NBA '06: The Life Vol. 1 (in stores Oct. 18, $39.99) Sony developed this story-line game solely for its PlayStation platforms. After fashioning a player, a la Dr. Frankenstein, a gamer shuttles through workouts and an ESPN-ish draft show. Once in the NBA, players compete for soda endorsements and sneaker deals. To amp up the first-person feel, authentic sideline sounds (such as griping from the bench of PT-hungry teammates and coaches) replace often obnoxious announcers (so long, Bill Walton!) in other games.
Verdict: The story mode and extras such as dodgeball and H-O-R-S-E games are nice, but the core game relies too much on one-on-one moves and dunks to be realistic. B-
NBA 2K6 (Sept. 26, $19.99) Last year 2K Sports slashed the price to $19.99. This year the company improved a game that was already good. The best new feature is 24/7 mode, which allows gamers to hone their skills in a variety of minigames. When they are done, an Entertainers Basketball Classic at Rucker Park is unlocked. The highlight-reel dunks are impressive, and attention is paid to detail (check out Eddy Curry's tattooed neckline).
Verdict: Pulling off a simple steal requires two control sticks, and some of the 24/7 minigames can get a little boring. (Who wants to go one-on-one with the Clippers' Chris Kaman?) But the payoff--competing against rappers such as Fat Joe and Flavor Flav in a streetball game--makes up for it. B+
NBA LIVE '06 (Sept. 26, $49.99) EA Sports' biggest improvement is the Freestyle Superstar feature, in which top players are sorted by forte and given special abilities. If a "High-flyer" dunks, he can pull off jams using different button combos. When a "Playmaker" goes to dish, he has an array of behind-the-back and bounce pass alternatives.
Verdict: Live has the best graphics by far, and its NBA All-Star weekend mode puts the Sony game to shame. A-