Postal 2

Postal 2
3
Game Name: Postal 2
Platforms: Windows XP
Publisher(s): Whiptail Interactive
Developer(s): Running With Scissors
Genre(s): Hyper-violent freeform political statement maker
Release Date: April, 2003
Notes: GOG.com or Steam

I struggled with this one, and whether to write it at all. While I was playing, another shooter attacked a crowd in California. We (not just the U.S.) definitely have a problem with guns, and the “crazed postal worker” incident that the title references is no longer an isolated oddity. This is not what I want this review to be about, however, and it doesn’t seem fair to judge a game from 2003 on the events of ten years later. Just be aware that Postal 2 feels especially tasteless these days, though it isn’t (and wasn’t) setting out to make fun of any actual tragedies.

Postal 2 knows you're not going to stand in line.

Postal 2 knows you’re not going to stand in line.

The first Postal was all about unfocused anarchy. There was no particular story, no particular goal, no particular message, and no particular point. Postal 2 tries to frame that same free-form chaos within five days of Postal Dude’s menial life. Each day finds the Dude booted from his trailer with a list of chores from the missus. Objectives include going to the store to get milk, paying off a traffic ticket, or returning an overdue library book. Against this everyday backdrop enters the wanton violence of typical FPS.

Gameplay is all about turning commonplace activities upside down. You could stand patiently in line at the bank teller waiting to cash your check, or you could klonk everyone in line with a shovel and stroll smugly to the front. You could do nothing when your boss laughs in your face as he fires you, or you could zap him with a taser until he cries and wets himself. Postal 2 likes to push you, testing your patience and resolve, until you finally blow off steam upon all the (literally) nameless, family-less humanoid obstacles in your way. If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to punch a howling baby in the supermarket, kick a condescending asshole in the junk, or run an idiot driver off the road, Postal 2 is playing to those fantasies.

The marching band from Postal returns, and someone blows them up. Of course.

The marching band from Postal returns, and someone blows them up. Of course.

It’s an… interesting setup, and certainly more conceptualized than the first Postal. It’s essentially a raw power fantasy. Unfortunately, it’s also annoyingly predictable. Nearly every task in the game plays out the same way – arrive at location with mundane goal, possibly stand in line, then watch as some enemy faction storms the place with assault rifles and shotguns. Book burning protesters start shooting up (and burning) the library. Anti-violence crusaders ransack the Running With Scissors offices (because of course they do). Butchers pull guns on you for stumbling in a backroom and discovering that their steaks are actually made from people. Many of these factions will then appear on the streets and shoot at you on sight.

To me, these inevitable raids sabotage the point, and turn the game’s world into some kind of hyper-right-wing parody. If the game’s supposed to be about you, and the chaos you choose to cause, then forcing satirical mayhem strips that from you. One of the higher difficulty modes (“Hestonworld”) even arms everyone in town and causes shooting matches between them at the slightest provocation. Maybe for gameplay purposes, it ensures there’s action even if you’re not providing it. Maybe it just sets context for your own atrocities in a world where you can’t even go to confession without Islamic suicide bombers (sadly, yes) intervening. Maybe I’m just overthinking it, because Postal as a series never seems to have been big on “message.”

When groups you've pissed off spot you, riots ensue.

When groups you’ve pissed off spot you on the streets, riots ensue.

It also throws a real wrench in the game’s famous claim that “it’s only as violent as you are.” Clearly, not true. However, it was promised that you could make it through the entire game without firing a single shot – a challenge which I naturally took on. Turns out, it is actually possible. It’s not easy – and the endless protestor raids mean it’s clearly not intended – but you can indeed run away from every encounter. Randomized police officers (and later, army guys) on the streets will even come to your defense, provided you’re not flashing a gun and shooting back.

Certain plot missions make a “peaceful” playthrough highly questionable though; one mission traps you alone in a meat packing plant with a bunch of angry rednecks, while another has you trying to escape the backroom of a toy store while the police storm the building. There’s no one to come to your aid, and your only recourse is to run past enemies absorbing damage all the way. You probably can’t survive on higher difficulties, but I lived long enough to flee on “Average,” albeit with the aid of many crack pipes which act as the game’s health boosts (of course). I should also note the run wasn’t completely without violence – I did have to kick a few people blocking doors or walkways, and with no way to collect money when you’re not killing people, a few missions could only be completed by running past furious guards and stealing the item.

Fun with peeing is just about the most novel thing in the game.

Fun with pee is just about the most novel thing in the game.

