If you had permission to use Bruce Willis’s voice and likeness for a video game, what would you make with them? How about a third-person shooter featuring a controllable Willis blasting his enemies with a variety of weapons and power-ups as he shouts the same one-liners every ten seconds or so?
If this sounds good to you, then there’s great news: It already exists.
Introducing Apocalypse, a PlayStation game developed by Neversoft and published in 1998 by Activision. It was meant to be a high-flying, action-packed game that would bring the “buddy film” right into players’ hands. Bruce Willis would’ve been the player’s seasoned partner, running and gunning next to you, urging you on, and giving you advice as you progressed through different levels filled with endless firefights.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the end product turned out. Apocalypse was a mediocre shooter with a very rubber-looking Bruce Willis that failed to endear the player to his character despite the help the developers received from the actor himself.
To be fair, it’s not as if the developers intended for the game to flop. Apocalypse started in the hands of Activision, a now well-known publisher that created the Call of Duty series. Back then, Activision wasn’t quite as huge as it is now, but they still had enough clout to get Bruce Willis on board with their upcoming video game. The company went through with development, using motion capture and “cyber-scanning” the actor’s face, but they couldn’t actually make the game they wanted.
A number of problems sprang up. Making the partner character’s A.I. proved more difficult than the developers anticipated. Then, once the development was given to Neversoft, the team belatedly realized players were probably more interested in controlling Bruce Willis’s character rather than some made-up nobody.
That’s how Apocalypse dropped the buddy theme and became a solo act. While this solved one problem — gaining players’ interest by making Willis the controllable character — it created yet another. All the voice recording and acting was already finished under the assumption that Willis would be talking with someone else.
A lot of this can still be seen in this behind-the-scenes video about the game’s development. The video describes Willis’s character as “your virtual partner in the Apocalypse adventure,” shows motion capture scenes of him interacting with another person, and gives viewers peeks at an early version of the game with the non-functioning A.I. partner.
Honestly, judging by the video, Apocalypse was ready to be a really cool game. Willis seemed like he was eager to be part of the game’s development. And the developers were super proud of being able to snag a talent like him. That much is evident in-game as well; his CGI face is plastered on every loading screen whenever players reach a new level.
However, because so much had to be cut out and fiddled with to fit the new, solo narrative, the story left some players confused. Here’s how the narrator of the behind-the-scenes video described the plot:
“Apocalypse is set in a dark and violent future where science and religion are competing forces of society. A false prophet called ‘The Reverend’ has called up the four horsemen of the apocalypse — Death, War, Beast, and Plague (played by the rock singer, Poe). These four forces of destruction roam the Earth in human disguise and await a signal to obliterate humanity altogether. Your job is to keep this from happening, and your number one asset is Trey Kincaid.”
It sounds like a simple plot that reflects the cheesiness of the ’90s, right? But the game failed to reflect the story very well. Players were thrown right into a story where Trey Kincaid, played by Bruce Willis, breaks out of a futuristic prison and straight into non-stop shooting gameplay. He travels to different locations as he hunts down The Reverend, his former mentor, spewing plenty of one-liners along the way. Kincaid runs into the horsemen — discovering two of his friends had been turned into these monsters — and defeats them before finding his way to The Reverend.
In the last cutscene, Kincaid kills The Reverend, but not without a heavy cost. He becomes possessed by the same demons, and the game ends with his eyes glowing an evil red.
The story wasn’t the only thing that was basic; the gameplay was also fairly standard for a third-person shooter. Players used the PlayStation controller’s analog sticks to move the character and shoot at the same time. You could pick up power-ups like homing missiles and a flamethrower to blast enemies away. To get through each level, players had to hop platforms and dodge enemy fire to progress.
As the player ran through these levels, Willis’s character would start cracking one-liners in a way that was clearly meant to be said to another character. “Here we go, chief,” he said. “Feel the burn, kid?” he asked no one. “Can’t you pull the trigger any faster!” he demanded to the air.
The cutscenes didn’t fare much better. Kincaid constantly sounded like he was addressing someone, telling them where they’re going, what they should be doing, and when to run. “You up for a tour of the White House?” he asked at the end of a scene. Players could only assume he was either talking to himself or breaking the fourth wall and talking to them.
Everything else about the game was quintessentially ’90s, too. While that isn’t necessarily bad, it does make some parts pretty cheesy. Outdated quips like, “Open up a can of whoop ass!” The classic shootout scene where the main character goes from a shootout, to a quiet elevator ride, and then another frenetic shootout once the doors open. A shower scene where Willis cracks a “nice polygons” joke after popping out of a human-sized shower drain.
Music by System of a Down blaring in the background…because that’s how you know this apocalypse is hardcore. The vocalist of a rock band performing in a BDSM bikini outfit because…you know. Said rock band performing at a stage located in a graveyard because…who knows.
As silly and mediocre as the game turned out, there are traces of something that really wanted to be as awesome as an action movie. It’s a shame that the developers’ vision had to end with a plastic Bruce Willis repeating the same one-liners to himself. But who knows — maybe one day someone will make a movie out of Apocalypse and give Kincaid the sidekick he’s missing.
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