They're diametrically opposed, but in a way they're mirror images of one another.
In BioShock you plunge down, deep into the ocean. Into Hades. The city of Rapture billows in flames; haunted by deformed degenerates who patrol and moan like confused hellions. Rapture wraps you in the claustrophobia of a personal hell. The constant 'drip drip drip' of the ocean. Oppressive. Leaking through the pores of the broken architecture. Rapture is a place drowning in darkness, an inescapable nightmare.
BioShock Infinite shoots you into the stratosphere, above the clouds. In BioShock you are welcomed to Rapture by a Splicer and a blunt instrument, in Columbia a man waits patiently by the entrance. He is clothed in white. "This city is the closest thing to heaven," he says. In Columbia water isn't a threat. You are baptised in it. It cleanses you of sin. In Columbia Rapture's burning corridors are replaced with inviting open vistas. The sky is above you. The sky is below you. The sky is everywhere. The sky is infinite.
BioShock Infinite is diametrically opposed, yet the parallels are overwhelming. BioShock Infinite, just like its predecessor, begins in the ocean only, instead of being submerged, you glide over the water on a boat en route to a lighthouse, a port in a storm. You're above the ocean, not below it.
But BioShock Infinite never lets you forget that it's a BioShock game. Not once. And the comparison isn't always flattering.
BioShock Infinite is about something. That's important and worthy of praise. It's about our collective history and how that history is written. It's about race relations. It's about hero worship. It's about the cult of personality and what that says about us as human beings. It's about religious belief. It raises questions about things.
In BioShock Infinite Andrew Ryan is replaced by Zachary Hale Comstock, a theocratic leader who has bestowed upon himself an idealised backstory that filters through the entirety of Columbia, in its books, its museums. He is a war hero, he is a prophet, he can see the future. Columbia's people have succumbed and are in the strange embrace of religious mania.
After playing for four hours it's difficult to digest precisely what BioShock will ultimately say about these themes but the way in which it approaches its thematic content suggests it will say something and even if it doesn't BioShock Infinite should be commended for at least attempting to broach difficult topics; to ask questions of history and our ability to retell it.
But I do have a few issues with how it asks these questions.
Where BioShock invents itself, Infinite tends to replace.
In Infinite Ayn Rand's Objectivism is replaced with another type of extremism — christian fundamentalism. The objectivist slogans that accompanied you as you plunged into Rapture are replaced by religious ones as you explore Columbia. The imposing statue of Andrew Ryan replaced by statues of Comstock. Plasmids replaced with Vigors. Big Daddies replaced by Firemen.
This is all well and good — the game is, after all, a sequel to BioShock and exists in the same universe — but the comparison often leaves Infinite lacking. The writing doesn't feel quite as tight, the dialogue doesn't have the same sparkle, characters feel less compelling. Comstock is no match for Ryan; religious fundamentalism feels like a worn subject where BioShock's reading of objectivism felt blindingly original.
Infinite never lets you forget that it's a BioShock game.
Unsurprisingly, Infinite is at its best when it feels nothing like BioShock at all. Columbia, from a visual and technological standpoint, is a staggering achievement. It's bewildering. And riding the Skyrails dotted across the city is a genuine highlight.
It's the perfect mixture of control and confusion. As you glide between gaps in the city there's a genuine fear of being lost in a maze yet you, the player, are given just enough to make sense of it all within the context of Infinite's level design. It's masterful and feels like BioShock Infinite's defining feature. In the sky you are allowed to forget about the oppressive weight of Infinite's predecessor. You are on rails, but somehow still in control.
In the sky you can forget about BioShock and Infinite becomes the game you want it to be.