On the other end of the scale, if peace isn’t your intent, Postal 2 is all too happy to let you go further than any game prior. The actual shooting is surprisingly mundane, with no wound decals or shattering limbs a la Soldier of Fortune. Only heads can be destroyed, or entire bodies vaporized by explosions (more dismemberment is added in the expansion). A basic, but fairly realistic fluid model has been included, so blood and vomit splash on walls and trickle down inclines. So does your pee, armed by unzipping your pants with R and firing a recharging stream at any and all passers by. You can even look up and let the stream cascade down to douse yourself if on fire. Later, your pee gets “upgraded” with gonorrhea. I feel certain this is the last time I’ll ever use that sentence in a review.

The fluid system further extends to a can of gasoline, picked up and deployed like a weapon. You can lay down an elaborate trail and strike a match, watching the flames accurately follow the path. Technically, it’s pretty neat stuff. However, the results are especially horrific. A little too much time was spent on modeling a burned body that weakly crawls forward before curling rigidly up. The whole game’s “a bit much,” but that addition in particular seemed almost out of place with its sadistic detail.

The penalty for shoplifting is quite severe.

The penalty for shoplifting is quite severe.

Graphically, the biggest complaint is the aggressive load zones. I assume to accommodate the memory requirements of rampant potential chaos, the town is divided into a series of very small maps (even for 2003). Load zones are clearly marked, but be prepared to travel through a lot of map changes across the course of a day. It also means the potential for exploration is limited, as nearly every area in the town will have a mission directing you to it. The rest of the engine and art is pretty par for the period, with enough detail to get the gags and dick jokes across.

Audio is similarly competent, with a return of the spacey humming from the first Postal in some areas (government mind control?). Rick Hunter as Postal Dude has the cynical delivery down, and some decent quips. And Gary Coleman as himself delivers an amusing cameo. Yes, you can kill Gary.

These days, a virtual representation of firing indiscriminately into a screaming, cowering crowd is, frankly, extremely disturbing. But Postal 2 was created well before examples of this in real life started stacking up on the evening news, and its only agenda seems to be to push the violent video game debate even further out of its comfort zone. On that, RWS and I can both agree – as long as what happens in a game stays in a game, it’s harmless. In that sense, Postal 2 is the ultimate power fantasy – where you’re free to do anything you want with no consequences and no one to stop you. Provided, of course, that what you want to do is at either of the two extremes of killing everyone in sight, or waiting passively in line.

 

The Good

Dumb as hell, but still more focused than the first Postal, with some legitimate examples of satire (even sports a “hanging chad” joke). Certainly treads ground other games don’t, even if it often does so just for shock value.

The Bad

Loading zones are mighty restrictive. Singles out what I presume are supposed to be Pakistanis for some awfully overt racism. If you’re offended by pointless “murder simulation” then this is just as bad as you’re expecting.

 

“Hey, I’m just trying to exercise my second-amendment rights here, ya fuckin’ Communist!” — Postal Dude

 

10 Comments

  1. Uncle Dave says:

    One thing I’ve always been curious about with games like this: If you were a programmer at a company that made GOOD games that happened to be really violent (say Capcom-Resident Evil), and something like this comes out that’s out to “prove a point about free speech”, wouldn’t you be pissed off that this does more harm than good?

    I can safely say I would not want to testify before Congress about violence in video gaming and see “getting attacked by zombies” in my game juxtaposed with “pissing on someone you lit on fire” in a game that was meant to be as gratuitously violent as possible.

    • The J Man says:

      I’ve said before – I don’t remember if it was here or elsewhere – that we can never truly justify these kinds of games. We can make the argument (and I believe it) that they’re harmless and don’t influence real life violence. But… I’ve yet to hear a sensible reason explaining why they’re considered fun. Could anyone reasonably explain to their mum why they enjoy pretending to shoot people in the head?

      If someone says it’s just to “blow off steam” or “better here than in the real world” then I just worry about them more.

      Lord knows I’ve played plenty of FPS games, and I can explain it. But I wonder how much that has to do with starting playing them as an offshoot of my interest in “virtual reality” back in the 90s, and exploring diverse virtual worlds driving my primary interest in them.

