Image: Rainbow Six Vegas
In "Rainbow Six Vegas," a commando team tries to stop terrorists bent on destroying Las Vegas casinos.
updated 12/6/2006 10:31:28 PM ET 2006-12-07T03:31:28

Whatever your opinion of the war in Iraq (and I don’t want to get too political in a game-review column), one thing is clear: These are tough times for U.S. forces, with debate raging about the uses of military might in the 21st century.

There’s no such debate in the virtual world. The conflicts being waged on video-game consoles can get ugly, but there’s no question who’s in charge: the good ol’ U.S.A. In video games, ruthless terrorists and nuke-wielding despots are no match for American firepower, technology and guts.

It’s easy to get caught up in this gung-ho approach to warfare, and games about U.S. troops fighting terrorists are popular worldwide. The global nature of the video-game industry has led to some strange bedfellows; most famously, the games sporting Tom Clancy’s superpatriotic brand name are published by a French company, Ubisoft.

Ubisoft and Clancy are back this fall with new installments of two of their most popular franchises, and they’re both addictive enough to compel even the most pacifistic of gamers to pick up an assault rifle.

Like many a fading star — Celine Dion, Elton John, Prince — the aging “Rainbow Six” (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99) series has taken refuge in Las Vegas. But the desert air has done wonders for the creaky old war horse, which delivers its most exciting episode yet. D

uring a mission in Mexico, your commando team discovers that terrorists are about to mount an assault on Vegas, and it’s a quick trip from the border town’s sun-baked squalor to Sin City’s flashier brand of decadence.

The 360 does a terrific job capturing Vegas glitz, from crowded casino floors to breathtaking panoramas of the neon-lit Strip. You have to use smart strategy to outflank your enemies, but this game makes it easy to give orders to your three-man unit, making it the most accessible “R6” yet.

As usual, you get to fight with an impressive assortment of high-tech weapons and explosives, and it’s undeniably thrilling to watch a bank of slot machines explode in a burst of AK-47 fire. Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman may not like it, but “Rainbow Six Vegas” is a blast.

The latest “SOCOM” (Sony, for the PlayStation 2, $34.99) visits a more familiar setting, a former Soviet state called Adjikistan that’s become a terrorist hotbed.

“Combined Assault” doesn’t offer any surprising twists on that tired scenario, but it’s a serviceable simulation of squad-based tactical fighting. You control the leader of a four-man unit, and you have a wide range of commands you can issue to the other three guys.

Most of the missions require some degree of planning and stealth: You’re better off taking out enemies one-by-one than rushing in and starting a massive firefight. “Combined Assault” is an involving and well-executed PS2 shooter, but it doesn’t bring much new to the series and it pales in comparison to the next-generation competition.

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