NCAA FOOTBALL 06, EA Sports

EA, having already anted up for the exclusive rights to make NFL video games, has now scored the same deal for NCAA football. Fortunately, the market for games based on high school football remains wide open -- and NCAA Football 06 isn't the lazy rewrite you might expect from a company that has just bought itself a cozy monopoly.

It starts you off in a new Race for the Heisman mode, where you create a high school senior, pick a position and run through offensive and defensive drills before college scouts. The schools that like your stuff will offer you scholarships; pick one and it's time to develop your skills and run up your stats. Do well, and your "Heisman Hype Meter" will climb, making you eligible to win the coveted prize (complete with a cheesy award ceremony -- after which you can copy your player onto a memory card and start him in EA's Madden NFL game).

In the games themselves, improved graphics do a much better job of modeling players and stadiums, with great animations of cheering crowds and celebrating players. (The game features the numbers, not names, of real college players; the only folks with names on the backs of their jerseys are those that you create.) A new Impact Player system gives players on hot streaks a greater chance of executing big plays like forcing a fumble on defense; the best of these moves get replayed in a stylish slow-motion presentation. NCAA Football 06 supports online game play on the Xbox as well as the PS2; both played amazingly smoothly, with almost no slowdown compared to offline play.

If you prefer having a clipboard in your hands instead of the football, the Dynasty Mode allows you to play as a coach and manager, recruiting and developing teams. NCAA Football 06 adds the ability to look up stats for any recruit nationwide, then target players with specific talents and skills.

-- Tom Ham

PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50

OUTLAW TENNIS, Global Star/Hypnotix

Who needs Maria Sharapova when you can play tennis with Summer the stripper -- on a snow-covered court, no less? The third franchise in developer Hypnotix's popular Outlaw sports series follows Outlaw Golf and Outlaw Volleyball by providing an amusing experience at a discount price.

Unlike those earlier titles, however, Outlaw Tennis doesn't have to be played as a joke. You can tweak the game settings to provide as much realism as you'd get in a straight-up tennis simulation such as Sega's upcoming Top Spin. Behind the raunchy humor and double-entendres is an extremely deep sports game that features everything from tutorials to drills to singles, doubles and Canadian doubles (two athletes against one).

But gamers who don't know their backhand from their backside can just enjoy the different arcade-style game modes and mini-games bundled here. In addition to online tennis for up to four players on both consoles, you'll find variations that somehow mix tennis with baseball, casino gambling and hot potato. There's also a complete fighting game built in here; if you get frustrated during a game, you can skip past yelling at the ref to beat up on your opponent instead. You can also dress your tennis players in new clothes (or a relative lack thereof) and upgrade your racquet to improve its power and accuracy.

However you play the game, Outlaw Tennis offers a lineup of 16 playable characters, including rednecks and ninjas, to customize, plus a dozen courts, including a slaughterhouse and an aircraft carrier, to play on. While the Mature-rated game's language and content isn't for kids, it does offer adults a gleefully entertaining perspective on the sport.

-- John Gaudiosi

Xbox, PlayStation 2, $20

AIM SYNC, America Online

E-mail often isn't fast enough when you need to get in touch with people, and most e-mail programs can't tell when a correspondent is online and reachable via the quicker medium of instant messaging. Many mail programs' address books don't even store people's IM user names -- assuming you've learned them at all, which is often not the case (seen many business cards with IM screen names lately?).

To try to solve those problems, AOL has released AIM Sync, a free add-on for Microsoft Outlook 2002 and 2003. First, it will scan your Outlook contacts list to see who can be reached via AIM -- something it checks by looking for e-mail addresses used to register AIM accounts. (You can also have it look for cell phone numbers used to send and receive AIM messages.) If AIM Sync finds any matches, it will prompt you to add them to your buddy list. AIM Sync will repeat this scan once a week, or whenever you ask it to do so.

From then on, AIM Sync puts a little bit of AIM in Outlook: A small, yellow smiley-face icon, called a "presence indicator," lights up next to a contact's name in Outlook whenever that person is signed on to AIM. To start a chat, just click the presence icon to open a new chat window. (This should sound familiar to Mac OS X users, as the same feature is built into OS X's Address Book program.)

AIM Sync also does its part to keep AOL's marketing machine humming along: If you've got friends who have not yet hopped on the IM bandwagon, the program will offer to send them invites to sign up for their own AIM account.

-- Sacha Cohen

Win 98 SE or newer, free at www.aimatwork.com

NCAA Football 06 lets users create their own Heisman Trophy hopefuls.Outlaw Tennis offers more realism than other titles in the Outlaw series.