MLB SLUGFEST:

LOADED, Midway

This sequel finally brings Midway's cartoonish take on baseball online; PlayStation 2 and Xbox owners can now compete on the Internet, with voice chat available on each console. Gameplay was relatively stutter-free (although our tests took place before the game's release this Monday); in case you forget there's a real season going on, current stats from baseball's MLB.com site scroll across the screen.

Offline, Loaded brings a deep, engrossing Baseball Mogul mode with the usual franchise-scenario features (build a team, compete through a season, repeat) and a few extras, such as the chance to read news headlines about your team's exploits. Another dose of baseball-sim realism comes in Loaded's revised pitching system: In addition to the old icon-based interface, a new pitch-meter mechanism allows finer control and last-second changes to your release to fake out batters.

The crazy antics of the SlugFest series continue here: Players' feet appear to catch fire when they're sprinting down the base lines, fielders climb walls to catch fly balls, and the scoreboard now even explodes when hit with a ball. But now, if you don't feel in the mood for that hyperactive animation, you can turn those features off and play a regular game of baseball. -- Tom Ham

PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50

SINGLES: FLIRT UP

YOUR LIFE, Eidos

Mix one hot guy with one crazily beautiful girl in a small apartment where nothing is private, and you have the latest Fox network reality show! Or you have Singles, an "Adults Only"-rated title where getting lucky takes on a different meaning.

Anyone who has played The Sims will recognize the basic gameplay. You must work at your job, keep the house clean and buy bigger and better furnishings while balancing the two apartment dwellers' needs and desires. Get them to share chores and duties, bring home their paychecks and take time to play games and watch TV. (One lesbian and one gay couple are included, so everyone under the rainbow is welcome here.) In the game, as in life, it's easier to build up your house than build up a relationship -- forget to vacuum one too many times, and there's no cuddling for you.

Unlike in The Sims, however, these animated characters (their facial expressions are freakishly realistic) don't have any body parts obscured when they're in the shower or changing clothes. And if they get along well enough, you can watch them fool around and spy on things that HBO or Cinemax show in the later hours. Getting to this point is not easy: I spent seven hours before my couple even reached first base, a lot more work than many real-world relationships demand. As a secondary selling point, there's also the gleefully materialistic challenge of working your way up from a cramped efficiency to a Trump-worthy estate.

-- John Breeden II

Win 98 SE or newer, $30

SHADOW OPS: RED

MERCURY, Atari/Zombie

This first-person shooter, more Hollywood blockbuster than Tom Clancy novel, puts you in charge of a special-forces team that must track down a suitcase-size nuclear device that could level a city. Red Mercury's 25 missions hopscotch among such locales as snow-covered Kazakhstan, Congolese jungles, Parisian subways and Syrian deserts. As you might guess from this title's publisher and developer, this isn't a hard-core military simulation like Full Spectrum Warrior; for the most part, it's a run-and-gun arcade game with only a loose grounding in real-world tactics.

This does not, however, make Red Mercury all that easy. With too few save points, it sometimes forces you to replay an entire level, a frustrating and boring waste of time. (On the other hand, the simple, linear design of most levels causes enemies to attack you from the same locations, which means you can get through even the hardest levels after enough tries.) The game's multiplayer modes on Xbox Live, including a split-screen cooperative mode and the standard death match and capture-the-flag modes for up to eight players, provide a better balance of challenge and replay value. The game's sharp graphics and six-channel surround sound also help make up for some of its shortfalls.

-- John Gaudiosi

Xbox, $50

NOTETAKER,

AquaMinds

There's more to NoteTaker than what the name and its lined-paper, spiral-notebook interface suggest: Beyond creating to-do lists and jotting down bits of useful information, this application hides a fairly sophisticated database. It can automatically index and create tables of contents for documents and incorporate a variety of external sources, such as Web pages, video clips and graphic files. A sketchpad tool lets you draw diagrams or charts.

This program could be especially handy for students, who could use it not just to take class notes but also to capture entire lectures with a built-in audio recording feature. Office workers could jot down talking points in meetings, and recent vacationers could use it to create digital photo albums.

AquaMinds offers free AppleScripts (www.aquaminds.com/scripts.jsp) that tie NoteTaker into other programs. One set of scripts can transfer address and calendar data to and from Microsoft Entourage, Palm Desktop and Apple's Address Book and iCal. A Web-log script exports your musings to a blogging program, Ecto. An iTunes script can even let NoteTaker manage iPod playlists. There isn't, however, any easy way to keep a NoteTaker file synchronized with a Palm handheld.

All this functionality does, however, seem to cause the program to hog system resources. An older iBook's G3 processor creaked a bit under the strain. Its $70 price is also a bit high for the casual user, although a reasonable expense for full-time students and corporate types.

-- Anthony Zurcher

Mac OS X 10.2 or newer, $70 at www.aquaminds.com

SlugFest's animations swing for the fences.Singles is to The Sims as Cinemax is to CBS. NoteTaker's lined-paper looks are only the start of its capabilities.