TOM CLANCY'S GHOST RECON 2, UbiSoft/Red Storm Entertainment
The follow-up to the popular Clancy-themed war game shows off a timely storyline (a North Korean general starts playing around with nuclear weapons), clever new features and some of the best online gameplay since Halo 2.
Unlike the first Ghost Recon title, this one places you in charge of only one soldier, the Ghost Team Leader, instead of the entire squad. The main effect of this is to terminate missions faster -- if you die, you can't take control of anybody else and must start over.
Despite the game's newly singular focus, you can now choose to view the action from a third-person perspective instead of a first-person view. This added option lets you see your own soldier's movements, artfully animated in this game, as well as the enemy's whereabouts.
Going in with guns blazing on any of Ghost Recon 2's lengthy, often arduous missions is always a dumb move. These 15 levels -- set in open territory and a few urban battlegrounds, all of which appear achingly detailed -- take a mostly linear path, with secondary objectives adding some variety to these missions. For example, while you hack your way into the jungle to rescue a helicopter pilot, you must also secure the area and take out any hostiles.
On both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, players can go online and fight with or against one another in 15 different multiplayer setups. Ghost Recon 2 includes the popular Deathmatch, Domination and Last Man Standing schemes, but not the standard Capture the Flag. Our favorite was Team Search and Rescue, in which you work with your squad to bring hostages to your base while the other team tries to cut you to ribbons. -- Tom Ham
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50
ESPN NHL 2K5, Sega Sports/Visual Concepts
The NHL lockout may put the entire season on ice, but puck heads can still enjoy the sport in this latest, bargain-priced edition of Sega's franchise. It fixes the poor play balance that held back last year's title; dominating goalies and sharp-shooting forwards are now at parity, allowing a crisp, fast flow to games.
You can adjust its difficulty level to accommodate almost anybody's experience. Would-be enforcers can play dirty to instigate fights, while amateur managers can build a team in the Franchise mode, which lets them scout foreign players and test their skills. With a deep system of online multiplayer competition, plus 15 amusing, new mini-games (for example, a half-ice four-player shootout), this game easily skates away with a win this year. -- John Gaudiosi