

Final Fantasy XII: Another of the “should’ve been out last year” RPG titles, FFXII returns to the world of Ivalice (of Final Fantasy Tactics fame), with FFT and Vagrant Story director Yasumi Matsuno steering the ship. Matsuno’s involvement suggests a game of somewhat grittier tone than recent Final Fantasy installments, and the CG cutscenes and in-game graphics floating around the net make this look like a sure winner. The game demo, packaged with last fall’s release of Dragon Quest VIII, drove a good many rentals and sales of that title, and is still in regular rotation on the display machines at all my local game stores, so there’s little doubt this one is in the “eagerly anticipated” camp. Release date: North American release currently slated for August 1. PS2 only.

Shadow Hearts: From the New World: We’ve talked about Shadow Hearts here before. While the first installment suffered some problems in execution, both previous iterations of the franchise had excellent stories to tell, coupled with a unique resolution mechanic that, while I was a little harsh on it in the first game, really grew into its own in Covenant. This third entry in the saga shifts the focus to the Americas (as the title suggests), but retains the early 20th century setting of the previous two. If they continue to push the arcane conspiracies and homage references to Lovecraft, combined with the absolutely gonzo-insane character backstories and sidequests, this will be a must-have for fans of the genre. Release date: March 7 (PS2 only).

Neverwinter Nights 2: The first NWN took the gaming world by storm, and remains a popular title with tons of player-created support and additional modules. The passion may have cooled a bit this time around, as there are now a number of D&D licensed titles available, including an RTS and the forthcoming MMORPG, Dungeons & Dragons Online. Still, Obsidian can be counted on to bring the goodness, so there’s little doubt the game will be quality. If the creative toolkit is as robust as the first NWN, then we’ve got a few years of quality fan-created adventuring ahead of us, as well. If you want a chance to play some online D&D, but aren’t interested in dealing with gold farmers and weird requests for cybersex with your gnome illusionist, then this might be more your cuppa than DDO. Release date: Q2 2006 (PC only)

Blue Dragon: One of the biggest dings against the Xbox as a viable contender last go-round was a dearth of the sorts of games embraced by Japanese gamers. The original Xbox sports essentially zero Japanese-style console RPGs in its roster, so when plans were being made to lure developers for the 360, it was clear that something needed to be done. What better way than to lure the creator of SquareEnix’s titanic Final Fantasy franchise over to the side of Gates’ evil empire? Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker Studios is hard at work to bring this title to the 360, and I’m seriously hoping they hit the mark this calendar year. The 360’s Japanese launch has been lackluster to say the least (consoles and games for the new system sit gathering dust on shelves and, in at least one case, deeply discounted). A Japanese-style RPG from the man that brought the world FF is likely to move a few units in the Land of the Rising Sun, and it may get some hardcore Sony fanboys on this side of the Pacific eyeing the 360 as well. Release date: Still TBD, though shooting for this year (Xbox 360)