AUDIO CLEANING

LAB 2005, Magix

Vinyl records and cassettes have not aged well in the digital era, leaving many computer owners looking for a simple way to convert them into MP3 or another digital format. Many wind up cobbling together different programs, free or otherwise, to get the job done, but Magix's Audio Cleaning Lab 2005 offers an almost all-in-one solution -- get an audio cable (not included in the box), plug a tape deck or record player into your computer's audio-input jack and start the music playing. This software can then record it digitally, automatically detect song breaks to split the results into multiple song files, clean up noises like clicks, hisses and rumbles, make further edits, and save the results to your computer or burn them to an audio CD.

The program, sensibly enough, lets you get started with a set of basic simple cleaning tools that offer few options but also demand minimal studying. Its automated wizards did surprisingly well at removing junk from recordings without slicing off too much of the music -- a basic cassette-to-MP3 rip went off fine. Audio Cleaning Lab also includes a set of more powerful options for experts that allow you to, for instance, apply individual noise-reduction and resampling effects and edit the volume of a track moment by moment.

But the deeper you go past its entry-level features, the harder this program gets. For example, the beginner-friendly modules' simple slider controls are replaced in its expert modes by onscreen dials that are incredibly awkward to adjust with a mouse. Memo to the developers: Just because some people are picky about the way their music sounds doesn't mean they're also computing masochists.

Throughout, Magix's quirky interface (to phrase this as generously as possible) constantly gets in the way. For example, you can't select part of a sound wave for editing with the simple click-and-hold procedure you'd use in any other program. And Magix's window, incapable of being resized dynamically like any other program's, can only snap between a cramped default size and full-screen mode. Worst of all, input volume -- one of the most basic settings in this kind of program -- isn't controlled by the program, instead requiring a trip to Windows' own, poorly designed volume controls.

A minimal printed manual, marred by typos, undefined terms and outright mistakes, won't help anybody get the hang of things, although a more extensive on-screen manual installed with the program remedies most of these oversights. And the program crashed, or came close to it, too often.

This program badly needs an update, but one that fixes this many problems may take a while. Maybe that's why Magix appended next year to Audio Cleaning Lab's name. -- Daniel Greenberg

Win 95 or newer, $40 ($30 to download at www.magix.com)

SUDEKI,

Microsoft/

Climax Studios

Each of the four heroes in Sudeki's simplistic storyline (they must unite to defeat an evil deity, Heigou, that has invaded the land of Sudeki) brings distinct skills and special abilities to the table. Tal, a swordsman, excels at hacking and slashing but can also push and pull heavy objects. Buki, an expert at hand-to-hand fighting, can climb any surface. The mage Ailish can attack from a distance with magic spells and can also heal others. Elco can soar with his jet pack and wields a souped-up pistol called an energy gun.

The battle against Heigou spans six massive worlds filled with a wide variety of enemies and puzzles. Combat involves dozens of foes instead of the usual handful and happens in real time. The heroes' diverse talents allow different ways to win: You can engage in a button-mashing frenzy of melee combat by playing as Tal or Buki, or run-and-gun it with Ailish and Elco.

Sudeki also looks beautiful, from its vividly rendered spell attacks to its densely detailed, richly colored environments.

But for all these virtues, the game simply ends too quickly. Most role-playing titles go on for more than 30 hours, but this one can be finished in less than 20. Without any worthwhile replay elements such as unlockable characters and levels and no online gameplay, it's a terrible buy at $50, but a decent deal as a rental.

-- Tom Ham

Xbox, $50

CATWOMAN,

Electronic Arts

This Hollywood-licensed game, which reportedly spent just eight months in development, looks and plays like a rush job. EA, which has had great success with games based on the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and James Bond movies, strikes out sloppily with this shoddy title.

Much like the movie, the game's appeal starts and ends with star Halle Berry, who provided both her voice and likeness for the game. Berry's character looks great, whether climbing fences, strutting across rooftops or standing still (leave her alone for a moment, and she rubs her hands against her leather pants and licks her hands). But all the effort sunk into these motion-capture animations seems to have left no time or money to make any of the other characters look half-decent or any of the levels to look better than collections of clip-art backgrounds.

Control is as wretched as the graphics: Although many parts of the game demand precision (for instance, using your whip to navigate its maze-like environments), a horrible camera system constantly obstructs your views. You wind up having to replay often boring levels until you memorize the right sequence of moves to get out of each one alive.

This game is the perfect counterpart to the critically lambasted movie -- something that appeals to neither fans of the comic nor those of Berry. It belongs in the cat litter box, right next to the flick. -- John Gaudiosi

Win 98 or newer, GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, $40

Magix's sound toolkit can turn LPs into MP3s, but it's a pain to use. Sudeki looks great but doesn't hold your attention for long. EA's Catwoman: as bad as the movie, but much more expensive.