BioShock

Once or twice a year, a game's technology and craftsmanship raise the bar so high that, Pixar-like, it leaves everyone raving. This summer, that game is BioShock. Fighting through the ruined underwater city of Rapture means being constantly dazzled by the intricate Art Deco-inspired design, the jaw-dropping water effects, and gameplay that deftly mixes skin-crawling horror, comic-book superpowers, and exhilarating shootouts.

But the story is even more intriguing. As you explore the wreckage and listen to the audio diaries left behind by Rapture's (mostly) dead citizens, you'll reconstruct what happened to the city—and puzzle out how you're involved. It feels a lot like the guy from Memento trying to watch Citizen Kane. But just as with Memento, once the mystery's solved, the story fizzles out—specifically, about two-thirds of the way through, when all is revealed and BioShock switches to a conventional "kill the big boss" shooter. It never follows through on its own questions about player agency, and the only choice you ever make leads to one of two copout endings.

Of course, you aren't the star of the game: That's Andrew Ryan, the mad industrialist who runs Rapture. A complex, tragic hero, Ryan built and then failed his city; meanwhile, your character just runs around blowing stuff up. As Ryan tells you, "A man chooses; a slave obeys." There's never any doubt which one you are.

Beyond the game: Extensive homage to the works of Ayn Rand make BioShock the biggest thing to happen to libertarian geeks since Ron Paul.

Worth playing for: Figuring out exactly what happened and why will keep message-boarders busy for weeks—as soon as they stop raving about the graphics.

Frustration sets in when: Whenever you hack a machine or security device, the game jerks you over to a simplistic mini-game that wouldn't cut it on Pogo.com.

Final judgment: A technical masterpiece with a story that reaches too far—but Andrew Ryan would have it no other way.

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