      • Uncle Dave says:

        I think a lot of it has to do with the context…if I’d been a parent around ’01-’02 or so, I think I’d have a lot less of an objection to them playing Medal of Honor where you fight the Nazis as a U.S. soldier as opposed to be a gun-for-hire on Grand Theft Auto III…now granted, I’m thinking about it, and I honestly don’t think you HAVE to kill anyone on GTA3 that can’t be justified, but you probably wouldn’t think of that at first…

  2. Simon U. Gutierrez says:

    I got my copy of Postal 2 a few days ago, and have played it through about halfway. Overall, the game is fun, but there is one big drawback – the load times! It seems like every 2 or 3 minutes, I’m waiting for a section of the map to load. This can take up to a minute and a half, even though I turned down some of the settings and am running it on a 2 Ghz system.The graphics are good, if a little repetitive (there are only about 5 or 6 different NPCs, they just have different colored outfits on, and some of the indoor environments are kind of boring), and the gameplay is great. I found the controls easy and how you interact with the environment good. But, you can’t really “go postal”, because it’s too hard to kill your enemies. It takes several shots to kill anyone, even if you shoot them in the head. In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter where you shoot them. I found myself running away most of the time, just ’cause it’s easier.Overall – A fun game, but the load times pretty much ruin it.

  3. Murthabux says:

    On the subject of controversial games what do you think of Super Columbine Massacre RPG? Postal 2 is the kind of darkly humorous satire that reaches the point of absurdity by being one-dimensional and repetitive. Super Columbine, on the other hand, had the authorial intent of being a thought exercise on the medium of gaming and the infamous event itself. It’s had positive analysis from websites as renowned as Wired. That’s not to say the intent was successful but it had more behind it than shock value.

    Also, anyone else remember the canceled game from a group of students called “9/11 Survivor”? I recall the game was literally a “you’re fucked” simulator in which you could only shuffle about your burning office before you perished in the flames or jumped out the window. As far as I know there has been never been a playable version or video clip released. Its spiritual successor is likely the indie game “The Graveyard”, a harrowing bench sitting and cardiac arrest simulator.

    It’s more fun to be killing things (getting some sense of challenge and achievement) than getting killed or being bored no matter what you’re killing. “The Graveyard” has critical acclaim but no one plays it for usual fun any more than people groove to Merzbow (niche markets). Of course, the divide between Mario stomping goombas and Postal Dude capping people is the conundrum.

  4. Yoda says:

    I think people are people, regardless of what game they’re playing. Your morals and values are instilled into you from the environment in which you were brought up in. No one incident will ever be directly related to a video game, same goes for any movie.
    Referring to this game, I will say I’ve never played this game but I believe in games like this it all comes down to the cognitive experience you have while playing. And the type of experience you have is solely based on the type of person you are. I don’t ever think a genuinely good person would transition into a criminal because of a video game. There are way too many other factors at play. If you think of a particular video game as tasteless, that’s just a matter of opinion based on your own morals.
    For me personally, when I play a game like GTA, for some reason I’m okay with playing that character and acting out his story because of the overall package it’s presented in; however, when I’m playing a game like Crysis and I’m suppose to be blasting away Koreans, I’m not able to suspend my beliefs because it feels too deliberate.

  5. Well, I think the major thing that a lot of people miss is that the first-person shooter is just that: a shooter in first-person, and as such it did invent violence in video games as otherwise they would just be called shooters (as they often are now, as memories of scrolling, platform, isometric and rail shooters fade out of memory). Sure, it helped usher in a era where computer graphics could render this much more scintillatingly, but have you ever considered feeling sorry for those poor aliens you shoot in Space Invaders? They must have families too, and might see the war against your little sprite avatar as defending themselves. Personally I am much more offended by games glorifying wars, such as the Call of Duty games, than anything in Postal 2. There are a number of reasons, one of which being that although you could see it as romanticizing the murderous lunatic, it is not actually condoning the Dudes’ possible actions to any real degree, and of course there is the whole defensive shroud of parody. And on the topic of racism, the moment I even hear of the plot of the Modern Warfare games and the usual Russians are all bad, Arabs are all bad, Chinese are all bad ad nauseum it makes me feel ill inside (as Yoda inferred with Crysis). It is a horrible double standard that Doom and Postal are bad, but we should all “support our troops” as we send them to murder themselves and others, and Call of Duty/Medal of Honour hides behind this idea. That is why Wolfenstien is one of the few World War II/military series I care for, as it actually does not take itself too seriously. Well, that and Call of Duty/Halo in my opinion marked the end of shooters being expansive, exploitative and free and made them cramped, linear and restrictive.

