( Sega) $49.99
When it comes to making video games as realistic as possible, programmers would do well to stop short in one area: bodily fluids. The folks at Sega went all out in adding a feature to its NBA 2K3: Players glisten with sweat after they've run up and down the court a number of times and begin to look fatigued.
To be fair, it's not only the perspiration that makes 2K3 (available on PlayStation 2, Xbox and Game Cube) the most realistic professional basketball video game on the market. The overall game experience is authentic—to a fault. Live NBA games can be slow, plodding, defensive affairs, and 2K3 loses something by replicating that tendency. In one of the first games this reporter played, competing as the Dallas Mavericks, it was so tough to put the ball in the hole that I went scoreless in the first quarter. On the upside, there's nothing quite like picking up Patrick Ewing, who despite retiring over the summer exists in this game as a free agent, and running him ragged. The arena virtually floats away in a sea of his sweat.
( EA Sports) $49.95
At the other end of the reality spectrum is NBA Live, by EA Sports. Any game in which the announcer says of Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Peeler, "One-on-one, this player is hard to stop," can't be in touch with reality. But Live is the easiest one of this bunch to play and the best NBA game on the market. The action moves quickly, but not so fast that it's hard for you to keep up with the play. The right-side joystick is a unique freestyle control, providing the ability to juke, fake and spin that you won't find in other games. When you play Live, you should have to call your moves ahead of time to avoid cries of "No way you meant to do that!" after your player heaves a brick that banks in off the glass.
Live (available on PlayStation 2, Xbox, Game Cube) also has the best features of any of the games. Teams can be outfitted in retro jerseys, and it's easy to call basic plays—an iso, a pick-and-roll—so you can run the offense without pressing eight buttons. And low-post play is outstanding, with a menu of Duncanesque moves.
The only shortcoming is that scoring can be too easy. About the only way to stop your opponent is to steal the ball or block a shot; otherwise he's probably going to score. Try not to throw your controller across the room after somebody like Rasho Nesterovic scores 26 points on 12-of-l6 shooting to knock your team out of the playoffs.
NBA Inside Drive
( Microsoft) $49.99