After a few slow weeks, the game release schedule actually has a little meat on its bones this time around. While most of this week's big releases are franchise titles, there are a couple of original gems in there to keep the jaded contingent interested.

On top of the franchise heap is NHL 06, the latest in the long-running hockey franchise from EA. With a new deke system and the addition of the "skill stick" mechanic to give players greater control over the stick and puck in-game, the game seems set to reward the hardcore player by allowing a much greater variety of maneuvers. Also new is a shot targeting system that looks borrowed from last year's Gretzky NHL. The defensive AI has reportedly been vastly improved as well, with defensemen now doing a much better job cutting down shot angles and breaking up passes instead of just flattening every player you bring into the zone. With a little tweaking on the rules option screen, you can probably even get a reasonable facsimile of the NHL's newly announced rules enforcement policy for this season. As with any EA sports game, this one drops pretty much on any game-playing platform you can imagine, so at least there's something for the PC crowd this week.

NHL 2K6 for Xbox

Going head to head with EA on the ice is 2K Sports with their newest hockey installment, NHL 2K6. Despite the loss of the ESPN license that graced the last two titles, 2K has brought a lot of goodness to bear in their latest effort. A new passing system makes rapid puck movement much easier, and the addition of the "Enforcer" tag lets you bring the team thug off the bench to deliver some solid hits, hopefully intimidating the other team (which will cost them points from their stats for a brief time). This year's release sports all the cool game modes from last year, including the international scouting and deep franchise mode. Significant additions have been made to the practice modes, allowing you to take individual players out to improve their skills or take groups out to scrimmage and improve their chemistry. However, the new fatigue system forces ambitous coaches to strike a compromise between improved skills and an exhausted squad come game night. Tracking chemistry and morale may be more depth than the casual player wants, but for those that live for this stuff, it's a neat addition. There have been a few reports of minor graphical glitches in franchise mode (such as a goalie going helmet-less for an entire game), but nothing that sounds like a deal-killer. The loss of ESPN announcers Clement and Thorne kind of sucks, but other than that, it's hard to find much wrong with this one, especially given that 2k Sports has stuck to its budget guns and released the game at $19.99.

The other eagerly awaited title this week is Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Lockdown. The umpteenth title in the Rainbow Six franchise, Lockdown features online support for up to sixteen players, and the single-player campaign now gives each of your computer-controlled squadmates a distinct appearance and a little personality (thank you, Brothers in Arms). With loads of difficulty-customization options and equipment choices, the game looks set to provide a decent amount of replay, so even if you're not a big online player, this one may keep you busy for a while. Just like the hockey game, this one is dropping on pretty much any machine that plays games this week. Xbox Live members can probably look forward to the same great bonus content support that all the previous Clancy titles have been known for, so there's additional value to be had down the road for that crowd.

Sneaking under the radar (at least insofar as a SquareEnix title can) is Radiata Stories, a new RPG for the PS2. In contrast with their reputation for high (melo)drama and serious plotlines, this one follows the exploits of a largely inept, though earnest, trooper by the name of Jack Russell. The story tweaks some of the cliches of the genre to keep things fresh, and in many cases the game seems to be parodying itself and the genre that has made Square Enix famous (and fantastically wealthy). Cool by me. It remains to be seen how well they pull it off, but if it manages even half the humor that Nippon Ichi's recent titles have, it'll definitely be worth checking out. The game features well over 100 recruitable characters and a persistent 24-hour game world, where all the NPCs have their own schedules and daily routines. The game also gives you the option to simply boot anything in the game world, which will sometimes lead to finding loot in now-broken crates and barrels, or lead to battles with NPCs. Find that washer woman by the fountain irritating? Kick her in the ass and start a fight. I have longed for this option since I played my first console RPG.

On the handheld front, the biggest news this week is Rebelstar: Tactical Command, a turn-based squad strategy game for the GBA. It looks, from all advance reports, like X-Com for the Nintendo set. Lots of depth, lots of options, and a squad of soldiers fighting off an evil alien menace that's taking over the planet. For those that love the genre, like myself, it's a shame that the GBA seems to have become the premiere platform for such titles, as I'm going blind over here trying to parse weapon lists and equip folks and fight aliens on a teeny tiny little screen. It's also a shame because, despite the coolness of the gameplay, I'd really like to see a title like this done up in high-res, kickass graphical glory. Despite these quibbles, Rebelstar looks like a solid bit of tactical goodness, with destructible environments and a multiplayer mode for additional cool factor. If you miss the days of hucking blaster bombs into Cydonian invasion craft, this one is definitely for you.

Where to Find Stuff

Buy NHL 06 from Amazon: (GameCube) (PC) (PS2) (Xbox)
Buy NHL 2K6 from Amazon: (PS2) (Xbox)
Buy Rainbow Six: Lockdown from Amazon: (PC) (PS2) (Xbox)
Buy Radiata Stories for the PS2 from Amazon.
Buy Rebelstar for the Game Boy Advance from Amazon.