    In Postal 2 I can chuckle at Habib, Middle Eastern Shopkeeper because of the thought of how stupid people out there do not know the difference between Pakistan and India, Islam and Hinduism, and this is showing how ignorant they are (same for the fact that there are suicide bombers and terror cells all over the place – in my view, an excellent riff on post-9/11 American paranoia). Sort of like how you can either consider Shadow Warrior racist or a reflection of racism. I suppose it all comes down to the developer’s intent, and while I can not speak for him, I would just like to point out that Vince Desi, Toploader and all the others at RWS are actually very nice guys who are very appreciative of their fan-bases and do their best for their customers and keep the game’s community vibrant through modding and cross-platform support. A relevant point here is that when asked whether or not Postal 2 is homophobic, Vince responded that he certainly is not, as his step-son is gay and he does not begrudge that fact at all (granted that would still depend on how he treats gays in general, but I can not comment on that). Does this make the people in Postal 2 with the exaggerated faggy walk a bad stereotype or a parody? I do not entirely know, but it at least helps shows the distinction, which most gamers will agree, between fantasy and reality. And, as Yoda, pointed out, the game is what you make of it, which is why I see messages in it I do not think others do, such as my comment about Habib. This also applies to the fact that certain eventualities will certainly creep you out, such as lighting people on fire, people begging for mercy or using cats as silencers – however, if anything the fact that you can take things too far than is good for you actually shows the freedom the game offers.

    While I think it is unfortunate that the game still can not be played without committing a crime (personally, I think you should have been able to collect cans, or something, in order to earn legitimate income; though you can get money without killing, by kicking ATMs), I personally do not find it that hard to play “non-violently”, though that may partly be because, unlike many gamers, I am fine playing on lower skill levels if I a finding a game too hard. Not to mention, your review forgets to mention the distinction between “non-violent” and “non-lethal”, as you can use the taser to get around several tricky situations. And having to dodge enemies does not mean it is discouraging you from not being violent (as you can still take cover and sneak around, though a greater stealth interface would have helped), it just means it is a greater challenge – but then, I have successfully played several levels of Doom non-violently by constantly holding down the the run key. Hmm, now I am suddenly thinking a Postal mod on Deus Ex could work well, giving you more game play abilities while retaining the message. Interesting…

    On the game-play side, while the structure is a bit repetitive, I did not find it too bad as each time the scenario repeats you are simply waiting for the Dudes’ reaction, or simply what segment of society he has offended this time – it is a bit like a sketch comedy show, where the set-ups are similar, but the punch lines are different. Load times are a bit long, but given I started playing this game long after it was patched up (in fact, RWS to this day updates this game, most recently for the Desura and Steam releases, and is now making a new free DLC), I had the advantage of playing it much more debugged and optimized. As for exploration, I can only disagree as I find Postal 2 to be one of the most vast worlds I have seen since the Build engine games (as, by my experience, level complexity shrunk with the release of Quake and the switch to true-3D). Granted, again I am playing later versions with expanded environments such as Tora Bora and have faster load times, but I think it needs to be remembered that you can just ignore the missions as long as you want and explore and play around with the game, and also that you do not need to do the days’ missions in any particular order. Finally, you have more of a choice than just whether to kill or wait, as you could disrupt the line by scaring people, or just shove them out of the way – they are still immoral acts, in real life, but are not lethal.

    The other thing I think your review lacks mention of is that, taking cues from other sandbox games, Postal 2 has a lot of emergent game-play potential. I can not tell you how much time my brothers and I have wasted going “cat collecting”, without the intent of using them as silencers but just as an inventory quest, or simply playing with the game physics or AI, often getting stuck in walls (which, in a novel fashion, leads to the game kicking you out of the clipping lock with the comment “Now stay outta that spot!”). Such game freaking in general is a hobby of ours (and what, in addition also to my shared interest in “virtual reality” first hooked me on these games), and Postal 2 is great fun in that regard, for the exact opposite reason why Elite Force is also good. Elite Force is great for being as scripted as it is, making it easy to trip up on itself with cheat codes, while Postal 2 has enough dynamism that you do not even need cheat codes (though they can help) – this is a feat only Deus Ex has shared for us. So yeah, if you try hard enough, there is more than meets the eye. And of course, there are mods like A Week in Paradise which pump this up to the maximum (and then there is also Eternal Damnation, which turns the entire game into a zombie horror shooter, before that was even popular). RWS actively encourages this activity, and that is why they are one of my favourite developers.

