W.C. Fields famously said: “Never work with children or animals.” For Bruce Willis, that mantra probably reads more like: “Never work with Kevin Smith or video game developers.”
Willis’ “creative differences” with Smith are well-documented – and there for the world to see in their ironically titled movie Cop Out – but Bruce’s fateful foray into the world of gaming is largely forgotten. Developed by Neversoft and released on PlayStation back in October 1998, the title of Apocalypse felt like it was designed to evoke memories of Bruce’s recent blockbuster success, Armageddon, but most PS1 fans knew it as “that Bruce Willis game.”
Apocalypse boasted a cover featuring an impressive digital rendering of Willis, staring blankly ahead, as if a passport photo, alongside the word “Apocalypse” over a Pagan-style “A” scrawled in red blood writing. If you didn’t know this was a game, you might have thought Willis had decided to resurrect his music career with a metal album – but you would be wrong, of course. No, Apocalypse was the title that looked set to take gaming to stunning new cinematic heights – it even had the words “Starring Bruce Willis” headlined across the top of the box art, giving it the feel of a poster for a brand-new action flick.
The sense of excitement didn’t let up on the back cover either, with the blurb promising “raw action” – an unintentionally accurate claim – alongside state-of-the-art gaming.
“Take control of Bruce Willis,” a blurb read. “One of the greatest action stars of all time, motion-captured and cyberscanned for the most intense hardcore action ever.”
This was it. After playing as a slightly cartoonish version of John McClane in the criminally underrated Die Hard Trilogy, fans were finally getting a chance to “take control” of the man himself in an all-new adventure. It sounded like a slam dunk.
Yet after the PlayStation loaded up and you navigated the various cutscenes and menu options, a familiar feeling took hold. The same feeling that greeted Mercury Rising or The Jackal or Last Man Standing or… well, you get the point – something wasn’t quite right.
It’s not that Apocalypse was the worst PS1 game ever made or even the worst to feature Willis’ likeness – that honor went to the awful game version of The Fifth Element, released the same year – but it was very ordinary given the hype that had surrounded it.
Apocalypse ticked off all of the clichés present in countless third-person shooters on the PlayStation. Occasional platforming and camera issues? Tick. Generic storyline blending science-fiction elements with religion and/or the occult in a dystopian setting? Tick. Nu-metal soundtrack? Very big tick.
If the title seemed like a riff on Armageddon, Apocalypse’s plot was felt heavily influenced by The Fifth Element with its blend of science fiction and religiosity. Willis plays Trey Kincaid, a once-great scientist turned Mad Max-style renegade out to stop religious fanatic the Reverend from bringing about the apocalypse. To paraphrase Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man, the Reverend is something of a scientist himself and has been busy in his lab creating his very own version of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse to help him in his task: War, Plague, Beast, and Death.
Set on an alien colony, players guide Kincaid through a glut of deliberately edgy sci-fi dystopian settings, with the most memorably silly being a nightclub located in a graveyard. Along the way, Kincaid battles each of the four horsemen before setting up a final showdown with the Reverend in the alien colony’s version of the White House. It’s a straightforward enough premise, even if the game’s cutscenes do dwell on the theme of science vs. religion a little too much for a game ostensibly marketed at teenagers.
Kincaid’s background in nanotechnology (don’t ask) also gives his character access to a glut of cool weapons, though that would be a lot more fun were it not for the presence of a weary-sounding Willis and wisecracks. In a performance worthy of the later Die Hard sequels, Willis phones it in harder than an office worker calling in sick the day after the Christmas party. He’s hardly helped by the limited and all-too-predictable quips that pass for dialogue during the game. There’s only so many times you can hear Kincaid meekly threatening to “open up a can of whoop-ass” before you start rooting for the Reverend to bring about the apocalypse.
The obvious limitations of the PlayStation also meant that, despite the much-vaunted and costly motion-capture work and cyberscanning of Willis’ face, gamers ended up controlling a character that actually looked a lot more like famed character actor Peter Stormare. Which is great if you are a fan of Stormare and his work in films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Unfortunately, most people were hoping to play as Bruce Willis. Not the guy who got eaten by tiny dinosaurs in Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
It all made for an underwhelming experience – particularly as the 3D shooter perspective meant you spent most of the game looking at the back of Kincaid’s head – but, in truth, the fact Apocalypse made it to market and was reasonably playable was nothing short of a miracle.
Work on the game had started as far back as late 1995 and was originally conceived as a groundbreaking “buddy cop” style game. Players would take control of a mercenary apparently known only as “The Kid” accompanied throughout his adventures by an AI-controlled Kincaid. The Kincaid character was on hand to offer witty asides, occasional help dispatching enemies, and exposition any time proceedings became bogged down by the game’s myriad plot.
At some point in 1996, Activision recruited Willis for the role of Kincaid. It was a major coup, with Willis at the peak of his powers, but bringing the biggest action star in the world onboard brought pressure with it – and there were problems. Big problems. The main one concerned the AI at the heart of the initial buddy cop format Activision was trying to implement. While the PlayStation was a cutting-edge console for its time, the studio had a very difficult time making what was an awesome idea for a game into a workable reality.
As work on the project progressed, the game’s developers increasingly felt the presence of Hollywood A-lister had upset the applecart. Namely, there was a growing concern that gamers would rather play as John McClane than some generic hero character. It made sense – as anyone who saw Jai Courtenay’s turn as John McClane’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard would later attest. At one point, it looked like Activision might cut its losses altogether and cancel the project. Instead, the publisher outsourced the game to the up and coming developers Neversoft.
Eager to recoup its initial outlay and make maximum use of Willis’ presence, Activision gave Neversoft its big break but with the caveat that the team had just six months to get the game finished in time for a Christmas 1998 release. No pressure then.
Taking heed of the game’s previous issues, Neversoft scrapped the buddy cop format and put Willis’ character front and center as the main playable character, removing “The Kid” altogether. In doing so, the developers created a Willis shaped headache of Hudson Hawk proportions. All of Bruce’s dialogue had been recorded back when Kincaid was the wise-cracking sidekick rather than central hero. There wasn’t any budget to bring Willis back for more and, in all likelihood, no one brave enough to tell Willis either. It’s not clear how much of his voice work was eventually scrapped following the shift in characterization but what was left proved as bad a fit as Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a young Bruce Willis.
Not that Neversoft minded too much. Apocalypse arrived in time for the Christmas deadline, with the developers putting in an impressive shift to get the game ready for retail. Besides, a bit of clunky dialogue here and there was par for the course on most PS1 shooters back in the day. And though it scored average reviews from critics, the game ended up selling pretty well and, more importantly for Neversoft, scored the studio some major brownie points with Activision. So much so, in fact, that Activision soon came back to Neversoft with another big project: a sports game centered around the world’s most famous skater, Tony Hawk.
The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise went on to spawn 19 installments across 20 different console systems and initial versions of the game even used the same engine as Apocalypse. Neversoft went on to become a major developer in the world of PlayStation games and beyond. For all its faults, Apocalypse really wasn’t the end of the world of Activision or Neversoft.
Bruce Willis bounced back from Apocalypse pretty quickly too – his next movie was The Sixth Sense. And we all know how that turned out, right?