    And finally, on the topic of “explaining” these games, I can simply say that while I agree that it is impossible to explain why for some reason people thrill to fictional violence (be it written, film or a computer game) rationally, I am not terribly troubled by it for the simple fact that the impulse is instinctive rather than rational. I mean, can one rationally explain pornography? Why is someone sexually excited by a drawing of a naked woman? An evolutionarily biologist could shed some light on why it does, as one could on the violence issue (fight/flight response?) but the point is that it is not a rational response. And yes I realize people complain about pornography too, but that is kind of my point – the conclusion that porn by itself, as opposed to the exploitation sometimes associated with its production, leads to rape is as inconclusive as the “murder simulator” argument. As long as our rational self-control overrides our nastier impulses, which we all have, then this is not a problem and we can explore them in fiction, and yes, perhaps catharsis does apply. I do not consciously play Postal 2 to “blow off steam”, but perhaps others do. Fundamentally, it comes down to whether or not we are willing to accept the slippery slope of “thought crime” or if we are willing to police actions, not concepts, and that fundamentally is what Postal is all about (except, interestingly, there is very little sexual about the game – the Dude if anything is indifferent to it all; well, apart from the Postal Babes in multi-player, but that is meant as “eye candy” rather than to make a point – DN3D strippers anyone?).

    Finally, I just wanted to say that the fact that the graphics, sounds, AI and game logic is as good as it is, basically up to AAA standards in 2003, when it was made by only a handful of people with no real publisher backing is a feat in of itself and RWS should be complimented simply on that. Also, while I agree that Postal 2 is not intending to making fun of actual tragedies, I am not certain why you feel that there are more now than there were in 2003. Sandy Hook may be the most recent major shocker, but the world (and yes, especially the U.S.) has loads of gun violence every day, and often it is not reported. Besides, Columbine was still within recent memory, so I do not see how it was not in the public conciousness at the time. Oh well, whatever.

    • The J Man says:

      Oh man. Well, first off I appreciate you making me work for these! If I’ve inspired you to kick off this level of debate then at least I’ve done something with my time here!

      So the evolution of the First Person Shooter is actually something I’ve been running into with tagging articles on the site. There are more and more games in a first person perspective that either don’t involve shooting at all, or relegate it to a less-used mechanic. Thief, Robinson’s Requiem, even Akalabeth come immediately to mind. I think it’s a mistake to assume that every 3D first person game should have a gun in it, and that even those who do should be called first person shooters.

      And they certainly didn’t invent game violence. You pointed out Space Invaders yourself. Many more before that. With limited resources, it’s always been easier to create a game out of deleting or removing an object than creating more of them, and the narrative built around that.

      Now that you mention it, Habib and his store is a strange mix of Indian, Arabic, and Hindu imagery. I admit I never considered that could be an intentional parody of a “they’re all the same!” mentality. Good point! (Assuming it’s not common knowledge)

      Yes, you can use the tazer, but I don’t agree that I missed a distinction between non-lethal and non-violent. The back of the box (as linked) clearly advertises “it’s only as violent as you are.” I remember that from other marketing as well. I think we can both agree a pacifist playthrough wouldn’t include the tazer (or kicking) and with the game’s structure as it is, is nearly impossible and clearly not intended.

      I also stand by my statement that exploration is limited. You can’t wander around as you describe until late-game, because sections unlock over the course of the week. I commend them for giving nearly every building a purpose, but as said, you’ll be forced to the majority of them through some game goal. The truly extra buildings are limited (a few rooms with little furniture, and maybe a health pipe to find) or abandoned. Mods are always outside the scope of our reviews, and expansions are covered separately.

      There is very little sexual about the game, but that’s not a surprise. Sex vs violence is the great American double standard.

      In summary, I stand by my original thoughts. It is much more focused than the first Postal. I appreciate some actual attempts at satire that the detail of the new engine brings. As a game, it controls leagues better than the first Postal. However, it is still a small (as in, enclosed, not much to explore) game, and if you’re not here to cause chaos, the game doesn’t have much else for you. Cat herding is great, but I can’t see the majority sticking around to invent their own limited fun when there’s hundreds of thousands of other games to play.

  6. Oh, and my mother has indeed watched us play the game, and has actually enjoyed doing it – she finds some of the Dude’s lines funny, and considers the action in general to be an over-the-top pantomime. Also, unlike most first-person video games we have shown her, she enjoys the fact that you can navigate by landmarks.

  7. Andrè says:

    I think they are considered fun, for sane people will consider them fictional&virtual entertainment. If a handful of disturbed brutes can dominate the majority by psychotic misdeeds, then “our” democratic responsibility gets twisted into a tool of tyranny.

    I love cats in real life, yet abusing a virtual cat as a shotgun-silencer caused wicked grins by all the folks I showed the game (Postal 2) to.

    Further I remember that there was plenty of cruelty & atrocity in human history BEFORE TV&Computers got invented so realize that it needs real problem solving, not scapegoats? Rhetorical Question.

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